According to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, there are 31,000 farms and ranches in the state.
And because each farm is unique, South Dakota farmers have hundreds of different water protection strategies.
Farmers use the agronomic and land management practices that work best on their acres, taking into consideration a wide range of variables.
Factors they consider include location, geographical features, acreage, watersheds, waterways, rainfall, soil types, weather patterns, types of crops grown and crop rotation, types of inputs used, use of precision ag technologies, drain tiling, tillage practices, commodity prices, financial structure and many more.
That’s why, when it comes to water quality regulations, the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t take into consideration the uniqueness of each farm.
Farmers value water quality
For farmer Steve Weerts of Iroquois, S.D., protecting water quality is common sense.
“I can only speak on my behalf, but we're not going to apply chemicals that are just going to run off and hurt the water supplies,” he says. “I don't believe most farmers would. It's a waste of money to throw something on that's just going to run off.”
“We’re going to do the right thing for the environment,” says Weerts.
Paul Hetland, who farms in Mount Vernon, S.D., agrees. “Water quality is extremely important to us as farmers,” he says.
Safeguarding water quality dovetails with Hetland’s farm management strategies.
“The things that we are trying to accomplish with our crop farming contribute directly to water quality,” Hetland says.
“Our goal is to use the best farming practices, in terms of any nutrient applications, so that they go to the crops versus finding their way into a stream, a lake or into an aquifer, where someone might be getting their drinking water from.”
“If we lose a nutrient, that's money that does not contribute towards our end goal and our profitability,” he says.
Hetland points out that farmers want clean water for themselves and their families, too.
“We enjoy those same lakes, rivers and streams, for everything from recreation to the water that we drink. I know for myself and any of my fellow farmers, it's a very high priority.”
Farming practices help safeguard water quality
In many parts of South Dakota, receiving adequate moisture is a concern for farmers. The same practices that help farmers capture rainfall also help protect water quality.
“We are working to improve water quality through our use of no-till farming practices, through the intensity of our crop rotations and our use of cover crops,” Hetland says.
“This is an area that I would consider more arid than many other parts of the Corn Belt,” Hetland says. “We’re just trying to use that water as efficiently as we can. We don't have the ability to irrigate or have any other way of bringing water to our farming practice, so whatever falls out of the sky is what we have to work with.”
That’s why Hetland works hard to retain the moisture he gets.
“Our goal is to capture any water that falls and put it into the soil profile where we can access that water later for the use of crops or cover crops. Our goal is to never have any water leave our property, either on the surface or through leeching into groundwater.”
Weerts uses cover crops, no-till and precision ag technologies to improve soil health by increasing organic matter. Healthier soil absorbs moisture better, keeping water available to plants and out of waterways.
“The cover crops and crop residue will not only retain that moisture, but they will actually give you nutrients as the season progresses,” Weerts says.
Weerts also uses conservation programs on his farm. “I'm not afraid to put plantable acres into grass. We've actually created more grass for calving pastures right now, which is a wonderful habitat for pheasants and deer. We're enrolled in a Conservation Reserve Program. We've done the Conservation Stewardship Program as well. We do what we can to make sure it's best for the environment.”
Managing water flow
According to Weerts, drain tiling helps protect water quality by creating a natural filter.
“Drain tiling takes the excess moisture out of the soil, which makes the soil healthier so it can absorb that moisture,” he says. If the soil is already waterlogged, any additional rainfall could wash away soil and nutrients.
In addition, Weerts takes precautions to assure that water leaving the tile passes through natural filters.
“We put grass at the tile line to help catch any nutrients that might be headed into the water system,” he says. “And we’re doing things right. We design our tile systems to work with the watersheds and not go into a stream.”
Weerts notes that water flowing from drain tiles is filtered naturally through the soil. “Some guys will have the water from the drain tile go into a water tank for cattle, because it’s a clean source of water,” he says.
He mentions a Minnesota study showing that water coming from drain tile systems was safer and cleaner than the city water. “It was pretty significant,” he says. “All the storm water in the city just goes out into the streams.”
Weerts feels good about water quality protection efforts on his farm.
“I guess it says a lot about what we're doing for the environment when you can say that things are as good as, if not better than, when we started.”
If you have questions about farming and water quality, call the office at 605-334-0100.