The Dakota Lakes Research Farm Project

Dwayne L. Beck, Ph.D.  Dakota Lakes Research Farm-SDSU


In an effort to save trees (and time) we have chosen to limit our remarks in these proceedings to some brief comments. It is hoped that this approach will allow the user to tailor the information for their specific needs.


The title of this presentation has been unilaterally changed from “Conservation Farming in the Northern Great Plains” to “Profitable No-till Systems Designed for Producers in the Northern Great Plains”.  On the surface there does not appear to be a great deal of difference between these titles.  The geographic region of interest is the same.  Both imply that farming practices are to be discussed.  However the proposed title has as its theme “Conservation Farming”.  It was assumed that this referred to soil and water conservation. In reality, this needs to be done in order for agriculture to be a renewable industry rather than (as it predominately is now) an extractive industry such as mining, petroleum, etc.   Conserving soil and water resources should be a primary goal for every producer.   However, the present economic system does not directly reward a farmer for conserving the soil and water with which he works.  In fact with numerous  “conservation farming” techniques the opposite occurs.  The producer is often faced with the decision whether to conserve the resource or maximize profit.  If he doesn’t do the latter, someone else will be farming his land in the future; mining the soil that he conserved.  For this reason, conservation cannot be the only goal.  Maximizing short-term profitability also cannot be the only goal if a producer hopes to remain (or have his family remain) on the land he farms.


The Dakota Lakes Research Farm has both a research and a production enterprise.  The production enterprise must produce sufficient profits to fund a majority of the operational expenses of the research enterprise.  For this reason, the first priority of the production enterprise is to be profitable. 


This dual enterprise structure was established in 1983 in an attempt to provide an independent source of funding that was less prone to influence by special interests and politics.  This required substantial change in what was then a conventional tillage based research operation.  Substantial expansion in the amount of land managed was required to provide a sufficient base to operate both a production and a research enterprise.  If conventional farming practices were to be used on both the production and research enterprises a large investment in machinery and manpower would be required.   This did not appear to be a prudent course.  Consequently, it was decided that the production enterprise would be designed to utilize the manpower available and require only minimal investment in new machinery.  The plan was to accomplish this through the use of diverse crop rotations.  Weak link analysis indicated that moisture would be a limiting factor for many of the potential rotational crops.  Consequently, a key component of this plan was adoption of moisture conserving practices to allow growing of high water use crops in a region where their production was marginal with conventional tillage.


A holistic or systems approach was taken.  This meant that component and technique choices were based an evaluation of how that choice would impact other components in the system. It was evident that (in 1983) there was not an adequate amount of knowledge available on the type of farming system needed for this situation.  This meant that many of the component choices needed to build the system could not be based directly on research data or producer’s experience as is commonly done in agriculture.  Consequently, many choices initially were made by attempting to utilize basic agronomic principles.  Research projects were initiated concurrently to better define components and techniques for areas where knowledge was lacking.  


The present operation at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm is substantially different than what was begun in 1983.  Only part of this difference is due to technological changes that have occurred in the last 28 years.  A majority of the difference stems from developing a better understanding of what happens when crops are grown in a manner which places heavy emphasis on developing a healthy and biologically active soil ecology and uses cultural practices (rotation, sanitation, competition) as the primary methods of pest control.


An example of this philosophy sees weed problems as a symptom that the farming system does not contain sufficient diversity (the weed is Mother Nature’s way of trying to add diversity).  With conventional thinking attempts would be made to control this weed with herbicides or tillage.  The systems approach would add a crop to provide the diversity that was lacking.  With this philosophy attempts are made at preventing problems by addressing the cause rather than merely treating the symptoms as they appear.


Many of the farmer practitioners of this technique refer to accepting this approach as having a “brain transplant” since it requires developing new skills and a different attitude.  Most important among these is the need to realize that to be sustainable and profitable on a long-term basis the farming system must be designed such that natural cycles and principles become an ally rather than an enemy.  Inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides then become methods to augment or initiate natural cycles rather than being tools designed to stop processes that are natural. 


Tillage selection is a primary example of this different approach.  In natural systems, tillage is a catastrophic event (associated with glaciers, erosion, volcanoes, etc.) which occurs only rarely.  Both macro and micro fauna are profoundly impacted.   Soil dwelling specie are disrupted to an even greater degree than those which can migrate to more suitable habitat.   With frequent and repeated tillage, the soil ecology becomes predominated by specie that require tillage in order for residue and nutrient cycling to occur.  Since tillage generally occurs prior to plant growth being initiated, nutrients have been place in a mobile form before they are needed making them vulnerable to loss.  If tillage is not performed, lack of aeration caused by poor soil structure that results from repeated tillage causes nutrient cycling and crop growth problems.   In undisturbed natural systems, nutrients and residues are cycled by a complex web of macro (grazing animals, earthworms, mites, spring tails, etc.) and micro (fungi, VAM) fauna.   In this system, residues are maintained to protect the soil until new plant growth occurs.  Canopy conditions created by this new growth allow residue decomposition rates to accelerate.  This residue decomposition releases nutrients for use by the subsequent crop when they are needed.  If this system were not properly balanced, the prairies of North America would either be desserts or hay stacks.  In farming systems designed to mimic undisturbed natural systems, fertilizers are utilized to replace nutrients exported from the system and are applied in a manner to provide an early competitive advantage to the crop that is to be harvested.


This complex web does not reappear quickly when a soil that has been tilled for a number of years is managed without tillage.  The soil structure and organic matter lost during this period does not reappear quickly either.   For this reason, initiating low-disturbance techniques requires careful planning in regard to how the transition can be made without sacrificing short-term profitability.  Many of the struggles and failures associated with producers adopting low disturbance methods traces to inadequately addressing this issue.


Similar analysis can be performed in relation the impact tillage choice will have on weed pressure, insects, diseases, etc.  Nutrient and residue cycling was chosen to provide an example of the thought processes involved. 


The Dakota Lakes Research Farm did not initially choose to use reduced tillage techniques because of the soil and water conservation benefits; or due to the fact that soil health and nutrient cycling would be improved; or for wildlife benefits; or for carbon sequestration potential; or any of the other benefits brought to light in the last 10 to 15 years.  The decision was made on the basis of the potentially improved profitability that the moisture conservation and workload spreading characteristics provided.  The ultra-low disturbance, diverse crop rotations system that has evolved also owes much to the desire to maximize the utilization efficiency of manpower and machinery resources.  It has also resulted in lower pesticide use and higher yield levels than anticipated.  It is believed that much of this is due to a better understanding of the use of natural cycles.  It is also quite possible that soil health and soil ecology play a much greater role than has been realized in the past.


It is almost certain that no producer in southern Alberta, or in Nebraska, North Dakota or Kansas will utilize the same system components as those at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm.  The similarities in the environments of these two areas does indicate that the approach successfully used at the Station and more importantly by producers in other prairie regions may provide insight in potential approaches to be used in developing improved farming systems.