Practical, provocativeToday’s theme is energy. That’s what Dwayne Beck says, explaining that “journalists want a theme,” as he greets the latest scribe to his Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, S.D. In fact, for several months, Beck has said his goal is to make the research farm “fossil-fuel neutral” — by 2026.
By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek
PIERRE, S.D. — Today’s theme is energy.
That’s what Dwayne Beck says, explaining that “journalists want a theme,” as he greets the latest scribe to his Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, S.D. In fact, for several months, Beck has said his goal is to make the research farm “fossil-fuel neutral” — by 2026.
“Oh, I just picked that out,” Beck says. It’s the kind of flair you get from a living legend. He’s an agronomist who was named to the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007.
Beck is a regional, national and even international icon in the world of no-till farming and other forms of sustainability. Beck’s work is often credited with accelerating a shift to no-till farming in the drier, western areas of the Dakotas and Montana in the past 25 years.
There is as much calculation in Beck’s statements as there is drama. It’s one of the characteristics that make him one of the most popular researchers in the Upper Great Plains. On this day, for example, he is hosting both Agweek and part of a tour for visiting agronomists from an on-farm research program for Pennsylvania State University at College Station. Tour-goer Ron Hoover notes that Beck had been a visiting speaker at an event that launched the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance.
But back to fossil fuel and Beck’s goal of no fossil fuel impact.
“About 120 years ago, that was zero and 120 years from now, it’ll have to be zero again, so …” he says, and chuckles while his listeners wait for the thought to sink in. “Well? Everybody’s saying, Well, they’ll find more oil,’ but sooner or later, you’re not. Already it’s getting so expensive. And the No. 1 cost is nitrogen fertilizer so part of what we do with cropping systems and cover crops and whatever has to do with nitrogen fertilizer.”
Dakota Lakes Farm was developed in 1990. Farmers own Dakota Lakes and South Dakota State University pays salaries for three employees, including Beck. It includes a variety of land, but much of it naturally poorer than the average in the state and region. Yes, he’s a bonafide agricultural professor, he acknowledges, even though he only sounds like one when he wants to, and often uses slang for effect.
Some farmers say Beck’s work has changed their farming. He is especially known for developing systems to increase organic matter, which is often lacking in Western North Dakota and South Dakota soils under conventional tillage.
Recently, Beck has been talking about being a “zero net energy” facility. The station makes its own straight vegetable oil as diesel fuel, using a cold press. “About 80 percent of the cost of farming can be traced to fossil fuel costs right now,” he says.
He notes that it takes slightly less than 10 gallons of diesel per acre for tillage, seeding and harvest in Minnesota, but he says no-till isn’t about the energy costs.
One example is a new building that will be super-insulated, and will have heating and cooling with biomass, solar and wind. The 60-foot-by-80-foot building will be used for maintenance and fabrication. The current maintenance facility already has a cold-press oilseed press and will be used for classes. Beck says the building needs to be simple to run.
Beck is most known for promoting basic knowledge of the soil-plant water relationships, as a way to better manage and conserve irrigation water. He says farmers need to take cues from “native systems” of grasslands that were in place before farming began. The farm includes about 800 acres, of which 240 are irrigated.
Among the key points he went over with his Pennsylvania visitors were:
•Soil water-holding capacity varies with soil texture.
•Poor irrigation water quality can reduce plant uptake and can affect soil structure.
•Plant roots can use only available soil water — stored water between field capacity and a permanent “wilting point.” If soil water in the root zone is less than 50 percent of total water- holding capacity for extended times, and during critical growth stages, plant growth and yield can be reduced.
“Most of the water and nutrients are taken from the upper half of a root zone, even though plants grow deep roots,” he says. “Plant stress and yield loss can occur even with adequate water in the lower half of the root zone.
“You also have to create a condition where your crop plant can explore that whole soil (profile) for water and nutrients. A lot of guys in the Corn Belt are only farming about a foot of soil, ‘cuz of the way they’ve got it screwed up, it won’t root deep at all. And the other thing is we’ve got to stop the leaking.”
He says farmers need to prepare for the century ahead, and take measures to prevent the flow of phosphorus and other fertilizers on crops under irrigation from getting into waters, including the Missouri River, which is visible from the plots.
Cooking up rotations
Beck says he is frustrated by production methods that look to solve everything with an emergency treatment — always adjusting with sprays — rather than building soil health for a better future. He’s against the overuse of any technology, including insect-resistance in corn.
“I have nothing against using Bt,” he says, of Bacillus thuringiensis insecticide bred in. “But they’re overusing it and getting resistance to that. It’s like, ‘Duh.’”
Same with overcoming soil deficiencies simply with fertilizers.
“Short-term, you may make money, but eventually your system will start to leak nutrients and you’ll have to spend a lot of money on fertilizer or you’ve got stuff going off your property and into waterways, and that’s not a good thing,” he says.
“I think adding carbon is much more important than adding nitrogen in most of the cover crop. Most of the cover crop emphasis has been on adding nitrogen to the system,” Beck says. “I think that as we go down the road, we’re going to figure out that adding carbon is the missing nutrient. It’s the one we don’t buy so we don’t value it much.”
Beck offers his own “top 10 list” of growing rotational crops, and how they’ll be sequenced.
•Reduced and no-till systems favor the inclusion of alternative crops. Tilled systems may not.
•A two-season interval between growing a given crop or crop type is preferred. Some broadleaf crops require more time.
•Chemical fallow is not as effective at breaking weed, disease and insect cycles as are black fallow, green fallow or production of a properly chosen crop.
•Rotations should be sequenced to make it easy to prevent volunteer plants of the previous crop from becoming a weed problem.
•Producers with livestock enterprises find it easier to introduce diversity in rotations. Use of forage or flexible forage and grain crops and green fallow enhance the ability to tailor rotational intensity. Livestock simplify using rotations with perennial sequences.
“It is probably not possible to be sustainable over long periods of time without using perennial plants in the system,” he says.
•Crops aimed at direct human food markets “pose the highest risk and offer the highest potential returns.” Example: The crop teff can be grown for seed or forage. This year, the farm is raising teff as a grain crop for the first time. It is a gluten-free staple, used to make bread in its native Ethiopia.
“We drill that with a 750 drill,” he tells his Pennsylvania visitors. “When we plant little tiny seeds, we tie up the closing wheels.” It’s been grown in the state for 40 years, but few raise it for seed.
•The goal of increasing diversity and intensity need to be balanced with profitability.
•Soil moisture storage is affected by surface residue amounts, inter-crop periods, “snow catch” ability of stubble, rooting depth characteristics, soil characteristics, precipitation patterns and other factors.
•Seedbed conditions at the desired seeding time can be controlled through use of crops with differing characteristics. Some differences are residue, color, level, distribution and architecture.
•Rotations that aren’t consistent in either crop sequence or crop interval can guard against pest species shifts and reduce the probability of developing resistant, tolerant or adapted species.
Beck says it is important for farmers who are no-till to stay that way. He says even a small amount of tillage on the top in no-till systems can stop up worm holes in the soil that can allow the infiltration of water into the soil, much as children stop the flow of water out of a straw by holding the top of it with their fingers.
He doesn’t believe in the term “rotational no-till,” or other such half measures.
“That’s what’s wrong throughout the Corn Belt and the Red River Valley and all of these other places. You don’t have that ‘macro-pore’ development like we have here.” He says tilling every four years is like “saying I’m married but I have an affair every other week, but I’m married the rest of the time.”
He also says too many farmers rely on post-emergence herbicide use, which is “absolutely insane.
“When you’re a weed, you’re least vulnerable to being killed if you’re up and growing,” he says.
Beck has classifications for rotation types, including simple rotations — the most common type, where only one crop of each type is used in a sequence (i.e. Wheat-wheat-corn-fallow, or spring wheat-winter wheat-corn-sunflowers).
The research farm is working with three other kinds of rotations:
•Compound rotations — combinations of two or more simple rotations in sequence to create a longer more diverse system.
•Complex rotations — rotations where crops within the same crop type vary.
•Stacked rotations — where crops or crops within the same crop type are grown in succession (normally twice) followed by a long break. An example is wheat-wheat-corn-corn-soy-soy-barley- wheat-pea and canola. This is the way plants sequence in nature, he says, and may be needed to interrupt weed and disease cycles because they keep the pest populations diverse and “confused.”
Beck surprised the Pennsylvanians when he said he plants 105-day corn varieties, and at 34,000 plant-per-acre populations. The first corn crop in a stacked rotation might yield 240 to 270 bushels per acre. Soybeans run 48 to 60 bushels per acre, and more than 60 bushels on better rotations.
He acknowledges he has no more business prescribing rotations than “choosing the best spouse for you.” And not all rotations work all of the time. “Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, but accept no recipes from others,” he admonishes. “Do your own cooking.”
He laments the fact that research has become a short-term business, often driven by political or even corporate priorities and timetables.
“Who’s going to give you a grant to do 23 years of research in case you run into something like this?” he says, of rotations. “But it’s probably one of the biggest things we can show farmers.”