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Beck’s soil health crusade far from over

Dwayne Beck who studied different practices of improving soil health and shared the results at the farm’s annual field days, as seen here at the 2021 event
NATURAL TEACHER: Dwayne Beck’s career has focused on improving soil health. As a longtime manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, S.D., he studied different practices and shared the results at the farm’s annual field days, as seen here at the 2021 event.
Dwayne Beck has become a well-known soil health expert throughout the U.S. and globally.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, previously managed by Dwayne Beck, and now headed by new manager Sam Ireland.

“You don’t really change your eating habits until you’ve had a heart attack,” Dwayne Beck says. But he’s speaking in terms of soil health, not human health.

Since 1990, Beck made a career of changing the way farmers look at soil health while manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, S.D. Urging farmers to implement practices that improve soil health, he would demonstrate various methods, including no-till, diverse crop rotation, irrigation and livestock integration at the 800-acre research farm.

Beck is retiring from his post he held since 1990. When announcing his pending retirement in 2020, Beck said this about his replacement: “It had to be somebody who could commit the amount of effort it takes to run the place, and it does take a lot of effort to do that.” The Dakota Lakes board found that person with Sam Ireland, a student of Beck’s.

Though Beck has officially retired, he will stay on at Dakota Lakes to help Ireland with the transition.

Travel plans

Beck and wife Ruth, who retired in March 2021 after 17 years as an agronomy field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, plan to travel.

In past trips, Beck would blend work with pleasure. “Maybe I would work in 12 or 13 meetings,” he says. “A few years ago, we went to Australia for a couple weeks, and I only did a couple meetings.”

While he may be speaking at fewer engagements, Beck isn’t ready to back off from his commitment to soil health.

Beck calls it “stopping the bleeding” by implanting more soil health measures. “I mean, we’ve kind of stopped the bleeding in parts of this country out here,” he says. “It’s made people more profitable, so they’re going to, hopefully, continue to do it. But I hope we go further than that.”

Beck recalls explaining his career goals in in 1983 to Paul Carson, a professor at SDSU. Carson told him: “It’s a good thing you’re a young man, because you’re going to be an old man before you know anything.”

Natural educator

Coming from traditional farm roots, Beck was raised on a diverse grain and livestock farm near Platte, S.D., with dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs and chickens. After high school, he went to college where he got a chemistry degree and then a teaching job at Gettysburg, S.D. “I wasn’t really aware that you could go make a living doing ag stuff,” he says.

A lot was going on in the world during the time he was teaching at Gettysburg in 1975-78. Between the Arab oil embargo and the Russian wheat deal, “there was a lot of rah-rah for agriculture,” he recalls.

Locally, interest in irrigation in central South Dakota grew, and he began working on a project with SDSU to identify how much water irrigators would need. “The guys were being told to do lots of tillage if you’re going to irrigate, and they ran all their water back into the river,” he says.

As part of the project, Beck was taking soil samples in the summer, and farmers would ask why. This spurred him to pursue a graduate degree in agronomy, and he looks back on those who helped guide him at that time.

In addition to Carson, he credits the late Darrel “Red” Pahl, state irrigation specialist at the time, and Darrell DeBoer, in the SDSU ag engineering department, as being mentors.

“I did a lot of work on runoff under irrigation, and I did quite a bit of work with Paul [Carson] on how to fertilize irrigated corn,” he says. “So all my experience was actually irrigated stuff.”

Beck says the farmers in that area saw the need for research because, up to that point, all they did was graze and wheat summer fallow. Those same farmers also decided that they wanted to own the research farm, setting Dakota Lakes apart from most research farms.

In 1983, after graduating with his doctorate degree, Beck was hired to run the now-defunct James Valley Research Center near Redfield, S.D. “That’s where we started doing no-till,” he says. “We had already kind of figured out that if we didn’t do tillage, the water wouldn’t run off.”

Beck had plans of turning the James Valley farm into a dryland farm and running Dakota Lakes as an irrigated farm. The two-farm operation never materialized with James Valley closing, and in the fall of 1989, the equipment that was owned by SDSU at the Redfield location was moved to Dakota Lakes. Winter wheat was planted that fall at Dakota Lakes, and the following spring other crops were planted and irrigation began.

“The no-till thing really kind of started at Redfield, and the big thing we showed was that we didn’t need to have irrigation to grow corn and soybeans in the James River Valley,” he says. “And right now, there’s a lot of corn and beans in the Jim River Valley, and there wasn’t before.”

Beck says in 1983, Spink and Brown counties had a total of 1,900 acres of soybeans. Today, those counties are the top two in the state producing corn and soybeans.

However, according to Beck, therein lies the problem with most of today’s agriculture. “Trouble is they decided that they wanted to grow corn and soybeans all the time,” he says, ignoring what Beck sees as the importance of diversity through cover crops, and other annual and perennial crops brought into rotations.

Beck and his fellow researchers at Dakota Lakes study various crop rotations, and the worst results are the corn-soybean rotations, he says. But don’t ask Beck for his secret to the perfect crop rotation. “You have to pick your own crop rotation — what will work best on your farm,” he says.

Beck may be easing out of his research at Dakota Lakes, but he won’t be straying from his message of building soil health.

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