(Dr. Jaradat)
We live in a world of salt,
but we do not recognize it. (Dr. Cihacek)
Once it’s salinated,
you got a problem. (Dr. Hopkins)
One of the points that many,
many farmers have said is that they’re seeing salts
in places that they’d never witnessed
problems before. (Harold Steppuhn)
If I’m a producer
and on my ground, I’ve got a problem with it–
it’s not overblown– that’s my livelihood
off that land. Funding for “Salt of the Earth” is made possible by an
EPA Section 319 grant administered by the North Dakota
Department of Health. the Eastern North Dakota Resource Conservation
and Development Councils, with support provided by the… …helping people help the land, and by the members
of Prairie Public. It’s a waste of fertilizer,
seed, and your time and effort on it. It went from, I would say 5%
to 10% of the farm acres being affected by salinity to up
to 40% to 50%. Salinity isn’t a new problem,
it’s a worldwide problem (Matt Olien, narrator)
If you’ve driven by farm fields
in the Upper Great Plains, you’ve no doubt noticed
patches of white, chalky soil,
usually near roads and ditches, that just doesn’t
seem to belong, and doesn’t seem to go away. Farmers wish it would. It’s soil salinity,
too much salt in the soil, and it can prove
nearly impossible to grow a productive crop
in those areas. Overall reduced soil health,
so compaction issues, reduced biological activity. You don’t have
as good of soil to till. It’s harder to work the soil. A lot of that depends on your
strategies you’re using for management–
if you’re using conventional tillage
or no till or strip till. But it really depends
on the producer and what they’re willing to try. In my area I would say over 95% of my fields have
salinity, and 80% of them have
visible white spots that are well in excess of this. All of my producers
are very concerned about it and are actively looking for
answers and trying new things and trying to seed
some cover crops, trying some crop rotations,
trying some limited drainage when they can get
the permission. So the producer is going
to try to pick the crop that gives him the best option
and economic return. (narrator)
Excess Salinity
is caused generally by too wet of conditions
resulting in a high water table. Most agree the problem
in the Upper Great Plains got worse around 1993 when the dry cycle converted to
a wet cycle and has never left. But the problem has been around
for centuries. (Dr. Jaradat) The land
in Mesopotamia is very flat, and irrigating that land
created problems in addition to the high
temperature and high evaporation from
the irrigated water. Salts became concentrated,
and the irrigation water coming from the twin rivers,
the Tigris and Euphrates, enriched that salt
in the Mesopotamia plain, and in less than 1500 years, the problems started showing up to the point that
most fertile parts of lower Mesopotamia
turned into white crusts. People went hungry,
and cities and the empires themselves
crumbled because of the loss
of their wealth. (Dr. Cihacek) This is a geologic
process so it’s been going on for a long
period of time. We’ve got relatively young
glacial soil. A lot of our soils were pushed
in here by the glaciers, spread out on the landscape. So as these salts weather–
they’re young materials; there’s a lot of things
to weather in there. They dissolve
and go into the water. Then wherever the water goes,
they carry these salt minerals. (Dr. Abdullah) Although it is
a problem here, but it’s no comparison to the salinity problem in other
parts of the world. Just to give you
an example– California, the Joaquin Valley
and the Salton Sea. The problems there are
much bigger. The world is losing
approximately a million hectares a year
to salinity, and there are 200 million
hectares of saline land which is not producing up
to its productive capacity. There are issues
in the Nile Delta especially after the
construction of the Aswan Dam. After the construction
of the dam, this kind of natural remedy,
so to speak, of soil fertility and handling
salinity stopped abruptly. Based on that, in fact, major
health problems were created. (narrator)
In our region,
the topography of the land has lent itself
to salinity problems, forcing many farmers
to move this land to the Conservation Reserve
Program. When the glaciers came
through here, they ground up to pure shale, and most of the salinity
that is in our soil originated
from the pure shale formation in Eastern North Dakota
at least. We were just looking
in our training yesterday at a soil survey
that was completed in Stutsman County
back in the ’80’s before the wet cycle
really started. There was only,
I think, about 10 acres of a whole quarter section
that was mapped saline. I believe that there’s
no question but that some of the salinity
that we’re seeing and the degree and the nature
of the salinity, it’s a function of what we’re
doing with water. It’s linked to
the Red River Valley floods. It’s linked to overland flow. So consequently
what that means is, is that there’s simply
more water on the landscape. More water either
runs off the landscape. More water resides within
the landscape, and there’s less water that is moved back
up through evapotranspiration. It’s roughly 10.8 deciSiemens per meter. And in this type of sampling, it’ll show less salts
’cause we have a higher concentration of water
with this soil, but that would easily equate to 25 deciSiemens
on the other methods, and that is restrictive
to almost all plant growth. (narrator)
Salinity can be
invisible or visible. Either way, it is affecting
the bottom line and livelihood of producers all over
the Upper Great Plains. Joleen Hadrich with
North Dakota State University has researched
the economic impact of salinity. What we know is that their yield
is going to decrease, and that, of course, is going to
relate into lower revenues and a lower
profit level. Slightly saline would result
in about a 15% yield loss. The moderate
would be 50% yield loss. When I applied
the average crop prices that we’re receiving right now
in those yield decreases, it resulted in $150 million
decrease in revenue. (Bill Schuh)
I think it’s first
and foremost a crop problem and secondly
an economic problem. The loss of crop yields from
salinization of the soil is a very, very major economic
loss for our state. (Joe Breker) I did a recent poll with our group, our corn growers
group, and it was fairly common to have producers
from all over the state that are in the corn growers
that had from 10% to 15% of their farms
severely impacted by salinity. In terms of an overall problem,
we could say that the agricultural land
in Canada, about 1/3 includes
salt-affected soils. If I’m a producer,
I will try to minimize that– any kind of problems
that relate to salinity– primarily
because my assessed lands, the assessments, will decrease if my lands are
identified as salinized. When we get to an EC of about
8 which is moderately saline, we have at least 50% reduction
in yields on wheat. You can have 75% yield loss
on corn, and soybeans, you might as well
forget it because we’re down to maybe 10%
or not even worth harvesting. Basically it’s an osmotic
problem. If you get too much salt on
the outside, you have too much osmotic
suction on the outside, it competes with the electrolyte
in the plant, and the plant reaches a point where it can’t imbibe water
properly, and you start getting yield
reductions. (narrator) Another fear is
what has happened in other parts of the world.– health issues, food supply
issues and water quality issues. We constantly review the best
available science from EPA and their contractors that they
work with–universities that develop the best
toxicological information that’s available to date,
and we incorporate those. If it’s something immediate,
we do it right away in our water quality standard. (Bill Schuh) I don’t think that
on the basis of current EPA and CDC documents
we can conclude that sulphate is particularly
damaging to water quality. As far as drinking water quality
is concerned, people drink water that have
a lot of salts in them. There’s a very wide range
of qualities in the waters that people drink
and are capable of drinking. Right here in this area of the
field–this is one of the more obvious places that
you’ll see salt. The obvious effects of the salt
is this white crusting. I see too many guys trying
to manage their salinity. They put some into CRP,
but they don’t go far enough, and then that salinity just
continues to move out, and then they’re mad because
they don’t have an impact, and it’s just making it worse
and worse. (narrator)
And as you’ll see next, the
solutions farmers come up with can mean the difference between lost revenue
and successful yields. Good management practices
for salinity would include definitely
CRP, understanding that, the variable rate and
site specific technologies is the biggest one
that I’m involved with. (David Burkland)
Actually in Grand Forks
County here, the level of salinity is one of the higher levels
in the Red River Valley so we’ve tried
a lot of different things. We have put some land
into CRP, but we’ve done other things too to try to overcome the saline
conditions–just crop choice is a big factor,
picking the right crops. Picking crops that are tolerant
to saline conditions is real important. (Shawn Kasprick)
On the precision ag side
of things, we got different
site-specific products and services that we can provide
that will give the growers a handle on
where their salinity is, what impact it has
on their crop, and how far out that impact really is
effecting their crop. That all will wrap up eventually into a variable rate
application for fertility and eventually
the grower’s bottom line. (Joe Michels)
It takes a little while to get
established. It did the job for me. We have had salinity issues. There’s one hayfield we got
from a fella that got sick. He told
the landlord that he wanted to
rent it to my dad back in
the early 70’s. We took it over;
the ground was white. It would grow foxtail, kochia,
and not too good at that. Then the garrison
seemed to help. It took a long time to
establish, but it is very thick. We got a good root structure where Dad could drive
across there with a swather in the water and not get stuck. (Dr. Cihacek)
Cover crops, especially
deep-rooted cover crops, can have an effect on lowering
the water table in an area. My favorite crop to lower
water tables is alfalfa which is a perennial,
permanent cover type crop. Alfalfa is very, very
deep-rooted. (Hal Weiser)
Out in Montana, they’ve really
had a lot of success in addressing saline seeps and addressing how to correct
those situations. One thing that’s happened-
there’s been a shift in the western part of the state
to no till so they’ve gotten a lot more
efficient at water. A couple of
years ago in 2008, we did a special initiative
through the Equip Program which allowed us
to provide cost share to producers that were having
issues with salinity, and that was specifically on
saline seeps. What they wanna see is which
direction the groundwater is flowing when they start
testing this, and then they wanna see
the levels of the water. And as the water goes down, that
means the salts are going down. The soil on the surface
is more productive as the salts go lower
into the soil profile. I can’t
honestly say what that piece
of ground looked like before, but I was out on it
last year on our crop tour, and like he said, you don’t have
the boggy areas out there. We drove across that with
vehicles with a school bus. There’s good ground cover, and
it’s actually very productive. (Joe Michels) We are able to
seed everything. If you get
something growing out there, use up the water,
try to push the salts down. [motor purrs] (Paul Overby) So this is
the obvious saline area where we’ve got the while soil, and nothing is growing
except kochia. So we get back to almost
the same spot every year so we’ve not skewing our results by testing one spot one year
and then two years later coming back and doing
something that’s better. We’re probing the same area. We’ve done that consistently now
for four years. (Paul Overby)
The reality is,
the water tables all over the Devils Lake Basin are full
to the point of discharging. We’ve had years in this area where I got stuck
on the side of a hill. What we started doing was
actually developing zone management for our fields. That idea intrigued me,
of being able to apply the right amount of nutrient in
the right parts of your field to match
the crop yield potential. We actually use our experience
then to tell the story as we go out and do seminars
and meet with farmers. And a lot of farmers are a
little surprised just like I was that the saline issue was
much bigger than what they see. Almost every farmer says
well, I turn my fertilizer off when I go through
those white areas. I don’t fertilize those areas;
I know not to do that. But they don’t realize how far
away the saline issue really is. And so when we create maps
for those farmers and then delineate that out,
that makes sense to them. Then we started the business of making those maps for
other people, training people how to use them, doing seminars for people
and pointing this out. This is part of the management. I think the first solution is
(1) recognizing the problem, and then (2) keeping after it. It isn’t ever gonna go away. Water moves up and down
in the fields. We’ve been doing some work on
this probably going into our 3rd year now, and certainly
when salinity is really high, then we get very low,
almost no yield in potatoes. Especially since 2005, we had a
lot of rain in our area here, I know just across the line they
had some similar difficulties, definitely brought more saline
to the surface, and since then we’ve had a little bit more quality problem with our
potatoes. There’s really nothing
that physically, chemically I should say,
removes salts. You’re not gonna change the
composition of that. You have to either physically
either drain the salts away or put in a crop
that can tolerate the elevated levels
of salt in the soil. Late ’90’s, we chose to put a lot of our most
severely saline land into CRP. That was a good option. I mean, that was
an excellent option for us. So we put
a lot of that land into CRP, and they used
tall wheat grass, for example. We’ve always tried
to keep crop rotations. Winter cereals are good because
they will generally grow on saline ground better than
row crop like corn or soybeans. But you have to grow
what makes money, and not that winter wheat
isn’t good, but you can’t raise winter wheat
every year or you can’t raise sunflowers every year so you
have to raise a rotation, and some
of those rotations aren’t
always very salt tolerant. (Rick Burgum)
Well, the best way to reduce
your salinity problem is to drain the surface water. Oftentimes you can’t do that. The passive ways to do it are
to grow something, but you have this contradiction
’cause nothing grows. The best thing to do is
to grow your way out of it, and we gotta find crops
that will grow, and then we’ve got to be able
to practically grow them. What we’ve doing on this plot is
trying to show differences in management, things that
we can do to help assist salt mobility and try to get
crop production and growth. With this research here, we’re
trying to show that tillage is not an effective management tool
for saline areas and salt areas, specifically when they have
a lot of sodium but also when they have
a lot of calcium. In these plots, we did some
tillage, we did some no till, we also did
some no till with straw cover
to reduce evaporation. I really have 3 basic
treatments. I have high evaporation, what we would call a normal
evaporation here with our no till, and then also
reduced evaporation. And what the evaporation does is
bring the salts to the surface. So we’re actually increasing
the salts in the concentration at the surface with the tillage
and the no till. The only treatments that are
helping us to reduce it a little bit is with the straw. I think the drainage
is a big thing to get rid
of the excess water first, and that’ll help probably
pull away from– it’ll start to shrink
some of these ponds, and that way the salts will
start disappearing on their own. We’ve been in kind of
a wet cycle so that’s probably
part of the problem too. From here to there the salinity
was twice as much on this plot as it was there, so within ten
feet we had double the salinity. Even though there’s not
a lot of topography change, there’s no soil type change,
it’s a water mobility thing. We have downward movement
of water right here. With the resource concerns that we coming into our office, we just really felt we needed
to have some training for our employees
on how to handle salinity and how to work
with producers on salinity. You know, the work that we’re
doing right now in North Dakota on working
with producers as NRCS we are looking at trying to get
into the rotation more salt tolerant vegetation
or trying to get cover crops that are more salt tolerant
of salinity– to try to treat
the saline areas, but we’re also looking
at total landscape water use. (narrator)
While growing salt tolerant
crops like alfalfa and barley or putting land
into CRP are long standing ways of dealing with and fighting
salinity, a third solution is more expensive and potentially
more controversial. It’s the installation of
subsurface drainage pipes that are perforated so they’re
put at a depth to reduce the drought water
levels below a level that’ll allow the water to rise
to the surface. And what it does is,
it drains excess water that is not needed
for crop production. It doesn’t affect the crop,
the water that the crop needs, but it drains excess water,
and it allows better aeration of soil which is
also important for crop growth. And with that,
the salts move with the water. So wherever the water goes is
where the salts are going to go. Other than that,
there are other things with sodium levels in the soil. If you have high sodium levels, the potential to leech out
the calcium salts will change the physical
properties of the soil, and it can actually accentuate or make the soils less fit
for crop production. There is some danger
with understanding essence of tile drainage, knowing your
soils is very, very important before you install
tile drainage, and having an understanding
of the history and the potential
for sodium-affected soils after you start to drain
that water out. Tile drainage works.
The advantage of tile drainage is that it allows the farmer
to regulate when it gets in the field and
when it gets out of the field. If there’s a large rain,
the land manager can pretty much guarantee that
within 3 to 5 days, you’re going to be able to get into
that field with tile drainage. Without tile drainage it might
be 7 to 12 days. (narrator) Roxanne Johnson
with North Dakota State
University Extension is in the midst
of a 5-year study on salinity, including the impact
of tile drainage. Where you put that outlet
is really, really important. Don’t put it
upstream of someone’s home so it’s running by their house
so they have excess water sitting
in from of their homes. [chuckles] I’m a farm girl,
so I’m afraid that if we don’t have tile
drainage that there won’t be farming as we know it
in eastern North Dakota because of the high saline
levels in these fields. You talk to these producers, and it’s the best thing
since white bread, apple pie! (narrator)
But other research
from Joleen Hadrich looked into the economics
of tiling which can cost farmers nearly
$600 per acre to install. I did my analysis assuming
$4.75 per bushel of corn, and now it’s trading at $7.00 a bushel
on the futures market. Drainage tile would make
a lot more sense now, but at $4.00 corn and a yield
of 120 bushels per acre, the farmer would be losing
between $2.00 to $20.00 an acre if they put in drainage tile. It is expensive,
but it took land that was virtually worthless for annual crop production and made it good to excellent
crop production land. Tile drainage,
what we are doing here in the Red River Basin is installing drain tile to remove
excess subsurface water. There’s really one reason
why farmers are installing drain tiles
on their fields, and it’s for increasing
crop production. We’ve tiled fields
that farmers tell me are their saltiest fields,
and in a few years, probably 3 to 5 years, they are yielding as good
as their best fields. You look back here, and anytime you see
a pump pumping water, you know there’s a perception that you’re
making new water, and that is untrue. What we’re doing is, we’re lowering the water table, and we’re creating
a reservoir in our field. We’ve done
a variety of things. We are drain tiling, trying
to get rid of some of the salts that naturally through the rain
will percolate through the soil and go out through
the drain tile. We’ve got an interesting project
with the University of Manitoba. There’s a couple of Ph.D.
students doing their thesis on water movement
and saline soils, and we have got
a replicated trial here in the back of this farm
of about 15 acres. They will be trying to
determine how the saline areas are mitigated with
drainage and irrigation. (Dr. Cihacek) Once you take that
water and move it somewhere– you gotta move it somewhere–
put it into a drainage ditch. The problem
with our flat landscape is, it’s hard to move it
any long distance. The water that comes out
of the drains contain salts. Now, my concern is with the
drainage that you can have a transfer of a problem from
one field to another field or another area because that
water is going to contain salts. If the water cannot flow off
freely, it ponds up. Then we’ve got the potential
of salinizing other land. Some of the preliminary numbers
that I’ve reviewed suggest that the total
dissolved solids in some of the tile drains are
very, very high. I’ve seen them 10,000, 15,000
milligrams per liter– some very high
sulphate numbers also. Now, one or two individually probably doesn’t have
a great effect. What’s unknown is
the cumulative effect of widespread tile drainage
on the tributaries flowing into the Red River
and the Red River itself. We do know that nitrate,
for instance, seems to be very, very high
in tile drainage waters. Salinity is a global problem, but the solutions to that
should be and must be local. (narrator)
The causes of salinity are many, as are the potential solutions. The key for farmers
and soil experts is to curtail the problem before it
reaches levels that have caused economic collapse in other
countries, in other times. National, state
and local solutions will hopefully converge
to win the battle. Some of the crops as
North Dakota shifting into more of the corn belt
types of production with corn and soybeans. We’re going to see
more problems emerge with saline soils
if we aren’t careful. (Dr. Hopkins)
We have soils that are very,
very productive, but you can drive
any road in North Dakota and see examples
of egregious erosion. As government agencies, we need to work with the growers– corn growers, soybean growers
and really try to address this resource concern
in North Dakota. The universal advice which I
would like to repeat is instead of adapting the soil
to the plant, adapt the plant to the soil as a biological long-term, less expensive, and permanent
solution. Funding for “Salt of the Earth” is made possible by an
EPA Section 319 grant administered by the North Dakota
Department of Health. the Eastern North Dakota Resource Conservation
and Development Councils, with support provided by the… …helping people help the land, and by the members
of Prairie Public.