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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Land use history on the shortgrass steppe

Author
item Hart, Richard - RETIRED ARS RANGE SCI

Submitted to: Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: December 10, 2007
Publication Date: N/A

Technical Abstract: The earliest known human sites on the shortgrass steppe date to about 13,000 BP, but few sites are known from about 7,000 to 4,000 BP. The Plains Village tradition was well established by the eighth or ninth century, cultivating maize, beans, squash, and sunflower, and hunting many species of animals. Coronado, in 1540-42, and succeeding explorers reported native vegetation dominated by shortgrass. Agriculture based on domestic crops and livestock began in the early 19th century in the vicinity of forts and trading posts. In the 1970's, the first major irrigation project was established, as was the range livestock industry. At the same time, dryland agriculture and rangeland grazing were encouraged in Colorado and Kansas by promoters employed by the railroads. Crop acreage increased until the mid-1930's, but livestock grazing remained the major land use on the shortgrass. Then, in what became known as the dust bowl, both crop agriculture and livestock were devastated by the most severe drought on record and the subsequent dust storms. The federal government bought over 8 million cattle to relieve grazing pressure. The drought of the 1930's, plus improved irrigation technology and cheap electric power, encouraged the growth of irrigated agriculture dependent on groundwater. The resulting increase in feed crop production led to establishment of large-scale cattle feeding operations. In a few counties on the shortgrass, up to ten percent of the land is irrigated, but in most counties it is less than four percent. Agriculture has always been risky on the shortgrass steppe. Drought in the 1890's, 1930's, and 1950's; the depression of the 1920's; skyrocketing energy prices in the 1970's to the present; and the collapse of land prices in the 1980's have also contributed to risk. Global warming and the predicted doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will contribute to future changes and risks to agriculture on the shortgrass steppe.

Last Modified: 10/31/2014
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