REE HEIGHTS, SD — Dust storms have been making headlines across the western United States for the past month, including here in South Dakota. Windblown soil created driving hazards due to low visibility, and windblown silt buildup even forced the closure of boat ramps near Fort Pierre.
“The dust storms of the last few weeks, I’ve never seen them this bad,” said Nathan Jones, a state soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “The road to my house – I live on gravel – it was even blackened by the dust blowing on the road.”
It might be tempting to blame dust storms on high winds, but as Jones said, “The wind never stops in South Dakota.”
The real problem, he said, is how people manage their land.
“The biggest problem is people leaving their ground in the open,” Jones said. “If we look at much of the native range in western South Dakota, there’s always grass. There’s always something covering the surface of the ground. So when something happens and the ground is left exposed, it blows, and the soils in western South Dakota, in particular, are quite fragile, and when mismanaged, they blow and erode really, really evil.
Soil may be exposed by tillage or left exposed by crop residues or cover crops after harvest. On livestock farms, overgrazing is also a problem.
“Eventually you lose your good native vegetation, which is tasty for the animals. You end up in a bare ground situation,” Jones said.
Whatever the reason, once soil is exposed to wind or rain, it is vulnerable to erosion. Even land managed with no-till practices can erode if left uncovered.
“We had cropland right next to us — neighbors — and they were using a no-till operation, and they were having dust storms,” said Dean Lockner, who runs a custom grazing operation near Ree Heights with his wife, Candice. “They weren’t tilling the soil, and then that fall they turned the cows in and they grazed it to the dirt, and then they wondered why the dirt had blown. These people said, “Well, we didn’t till the soil,” and they had cattle on the land, but the land was barren. It was bare earth. The cattle had eaten whatever was there to hold him back.
These dust storms pose several challenges to South Dakota farms and surrounding communities.
“Well obviously we’re losing topsoil,” Jones said. “We talk about water as our most limiting factor when it comes to growing things in South Dakota, but if we lose our topsoil, we don’t have the nutrient-rich part of the topsoil. soil for the plants to grow, and then we’re letting them grow in a subsoil where there are fewer nutrients, where it’s just harder for the plants to survive and thrive.
Dust storms also increase the risk of road accidents.
“A few years ago we had a spot on Highway 14 between Highmore and Miller where the road was black, basically, from a dust storm, and there was a traffic accident caused by that. “Jones said.
Jones also mentioned that air quality is an issue.
“I think more and more we come across people with asthma or respiratory issues,” he said. “If you’ve planted crops and fertilized, then you now have fertilizer-contaminated soil blowing the air you breathe into your body, and that’s never a good thing.”
Land management solutions
The good news is that land can be managed to minimize erosion.
“I used to have about 1,500 acres of farmland, and we farmed it, and we’re at the base of the hills,” Dean said. “I was seeing a lot of soil erosion coming out of the Ree Hills onto cropland. I didn’t like it, and when the ranch came under my management, I decided I wanted to fix it. I think long term. I expect this land to be here for a long time, and I want to take care of it that way.
“Part of our transition, however, was about simple observation,” Candice said. “You know, when you see the water ruining the roads or you see the dust storm causing traffic accidents, you have to say, ‘Okay, I see what’s causing it,’ and when we realize that we are the cause, so what can we do about it?”
The Lockners converted their cropland to grassland and began a custom grazing operation.
“Basically, the way the markets are, it’s our most economical option to do, not own the cattle and just bespoke grazing for other people,” they said.
To protect their grasslands and soil, the Lockners use rotational grazing.
“We usually rotate cattle every three or four days in the spring and maybe up to a week to 10 days, at most, later in the fall when the grass isn’t growing as fast,” said Dean.
By quickly moving cattle onto smaller portions of pasture, the Lockners give their pasture plenty of time to recover from grazing. This maintains healthy plants and healthy roots in the soil to protect it from erosion.
“There’s no dust blowing here, and we can show the photos in 2018 of our meadow right next to the field blowing. There’s nothing blowing over our meadows,” Dean said. We have pictures of a vehicle coming out of the dust storm, and you know it’s clear once they got to our meadow, but right next to our meadow, you couldn’t see the vehicle at a few hundred meters in it. That’s how bad it was. We see this all the time.
There are also good land management options for farmers who cultivate.
“If you are a farmer and you cultivate your soil, you have to leave it covered. Don’t plow. This is probably the biggest problem with plowing your ground cover. We want to leave that ground armor on the surface,” Jones said. “We need to have a diverse crop rotation so that we get heavy residue crops as well as lighter crops like soybeans or peas – these leave almost nothing to protect the soil surface.”
Although not an option for every grower every year, growing a cover crop or winter cash crop like winter wheat can be a great way to enhance and protect the floor.
“Going in and planting a cover crop after harvest will let a root grow in the ground to help your biology, but it will also put something green above the ground to catch sunlight, using photosynthesis to create sugars for your microbes and then protecting the soil surface,” Jones said.
By using land management practices that protect the soil, growers can improve profitability, improve operational resilience and reduce stress levels.
“We’re doing less and being more profitable than ever when we were working hard,” Dean said. “It’s amazing, and it doesn’t seem logical, and I still have this battle in my own heart: something’s wrong, I’m not in enough pain.”
“We actually went to our annual checkups, and she kept telling us that all of these things were better. What were we doing different? Candice added. “And honestly, we didn’t know what we were doing different until we got home and realized that our lives were just more healthy and balanced, and we could actually take care of ourselves.”
More information on soil health practices and ways to improve land management is available at