So you think the Dust Bowl era is gone for good? Maybe not. Over the past month, I’ve seen some photos that seem to indicate how far agriculture has to go.
“Black snow” isn’t a common occurrence in eastern South Dakota, but it’s been clearly visible this year on top of melting snow drifts, says Anthony Bly, a soils specialist for South Dakota State University Extension.
The culprit in his state, Bly says, is a lack of cover and intensive fall tillage — especially as planting dates have moved up and farmers turn soils in the fall to promote drier soils in the spring. But the eroded soil now being seen around fence lines and ditches, says Bly, is generally higher in organic matter and nutrients, and represents the most productive soil in those fields.
“Of course, unless wind erosion is extreme, like in the Dirty Thirties, the effects of what happened last winter probably will go unnoticed,” Bly says. “But over time, these smaller annual soil-erosion losses add up and can have a significant impact on sustainable soil productivity.”
North Dakota State University Extension shared another grim fact recently: New data describing soil loss from North Dakota via wind erosion since 1960 indicates the state has lost 30 years of phosphorus application, says North Dakota State Extension soils specialist Dave Franzen.
“If no new soil was lost, it would take 70 years of phosphorus applications to return to the ‘P’ levels of 1882,” he says. “No-till and strip-till are needed to stop the export because minimum tillage isn’t enough.”
In Texas, the story is even worse. In March, some areas in the Panhandle saw winds of 30 to 50 mph or higher, “and producers were running out of tools to stop soil from blowing away,” says Rick Auckerman, an agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in the western Panhandle.
Fellow AgriLife agents say farmers west of Wichita Falls were trying to prepare planting beds for cotton between dust storms, and there was a noticeable pickup of dust coming from eastern Colorado and New Mexico. A lack of rainfall in parts of Texas to promote pasture green-up is contributing to the problem.
Farmers have no control over Mother Nature — that’s a given. But I think this shows that successful no-tillers, Extension agents and the NRCS must step up the pressure on farm communities in some regions if we’re going to keep our priceless natural resource from blowing away.