South Dakota Grassland Coalition

by Pete Bauman

Sept 2019

As the summer winds down and leads into the fall, it seems that our growing season never really became normal. Wetness has persisted, and even the small creek in my pasture, normally dry in August, has remained at a muddy high flow all summer due to upstream surface runoff and field tiling creating seemingly huge fluctuations in flows whenever it rains.

in Watertown

The National Weather Service data indicates that we are about 10 inches above average on precipitation for this time of year. What should be most concerning is that we have an agricultural system that is built on the ‘average’ of our weather, which in most years is never average, and most agree that our weather events are generally more extreme. Unfortunately, we’ve narrowed our land management toward expectations of average as we artificially move water off of and on to the landscape. Sometimes it works, but lately any fluctuation from the middle in terms of dry or wet cycles seems to wreak havoc. These are hard and painful lessons, but there are steps we can take toward a long-term solution.

Step 1:

Retain what we have. High commodity prices can lead to poor land use decisions. We saw that happen from 2007 through about 2015 or so, when significant CRP and native grassland acres in South Dakota went under the plow and a large number of wetlands were tiled and drained. By some estimates, our land conversion rates might have been the highest in the nation. Compare that to the fact that South Dakota also leads the nation in prevent plant acres at nearly 4 million (20 percent of all acres reported!). How many of those recently converted acres now sit unplanted and would have been better left in permanent grassland and wetland cover? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a question worth considering.

Conversion of grasslands and wetlands creates a one-two punch. Not only do we sacrifice significant soil infiltration and retention when grasslands are destroyed, we also sacrifice huge amounts of long-term storage capacity without the wetland ‘sponges’ we so desperately need to control water from rolling downstream through our communities at such alarming rates. The solution to our water, economic, and infrastructure concerns will not be found in more conversion, drainage, or tiling. That has been made very obvious this year.

Step 2:

Build back what we can. Dwelling on the problem without seeking solutions isn’t helpful. The solution lies in a reversal of our actions. Although we cannot fully rebuild the biology of our native grassland and wetland communities, we can restore most of the functionality in the form of water cycling, livestock forage, and habitat. Such investment can lead to healthy eco-nomic returns that include grass-based enterprises such as grazing livestock, hay production, or recreation.


First seek help from the appropriate resources. Not all agencies can accommodate all pro-jects, but organizations like FSA, NRCS, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and SD Game, Fish, and Parks have a variety of options to help landowners start and maintain the process of land restoration with economic benefit. Private conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever have local programs and staff ready to assist with incorporation of programs. In some instances, more focused organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, or Northern Prairies Land Trust can assist in short or long term conservation goals. Finally, education outlets such as SDSU Extension, the South Dakota Grassland and Soil Health Coalitions can provide resources, tools, techniques, and mentorship in partnership with all the groups previously listed.

So, if you are wondering how to adjust your operation to become more profitable with your existing grassland and wetland acres or if you are considering a return to perennial cover, seek help and support from these resources. Also, don’t forget to look across the fence. If you are intrigued by a neighbor, ask questions. Or maybe, attend a field day, tour, or workshop. Over 40 grass-based education options were offered in South Dakota this past summer, take advantage of those affordable options as they arise.

A collection of agency grassland management staff and private landowners spent three days learning about tools and techniques for converting cropland back to grasslands during the SD Grassland Coalition’s annual Grassland Management School, held in Watertown in July. The format of this school involves classroom learning and a variety of site visits to SDSU, agency, and private lands in the area and covers topics including: chemical residual concerns, soil preparation, seed selection, stand maintenance, profitability, and partner support options.

Source: SDGC Newsletter

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