Izaak Walton League Publications

The State – and Fate – of Prairie

By Peter Carrels

It’s brisk and moist on an overcast autumn afternoon in northeastern South Dakota. The earth is muddy from last night’s rain and sleet, but preparation for next spring’s planting is already underway. Cattle grazed a grassy pasture here last summer. Next summer, these acres will be growing corn.

I am watching a heavy-duty tandem disc break virgin prairie. Across the width of this implement are double rows of circular harrow blades, each one bigger than a dinner plate. The blades revolve over and over to penetrate and turn the ground. The tandem disc is towed by a tractor that runs on tracks instead of tires, and it easily moves across the land despite sticky, slippery conditions.

A man operating a nimble rock picker is plucking stones from unplowed areas. A growing pile of rock along a fence line on one side of the field is the collection point for the fruits of his labor. A dump truck, its bed filled with boulders, is mired down in mud. The driver accelerates and tires spin. He idles the engine and waits for the rock picker to pull him free. Then he’ll dump his load and return for more.

As I watch the dump truck rocking back and forth in the mud, I spot a colorful stone poking through unplowed earth. I grasp the top, wiggle it, and finally pull it free. Like an iceberg, there’s more below the surface than above. It’s sizeable – as big as a cantaloupe – and I stow it in my pack. I’m a rock collector, and I save notable stones as mementos from trips across the country.

The tractor and disc clatter by, making another long trip across the land. Behind them, native sod is neatly sliced and turned on its side or upside down in long strips. There is symmetry to the six-inch-deep cuts and the slabs of exposed soil, with glistening green grass on one side and dark dirt on the other.

The plan is to wait a week or so after the disc’s first pass on this 160-acre quarter section – which will allow soil, grass, and other vegetation in the broken sod to dry and start to decompose – before cross-disking the entire tract. “The more decay, the better the tear-up,” explains the landowner as he walks me through the process of converting native grassland to monoculture crop production.

After the disc is used a second time, more rock picking and digging will be done. Stones resting on the disked sod or partially buried near the surface of the soil can break a high-priced seed planter. In this part of the world, rock removal is a vital part of prairie conversion. A third disking after that is an option.

The final step in the conversion process involves an implement – one version is called the Turbo-Till® – that in a single pass chops residual vegetation and creates a smooth, consistent seedbed.

In a matter of several weeks, a prairie that evolved over thousands of years will have been completely and irretrievably undone. Corn planting will take place in five months or so. This conversion is happening on mixed-grass prairie along the western fringe of today’s corn belt. Not too many years ago, pasture management and cattle grazing dominated land use here. This is also the heart of the prairie pothole region, known as North America’s “duck factory” due to the critical nesting and breeding habitat it provides for many species of far-ranging waterfowl.

It was the presence of so much stone that helped keep this land in grass. Uncertain precipitation and a shorter growing season than the rest of the corn belt also figured into land-use decision-making. New corn hybrids have allayed grower concerns about rainfall and climate, and these technological achievements dove-tailed with exploding corn prices, aided by ethanol’s appetite for more and more corn.

When grain prices rose to remarkable heights, land values also increased – often at a jaw-dropping rate. Just 20 years ago, this rocky property was valued at hundreds of dollars per acre. Today, an acre of land like this fetches $3,000 to $4,000 from corn farmers expanding their operations as quickly as their income and credit allow. Farm sizes are multiplying, and the temptation to transition from cattle to corn has become almost irresistible. Tax and land-use policies as well as incentives offered by lending agencies and institutions – all driven by high corn prices – also encourage the conversion of grasslands to grain.

Now, volatility in corn prices – from near $8 a bushel last year to less than $4 as of this writing – is pushing farmers to seek high returns through volume. Inputs such as seed, fuel, fertilizers, and biocides remain spendy, shrinking per-acre profits and causing corn producers to expand the amount of land they plant to maintain revenues.

The landowner managing the conversion project I witnessed was reluctantly doing so. “This wasn’t part of my original plan,” he said with a noticeable sigh. “I’d rather have cattle, with the land in pasture.” His land ethic was more nuanced and sensitive than I ever would have guessed. “Unfortunately, my circumstances dictate doing this,” he added, before elaborating with a personal story about his life and his finances.

Not all farmers and grassland ranchers face the same challenges or express the same sentiment as the fellow I met. But the story of prairie conversion, no matter why or where, reveals an ongoing trend in agriculture that has less to do with stewardship and sustainability and more to do with the here and now of individual farmers taking advantage of business opportunities, including engaging in land-management decision-making focused by necessity on a bottom line that is determined by people residing far from our farmlands....
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The State - and Fate - of Prairie (PDF)
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