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NRCS: Dust Storm Highlights Conservation Need

On Monday in Pierre the fire department responded to 911 calls reporting a prairie wildfire burning east of town.

But when fire crews arrived they didn’t find any flames, rather something else –SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray has more on today’s Dakota Digest.

If you’re a South Dakota resident–and you see what looks like a smoke plume rising off the prairie–your first inclination might be to hop in your pickup truck and go check it out.     That’s just what Rick Mallo did on Monday.

“Looked like first thing we thought was maybe a fire, and we drove out north and east of town and seen that it was fields blowing up out in that direction,” says Mallo.

Mallo is a store manager at Titan Machinery on the East Side of Pierre.   He says the dust storm was a few miles long with a plume high enough to be seen from town.  He wasn’t the only one who mistook the blowing dust for a possible fire–911 calls brought out Sean Kruger of the Pierre Rural Fire Department.

“Myself and another individual from the department Leon Ellis were out there.  Leon was a little closer than I was and informed me that it was zero visibility in the immediate area,” says Mallo.

Dust storms with zero visibility in the middle of a drought aren’t really all that uncommon.   But the fact that this storm happened in March is a little concerning for some locals–that includes people like this guy.

“I’m Jason Miller I’m a Conservation Agronomist with the NRCS office in Pierre,” says Miller.

TheNRCS is the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  One of the goals of the federal agency is to prevent another Dust Bowl.  Miller works to educate farmers on the best practices to curb wind erosion.  That includes asking farmers to hold off on tilling their fields, and also to leave some vegetation standing to hold the soil down. 

“Leaving residue standing is the most effective way of protecting the ground it basically deflects the wind velocity right at the soil surface,”  says Miller.

Leaving vegetation to cover the fields isn’t always easy for farmers.  With feed prices so high some producers harvested dead corn crops last summer to sell as livestock feed, others allowed cattle to graze in the fields–which can reduce cover as well.   Those like Jason Miller stress the real need for a wet spring.

“Well we’re going into this one with absolutely no sub soil moisture whatsoever so we’re going to need some significant spring rains to make this crop at all profitable and to basically grow some residue to protect the soil cover,” says Miller. 

Besides farmers the NRCS also works with ranchers to maintain soil health.   Terry Heck is a Range Management Specialist.  He says the key for ranchers is to avoid overgrazing.

“You’re leaving good cover out there no bare ground.  It’s no different than on crop-land if you can maintain residue on the soil surface you can reduce evaporation rates and keep the soil cool it just creates a better environment for grass production, and as it does get drier you’re still able to produce some grass because you’re saving as much moisture as you possibly can,” says Heck. 

Heck says part of being a good grazing manager is having a drought contingency plan.  He says this can mean some hard decisions for ranchers.  

“Reducing the herd can become one of those and that’s a decision that has to be made early and if you don’t have the forage to support the herd you have it’s best to make that decision and implement that action item as soon as you can,” says Heck.

Droughts are part of life in South Dakota.   Right now much of the state remains in high end drought categories.  This spring weather service officials forecast higher than normal temperatures and normal precipitation.   Officials working to reduce soil erosion worry that without significant rains--dust storms, like the one this week east of Pierre that resembled a wildfire, will become more common.

Here is a link to the South Dakota Drought Task Force.

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