Great Plains

The Great Plains of the United States is a vast, open, and mostly agricultural region. In contrast to neighboring areas, hardly any trees grow on the Great Plains. They lie between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi.

The Great Plains area is very sparsely populated. With 4 to 13 inhabitants per square kilometer, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas are among the most sparsely populated US states. For comparison: North and South Dakota together are larger than Germany, but have fewer inhabitants than Hamburg. These states are often jokingly or derogatorily referred to as “flyover country” because they are (supposedly) ignored by the East and West Coast elites who only fly over them en route from New York or Washington to Los Angeles. Conversely, there is also widespread skepticism about the political and social establishment, which many residents of the region feel misunderstood by.

In addition to Americans of European descent, Native Americans make up a higher proportion of the population in the Great Plains than in most other US regions. This is especially true for the states of Oklahoma, South Dakota, and North Dakota. In recent decades, especially rural regions in all states of the Great Plains have recorded a population loss.



The Great Plains include the following states (from north to south):
North Dakota
South Dakota

Furthermore, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Iowa and Minnesota are part of the Great Plains, but belong to other major regions and are mentioned in other travel guides.



1 Fargo - Largest city in North Dakota
2 Kansas City
3 Lincoln - Capital of Nebraska
4 Oklahoma City - capital of Oklahoma
5 Omaha - Largest city in Nebraska
6 Rapid City - second largest city in South Dakota
7 Sioux Falls - Largest city in South Dakota
8 Tulsa - second largest city in Oklahoma
9 Wichita - Largest city in Kansas


Getting there

None of the major US airports are in the Great Plains area. The largest airports in the region are Kansas City, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Wichita and Fargo. While Kansas City still has some international connections from Canada and Mexico, the rest are only accessible by domestic flights. Coming from Europe, you always need a transfer connection.

Various Amtrak long-distance train lines run through the Great Plains: The California Zephyr from Chicago via Denver to San Francisco runs through southern Nebraska (stops in Omaha, Lincoln, among other places). The Empire Builder from Chicago via St. Paul/Minneapolis to Seattle and Portland drives across North Dakota (including Fargo, Minot). The Southwest Chief traverses Kansas (stops in Kansas City, Topeka, Dodge City, among others) en route from Chicago to Albuquerque and Los Angeles. The Heartland Flyer is a great way to get from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City. South Dakota does not have a single rail line that is still in operation. Some of the larger cities in the region, such as Tulsa or Wichita, are no longer served by the railroad.

There are also long-distance bus connections. However, the sparsely populated Great Plains are neglected even by the big bus companies. Greyhound drives e.g. B. through Oklahoma, Kansas and eastern Nebraska, but there is a large gap in the two Dakotas. However, the bus company Jefferson Lines has specialized in developing "America's Heartland", which includes North and South Dakota, eastern Nebraska and Kansas as well as Oklahoma and Montana in addition to the Midwest. The best coverage of Nebraska is provided by Express Arrow.



The Great Plains have a distinct continental climate with very warm summers and freezing winters. Temperatures tend to decrease towards the north, both in summer and in winter. In general, the Great Plains are known for their rather dry climate.



The Great Plains are bounded to the north by the Canadian Shield and to the south by the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico.

The western border is formed by the Rocky Mountains. This means that the eastern quarter of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming belong to the Great Plains, as do around two-thirds of Montana. On the Canadian side, southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all lie within the Great Plains.

The eastern border is defined differently. Some geographers connect all edges of the plain that are at 600 m elevation and define the resulting line as the eastern boundary, as in the graph above shaded in green. Others draw the line farther east, consistent with the spread of the tall grass prairie, and consider North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska each fully part of the Great Plains. According to this view, northern Texas, western Oklahoma, most of Kansas, northern Iowa, and southwest Minnesota also belong to the Great Plains.



The Great Plains have long been sparsely populated and roamed by semi-nomadic Native Americans in search of bison and pronghorn. It was only the horses brought to America by Europeans in the 18th century that made it possible for the Indians to settle more densely on the prairie and the formation of the Plains Indians. Some peoples benefited greatly from the new way of life, hunting bison on horseback. The hitherto weak Lakota and Comanche, for example, developed into significant power factors in the Midwest within a short period of time. The way of life of the Plains peoples was strongly based on the bison. They lived in teepees that could be quickly set up and taken down, so they followed the buffalo.

In the mid-19th century, white settlers moved west across the Great Plains. For a long time, the area was considered an uninhabitable wasteland.[1] It was not until around 1865 that many settlers settled, who initially built turf houses as a cheap first dwelling. As a result, the population of bison fell sharply due to massive hunting, while the resident Indians were pushed into reservations until 1890.

Soil erosion occurred after large-scale clearing of prairie grass and droughts. As a result, strong dust storms in the 1930s - especially between 1935 and 1938 - turned parts of the Great Plains into a proverbial "dust bowl" (see Dust Bowl). This led to mass misery among the farmers, who increasingly migrated towards California.

While in 1950 almost five million people lived in the Great Plains area, in 2007 this figure was around ten million. Population growth, however, was concentrated in a few metropolitan areas, primarily in Colorado and Texas. Settlements in the area and small towns lost a lot of inhabitants due to aging and rural exodus. Approximately two-thirds of all counties were affected by the population decline, in one in five counties it was even more than 50 percent.[2] More and more small towns are turning into ghost towns.



Agricultural use of the Great Plains can be roughly divided into two areas. While west of the 100th degree of longitude there is predominantly intensive animal husbandry in large fattening farms with little use of land and extensive animal husbandry (ranching) with very large use of land, east of the 100th degree of longitude arable farming is the primary form of agricultural use. Summer/winter wheat as well as maize and millet are mainly cultivated. The reason for this distribution is the line of equal rainfall (isohyete at 500 mm), which runs almost parallel to the 100th longitude and forms the limit for rain-fed agriculture without artificial irrigation.

The rainier east of the region, the so-called Grain Belt (grain belt), is also known as the granary of the USA, or "breadbasket" (breadbasket) because in that region a huge surplus of agricultural products is generated. Approximately half of the wheat in the USA is produced in the Great Plains area, which at 68 million t for the entire USA (as of 2008) corresponds to approx. 34 million t. The Western High Plains produce 60% of all US beef, which is why this part of the Great Plains is often referred to as "Cattle Country". As far as agriculture takes place in the west, it is usually made possible by artificial irrigation.

Increasing droughts have made agriculture significantly more difficult in recent decades, and mechanization and automation have made labor redundant. The Ogallala Aquifer, a deep aquifer, is nearly depleted from use for artificial irrigation. Cultivated land is already turning back into grassland, on which bison breeding is increasingly practiced. Under the name of Buffalo Commons, it is proposed to convert large areas back into prairies, resettle people and reopen the areas to wild bison. Hunting and tourism could open up a new economic basis. In addition, the use of the Great Plains today is increasingly focused on wind power generation.

This is opposed to a trend of plowing under and intensively using areas in the northern parts of the plains that have not yet been used or only used extensively, and which have therefore retained their grassland character. The reasons for this are the promotion of the cultivation of energy crops and a special form of state-subsidized crop failure insurance, which enables cultivation on marginal yield locations or even areas whose cultivation could not be profitable without the insurance.

The Sandhills in Nebraska are among the largest regions of the Great Plains that have not been subjected to intermittent agricultural use. It is a very large area of continuous sand dunes stabilized by low vegetation. 85 percent of this region therefore still has the original plant population.


Soil protection

Measures had to be taken due to various forms of erosion.

Mulch sowing: The soil is cultivated without a plow in order to reduce or completely prevent soil erosion. However, this "conserved tillage" does not mean that the soil is no longer loosened, but that instead of a plough, other equipment such as e.g. B. a cultivator can be used. A deep loosening of the soil is usually not necessary due to a gradually built up natural storage (optimal) if no mistakes are made in cultivation.
The no-till method: the soil is not worked mechanically. The soil is loosened by suitable cover crops and soil organisms. Harvest residues also remain on the field before sowing, thus preventing erosion and also reducing water loss.
Dry farming describes an annual alternation between cultivation and fallow land. The ground is kept free of weeds and deeply plowed during the fallow year. As a result, the surface becomes looser and larger, the soil can absorb more moisture. To prevent evaporation, the soil is also harrowed and rolled after rainfall.
"Contour plowing" promotes the seepage of the water by drawing furrows in the field parallel to the contour line, which slow down the water so that the two erosive forces of wind and water are counteracted. Overall, however, the problem of wind erosion is much more difficult to solve than forms of erosion caused by water.
Stubble mulching: Farmland is covered with straw (stubble) during the fallow season and the stubble from the previous crop is left standing. This is done not only with straw, but also with other mulches. This measure promotes the moisture absorption of the soil and reduces soil erosion.
Windbreaks: Forest protection strips and windbreak hedges are built to reduce soil erosion.
Strip cropping: The soil is cultivated with plants of different ripening times to reduce soil erosion.
It is not uncommon for several of these soil protection measures to be used at the same time. This is for the sole purpose of maintaining greater effectiveness and preventing another Dust Bowl scenario.