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Future-Focused Farming: Dr. Dwayne Beck’s Insights on Regenerative Agriculture at Dakota Lakes


Matt Huber


By Cassidy Spencer


Dr. Dwayne Beck recently retired from the Research Manager position at Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, South Dakota. As a professor in the Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science Department at South Dakota State University, he received his B.S. in Chemistry from Northern State University in 1975 and a Ph.D. in Agronomy from South Dakota State University in 1983. Before beginning his current position in 1990, he was the Research Manager at SDSU’s James Valley Research Center near Redfield, SD. Soil Health Labs researcher Buz Kloot spoke with him in 2013 and again in 2024 about his journey at the research center.


Beck's emphasis is on developing no-till systems for irrigated and dryland areas in central South Dakota. This mission is forefront at Dakota Lakes Research Farm.  The land and fixed facilities at Dakota Lakes are owned by a not-for-profit corporation whose primary goal is to identify, test, and demonstrate methods of strengthening and stabilizing the agriculture economy by maintaining and encouraging living soils, clean water, healthy foods and ample wildlife.


“Dakota Lakes was originally put together in the early 1980’s by area farmers focused on irrigation.  There had been substantial irrigation development in the area that was spurred by technological developments and the unrealistic exuberance of ‘God’s not making any more soil’ movement of the 70’s. ,” said Beck. “They put in a bunch of irrigation development on the loess soils along the Missouri river. and were experiencing excessive runoff losses because these souls tend to seal easily when water strikes bare soil... Things were not going well”.”


In addition, the OPEC oil embargo of the mid-70’s caused energy costs to skyrocket.  Commodity prices were going down and interest rates increased.   Something had to change.   


At the time, Dr. Darrel DeBoer from SDSU and Beck (still a graduate student at the time) were doing research on irrigation sprinkler options and tillage types relative to the amount of runoff. This work led the farmers to realize they needed to make more informed farming decisions based on research. They asked SDSU if they would begin irrigation research in this area.  SDSU did not have the resources to do that but said they would operate the research enterprise on a farm if the group could purchase the land, equipment, and erect a building.  The group decided it would be best if the farm were owned and operated by producers whilst allowing SDSU to do appropriate research on the land.  The not-for-profit Corporation was created but it took 8 years or so before the Dakota Lakes Research Farm became a reality.


A Holistic Approach


The sprinkler/tillage study identified the importance of not doing tillage but did not define the techniques needed to properly manage no-till irrigated crops. As a researcher, Beck warns that no-till is just one piece in the puzzle of soil health. It is not enough to simply redact tilling from a conventional system– farmers must pay attention to mimicking the natural water cycle, nutrient cycle and energy cycle (sunlight capture), and biological diversity of natural systems.  The entirety of what affects plant life


Beck also understands the impact of appropriate SYSTEMS research and demonstration work to change mindsets.


Through the process of developing Dakota Lakes and its research philosophy, Beck found thatwhile it is important to make water go into soils under irrigation, it is more important to maximize infiltration rates under rainfed conditions. Under irrigation, if water runs off, they can pump more– if they have the time and money. On dry land, if water runs off the loss is permanent. This realization shifted the research focus at Dakota Lakes to focus at least equally on rainfed systems. With the increasing cost of energy, the farmers in the area began to re-evaluate the relative profitability of irrigated and dryland systems.  Rainfed systems began to outperform irrigated systems in profit per acre as no-till began to tip the scale.  At DLRF, much of the planned future irrigation was not developed and existing operations with high vertical lifts were returned to rainfed operations.


When European settlers began to populate the drier portions of the US, there was an intense effort to “harness” the waterways and develop irrigation projects.  In many cases, the desire was to create something the settlers wanted instead of developing ways for them to fit into the existing ecosystem.  Irrigation should probably be used as a last resort after the water that occurs naturally is used to its greatest efficiency.  Irrigation projects are expensive to build and to operate.  They become obsolete quickly and, in some cases, lead to degradation of the ecosystem.  Having some irrigation in an operation or area can provide stability when rainfall is highly variable. Irrigation was initially at the center of Dakota Lakes’ mission; it is now one piece of its research and operation strategy. Having about 20% of the land base irrigated provides stability in cash flow for the production enterprise and meets the research needs of those that still irrigate in the region.  It also allows doing research that serves farmers in wetter areas of the State and country.  Topics such as cover-crop use are different in wet and dry ecosystems, DLRF has both.  


Beck's observations on the soil conditions of the region throughout history, informed by historicaljournals like Lewis and Clark's expeditions, highlight the extent of environmental degradation caused by modern grazing and crop production practices. Despite challenges such as shallow soils with high clay content, Beck notes the resilience of native prairie species and their potential for restoring degraded landscapes. 


From 2013 to 2023


Since Soil Health Labs first spoke to Dwayne Beck 2013, Dakota Lakes has seen still more development toward regenerative and adaptive practices. They experimented with bringing cattle onto the land, first with a fall-calving beef herd, selling the calves the following summer if necessary or backgrounding some if weather was favorable.


“But as we got into it more, we brought somebody in, an expert on the range side of things. He had a desire to try to finish cattle as well. So it ended up that we had at times three herds that we were trying to manage, and that was just frankly too much,” said Beck. “So, when I retired, the BOD made the decision to simplify things, the mama cows were sold and now stocker cattle are brought in when needed.  They are not owned by DLRF. The goal with the cattle is to try to cycle nutrients, number one. We have been doing forage crops (a lot of people now call cover crops) and can tailor rotation diversity and intensity by utilizing livestock grazing.”


Beck emphasizes this aspect of regenerative agriculture:  it is not one prescriptive system, but a SYSTEM based on natural cycles based on outcomes (mimicking natural cycles) that is designed for one’s own land, and resources and personality.  


Dakota Lakes began to employ a new fencing system several years ago, where electric fences are attached to the lateral-move and pivot irrigators during the wintertime when they are not used for irrigation.  When the irrigators move, so do the fences. “This really simplifies the moving. Especially in the winter, it's tough to put posts in frozen ground, so having irrigators helps with that quite a bit,” said Beck. “We’ve also recently added one more property that kind of fills our suite of research tools– when we started, we had a long list of things we felt we needed to have– access to the river for water, some different types of soils– ground marine soil is a predominant soil for most of eastern South Dakota. And we had none of that. And we always had that on our list to purchase some of that someday, and finally this fall we had three quarter sections come up for sale and we ended up getting those purchased.”


Local Change


Since beginning the Dakota Lakes operations, almost 40 years ago, Beck notes a regionalrejuvenation of small towns and local culture.


“We were losing some small towns. Some had gone from having two sections of each grade level in their elementary school, to having one section, to the point of considering consolidating with their neighboring district, because they were getting below the point that they could support even one. And now they're back to two sections again up through probably the sixth grade. So, it's building, there's young families coming back in and coming back to the farm and starting an enterprise because now they're raising a lot more stuff,” said Beck.


Dakota Lakes Research Farm has helped to raise the productivity of local land and therefore the value of local land. There has been a local increase in employment opportunities that support farming and cropping systems, and increased adoption of regenerative agricultural practices. Beck has noted cultural change in the community regarding farming practice and perspective.


“In the old days, if we had soil erosion happening, ditches filling with dirt (which was common) that was just seen as an act of God, something beyond the farmer’s control,” said Beck. “It's really interesting to see how that has changed. Because if somebody has their dirt blowing off their property now, they become shunned, so to speak, by the neighbors.” There is a broaderunderstanding of the causes of soil degradation, erosion and poor soil health. The community understands that it is a farmer’s responsibility to seek to remedy those issues, which are now seen more often as a reflection of the community’s viability and sustainability. The community has a stronger understanding of soil health as a reflection of community health and local land value, a paradigm shift which has brought more of a sense of agency and resourcefulness to local producers. 


Dakota Lakes Research Farm can be contacted through their website,

They hope in the future to further involve non-farming landowners and absentee landowners, concerning them with the health of their land and soil.

Consider membership of DLRF:



Listen to the full interview at

OR find the interview (62 Future-Focused Farming: Exploring the Intersection of Science & Soil with Dr. Dwayn Beck) on the SoilHealthLabs podcast wherever you get your podcasts.



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1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts, and more.

2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.

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