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How One Farm Family is Improving Soil Health

By   /  July 8, 2019  /  Comments Off on How One Farm Family is Improving Soil Health

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From our July 2018 archives, here are some ideas about adapting practices to fit different operations, and the importance of working with others.

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 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.

Bio strip-tilling is a practice of planting cover crops, especially radishes with row crops to improve the row crop environment. The Hebers are now using bios strip-till with their row crops. JP talks about planting details in this article from Farm and Ranch Guide.

They wanted to try cover crops, inspired by the idea of bio strip-tilling. But 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 as he describes in the video. They were successful because they held off through several years of dry weather, and then 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 as 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 change to the way things have always been done. 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.

The deadline for this year’s program has passed, but it’s never to early to learn more about it and talk to you local NRCS office to get an application for 2020 ready. Click to read more about how the program helps farmers and ranchers.

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.

Your Turn!

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.

natglc-logo-1Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

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