Farmers in western North Dakota complain of dust from heavily traveled roadsOne of the complaints frequently raised by farmers in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch concerns dust from heavily traveled roads settling on growing crops, and they wonder if the dust affects plant health and crop yields.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
One of the complaints frequently raised by farmers in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch concerns dust from heavily traveled roads settling on growing crops, and they wonder if the dust affects plant health and crop yields.
Cole Gustafson, a biofuels economist with the NDSU Extension Service in Fargo, suggests a formal study may be required to get at answers.
Gustafson spoke recently at crop forums in Regent and Taylor, N.D., on how the state’s growing oil industry is affecting production agriculture. That led to a discussion of “concern about the dust being created by all the increased truck traffic on gravel roads and its effects on crops nearby.”
Mountrail County, in the heart of oil country, has seen its cost of spreading chemicals on roads to combat dust — about $40,000 in 2008 — balloon to about $600,000 in 2010.
Dust from roads used by heavy trucks that haul oil, water and equipment was one of the factors cited at the Legislature last month by advocates of a bill that would set aside a percentage of oil well royalty payments for nearby property owners who do not own mineral rights.
“What he (the surface owner) has to look forward to is his road being destroyed, being surrounded by dust that smothers and destroys crops and livestock,” said Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, who sponsored the legislation. “There is no remuneration for this.”
Opponents responded that the measure would disrupt agreements between oil producers and mineral rights owners and amount to a taking of property without compensation, and the Senate defeated it 40-6.
Crop producers told Gustafson that they were seeing greater plant stress and lower yields in fields adjacent to high-traffic oil roads.
“Road dust could have several detrimental effects on plant health,” he said. A layer of dust “could result in plant shading, which would lower photosynthesis,” and “trace elements in the dust may be toxic to plant biological processes.”
He also noted that large quantities of dust on the soil surface could draw subsoil moisture, leaving less available for plant growth.
Gustafson said a participant in one of the crop forums suggested a study “to quantitatively measure the effects of road dust.”
Many farmers are equipped with yield monitors, which could measure yields per acre at various distances from a road to check for yield loss patterns, he said. Custom harvesters also usually have yield monitors.
Gustafson said he invited producers with such information to share it with him so he could summarize the results.
But he said data from a yield monitor probably wouldn’t settle the dust question “because so many other environmental and managerial changes affect yields,” including the fact that headlands or end rows “usually don’t receive the same treatment or level of inputs applied relative to the rest of the field.”
Gustafson said researchers should be “open-minded and consider all outcomes” of a study, including the possibility “that road dust actually may lead to increased plant yields.”
It could be, for example, “that road dust shades the plants during hot summer days,” or the plants need micronutrients present in the dust.
“To answer the dust question definitively, a controlled experiment would need to be designed,” he said. “Such a study would assure that all potential factors possibly affecting plant yields are controlled or held constant. After that, various levels of dust would be applied uniformly to plant leaves and the resulting yield changes carefully measured.”
In any event, given the oil boom that shows no sign of slowing, “it appears that dust will continue building on growing crops before a definitive answer on yield is found,” he said.
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.