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Agricultural expansion: land use shell game in the U.S. Northern Plains


Land area planted to row crops has expanded globally with increased demand for food and biofuels. Agricultural expansion in the Dakota Prairie Pothole Region (DPPR), USA affects a variety of agricultural and non-agricultural land-use types, including grasslands and wetlands that provide critical wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services. The purpose of this study was to quantify recent changes in rural land cover/land use, analyze trends, and interpret results in relation to climate, agronomic practice, and ethanol production. The primary data sources were 1980–2012 statewide cropland data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the USDA Cropland Data Layer, produced annually for the DPPR from 2006 through 2012. Area planted to corn or soybean row crops increased, and small grain (e.g., wheat, barley) area decreased significantly over the analysis period. Corn and soybean expanded by 27 % in the DPPR between 2010 and 2012 alone, an areal increase (+15,400 km2) larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut. This expansion displaced primarily small grains and grassland (e.g., pastures, haylands, remnant prairies). Grassland regularly exchanged land with corn and soybean, small grains, and wetlands and water. Corn and soybean had high inter-annual self-replacement values (68–80 %), and continuous corn/soy row cropping was the second most common combination over a three-year period, ranking after continuous grassland. Small grain self-replacement values were only 22–35 %, indicating frequent relocation in the landscape. Temporary gains in wetland and grassland area were attributed to unusually wet climatic conditions and late snowfalls that prevented crop planting. Nearly all of the region’s ethanol refineries were located where corn and soybean crops constituted 50 % or more of the land area. Quantification of grassland losses in the U.S. Northern Plains requires evaluation of all land uses that interact with grasslands, and a longer term perspective that incorporates grassland as part of a normal land-use rotation.

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Lisa Schulte and two anonymous reviewers are thanked for comments that improved the quality of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Carol A. Johnston.

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 11 kb) Appendix 1. Palmer Hydrological Drought Index for North and South Dakota, March single month values for 2004-2013 (NCDC 2013)


Supplementary material 2 (TIFF 3483 kb) Appendix 2. Location of gains in corn/soy land within the DPPR, based on 2011-2012 CDL data. Values are the proportion of land area that became new corn/soy. Values ≤ 0 lost corn/soy land or were unchanged; positive values gained corn/soy land

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Johnston, C.A. Agricultural expansion: land use shell game in the U.S. Northern Plains. Landscape Ecol 29, 81–95 (2014).

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  • Grassland
  • Corn
  • Soybean
  • Small grains
  • Dakota Prairie Pothole Region
  • Biofuels
  • Crop rotation