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Dust Storms Still Causing Damage in N.D.

The greatest export of phosphate is due to wind erosion.

Few people are aware that North Dakota has exported phosphate since the 1880s, according to Dave Franzen, North Dakota State University Extension Service soil science professor and soil specialist.

When settlers came to North Dakota, many wanted to farm but lacked the skills or tools to do so. Some migrated to the state from the East, where the soils and environment were very different. Those who came to North Dakota in the 1880s found an area that had few roads, no infrastructure, few neighbors and little source of income.

“Across the prairie were scattered millions of pounds of buffalo bones,” Franzen says. “Some of these bones came from natural death, while many others came from the slaughter of buffalo during the earlier migration of hunters looking for hides to ship to the East.”

The bones were gathered by the settlers and taken to railroad depots at Ellendale, Fort Totten and other locations.

“The bones were sold for cash of up to $15 per ton, which was big money in those days,” Franzen says. “The settlers used the cash for food to survive or upgrade their sod houses. From about 1880 to 1892, when the trade all but ended, my estimate is that about 32 million pounds of bones were shipped east for fertilizer and industrial uses from North Dakota.”

The nutrient content of bone is about 3-15-0, or about 15 percent phosphate (P). Using these figures, we can estimate that about two years of phosphate applications were shipped east at today’s historic high rates.

“Today, the greatest export of P is due to wind erosion,” Franzen says. “North Dakota is one of the windiest regions on Earth. Settlers used farming techniques from the old country or the eastern U.S., which did not consider wind erosion. So when the soil was dry, the soil blew.”

Dust storms were very common in the 1920s, ’30s and even today. The dust doesn’t just settle in a nearby ditch. Accounts from the 1930s by aviators describe dust clouds to 14,000 feet in elevation, so dust can travel thousands of miles.

The P content of the dust that settled in East Coast states was 19 times that of what remained on the prairie, and the wind still blows today.

During the 1930s, North Dakota lost the equivalent of 40 years of P application at present rates.

“New data describing soil loss from North Dakota since 1960 indicate that we have lost another 30 years of P application,” Franzen says. “If no new soil was lost, it would take 70 years of P applications to return to the P levels of 1882. No-till and strip till are needed to stop the export because minimum till is not enough.”


NDSU Agriculture Communication – March 27, 2014

Source:Dave Franzen, (701) 231-8884, David.franzen@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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