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A Focus on Soil Health Helps Farmer/Grazier Through Weather Extremes

By   /  April 19, 2021  /  1 Comment

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Forecasters are predicting that extreme weather events are going to become more and more common in the future. This article from Lynn Betts and the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition provides an example of what we can do to “weather” this new reality.

You can meet Craig in this 3:24 video where he talks about how his management has increased the productivity of his crops and pastures. Or read on for more about Craig and his operation.

Like most South Dakota farmers and ranchers, Craig Rau has witnessed both dry-as-a-bone and overflowing rain gauges the past few years. The extreme weather swings have understandably caused stress in the state’s farm population, but Rau hasn’t felt the same level of stress many other farmers have experienced.

He credits healthy soils. “Whatever the weather, dry or above normal precipitation, you just don’t have those big swings one direction or the other on our fields or pastures,” Rau said. “You have more resiliency in that ground; it can handle these wide swings in moisture.”

“The soil just bounces back. When you have healthy soils, you build a resiliency into your farm and don’t have to worry as much about a profitable operation,” the north-central South Dakota farmer and cow-calf producer said.

Rau’s soil health practices have increased the plant diversity in his pastures and improved his stocking rates. “The grasses that we didn’t see – the blue stems and others we didn’t see – are slowly coming back,” Rau said. “There are flowers blooming from spring ‘til fall. I’ve been able to almost double my stocking rates and still have plenty of grass left over at the end of the year.” Image Courtesy of SDSHC and USDA-NRCS South Dakota

Craig Rau’s Formula for Success

The Campbell County farmer’s formula for less stress through resilient soils includes cell grazing for the past 12-15 years, no-tilling for 25 to 30 years, a diverse rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, winter wheat and alfalfa for years, and a 5-way or more mix of cover crops for a number of years.

“We were extremely wet three years ago. In the middle of May we were just finishing up planting corn and got 11 inches of rain in a five-hour period. Even the no-till ground washed some gullies, but I was seeing very little washing on my soils,” Rau said. “We were extremely wet again two years ago, with almost double our normal rainfall.  I follow all small grains with a cover crop in the fall, and those fields were much easier to get in to plant – getting to the fields with the roads under water was actually the bigger challenge.”

Soil Health Reduces Farmer Stress

Rau said there’s stress for all farmers when it’s raining all the time and they can’t get field work done. He’s found cover crops have helped him consistently get into the fields to plant.

“I just didn’t have the issues others had. There were potholes you had to go around and that sort of thing, but the cover crops really have made a difference,” he said.

Last year the weather did a complete flip-flop, Rau said. “Everything was drying up, but the moisture was there in the cover crop fields, and planting the crops with no-till brought them up without any problem, except on the sandy ground,” he said.

“It just seems with the soil health that everything just works a little bit better,” Rau said. “You look at the people who aren’t maybe doing a lot of the soil health practices, and they’re struggling a little bit more. Good soil health for me has meant way better yields, not as many weeds and a lot less issues all the way around.”

mage Courtesy of SDSHC and USDA-NRCS South Dakota

Improved Soil Tilth and Water Storage/Management

The first thing Rau noticed when he added cover crops into the mix was the tilth of the soil – how much more mellow the soil was and how much easier it was to plant into, using a lot less pressure to get the seed placed properly. At the same time, the soil structure was stronger.

“The water moves through the soil better but there’s also a lot more soil moisture holding capacity when you have the proper soil health,” Rau said. “So you get into the field sooner in a wet year, and you have moisture in the soil in a dry year.”

He said he’s getting higher yields with less commercial fertilizer. Those kinds of cost saving benefits have led to a high-level personal satisfaction in farming.

Cell Grazing Benefits the Soil and Pastures Too

“The cell grazing has made a tremendous difference with the number of cattle that I can stock on the ground, and it’s really improved the diversity of the plants that are in the pastures,” Rau said. “Before we started cell grazing, we just turned so many cattle into the pasture, and they would overgraze parts of the pasture that were closer to the water sources, and then it was underutilized in other areas. You didn’t see a lot of diversity.”

After struggling for a few years, trying to convince one of his landlords to go along with what he was going to do on his own ground, the landlord bought into it. “I put in the cross fencing and everything, and it’s unbelievable the diversity that has come back in those pastures,” Rau said. “The grasses that we didn’t see – the blue stems and others we didn’t see – are slowly coming back. There are flowers blooming from spring ‘til fall.  I’ve been able to almost double my stocking rates and still have plenty of grass left over at the end of the year.”

“I do some grazing on cover crops in the fall, too,” Rau adds. “I used to have to chase the cattle home from the pasture every year, but now I just get out of their way. They know they’re getting on these lush green cover crops, and they just run straight to the cover crop fields. They know where they’re going.” Rau said that even during the dry years like last year, he doesn’t have to worry about cutting back on cow-calf pairs or pulling cattle out of the pastures early.

“I’m pretty upbeat on what farming is going to look like in the future,” Rau said. “We just seem to be so much more resilient with the soil health, a lot more consistent in getting a crop and being more profitable.

This article and the accompanying video are part of a series on how soil health reduces stress for producers.

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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.

1 Comment

  1. Curt Gesch says:

    Just the thought of the cows eagerly returning “home” rather than being chased is worth a lot, in my opinion. A stress-reducer for both animals and people.

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