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Forecasting Unintended Consequences of Grassland Conversion

Written collaboratively by Roger Gates, Ben Turner, Melissa Wuellner and Barry Dunn (former SDSU College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences Dean, former SDSU Extension Director).


Continuing implementation of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, which includes programs such as SodSaver and policies such as conservation compliance (restraining cultivation on highly erodible or marginal lands), provides incentives to enhance conservation of grasslands. However, these policies will likely only slow, rather than reverse, recent trends of expansion of cultivation for crop production into existing grasslands. Driven by economics, policy, and social shifts in rural America, this is certainly a complex problem worthy of our ongoing attention.

Systems Thinking: Investigating Soil Environmental Risk

Systems thinking, which combines both qualitative (descriptive observation) and quantitative (numerical, requiring measurement) data with computer simulation, is a methodology for investigating and interpreting complex problems. Using information from farmers and ranchers across South Dakota, combined with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Natural Resource Conservation Service and U.S. Census Bureau data, SDSU investigators developed a systems model to forecast land use change across the northern Great Plains (SD, NE, ND, WY, MT). Soil Environmental Risk (SER) was also assessed at the regional level based on varying degrees of cultivation intensity across differing land use qualities. This model was used to test and compare public policy and economic scenarios to identify favorable future conditions (Figure 1.).


The Role of Public Policy

Under the 2012 ‘base-case’ scenario, where no policy changes occurred, an additional 9 million acres would be converted away from grassland by 2060, while Soil Environmental Risk (SER) would increase from 2.6 to 4.29 (or 65%). Eliminating the Conservation Reserve Program, for which budget constraints continue to limit acreage enrollments, lead to an increase of almost 12 million acres by 2060 with an associated increase in SER to 5.2 (an increase in 100%). For reference, estimated Soil Environmental Risk values during the Dust Bowl ranged between 5 and 10.

Increasing crop insurance premium subsidies (CIPS) to 95% of the rate covered also caused increased projected Soil Environmental Risk. Reduced financial risk led to increased Soil Environmental Risk. Not all of the scenarios tested were so alarming. More stringent conservation compliance would essentially keep land use at today’s levels, while policies aimed at increasing participation of younger individuals in livestock agriculture would result in similar conditions but with enhanced rural community-resilience. Integrating livestock with crop production provided the most noticeable reduction in Soil Environmental Risk, due to higher demand for grass acres and additional crop diversity to enhance grazing opportunities.

Moving Forward

Workshops will begin at 9 a.m. and conclude by mid-afternoon and a noon lunch will be served. There is no cost to attend the workshops, but registration will assist organizers in planning for the events. Click to register by June 10, 2016!
Workshops will begin at 9 a.m. and conclude by mid-afternoon and a noon lunch will be served. There is no cost to attend the workshops, but registration will assist organizers in planning for the events. Click to register by June 10, 2016!

The systems approach provided some of the first forecasts for both land use change and associated negative impacts of grassland loss in the region. Although gains have been made in conservation policies, more will be needed if stakeholders and policy makers want to avoid serious consequences comparable to the Dust Bowl era.

While land use changes have occurred and are expected to continue into the future, what remains unclear is what continued conversion will mean for producers and those who work in the agriculture industry. What sorts of risks will be faced in terms of soil loss? What can be done to turn the tide? These questions will be addressed in a series of workshops scheduled for mid-June in South Dakota entitled Soil Stewardship for Healthy Landscapes.

Workshops will be held June 14 at the SDSU Extension Watertown Regional Center, June 15 at the University Center in Pierre, and June 16 at the SDSU Extension Sioux Falls Regional Center. Jay Fuhrer, Soil Health Specialist for North Dakota USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, will be the featured presenter at all three workshops. Jay has spent a career developing and implementing sound management principles that sustain and enhance soil productivity. He will lead a morning presentation and facilitate afternoon discussions during a tour of leading farm operations.

The day’s concluding session will share information from both public and private conservation organizations that provide technical and financial support for land stewardship, practices that promote soil health and habitat maintenance and improvement.

Thanks to, a service of South Dakota State University, for sharing this with us!

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Roger Gates
Roger Gates
Dr. Roger Gates is a Professor & SDSU Extension Rangeland Management Specialist in South Dakota State's Natural Resource Management Department. With his work, he seeks to enhance the heritage of South Dakota’s privately owned rangelands by contributing to the success of livestock producers and grassland managers. He also contributes to collaborative, applied ranching systems research as a professor in SDSU’s Natural Resource Management Department.

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