Soil health panel

South Dakota producers Kurt Stiefvater, left, Craig Stehly, Gene Stehly and Jesse Hall speak at the South Dakota Soil Health conference in Brookings Jan. 23. 

On his farm near Arlington, South Dakota, working around wet spots in the field was a common problem for Jesse Hall.

To solve it, he’s been working to bring more carbon into use, planting oats and rye that use a lot of moisture.

Hall was one of four South Dakota farmers who shared their experience with no-till and cover cropping at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition conference in Brookings Jan. 23.

Dry conditions were what prompted brothers Gene and Craig Stehly to change the way they farm near Mitchell. Gene recalls a trip in the late 1980s to the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Redfield. There were dry fields all around, but the research farm looked different, he said.

“It looked like an oasis. That was our introduction to no-till,” he said.

After 30-some years of no-till and cover cropping since the 1990s, a probe into his soil health this summer cemented the idea that he was doing the right thing, he said. A measurement of organic matter in his cropland showed that it’s not that far off from native prairie. The untouched ground measured 6.5 percent organic matter, he said, while his farmland was at 4.5 percent.

“We need to educate people on soil science,” he said, adding that it takes years to build soil health and money to put in cover crops, but everyone benefits in the end.

For Kurt Stiefvater one benefit of changing things on his Salem operation was making farming less work.

He started to farm with his parents in the early 1980s, and planting narrow rows and switching to no-till was a way to reduce costs. When his dad died in 2009, Stiefvater was short on help, and to save labor, he put his livestock to work for him. He plants cover crops to supplement their winter feed, and they spread manure for him.

Without tilling, Stiefvater said it’s important to be patient and wait for the right conditions to be in the field.

“Let the soil really tell you when to plant,” he said.

He also follows nature when it comes to calving. Guided by the deer that have their babies in May and June, he pushed his calving season later, into the middle of May.

“Yes, we’re planting corn, but the cows take care of themselves when you’re busy,” he said.

In the end, it increased his profits because more of the calves survived.

The producers agreed that diversifying their crop rotation and adding covers has had many benefits. Hall said he now uses less herbicide and insecticide.

It’s a practice the experts stand by, too. Dr. Dwayne Beck , who manages research at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, spoke ahead of the panel. Crop diversity is the key, he said. It’s best for the soil and it breaks up pressure from disease and pests that like one certain plant. Beck said there’s been no need for insecticide at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm for 16 years. He attributes it to their diverse crop rotation.

He encouraged farmers to think of long term effects on the ecosystem when they’re making their management decisions. For one, landowners in South Dakota need to make a commitment to stop erosion, he said. Learning from the natural ecosystem provides clues on how to do that.

There’s a lot going on under native prairie growth that’s not happening under corn and soybeans. Prairie grasses have roots that reach 7 feet deep or more. Corn and soybeans don’t send their roots very deep, and they’re at their deepest for only about a month of the year before harvest comes.

Deep roots help move nutrients through the soil profile and help with its ability to hold water.

“The prairie worked pretty damned well before we got here and started screwing it up,” Beck said.

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor


Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska.