A drastic change is coming for farmers, Dwayne Beck, manager of Dakota Lakes Research Farm for SDSU, said.
“Never in the history of mankind have we knowingly faced the type of impending catastrophe should we not stop degrading our soil,” Beck warned at the Dakota Farm Show in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Beck, who was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007 for his no-till research at Dakota Lakes, said he believes cover crops are the answer to that impending catastrophe.
All of the nearly 800 acres of land at Dakota Lakes, in Pierre is no-till, and now, Beck says they have moved to primarily diverse crop rotations and cover crops, which he credits for the success Dakota Lakes has sustained over the years.
During his presentation, he highlighted a common metric that his research has come up with - A three crop type rotation in intervals of two-four years to provide diversity. This standard is what Beck said has helped push their research.
The prime example given was on a farm that traded 500 acres of soybeans for a cover crop. Their research found that if you actually rotated out 500 acres of soybeans for a cover crop, you could increase your soybean yield and wheat yield, by trading some corn space for soil health.
“So you trade 72,550 bushels of corn for 125,000 bushels of wheat and 320 bushels of soybeans,” Beck said. “I’d say that’s pretty good all while spending less to maintain your crop.”
While cover crops will unequivocally improve soil health, Beck said, they will also help drive down costs per year as farmers can stop spending so much on chemicals. At his Dakota Lakes farm, Beck says he hasn’t applied an insecticide or pesticide in well over a decade.
“When someone asks me about all the aphids on the field, I tell them to count the predators,” Beck said.
“One ladybug will eat 120 aphids,” he said. “The thing that kills aphids isn’t the ladybugs, however, it’s actually the fungi. So if you throw a fungicide along with a insecticide, you’re wacking all of your predators.”
Maintaining diversity and balance on the farm was Beck’s overall message.
“Weeds and disease are nature’s way of adding diversity in a system that lacks diversity,” he said. “If we have these diverse and stable populations on your land, you can stop using insecticides.”
Overall, throughout Beck’s nearly two decade tenure at Dakota Lakes, he said he has come to realize the four pillars of environmental conservation of farmland are maintaining the water cycle, controlling the energy flow and mineral cycle, and improving community dynamics.
“The light bulb did not come from incrementally making candles better,” Beck said. “Most of our ag research comes from taking what they are doing in Europe and just incrementally changing that a bit.”
For there to be a drastic change in agriculture, Beck suggested stabilizing the farm is the first step.
“Fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and tillage are all addictive,” he said. “Once we start using them, we are afraid not to.”
The fear factor of losing profits in the short term to save the farm and increase profits in the long term is something that Beck said he tries to battle everyday. Through his research, however, he has found that not only will it cost more to not implement cover crops, it’ll actually increase your bushels per acre should you implement a sustainable rotation sooner than later.
At Dakota Lakes, Beck found that if he simply went from wheat to chick peas, he’d have 94 weeds per square acre, if the rotation was wheat - corn - chick peas, it’d be 40 weeds per square acre and if the rotation was peas - wheat - corn - soybeans, he’d only have seven weeds per square acre. Overall, that totaled a 7.3 bpa increase on average.
“There is no set rotation or best solution,” he said. “Individual fields may need different treatments based on history. But, understand the power that you can have with rotation.”
To emphasize his point on rotations maintaining soil health, Beck used his recent trip to Argentina as his prime example.
“Several years ago when I was in Argentina, they had a steady rotation of crops,” he said. “Now, they farm soybean, soybean, soybean and soybean. Their water table went from 20 meters deep to ponds popping up all over the place.”
While Beck researched the steady decline of Argentina’s water table, he noted that Dakota Lake’s effort to maintain its no-till status is because of scenarios like the ones present in South America.
“No till isn’t about lack of tillage,” he said. “It’s about maintaining soil structure, soil health and the water cycle.”
While Beck’s presentation was full of warnings of soil degradation, he made one final analogy to drive his point home.
“Tillage is to agriculture what fracking is to petroleum,” Beck continued. “Both increase the yields but if you keep doing it, you end up with a completely degraded ecosystem.
Source: Tri-State Neighbor