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Conquering Salinity: Matt Hubers' Strategies for Sustainable Agriculture in South Dakota


Matt Huber
Matt Huber

By Cassidy Spencer


Matt Hubers began as a district conservationist for NRCS and is now one of two agronomists who work with Ducks Unlimited, where he is currently focused on implementing the tenets of soil health on cropland that were originally wetland habitats for waterfowl. His work, studies, and farming practice have led him to an informed, widespread understanding of the South Dakota salinity crisis. He says we need to address it now, before the losses are felt across South Dakota’s entire agricultural landscape. 


Matt Hubers and his wife have lived on a farm for over twenty years but only purchased it fifteen years ago. For years, out his window, he observed the way locals managed the land, similar to many at the time with mixed enterprises– calving out the livestock and leaving them out on the whole plot of land until the fall when they had to begin fieldwork.


“So I was watching outside my window for years at this pasture– how it had some extremely heavily used areas, how the landscape was being dominated by smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass, and this was at one-time native pasture. And how the species composition had changed from what it naturally should be, how productivity was going down, so then when our landlord sold it to us, I said well, there has to be a better and easier way to try to do this,” explained Hubers. “And that's when I got my own cattle, started cross-fencing, putting in water developments, putting some fire on the land. It makes me a better conservationist because I can relate much better to what these farmers have to go through as well. And I can see pretty clearly the little things, the practices and dispositions, that are leading our soils down a scary path.”


The Nature of Saline Seeps


Hubers explained that South Dakota, in recent history, essentially received the perfect storm for saline imbalances. 


First, throughout the 90’s, much of South Dakota went through a wet cycle: a stretch of above-average precipitation that raised the water tables. South Dakota’s watershed is already rich in salts, seeing as the region was under an ocean thousands of years ago, leading to salt-rich Pierre Shale parent material.


Secondly, farming practices have changed. When Hubers first arrived in the region, about 35 years ago, he observed a diverse cropping mix with small grains, corn, and perennial grass, and hardly any soybeans.


“What has happened is that our cropping system now is essentially a conventional corn-bean rotation. So that means we have a fair amount of tillage, we have relatively short growing seasons where those crops are using water. And then whenever you talk about salts and salinity– salinity goes where the water goes, right? If my crops are only using the water for four months out of the year, soil moisture for the rest of the year will not be brought up and used by plants from deeper in the soil profile. Our soil moisture will be closer to the surface and any precipitation we get will pool and evaporate, and that’s where our problem begins.”


As water collects and evaporates, capillary action brings water up from deeper in the soil. With that deep water comes dissolved salts. Water again evaporates off the surface, leaving salts behind, leading that piece of land into a cycle of growing salinity. When land starts to spiral into a saline seep, it usually begins in the most poorly drained areas on a field and farmers will notice a white coating across that top of the soil. Plants will begin to react: “It will start with poor germination, and they’ll start to exhibit the same characteristics as if they're going through drought because the available water is so full of salts that the plant can't use it. So when you have a very very salty soil environment, what happens? Well there are a lot of soil microbes that can’t live in it, you have plants that can’t grow in it, can't put down roots in it, so you're losing organic matter in your soil, soil microbes don't have available root exudates or carbon, so it becomes a dead and dying soil.”


A salinity issue is a water issue: water retention, water use, water infiltration.


A four-month corn-bean rotation doesn't use the water as it naturally was used in the land– not only across space but also across time. Minimal employment of water in the soils is not a passive action: it actively harms the land, the soil, and the plants.


“Salinity is, I think, the biggest threat to our agriculture in South Dakota, bigger than anything else because it takes away our ability to have an agricultural industry,” explained Hubers. “People think I'm yelling that the sky is falling– I tell them to go out on the land and you will see what I’m talking about.”


Reversing the Damage


The key to remedying salinity is generating and maintaining effective infiltration. Farmers need to change how they farm saline areas if they want that piece of land to remain viable at all– not addressing a saline area will only cause it to expand. Hubers encourages farmers to incorporate perennial grasses onto saline areas, even to allow weed encroachment on those areas, as long as they are kept covered.


“It comes down to water management, so make sure you have something growing as long as possible for the growing season. And if that means incorporating small grains into your rotation, incorporating cover crops, if it means inter-seeding rye as a cover crop, if it means tossing alfalfa in there because it’s got roots that can reach deep into your soil profile: Mother nature doesn't like bare soils, she always has something growing. We’re going to try to emulate that as much as possible in our cropping system by having diverse cover and reducing our tillage. It comes back to the principles of soil health.”


Tillage disrupts and destroys soil structure, decreasing pore space and soil’s ability to infiltrate water. This exacerbates saline seeps– tillage will only expand saline areas. Hubers advises farmers against farming through saline areas with conventional machinery– they are skirting the edge of much larger destruction than they may imagine.


“So there are solutions, but the solutions are tough to implement because 89% of crop ground in South Dakota is in a corn-bean rotation. And when you're so focused on just those two crops, then it makes it tough to increase your water usage not only on that field but also on the surrounding fields because everybody is doing the same thing,” said Hubers. “If you look up and down the Jim River and across the state, we’re looking at over 11 million acres that are impacted by salinity. And communities depend on that agricultural industry to stay alive. So 11 million acres with decreased or null production, that's going to have an impact.”


Farmer’s First Steps 


If farmers begin to notice saline spots on their land, Hubers tells them to get their soil tested right away. First understanding exactly what the problem is– saline, sodic, or both– is imperative to understanding how to move forward.


“If you have a sodic problem then you're going to be really high in sodium which creates a whole batch of issues that with a pure saline issue you don't have. If it's a saline and sodic area, then to remediate that gets a lot harder,” Hubers explained. “So you've got to take soil samples, identify what your problem is. Like everything else, early diagnosis is critical.”


If you're a producer and you're looking to get help– technical, financial help– there's no better time than now. Organizations like Ducks Unlimited, of which Hubers is a part of, along with the NRCS, Pheasants Forever, and Every Acre Counts (to name a few) are offering support, incentive and insight to any farmers looking to shift their farming practices toward regenerative ethics.


“We work in conjunction, we don't work against each other, we’re all working with each other. Ducks Unlimited just received a $25 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant to do exactly what we’re talking about. To make sure that we increase the productivity on the land, on crop ground, provide options that the producers can utilize, and fix their problems. And we help them do that by providing technical assistance and economic assistance.”


With the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, if a farmer takes crop ground and puts it into grass, DU will pay farmers the average Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) round rate on those crop acres that are being put back to grass for a period of three years but it needs to stay in grass for a total of ten years and can be hayed or grazed after it is established.


“So we’re going to help you with that financial burden that you're going to incur. But at the end of the day, you're going to have good productive land that's still going to provide you an economic benefit versus a salt desert that's just going to cost you money, inputs, that you're never going to recover. Find someone that you want to work with, and they will help you. They will walk with you along that way. And it doesn't have to be on your whole farm. Let's identify those areas that are actually costing you money and are going to be worse if you don’t address them now. But you've got to be willing to identify the problem and realize that it's a problem. The way we farm now with our larger, bigger equipment– it's so easy to keep on going because we hate farming around stuff– it's a real pain, it messes up our rows, decreases our efficiency. But if you aren't willing to give up that 2/10ths of an acre, a 10th of an acre, whatever it may be, then pretty soon you're going to be farming around a much bigger area.”


Asks interviewer Joe Dickie– what if I’m somebody in Sioux Falls, and I'm not a farmer, I'm still listening to this podcast, and I hear that my tax dollars are going to farmers. What does that have to do with me?


Says Hubers: “We are so fortunate in South Dakota to be an agricultural state. We have less than a million people. We enjoy the opportunities that the agricultural landscape provides us– recreationally, aesthetically, environmentally. So what's in it for me– if I want to live in South Dakota, I'm going to be supporting agriculture and have a viable agricultural production system that's going to keep farmers on the land, that keeps ranchers on the land, because that's going to keep me in South Dakota and provide opportunities for not only me but the kids. We’ve got to make sure that as a society we have policies that allow our ag system to be strong, to be sustainable, to be regenerative, because what hurts the farmer eventually hurts all of us.”

CLICK HERE to access the podcast where Buz Kloot and Joe Dickie discuss salinity with Matt please go to:


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