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Dust in the wind, Part II: No definitive answer on how dust might affect crops, livestock

A car speeds down a rural Dickinson road Friday, leaving a cloud of dust behind it.

Jonathan Ficek can't open the windows to his house in the summer anymore, unless he wants to clean the whole thing when he gets home.

"It's almost like a fog in my yard," the Manning-area farmer said.

So far, his cattle have had enough sense to walk away from the road and not eat the grass affected by the scoria dust coming off the gravel roads.

"The pastures right next to the road are orange from all the scoria dust," Ficek said. "My cropland, when I was seeding it this spring, it just had an orange dust all over the place. I couldn't see my air seeder. But as I moved away from the road there was no dust whatsoever. It's going to be interesting to see how the crops are going to grow there."

Dust can be harmful to both plants and animals in a lab setting, but real-life occurrences like wind and rain can lessen their effect in real life, said Chip Poland, chairman of the Department of Agriculture at Dickinson State University.

"Technically speaking, dust would be an issue -- both in terms of crop growth as well as animal health," Poland said.

Covering a plant with dust interrupts its photosynthetic process, Poland said. Animals exposed to extremely dusty environments for long periods of time will have health issues.

"Do we see them out in the real world?" Poland asked. "To the best of my knowledge we've not been able to document production differences nor animal health differences related to" dust stirred up by vehicles on gravel roads.

North Dakota State University professor Cole Gustafson, after visiting Regent and Taylor in 2011, wanted to study the effects of dusts on crops.

"To answer the dust question definitively, a controlled experiment would need to be designed. Such a study would assure that all potential factors possibly affecting plant yields are controlled or held constant," he wrote in Feb. 2011. "After that, various levels of dust would be applied uniformly to plant leaves and the resulting yield changes carefully measured."

Unfortunately, Gustafson passed away before he could complete the study.

NDSU is also studying the effects of dust on herbicide activity.

But nature might get in the way of any study results, Poland said.

"It rains, the wind blows, I suspect a lot of that dust, as opposed to staying on the plant where certain it would create an issue, filters down to the ground underneath the plant," Poland said. "What we might see experimentally saying, 'Yeah, if you cover the leaf with dust, we will have a production response.' Well the leaf gets covered and then the wind blows and it shakes it off, or it gets covered and it rains and it washes it off, and in the big scheme of things what technically could occur doesn't happen."

Animals will move away from a dusty spot on a pasture and avoid dust-covered grasses.

"It's not a continual exposure, and I suspect what we could create experimentally and demonstrate a problem doesn't occur here because the animals have the ability to move away from those areas of irritants," Poland said.

Ficek has noticed his cattle tend to stay away from the road when pastured near busy gravel roads.

"Another pasture I rent is along a busy, dusty road," he said. "They do tend to stay away from that road, just for that reason. It's dusty, a lot of traffic, a lot of noise. And also the grass over there isn't any good."

Because clouds of dust can get so thick that visibility is decreased, Ficek is worried about human safety, especially when driving.

"I met a few guys pulling anhydrous tanks, they're going slow," Ficek said. "If there's a guy coming up fast behind them (and) doesn't see them, that's a big concern."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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