Tom Cannon

Standing before a projected picture of him and his son on their Oklahoma ranch, Tom Cannon talks about how his approach to soil health turned his operation around at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition convention.

Tom Cannon has faith in the way he tends to his land in northern Oklahoma, and while others have doubted him, it’s paid off in the long run.

Cannon is the fourth generation on the Goodson Ranch on the Arkansas River. He took over the books when his dad was in a wreck in 1997. It was then that he realized the operation was in debt.

The next year, he attended a no-till conference and was convinced by what he heard from Dwayne Beck of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre. Realizing he had to change his practices to turn around the books and to prevent his soil from blowing away, he adopted principles of regenerative agriculture. He did away with tillage, planted a range of species other than the typical wheat, and integrated livestock with his crop land.

Others weren’t convinced, he said, speaking at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition conference in Watertown Jan. 16. Agronomists in the area told him corn wouldn’t grow on his dry Oklahoma land. His mentor warned him that he was going to lose the ranch. But Cannon persevered.

“You really have to be all in,” he said. “When you start seeing how incredible it is below the surface, you real just how amazing your crop could be above the surface.”

He’s paid close attention to the thriving community of microorganisms that make up the soil. Making sure they’re fed and happy, means they contribute to a healthy crop.

Lately, his no-till corn – the crop agronomists told him wouldn’t grow – has yielded 134 bushels per acre. He attributes that to nurturing the soil. His methods have increased the organic matter in his soil by 200%.

“Develop a relationship with the soil,” he advised, adding that it’s all part of having a sustainable operation – environmentally and financially.

In 20 years, he was able to turn his ranch’s finances around. Not only was he able to manage the debt, he eventually was able to purchase more land. Now he advises others on how caring for the soil can spell success.

“Think about what this soil does for you – puts your kids through college, puts food on the table – it really sustains your life,” he said.

For his first planting of perennial cover crops, he chose a dry, sandy field. On 50 acres, with a wheat mix, he planted orchard grass, Lincoln smooth brome, clovers and vetch and put his heifers on it.

He has a rule of spending a maximum $20 per acre on cover crops and no more than $10 per acre on companion crops. But what covers do for the soil is more valuable than fertilizers and herbicides. Cannon would like to see people rely less on those sorts of chemical solutions and instead look to biological options.

“Chemistry kills. Biology is alive,” he said.

Producers should work under the premise that the soil is alive, he said, and that it’s a part of your system that needs to be fed and cared for.

Cannon said farming can be much simpler, quoting his dad, “Just take care of your grass … your cows will be fine.”

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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