By many accounts, the winter of 2021-2022 has been windier than normal. While windiness is apparently a somewhat difficult phenomenon to compare across the years due to changes in how it’s been measured, reports from across the Great Plains and Midwest support the impression that there were more days with high winds than normal. The Derecho and wall of dust (haboob) that swept through South Dakota and neighboring states with winds topping 100 mph on May 12 was just the latest in a spring that many say has been the windiest in recent memory.

Evaluating the Damage

That May 12 storm was a bad one, killing two people and causing a huge amount of damage to farm buildings, equipment and vehicles. David Stelter (p. 5) shared that he had 27 calf hutches blow away — with the calves in them. Thankfully, the calves were all found, unharmed.    

But what was immeasurable in that storm was the amount of soil that blew away from farms. Comparisons to the dust storms of the 1930s seem appropriate, though the infamous one that spurred the creation of the Soil Conservation Service (now the NRCS) in 1934 made it all the way to Washington D.C. The worst dust storm recorded — called “Black Sunday” — occurred on April 14, 1935, and according to the History Channel, 3 million tons of topsoil are estimated to have blown away that day.

Preventing Further Erosion

The wall of dust that blew through South Dakota should be a clarion call to all farmers who are not using cover crops. Cover crops are, of course, one of the best ways to keep soil in place. According to our 3rd Annual Cover Cropping Benchmark Study, stopping erosion is the top reason farmers give for adopting cover crops, and it’s also listed as the primary benefit (see p. 11). While a lot of people have water runoff in mind when discussing erosion, wind erosion can also be a serious source of land degradation.

With the drought conditions that have plagued the west and the plains in the last several years, there is growing concern that the U.S. could be heading toward another dust bowl. Thankfully, more and more farmers are learning about the importance of soil care, planting cover crops and reducing or eliminating tillage. 

Hopefully it won’t take another dust bowl to drive home these words of Charles E. Kellogg (head of the Soil Survey, 1934-1971), from the USDA’s Yearbook of Agriculture, 1938: “There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”