South Dakota has experienced varied weather extremes the past four to five years. The challenge farmers in the state have always faced is how to best manage risk in this challenging environment.
Farm production system management practices have a monumental impact on how well our soil functions during stressful times. The resiliency of the soil, especially its ability to function during less-than-ideal conditions, determines yield.
Both researchers and farmers have heard a lot about soil health for several years, and recent research is indicating that the biological community in our soil is much more responsible for soil function and resiliency than we ever imagined. Plant health and eventual yield outcomes are fully dependent upon a dynamic and diverse microbial community.
So why then do most farms have underperforming acres? Is it the weather? Is it the soil? Is it the microbial community? Or is it our management?
The reason can be one, or all the above. Any one of these factors can be greatly impacted by changes made to the others. However, the first thing we need to do is recognize that these acres are not performing to our benefit and are causing a drag on our overall profit.
The next step is to identify where they are and then look at the various options available to make some changes. Using data that you very likely already have, new tools are available that can help you use that data to make more informed decisions. Ultimately, the decisions on what to do will be up to each farmer, but when it comes to your farm, are you making good use of your data?
Anthony Bly and Matt Diersen, both in the South Dakota State University Extension Department, are the co-coordinators for a project called Every Acre Counts (EAC). EAC conducts return-per-acre analysis with a farmer’s data.
This free program allows farmers to visually see a map of where they are and aren’t making money. The platform can be customized for variable inputs such as crop prices or fertilizer costs, but what it has been clear is not all acres are making money.
According to Anthony Bly, “Nearly 45,000 acres have been put through the program. An analysis is showing the eight to fifteen percent of the fields have not profitably produced a cash crop due to salt accumulation, wetness, or erosion.”
EAC is working with over 50 farmers that have agreed to provide their data and will produce precision profitability analysis on over 50,000 acres.
Cristen Weber, a data analyst with the EAC program adds, “In addition to the potential increase in profitability by removing marginal lands, the reduction in production costs is an impactful benefit for the farmer by not putting inputs into those acres that are below the break-even point.”
Matt Dierson is focusing more on producing the case study economics. “On-farm profitability is increased by removing these marginal lands from annual cash crop production. In the future, developed case studies will hopefully capture the long-term effects on farm profitability and crop insurance coverage.”
Any farmer that has some harvest data can utilize the program at no cost or obligation. It will remain up to the farmer to use the information as he sees fit.
Many of the acres showing up in the EAC analysis are experiencing salinity, a growing problem in SD.
Dr. David Clay from SDSU agronomy has been researching its effects on production. Recent research suggests the following:
“Greenhouse gas emissions: nitrous oxide emissions from saline/sodic soils were 84 and 57% higher than productive soil in 2018 and 2019. Soil respiration in saline/sodic soils was less than 50% of what is observed in productive soil. Microbial community structure: In saline/sodic areas, microbial biomass was about 50% of productive soil, and the soil contained near-zero fungal biomass. Soil with low fungal biomass will only slowly rebuild the soil structure. Surface soils can be dispersed and have near-zero infiltration, which can lead to high erosion rates. Subsoils may have very high bulk densities which reduce the effectiveness of tile drainage. The subsoils soils may also have very high sodium concentrations.”
Various strategies were studied to look at remedies for saline or sodic situations. Dr. Clay found that:
Chemical amendments: We were not successful in remediation at 4 sites when the soils were treated with chemical amendments (CaCL2, CaSO4, and S) and seeded to corn.
Reseeding to perennial plants: They tried reseeding these soils with many different types of plants. What has been successful is dormant seeding with salt-tolerant grasses.
Biomass production: In saline/sodic soil located in Clark County, corn biomass production was 1.7., 0.7, and 1.1 tons/a in 2018, 2019, and 2020, while perennial grass production was 360 lbs/a in 2018 and over 3 tons/acre in 2019 and 2020. Due to wet conditions and late planting of corn in saline/sodic areas, corn often does not have adequate time to produce grain.
Research Happening Now
Dr. Dwayne Beck, manager of Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, SD has been conducting long-term cropping system studies for over 50 years. He is a proponent of developing cropping systems that better mimic the natural plant and animal communities that were present before agricultural development.
“Adequately cycling water and nutrients requires the use of perennial plants somewhere in the system,” said Beck. “That is a scientific truth. Many people will say that we cannot make money on perennials but to not use them leads to soil degradation and salinity issues. There are ways of doing the right thing while making more money and providing a better lifestyle for rural residents.”
Dakota Lakes is currently evaluating a crop rotation that includes five years of switchgrass in a 20-year rotation. The rotation is being evaluated as an alternative management option intended to improve soil nutrient efficiency and soil function, as well as provide more profit through better yields.
Brent Wiesenburger is Director of Ag Technology Services at Agtegra. Agtegra has recognized this situation as it is showing up with their precision ag platform.
“There are many fields in SD we have already identified to have saline/sodic regions in them,” he said. “Our MZB management zone system does a great job of delineating these poor yielding areas that have elevated electrical conductivity values.”
USDA has recognized the potential for improving soil function through perennial vegetation, by developing a short-term option within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP program administered by the FSA has extended a new option called SHIPP – Soil Health & Income Protection Program.
This simple program can provide a terrific short-term management option for soils experiencing salinity. The program pays 50% of the county average CRP rental rate. To plant the acres into perennial grass for three to five years.
A recent update to the program allows the farmer to decide which acres to enroll, as well as the shape and size. The program will allow seed harvest, haying and grazing. This simple change in management will allow these under-performing acres to produce a profit, rather than cause a yield drag on the overall field average.
Programs to benefit your farm
All the tools are available to turn these red acres green. The EAC program can identify where the acres are. SDSU research has suggested what to do about them, and there are various program options that can help pay for it. It certainly may be worth looking into these options if you are seeing areas of low productivity on your farm. If you have any questions about these programs and the benefits they can bring to your operation, please contact Jim Ristau at SD Corn 730-3474.