Grain Bins


Protecting South Dakota's soil health

Posted on April 14, 2021
March 2021 soil blog v1

Soil. As farmers and ranchers already know, it is the core of nearly every aspect of their farming actions, from crop production to cattle grazing and everything in between.

The question then becomes, how can farmers protect this precious resource for generations to come? The answer comes in a variety of forms and solutions, many of which farmers across the state have already adopted into their farming practices, as well as new, rapidly advancing techniques.

Soil health in SD:

In the state, soil is the lifeblood of our largest industry with nearly 49,000 farmers on over 29,900 farms and ranches. Organizations such as the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition act as an expert source to help farmers across the state add sustainable ag production practices on their farms, as well as helping them stay up to date on new techniques as they develop.

Dan Forgey, a South Dakota Soil Health Coalition board member and farm manager for Cronin Family Farms and Ranch, says that soil health is more important now than it has ever been before.

“In the Central and Northern Plains, farming practices with the use of no-till and cover crops help us create major gains toward better soil health,” said Forgey. “Our soils need more diversity. We love corn in the state and plant a lot of it, but we still need our cereal grains for the overall benefit of the soil.”

He suggests that diversifying rotations and implementing no-till practices wherever farmers can, will be a crucial path to achieving goals of soil health across the state.

“Every time you till the land, you lose carbon content in the soil and the overall goal of soil health is to increase carbon content and organic matter in the soil,” Forgey said. “If more farmers start to till less and less, as well as implement diverse cover crops, it will lead to a really drastic turn-around for our state.”

Guidance from a fellow farmer:

Farmers in South Dakota strive to be some of the best stewards of the land. Their livelihood depends on it and protecting soil health for the next generations should be a top priority for our farmers, allowing them to work with the land not against it.

A farmer of a diverse operation including corn, soybeans, alfalfa, forage barley, forage oats, cover crops, and a cow-calf operation, Brian Johnson couldn’t agree more. A member of SDCGA and recipient of the 2019 Leopold Conservation Award, he and his wife, along with their four children farm the same Spink County land that his father started no-tilling in 1986.

Johnson said that the diversity in their crops has helped them to be successful.

“With weather extremes, the soil is basically our insurance policy. It holds water when we need it to and absorbs a lot of the excess when it shows up. We’ve weathered these droughts and excess rain extremes to come out of it sustainable and efficient because of what we do to protect the soil.”

Some of the benefits to developing a working relationship with the land include reducing erosion, maximizing water absorption and infiltration and improving nutrient cycling techniques, all of which can help farmers save money.

Johnson suggests that if farmers aren’t motivated by that alone, the thought of saving time and the payoff for the following growing seasons should help them take these practices into consideration.

“Implementing these practices really does give farmers more time. When they reduce their tillage, they realize they have a lot more time on their hands to do other things like spend time with their family or doing other things they want to do.

“Also, by doing some of these practices, whether it be doing different rotations or even cover crops, it not only improves the soil but allows you to set yourself up for a healthier crop the following season.”

Johnson said that if farmers are interested in employing new soil health practices, they should reach out to someone who’s doing those practices now. That knowledge can help farmers avoid making some of the same mistakes they made and help others make the decisions that benefit their farm’s soil health the most.

“There are so many mentors across the state that are willing to share their story. More than just other farmers, we have technicians with the Soil Health Coalition that are happy to answer questions, too, as well as directors. There are a lot of people that are willing to help out and guide farmers in the right direction and tell them what works and what might not work so well. Don’t be afraid to reach out.”

Soil health resources:

Sustainability is undoubtedly a No. 1 priority for farmers across South Dakota. Soil and soil management practices play a major role in these efforts. Here are some soil health resources for farmers:

Healthy Soils Handbook

Building Soil for Better Crops

Managing Cover Crops Profitably

Midwest Cover Crop Council Cover Crop Tool

Cover Crop Chart ARS tool

Soil Health Assessment Card

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