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Mimic Nature to Increase Yields and Decrease Inputs


Way back Wednesday

From the Farming Smarter magazine Spring 2019

by Kristi Cox

Farm soils require crop producers to make a transformational shift in thinking according to Dwayne Beck, Research Manager at Dakota Lakes Research Farm who spoke at the December Farming Smarter Conference. 

He maintains that incremental changes might make small improvements, but to create a monumental difference takes a revolutionary change in approach.  

Dakota Lakes Research Farm is a not-for profit organization owned and run by farmers in association with South Dakota State University since 1990. The approach on the farm is not to look solely at increasing production, but to consider its practices and methods from an ecosystem approach. Contrary to many current practices, they also operate with a long timeline in mind and make considerations out as far as 600 years when planning. 

“My ancestors left Europe because they’d degraded the ecosystem to the point they couldn’t support themselves,” Beck explained. “Nobody wants to admit this but that’s what our farming techniques have been is extraction techniques. We have to start thinking about things differently.” 

One of the first decisions was to operate as a no-till operation, but they didn’t want to just make that single change and hope for success.  

The Dakota Lakes Research Farm working late into night, 2019

“We approached it from the standpoint that we don’t know anything and let’s look at functioning no till systems – prairies and forests – and see what they do and then try to a certain extent mimic what they’re doing.” 

Beck went to the water cycle, nutrient cycle, sunlight capture and diversity as a benchmark of success.  

“What we’ve always used as a benchmark is, ‘Can we produce more than we used to?’,” Beck said. “I think we can produce more than we used to, but not necessarily if we set up with that as our goal. Our goal needs to be to optimize our ecosystem cycles. And if we can optimize the ecosystem cycles, the way they function, then the goal is to figure out how to make money doing that.” 

Beck acknowledges that profits are important to producers, but he cautions against making short term profits the main goal. He notes that for maximum short-term income, producers could sell their topsoil to the landscape industry. Obviously, this doesn’t account for the longevity of the business. 

So how can crop producers mimic nature? By adopting no-till, diversity, complex rotations, cover crops and residue. 

“Mother Nature is an opportunist,” Beck explained. “If you’ve got weeds or diseases that are popping up and giving you problems it’s because you’ve provided them the opportunity. Weeds and diseases are nature’s way of adding diversity to a system that lacks diversity.” 

In a time where resistant weeds and diseases like clubroot challenge producers, thinking outside the box can be key to success. Diverse, complex rotations can include high-residue and cover crops.  Simple rotation patterns are predictable to pests and can cause problems.  

Beck related an example from the corn belt with corn rootworm. Adults feed on the silks of corn and lay eggs at the base of the corn plant. If you plant corn again the year after, the larvae hatch and eat the corn roots. If there were no corn roots available, the larvae couldn’t survive, so everyone started doing a simple repetitive rotation of corn-soybeans.  

“Next thing you know the insects in the western corn belt developed an extended diapause, meaning the eggs didn’t hatch for 2 years,” explained Beck. “In the eastern corn belt, they developed a soybean variant. The gravid female went to the soybean fields and laid their eggs because the ones that did that were successful because those soybean fields all went to corn. So, you selected for a subspecies that had this variant.” 

Unpredictable rotations don’t allow for these types of adaptations. Dakota Lakes also added livestock to its rotations. Soil biology slows during times of low moisture and low temperatures and ruminants keep that going.  

“If you’re going to mimic a natural ecosystem, a natural ecosystem had livestock,” said Beck. “It allows for more diverse cropping systems than if you didn’t have the livestock.” 

Chemicals can cause diversity issues on a different level. Key natural pest control can be disrupted when fungicides and insecticides are used inappropriately. 

“The number one predator for aphids are fungi,” explained Beck. “The number two predator is something like a ladybird beetle that will eat 100 aphids in a day. What do they tell you to do when you say, ‘I want to spray some herbicide?’ The consultant will say why don’t you throw some insecticide and fungicide in there at the same time, it’s only a few bucks. What have you just done? You’ve killed all your predators.” 

While it’s not always possible to eliminate the use of chemicals, high diversity can lower the amount needed. 

dakota lakes harvest
Combines at Dakota Lakes harvest their plots, circa 2019

“We have not had to apply broadcast insecticides at Dakota Lakes in over 16 years because of our diversity and because of our predator population,” said Beck. 

Water was a key motivator in the ecosystem approach at Dakota Lakes. Low disturbance, and the increase in organic matter ensures water gets where it needs to be, instead of pooling or running off the surface. 

“The system at Dakota Lakes allows them to put on two inches in nine minutes and have no run off,” Beck explained. “One of the things we do with visitors who come in the summer is we walk behind those irrigators after they’ve applied that two inches of water. You will not get your feet muddy and you will not sink into the ground because the water goes into the soil like it would in a native system, through macropore flow.” 

Beck feels with the right changes, you can quickly see improvements in resistant weeds and plant disease. 

“We can fix that fairly quickly simply with crop rotation and lack of disturbance,” said Beck. Although he adds that the current state of soil degradation and the duration it’s suffered affect the timeline of getting to the long-term soil benefits. Building up organic matter can take more time. 

“If you integrate livestock, I think it speeds it,” Beck explained. “If you put in perennial sequences it’s like hitting a reset button.” 

Every producer will have to find their own path. There’s no one recipe for this, but the benefits could be great. 

“Our guys have been very, very successful with this approach in our ecosystem here,” said Beck. “We’re consistently short of moisture and many of the farming practices were really wasteful of moisture and degraded soils ability to hold moisture. If you improve the water cycle and nutrient cycle, then you have the ability to improve your sunlight harvest – and that’s really what you’re doing when you farm – taking sunlight water and carbon dioxide and turning it into products you can sell.” 

Three crop reporting districts in Southern Dakota increased $1.6 billion from 1986 to 2014 when comparing corn, soybean, spring wheat, winter wheat and sunflower production (based on August 2015 prices at Wolsey).  

“The area is approximately 180 km east to west and 400 km north to south,” said Beck. “Not all the producers have switched, but a majority have.  The change is very profound.” 

Dwayne Beck speaking at 2018 Farming Smarter conference.