Today I have two videos for you from JP and Holly Heber who raise row crops and cattle in east-central South Dakota. They’re talking about their no till and cover crops and how they’ve managed to improve their soils, increase water holding capacity, and reduce erosion. If you listen closely, they’re also telling the a story we sometimes overlook – that farming and ranching can mean working with others, and that change isn’t a one-size-fits-all, one-and-done thing – it takes adaptation to your land and goals, time, and persistence.
JP and Holly got married in 2009, and formed M&H Land, taking over the operation JP and his brother had been running on JP’s family’s place. They raise cow calf pairs, and background cattle and feed cattle. They also raise corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and food grade oats for Gerber baby food, as well as producing hay, and alfalfa.
They started with cover crops, and were inspired by the idea of bio strip-tilling. Given that their place was Prairie Pothole land, they weren’t sure that the investment in time and fertilizer would pay off. Instead, JP adapted the idea, and went for full-on cover crops. They held off through several years of dry weather, and planted the cover crops when there was more moisture.
One of their goals was to decrease erosion by improving the soil’s water holding capacity. You’ll see what the results are at the end of this first 5:00 minute video when they compare what happens to a chunk of conventionally tilled soil and no-till soil when dropped in water. Stay-tuned to the end for something that surprised them about the no-till soil.
It Doesn’t Work If You Can’t Work With Others
Usually, when producers ask questions about a new management technique, what we want to know are answers to questions like: “What kind of drill did you use? What was your seed mix? How did you manage the cattle on the cover crops? What was your rate of gain?” What we ask about less often are the challenges of working with landowners when trying to make a paradigm shift. That’s what Holly and JP talk about in this second 3:00 minute video.
When they started working towards adding cover crops to their operation, the Hebers had about 2300 to 2500 acres in cropland and of that, only 100 to 200 acres had cover crops. Now, they have something green growing on a third of their cropland acres. They’re moving towards using cover crops on all their cropland, and are growing their own seed to make that a little easier on the pocket book.
But paying for seed and planting it is just part of the story. Some landowners were not happy to see something green all the time, and Holly and JP had to work with them to make the shift. They did what I call a “pilot project” – a small test to see how it would go. They planted cover crops on their Conservation Stewardship Program acres as required by the program and to use as a showcase so that landlords could see that it wasn’t so bad. Landlords could see that it was working, and that it was a win-win for those who really like hunting birds. As Holly put it, for her and for JP it was a paradigm shift that they had to bring their business partners along too.
I think you’ll recognize some of the conversations Holly describes having with landowners.
What have you done when it comes to working with skeptical landowners? Do you have tried and true techniques for bringing folks on board with your “crazy” ideas? Share what works and what doesn’t with your On Pasture community.