With soil moisture conditions extremely low, especially at subsurface levels, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agronomist Jason Miller of Pierre suggested that producers in South Dakota eliminate any unnecessary tillage whatsoever.

Miller said that although surface moisture levels are down to a foot in some areas, it’s down only to 3 inches in many areas of the state.

“Our main concern is wind erosion on cropland for a large portion of the state,” Miller said in a media teleconference last week with NRSC officials and state producers.

Miller said producers should plant crops no-till this year and leave as much standing residue as possible to get the crop up and deflect any wind coming through an area. The no-till also will help with rainfall infiltration into the soil, he said.

State conservationist Jeff Zimprich of Huron said that his agency already is seeing excessive wind erosion in the state.

“We know it has an impact on productivity and into the future. It’s the most valuable topsoil we are losing. If we reduce tillage, we will keep the residue on the surface,” Zimprich said.

Recent National Weather Service reports indicate that 67 percent of the state remains in an exceptional or extreme drought.

Miller said that although the weather service is floating around a map showing that a large portion of South Dakota might have its drought condition improve this spring, the state probably will remain in one of the drought categories. That means producers will have to rely on adequate moisture in April, May and June to get through the planting and early crop season.

Lewis Bainbridge, an Ethan, S.D., crop and livestock producer, said his farm 10 miles south of Mitchell has been mired in a drought since late in the summer of 2011.

He had a completely lost crop on much of land last year. His dugouts are also dry and last year, for the first time in his lifetime, he had a pasture well that went dry.

He has a been a no-till operator for the past 20 years but still is concerned about his soil health because of the drought. Bainbridge said he usually plants cover crops in the fall but didn’t last year because he figured he wouldn’t get any growth. Some of his neighbors did and had “zero success.”

For this planting season, he still plans to stick with his usual crop rotation, but he is concerned about his cropland.

The cow/calf part of his operation also has been a major concern, and to counter the effects, he has been doing early weaning, early pregnancy checking and early culling. He said he’s going to try to keep the cattle off the grass as long as possible to see what happens with the rains.

He said his operation culled some cattle just after the first of the year, again last week and might have to take more to town as the grass season approaches.

Zimprich said that when he travels the state, many producers ask him what his agency is doing to help get them through the drought.

He said the No. 1 thing he tells them is that his agency can “offer advice.”

“Our people have worked with many producers and local conservation districts over the years, and there are time-proven ideas that we can share,” Zimprich said.

He said producers shouldn’t be afraid to visit their NRCS offices and get advice tailored to their specific farm or ranch.

“We can come visit your farm and provide advice. It’s not a mandate and it’s not regulatory, it’s just advice on how we can help,” Zimprich said.

He said many of the dollars made available by the federal government for financial assistance for livestock water is already being obligated in contracts this spring. With Washington, D.C., going through its budget troubles, he doubts whether any additional funding will be on its way soon. But he encouraged people to check back to make sure.

As for conservation practices, Zimprich said a good, long-term plan is the best way to fight drought.

“We need to focus on soil health. The soil is the foundation of all agriculture. Sure, we need rain and sunshine, but you really need healthy soil to maintain productivity.

“Be selfish, and if the rain falls on your land, you should try keep all of it,” he said.