Beck, a South Dakota State University professor who has served as manager at Dakota Lakes since it was established in 1990, says regarding the money, Buffett simply indicated, “Do something you couldn’t do without it [the grant money].”

That was all Beck, his colleagues and the research farm’s board members needed to hear. Already, the Dakota Lakes Research Farm has established itself as a pioneer in no-till and crop rotation farming methods. What did they want to tackle next? They came up with three big ideas.

Concept 1: Encourage integration of livestock and cropping systems

One of the big issues the Dakota Lakes team chose to address is the current trend of specialized livestock and grain operations, which they are concerned leads to an increase in transportation costs, a disconnect in nutrient cycling and an increase in disease pressure. Beck and his board of directors believe one thing that might help to reverse the trend is to develop methods of automating and mechanizing the management of livestock on the land. Thus, development of a “self-propelled grazing cell” is being explored.

“A big pen that moves around on its own” is how Beck describes the group’s vision for this tool, which could be used on fields to graze crop aftermath or cover crops. A prototype is being built using the framework of center-pivots or lateral-move irrigation systems, with the goal of constructing a large, self-propelled corral that will move across the field.

“The technology is there, but it hasn’t been tried for this purpose,” explains Beck. He notes that the high-intensity grazing concept is well developed, but it requires “fencing, and fencing and fencing – and everybody hates fencing,” he says.


Beck adds, “Farming has become automated and mechanized, but that has not been done with livestock on the land ... only those in confinement.” Development of a self-propelled pen could help reduce labor and better integrate livestock and crop management – reducing input costs by moving cattle out of feedlots and into pastures and fields.

Beck says, “We want happy livestock being managed in a humane way and doing what they are designed to do – graze.”

Once the prototype grazing cell is built, Beck says their research will focus on managing the cattle and the land, determining stocking rate within the pen and timing on moving the pen.

Concept 2: Evaluate seed coatings for planting crops

Can encapsulated seed balls be broadcast on a field to effectively plant crops, especially cover crops? That’s the second concept the Dakota Lakes Research Farm is evaluating. Beck notes, “Mother Nature just threw seeds out there and they grew. Farming has gone to all this big machinery and equipment. We think it might be possible to seed a lot of our crops by laying seed on top of the ground. The benefit is you don’t have to cross the field with the heavy equipment needed to place seed into the soil.”

Beck and his team are evaluating seed coating technology, which encapsulates seed in a material that helps to absorb moisture and hold it, so the seed can absorb the moisture and germinate after being broadcast onto the soil. Initially the work is focusing on seed coating material that is currently available for use on a commercial scale. “It’s already being done in some areas, but in drier climates like ours, it is more challenging to do,” he states.

The Dakota Lakes project is working with farmers and researchers in multiple locations to test and fine-tune various coating levels and mixes. Beck reports they are working with 14 plant species, six different coats and one bare treatment.

“We are evaluating different coating levels and seeds, and timing of the broadcast. We want to determine which application produces the best result,” Beck says.

Concept 3: Enhance management of roadside habitat

The third concept the innovative Dakota Lakes group is taking a closer look at is enhancing roadside habitat. “We are bringing several organizations to the table to look at roadsides and other right-of-way and publicly owned or managed areas to determine how they can be better managed for habitat for birds, pollinators and wildlife,” Beck explains. Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships, crop commodity organizations, the Department of Transportation, the railroad industry and the governor’s pheasant habitat work group are all involved in the discussion.

Beck says Iowa has a successful roadside habitat program in place, which he hopes South Dakota – and possibly other states – will look to as a pattern to develop more wildlife and environmentally friendly management protocols. He cites timing of mowing and species that are planted as opportunities to utilize these lands more holistically with the ecosystem in mind, while also exploring opportunities to use removed residue for livestock feed and potentially energy production.

Of the efforts underway with all three ideas, Beck concludes, “These concepts are very applied and multidisciplinary, and that’s what Dakota Lakes has strived to focus on.”

He adds, “Can we put this all together? I don’t know. It’s kind of like the early no-till days. Until you try to do something, you don’t really know the questions.” Regarding time line, Beck hopes to have some of the initial results from their efforts with these concepts by early 2016.  end mark