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Dust Storms Shouldn’t Happen in the Corn Belt
Illinois Ag Connection - 06/01/2023

Could the catastrophic dust storm along I-55 in Illinois have been prevented? Yes! If the farmland had been in continuous no-till with cover crops there would have been no dust. No wrecks. No deaths. No injuries. No drivers upset because the main highway from Chicago to St. Louis was shut down for almost 24 hours. The tragedy of the infamous Dust Bowl era of 1930s was repeated on I-55 in the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt.

Dust storms are major problems in the Great Plains and Southwest where annual rainfall is 5 to 20 inches. A catastrophic dust storm does not need to happen in the nation’s highly productive Corn Belt where 40 inches of annual rainfall is common.

Unfortunately, a rare and intense dust storm caused a 90-vehicle pileup on May 1, 2023, in Montgomery County in central Illinois on Interstate 55, about 30 miles south of Springfield. Seven people died and 30 people were hospitalized. The accident involved 30 commercial trucks and more than 50 passenger vehicles. Visibility was near zero after 55-mph winds carried soil dust from newly tilled fields across both lanes of the highway.

The unintended consequences of intensive tillage (usually one pass in the fall and one or two more passes before planting in the spring) include soil erosion by water and wind; decreased soil, water and air quality; and the loss of soil organic matter/carbon, which is the heart and soul of soil health. Soil dust from both tilled and bare fallow farmland poses severe risks to public health and transportation safety as illustrated in this recent catastrophe.

Dust storms are not a minor inconvenience. They can have a major impact on our environmental quality and the health and well-being of humans and animals. A research article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society recently reported a total of 232 deaths from windblown dust events from 2007 to 2017, with dust fatalities most frequent in the southwest Great Plains. Minimizing dust storms will require widespread adoption of new and improved agricultural practices that preserve, protect and regenerate our soil, and hence, our welfare along with the environmental and food security.


Dust particles are very small soil particles. Dust storms are primarily the result of turbulent wind systems lifting and carrying small soil particles into the air. Those “soil particles” are valuable. The dust is usually our best topsoil and contains nutrients necessary for plant growth. When combined with dry weather and windy conditions, tillage disturbance can create chaos on our fields and adjacent highways. Tillage not only sets the soil up for erosion and degradation, it causes carbon and water loss and decreases the quality of soil, water and air, leading to environmental degradation and food insecurity. In addition, tillage-induced dust storms damage crops, delay transportation, disrupt commerce and reduce the recreational value of all landscapes. Is this the way we want to treat our beloved soils that we depend on for food and other essential ecosystem services?


The Dust Bowl of the 1930s is perhaps the best-known and most often quoted example of large-scale wind erosion and dust-storm activity anywhere in the world. The core of the Dust Bowl area comprised much of the Great Plains when the most severe dust storms (“black blizzards”) occurred between 1933 and 1938, with activity related to the plow and usually at a maximum during the spring. The single worst day of the Dust Bowl was April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday.”

These experiences led to the development of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935 that evolved into NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) in 1994. No-tillage research began in the 1960s. The development of efficient herbicides initially made no-till a more popular soil conservation practice. Now, both weed and erosion control are being enhanced using cover crops. The economic cost of losing 5 to 10 tons per acre of topsoil per year, with attached nutrients, is shameful when soil erosion can be reduced to a few pounds per acre, not tons, with no-till and other conservation practices.


The three requirements for severe soil dust storms are “dry” weather, “windy” conditions and bare or tilled soil surfaces. From a farm management perspective, we have little or no control over dry weather and windy conditions. The main management decisions relate to the soil surface and tillage decisions. As a result, it is important to transition from intensive moldboard plow tillage to no-tillage to minimize soil loss and degradation. Adding cover crops to continuous no-till offers many benefits, such as erosion control, increasing organic matter, nitrogen fixation, increasing water infiltration, better soil structure, improving the soil microflora and helping sustain or increase yields through healthier soils.

While no-tillage showed promise with respect to decreasing soil erosion, having living plants and roots as long as biologically possible providing biomass is essential. Some time was required to understand the complexity and interactions of the natural systems and put them in proper context to farm in nature’s image.


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