(This is the first in a series of stories written about how soil conservation districts in the region view the drought of 2021. This installment was written and edited by the Mitchell Republic.)

Angela Ehlers has seen how bad drought conditions are in some parts of South Dakota.

“It’s not looking good in any part of the state,” Ehlers said.

Ehlers, executive director of the South Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, said she had recently completed a tour of various parts of the state where she visited with representatives of South Dakota’s many soil conservation districts, including Rapid City, Webster, Buffalo, Lebanon, Mitchell, Parker and Mobridge.

Matt Hayes with the Davison County Conservation District drives around showing several shelterbelts that have been planted this year. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Hayes with the Davison County Conservation District drives around showing several shelterbelts that have been planted this year. (Matt Gade / Republic)

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And though drought conditions may vary from county to county, Ehlers said there is one thing that most everyone is worried about.

“We’re worried about soil erosion,” Ehlers said.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, 99% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, a condition where grain and pasture growth is stunted. About 90% of the state is under moderate drought, defined as dry topsoil, declining crop yields, declining pasture and water supplies and a cattle industry under stress. About 69% of the state is under severe drought, where irrigation use increases, hay is short and grass fires are common.

Currently, 13% of the state is under extreme drought conditions. At this stage, the most severe level of drought currently seen in the state, row crop loss is significant, producers haul water for cattle and burn bans begin.

Dry conditions, which stem from low precipitation in the winter and spring, combined with South Dakota winds means dry soil is getting picked up and thrown through the air, causing hazy conditions and soil piling up at the end of fields in some hard-hit locales.

Hand County, for instance, has experienced such conditions for the last two years, Ehlers said. Another example was in Fort Pierre, where blowing soil had begun to fill ditches to the extent that it had to be scooped out and trucked back into the fields to replace stripped topsoil.

It’s an issue that is front and center before South Dakota’s 69 soil conservation districts, which are tasked with promoting and aiding in natural resource conservation. The districts tap public, private, local, state and federal resources in an effort to develop locally led solutions to natural resource concerns. Each is governed by a five-person board of supervisors who are elected by the public, similar to other local units of government such as school boards or counties.

A shelterbelt planted in Davison County. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A shelterbelt planted in Davison County. (Matt Gade / Republic)

In South Dakota, conservation districts are a sub-division of state government.

Drought conditions don’t make blowing soil conditions any better, but conservation districts in the state tend to promote prevention as opposed to direct solutions to conditions like producers are seeing currently. An ounce of prevention can go a long way to avoiding soil erosion, Ehlers said, beginning with planting cover crops when possible and stressing the benefits of no-till farming practices.

“That’s why we’ve been working for diverse crops and practicing soil health principles,” Ehlers said. “No-till and reduced-till (methods) are better than plows, which open up the soil and destroy the microbes and bacterial growth that glues the soil together. That’s important. If you don’t have cover, you need to find a way to get cover.”

Cover crops have the potential to provide multiple benefits to a cropping system, such as preventing soil and wind erosion, improving the soil’s physical and biological properties as well as supplying nutrients, suppressing weeds, improving the availability of soil water and breaking pest cycles. The species of the cover crop selected along with its management determine the benefits and returns, according to the United States Conservation Service, which provides guidance on the types and uses of specific cover crops.

There are also other solutions to keeping soil erosion to a minimum. Putting acres into wildlife management programs is another way to help ensure the precious soil stays put where it’s supposed to, Ehlers said.

Ehlers said one good program to look into is the Every Acres County program, which has a stated goal is to improve the farm profitability, diversity and ecosystem benefits of agriculture by using precision technologies to empower producers to help make informed management decisions.

The program provides information to producers that increase their return on investment and enhance land management approaches that benefit the sustainability of land, water and other natural resources, according to the program website.

“Not every acre is as productive as others, and those areas that are losing money are excellent places to establish wildlife habitat, break the wind or take that excess water and recharge the groundwater,” Ehlers said. “I think that is a great way to operate. The farm is not just a piece of carpet all made the same way, whether it be pasture or cropland. We need to understand the difference to where it’s sustainable and resilient so that we provide all the benefits that we need in sustaining us and our grandkids.”

Matt Hayes, district manager for the Davison Conservation District, agreed that implementing no-till practices can go a long way in maintaining the health of cropland.

“In Davison County there are a lot of producers that implement no-till, and that is tremendously helpful in keeping the soil crust and debris on the field,” Hayes said. “It’s better for their crops and better for their yields, and there are a lot of guys who have seen the benefits and implemented it.”

Hayes said the severity of soil erosion taking place around the state can depend on drought conditions specific to that location as well as the soil type. Davison County sports a clay loam with a good crust, and there are few bare fields in the county. While crops may struggle to grow in such dry conditions, the fact that they are in the ground at all can make a difference in preventing soil erosion.

Drought conditions across South Dakota.
Drought conditions across South Dakota.

Cover crops perform a similar function, Hayes said.

“I would say as soon as you get (a crop) pulled off, put a cover crop behind it. Now it’s actively growing while the field is bare, and that will hold the soil down,” Hayes said.

Conservation districts themselves provide resources to the public to help them practice good resource conservation methods. The organizations are prolific tree planters, implementing a cost-sharing program to establish shelter belts or to replace aging trees that may be at the end of their lifespan.

Those benefits are open to more than just producers, Hayes pointed out.

“It’s tremendously helpful to the community. Half of the plantings we do are for people who have an acreage or a lot and they want trees planted on it. We’ve got grants to cost share with these people, not just producers, on these programs,” Hayes said.

Conservation districts also provide mowing services that keep down or to maintain CRP land, and also plant grass seed and even provide their own forestry cutter to property manage old timber, bringing it down safely and in a manner that will maximize the benefits of clearing old growth.

Increases in commodity prices at points in the last 10 to 15 years led some producers to plow under existing trees and old shelterbelts to increase their crop acreage. Hayes said they try to encourage producers to keep or replace their aging shelterbelts because of the good they do in preventing erosion.

A shelterbelt planted for a future housing development in Davison County. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A shelterbelt planted for a future housing development in Davison County. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“For old shelterbelts, the state and the feds have been trying to get them to not take those out. We provide cost sharing on shelterbelt revitalization, trying to sell people on planting new so they don’t go away,” Hayes said.

Hayes said those seeking more information can contact their local soil conservation district or the Natural Resource Conservation Service, with which conservation districts work closely on natural resource issues. A phone call could set you down the path to improving crop yield and quality while simultaneously providing good stewardship to the land.

Taking those preventative steps can make a difference, and can take the edge of even in times of severe drought, like South Dakota is experiencing currently.

“Keep doing the right thing. If they’re not doing what you should be or doing a poor job, then they can really get hurt. When they get into the crunch, every little thing matters,” Hayes said.