Seeds of Wisdom: Dirty Snow

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Fall tillage practices expose soils to winter’s harsh elements, creating ideal conditions for soil erosion. (Rick Bohn)

This essay begins a series of pieces by Peter Carrels called “Seeds of Wisdom,” with the goal of providing environmental and other insight by farmers and ranchers on what they do: farming and ranching.

By Peter Carrels

Jim Kopriva and his son Lee ranch in the hill country of northeastern South Dakota, a unique area geomorphologists call the “Coteau des Prairies,” or prairie hills. This hummocky topography rises sharply above the level James River lowlands to the west and the Minnesota and Red River lowlands to the east. Scientists say that although glacial ice sheets overrode this highlands region, its stature was sufficiently influential to deflect the main masses of ice, creating calmer landscapes flanking the coteau. Up on the hills, where the Koprivas run four hundred head of Black Angus cattle on almost three thousand acres of grass and prairie, the land is decently fertile, but it also contains enough rock and roll to have dissuaded grain farming until recently.

Just ten years ago the Koprivas’ approach to agriculture—raising cattle on grasslands—was a dominant characteristic of this landscape, and ranching used to be the linchpin agricultural enterprise in these parts. That’s rapidly changing now, as many of their neighbors are plucking stones and plowing virgin sod to sow corn. For the first time, significant tracts of coteau country are being converted from ranching to farming, and thousands and thousands of acres formerly growing perennial grasses are now growing annual grains.

On a winter day we tour the area in a rattling old truck. Jim proudly shows off immense fields of pasture and prairie densely mantling his own land. He stops to point out living snow fences, rotational pastures, restored ponds, and wetlands.

Then he motions toward naked, barren land across the road—it’s a new corn field that was fall-tilled. There are no protective cover crops on this vulnerable ground where the wind blows strong and the weather ranges from snowy or wet to sunny and dry in a one-week span. The dirt there is frosty, gray, and raw.

The contrast is stark. Jim’s lush land holds clean snow, and it glimmers icy and white in the mid-day sun. The tilled land is fringed by roadside snowdrifts laced with heavy black streaks. There are mounds of dark powder and sprays and swirls of wind-blown soil across the white ground. “There’s the evidence that tillage is causing severe soil erosion,” he sighs.

It’s a double whammy that’s wrecking critical ecological components of this place. Not only has much native ground been broken, the practice of tilling exacerbates the destruction. The moment virgin soil is first broken, it loses fertility and health. Carbon is released, and it flitters into the heavens. The integrity of native sod, including a rich array of organic matter, is compromised over and over when tilling practices are employed.

The rate of converting virgin prairie and grasslands to grain-growing fields on the northern Plains has exploded in recent years. In one five-year period, from 2006 to 2011, approximately 1.3 million acres of grasslands in western reaches of the nation’s Corn Belt region were plowed under to grow grains. Much of that activity happened in eastern South Dakota, particularly the coteau region where the Koprivas care-take grasslands they rent and own. Last year the Koprivas grew grain on only 131 acres, and not one single acre was subjected to any form of tillage.

Tilling is mechanically disturbing the soil. It’s tearing, churning, and turning it to face the sky, exposing it to the elements. It’s impossible to know how much land is being regularly tilled—Kopriva suggests as much as 80 percent of the farmland in eastern South Dakota—but irrespective of the exact amount, it is clear that the practice has regained popularity after a decade or so has passed since many farmers actually boasted they were employing conservation techniques by using no-till practices. Today’s farmers and ranchers are told that fall tillage helps soil crumble over winter through frosting and defrosting, which allows them to prepare—through more tilling—a smoother, pulverized seed bed for spring planting. The massive, heavy machinery increasingly used by contemporary farmers causes tremendous compaction of the ground, and tillage helps break up soils suffering from such abuse. Producers are also told that spring soils warm faster and dry sooner if fall tillage is performed. These purposes for tillage do not consider their impact on soil health.

For those who criticize contemporary farming’s lack of stewardship, the issue of tillage, especially fall tillage, is blue-ribbon ammunition.

The practice of tillage complements a land use approach utilizing soils liberally doused with inorganic fertilizers, plowed routinely, and treated as a mere medium to host, support, and feed corn and other grain plants. Some progressive farmers derisively refer to this as the “potting soil” approach to soil management.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I saw Jim Kopriva grit his teeth and wince as he studied the extraordinary soil erosion degrading fall-tilled lands in his neighborhood. He’d watched these lands first fall under the plow and then under the spell of merchants selling ideas and business models that support expensive hybrid corn seeds, inorganic fertilizers, poisonous biocides, and big tractors and implements, including wide, heavy tillers. He’s simultaneously angry and sad about these developments.

Recent studies have shown that some lands in the Corn Belt have lost up to sixty-four tons of soil per acre to erosion in a single year. That’s on the extreme side of abuse, but at that level of loss, natural topsoil replenishment capabilities using optimal conservation practices are exceeded by more than tenfold. Of course, farmers who fall till aren’t following conservation practices, so replenishment isn’t happening at all on their lands. The most attentive soil stewards understand better than anyone the snail-slow rate of replenishment required to build new soils.

The Koprivas transitioned from conventional tillage practices fifteen years ago to no-till on all of their land today. That approach coincides with their belief that perennial grasslands are superior to annual grains to maintain healthy land. “The best use of our land is in grass and hay production because we don’t have to reestablish the root system every year,” Jim explains. “Native grasses can last forever. The pastures we plant will last as long as we take care of them.”

Relying on perennial plants precludes the need for plowing and tillage. There is also a greatly reduced need for fertilizers and herbicides. Mature prairie blocks weeds from taking hold. When necessary, the Koprivas use controlled burns to control weeds. Less erosion and fewer chemicals means a dramatically diminished threat to surface and underground water sources. There’s also a reduction in fossil fuel use, and that’s a financial and ecological benefit. At the Kopriva’s ranch cattle graze pastures that contain diverse growth, including dozens of different grass species, not just a single crop. “Diversity is what gives our operation strength,” says Jim. “The prairie is not a monoculture like corn. We need to bring diversity back into agriculture.”

Don’t expect diplomatic language when you ask Jim to describe the behavior of many contemporary agricultural land managers.

“I see two general schools of thought among farmers and ranchers,” he begins. “The first group treats soils and natural resources as sacred and irreplaceable. Those of us in this group do not tolerate any level of erosion, regardless of the potential for profits,” he declares. “We leave a cover on all our ground. There’s no place on any of my land where you can look down and see dirt. All my land is always covered by grasses and crops. I believe tilling is old-school technology, and we can now do better than that. I view soil as a living thing. I’m in the business of protecting healthy soil.”

The second school of thought, Kopriva relates, consists of farmers and land managers willing to do anything to the land and soils as long as they can maximize profits. “Farmers and ranchers embracing this type of thinking,” he says, “tolerate erosion. It’s a short-term view. As long as they can make an extra nickel, they have no problem prostituting the land.”

Jim was recently appointed to the board of directors for the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, an organization that educates farmers and ranchers about the benefits of grasslands agriculture. “Many farmers and ranchers don’t know how to use grasslands profitably, in a sustainable, ecologically responsible manner,” Jim explains. “The grasslands coalition is trying to show them how to do that, and explain why it’s important to do it. The world needs grains, but we should be using the land based on the understanding that the soil we use today is pretty much the same soil that must feed the world for the rest of time.”

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