Late last year South Dakota NRCS State Conservationist Jeff Zimprich announced the release of the latest South Dakota Cropping Systems Inventory (formerly referred to as the “CTIC residue management survey”) at the joint annual meeting of Ag Horizons and the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts. The data contained in this inventory is valuable to anyone participating in agriculture and natural resource conservation in South Dakota.
Conservation Practices Improving
One of the most powerful statistics provided in the inventory is the trend towards use of no-till farming practices which have increased from 37% in 2004 to 46% in 2015. During the same period conventional tillage decreased by 2%. Furthermore, over 65% of South Dakota crop acres were managed with conservation systems that leave a minimum of 30% residue cover on the soil surface.
This level of improvement in conservation practices of cropping systems is a step in the right direction. Despite the increase in conservation practices in most counties, some areas are slower to adapt or have returned to conventional tillage. For example, in the last 10 years eight counties in northeast South Dakota were reported to have reduced the total number of no-till acres. (For more information, view the full NRCS report).
No-Till Farming: Important to soil health
Why is no-till important? Soil Health is a hot topic and has taken center stage in agriculture and natural resource discussions, and for good reason. Soil health has emerged as ‘common ground’ where frank discussions can occur and where proactive steps can be implemented that benefit all parties. According to experts, no-till crop management that includes diverse crop rotations is the quickest road to cropland soil health. For all the reasons in Mr. Zimprich’s announcement, soil health matters to everyone (see some of Zimprich’s comments in the official NRCS news release).
Better Communication Among Agencies
Another important consideration beyond the actual data Zimprich shared is the setting in which he shared it, a joint meeting of Ag Horizons and the SD Association of Conservation Districts. We should all be encouraged by the positive trends towards improved communication and cooperation amongst the variety of agencies and non-government organizations involved in South Dakota land use policy. While there is still plenty of room for debate on many issues, soil health points everyone in the direction of improved health of all natural resources. Whether the soil health movement is the instigator of this change or simply the beneficiary is of little consequence in the long run. The point is that we realize no single entity can carry the load, and cooperation is necessary for success.
Cooperation is demonstrated at joint meetings of the Society for Range Management and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts to the multi-organization sponsorship of the annual South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award, to the recent formation of the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, examples which show cooperation in practice. The Soil Health Coalition itself is a new organization modeled after the success of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition and born of the support of groups like SDSU Extension, the NRCS, and the South Dakota No-Till Association. Soil health is a comfortable platform for many to speak openly and confidently about the role of our natural resources and the importance of their protection for future generations.
Soil Health: Tying it all together
Soil Health ties it all together. Improved farming practices that trend toward no-till and soil health generally yield positive results on the farm and beyond. For the farmer, the benefits are multiple, and include reduced input costs in fuel, fertilizer and chemicals, decreased wear and tear on equipment, increased residue cover, less compaction and erosion, increased infiltration, water holding capacity, improved soil quality, and the list goes on. For the livestock producer it creates opportunities for livestock integration into cropping systems through stubble and residue grazing or through the addition of cover and forage crops occur, while reducing the input costs of hauling feed and animal waste. Rangeland health can be improved through opportunities to move livestock off range and onto alternative forages planted on cropland acres. These examples create opportunity for improved rangeland health and healing. Soil health is just as important in our grasslands as it is in cropping systems. In many cases our rangelands set the benchmark for soil health when compared to cropland soils because they are the original no-till system. This simple fact speaks volumes as to the importance of retaining and managing our native rangelands well….which is another off shoot of soil health!!!
The soil health movement, as it is often referred to, has the potential to provide a lasting and living legacy in South Dakota farm and ranch country. As a state, we will continue to struggle and debate the balance…and tipping point….of our natural resources and land use decisions, and we will continue to seek unbiased and research-based information to steer those discussions. For example a recent SDSU report highlights the increased rate of conversion of grasslands to cropland over the last 10 years and the drivers of those land use decision. The same report indicates that we may see a return to grass on some of those acres over the next 10 years. It is our hope that the soil health movement not only directs good decisions on existing crop ground, but it also serves to improve landowner understanding of the value of our native grasslands. It’s refreshing to see that, at least in the no-till arena, the quest for improved soil health is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but truly can serve as a foundation to build on and a platform for all to come to the table.