Pheasanomics: Unlikely partners find common ground on salty soils

    Pheasants Forever and the South Dakota Corn Growers Association have joined forces to fight the damaging effects of saline soils in 27 East River counties and three West River counties. The program will use perennial grasses to combat saline soils. Illustration courtesy of Pheasants Forever

    By Andrew Johnson
    Editor, Outdoor Forum

    Two unlikely partners have joined forces to combat a growing soil health problem in South Dakota, and the state’s pheasant population stands to benefit. Earlier this year the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and Pheasants Forever both pledged $100,000 toward a saline soils initiative. The two membership organizations have had differing views on various land management practices over the years, but the threat saline soils pose to the state’s landscape has provided common ground.
    “We’ve always been viewed as adversaries — right, wrong or indifferent — but we actually have the same viewpoints on many things and share common thoughts about what’s going on across the landscape,” said Matt Morlock, acting director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota. “The impact of saline soils is an area of concern for them and for us, so it was a logical place to start a partnership.”
    As a result, perennial grasses and the resulting wildlife habitat they provide, especially nesting cover, will soon take the place of struggling row crops on white-caked saline soils in central South Dakota.
    Lisa Richardson, executive director of South Dakota Corn Growers Association (SD Corn), called the partnership a win-win.
    “The goal of the partnership is to minimize the impact of saline soils, but it’s a unique partnership that helps our soils and provides habitat for pheasants,” she said.

    Salt of the Earth
    Saline soils appear where an abundance of salt in topsoil inhibits plant growth and productivity. SD Corn estimates saline soils affect 7.6 million acres of farmland in the state, most of which are found in the upper James River area.
    Richardson said SD Corn has spent significant resources during the last decade on different research projects to address soil health. She said the research clearly showed saline spots are growing larger and are threatening the sustainability of some producers. In fact, the South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that Beadle, Brown and Spink counties experienced an economic loss of $26.2 million due to saline and sodic (high sodium) soil conditions from 2007-2011.

    Illustration courtesy of NRCS

    “This problem really came about because our water table came up, left the salt and then went back down,” she said. “When that happens, some of the land becomes unproductive, so we had to figure out a way to bring it back in a sustainable manner.”
    Morlock said one proven way to help heal the soil is to plant perennial grasses along with wheat, alfalfa and other salt-tolerant legumes. He said typical crop rotations of shallow-rooted plants such as corn and beans have only exacerbated problems associated with saline soils.
    “These soils already have a high salt content, and what happens when you farm it the same way for years and years is a hard layer forms below the surface that doesn’t allow these salt elements to leach back down into the sublayers,” he said. “The only way to solve it is through perennial vegetation, which has a much deeper root system that breaks up that hard layer and pulls that water and salt back down into the soil column. And when that happens, you gain the benefit of wildlife habitat while fixing soil.”

    Hit the Ground Running
    The saline soils initiative actually stems from a project that started three years ago in the upper James River Valley.
    “This partnership has grown its roots from a pilot project that began in 2015 with a $200,000 grant that Pheasants Forever received from the South Dakota Habitat Conservation Foundation that resulted from Gov. (Dennis) Daugaard’s Pheasant Summit,” Morlock said. “The original pilot program enrolled 1,040 acres in Brown, Faulk and Spink counties, and it was well-received by landowners in that region. Starting a new program from scratch takes a little work to develop, and we are finally at a point where we can expand off of that original grant we received in 2015.”
    Morlock said the new effort will target more than 2 million acres across nearly 30 counties throughout the James and Missouri river valleys, as well three core West River pheasant counties — Lyman, Jones and Stanley.
    He said eligible landowners could agree to a five-year contract where row-crop production would be replaced on saline soils by perennial grasses. He said it would provide farmers with an alternative to the Conservation Reserve Program, which requires 10- or 15-year contracts, to increase soil health and sustainability.
    Morlock hopes the program hits the ground running this fall.
    “Producers will work hand in hand with a farm bill biologist to establish the best management plan,” he said. “And then, ideally, after this fall’s crop is harvested, especially if it’s soybeans, we’ll no-till that site with grass seed and then next summer do some weed control and hopefully have it establish that fast.”
    Through the program landowners would receive free grass seed and a one-time payment of $150 per acre, Morlock said.

    BEFORE: Saline soils, which are often marked by patchy white-caked areas devoid of plant residue, are a growing threat across much of South Dakota. Courtesy photo
    AFTER: Here’s a photo of the same patch of ground six months after being planted with a typical perennial seed mix.
    Courtesy photo

    “A selfish goal we have with this program is to establish additional areas of nesting cover,” he said. “Landowners can find alternative uses for the grass, such as haying and grazing, as long as they stay away from it during nesting season. The seed is provided at no cost, and they can use the one-time payment toward planting costs for the grass seed or for whatever else they want.”
    Richardson emphasized the educational component of the partnership would be as important as the dirt work and habitat.
    “We plan on doing landowner tours, workshops, site visits with producers and more,” Richardson said. “We need to make this happen and keep our soils more productive, and the area we’re most interested in is the James River Valley for East River.”
    Morlock agreed on the importance of education and said the program should not be viewed as a short-term solution.
    “For the next two years we’re going to educate landowners so they understand we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing or we’re going to keep chasing our tail,” he said. “If we go back to that same crop rotation or let these areas become saline again, then we’ve failed, and that’s the last thing we want to have happen.”
    To that end, the partnership hopes to expand the program to include other ag- and conservation-based organizations, recognizing that more grant money and more resources will be needed to fully address the growing amount of saline soils statewide.
    Morlock said he believes the program can succeed and expand because its primary goal is to make producers stronger and more profitable. He said that alone has already opened up many more doors compared to traditional Pheasants Forever conservation efforts that sometimes focus on habitat first, producers second.
    “We’re talking with producers who aren’t hunters, but they’re worried about the sustainability of their operation,” he said. “If we were just talking pheasants with this program, they might not be involved in it. If the program is successful, the pheasants are going to take care of themselves.”
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