Small grains

Producer Brian Johnson and NRCS District Conservationist Shane Jordan check the growth of small grains in a field south of Frankfort, S.D., last fall. The Johnsons aim to add livestock to the mix by grazing residue after harvest.

At the Johnson farm in Spink County, South Dakota, crops and cattle work hand-in-hand.

It supports a multi-generation farm and improves natural resources, said Steve Ollerich, president of South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association.

The Johnsons - Alan and Mickie, who farm with their son Brian and his wife Jamie near Frankfort - are winners of this year's South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. Gov. Kristi Noem announced the winner on Earth Day, April 22.

“Farmers and ranchers across South Dakota know how to balance agriculture production with conservation,” said Noem. “The intentional innovation, stewardship, and land ethic of the Johnsons and other producers ensures that our natural resources will be available for future generations.”

Applicants were judged on how they've improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple use benefits.

The Johnsons farm 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland. Agricultural conservation practices and raising cattle make the Johnsons more efficient without buying more land.

The farm’s roots trace back to 160 acres that Johnson’s Swedish immigrant grandfather homesteaded more than a century ago. The Johnsons use a mix of old school practices and modern technology to leave the land in better shape for the next generation.

Alan Johnson adopted no-till farming practices in 1986 when abandoning the plow, disk and cultivator was much against the norm. Despite what the neighbors thought, Alan saw that tilling a field to rid it of weeds was also depleting it of moisture. By mid-summer, if rain was scarce, crops suffered.

By coupling no-till practices with cover crops, the Johnsons have improved water infiltration and soil health, increasing productivity.

The Johnsons also find that a diverse rotation of their corn, soybean, wheat, oat and barley crops, and leaving crop residue in place, minimizes agricultural runoff, naturally eases pest management, and provides wildlife habitat. To further address soil erosion and salinity problems, the Johnsons enrolled land in the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program.

Realizing that different areas of each field have varying productivity, the Johnsons switched to a variable-rate fertilizer system in 2004. Applying the precise amount of nutrients on the soil saves time and natural resources, and delivers a better return on investment. Since the switch, the Johnsons have won a yield contest held by the South Dakota Soybean Association.

The Johnsons also raise a herd of Angus beef cattle. Whenever possible, the herd is allowed to graze on mature cover crops and corn stubble, creating a cooperative relationship between the cattle and the land. The cover crops provide feed, and the cattle naturally fertilize the soil with their waste.

Grazing used to mean turning the cattle out to pasture for the summer and bringing them home in the fall. It was easy, but it took a toll on the quality and variety of the grass. The Johnsons now rotationally graze their cattle and closely monitor grazing conditions and the timing of their calving season.

While the longtime crop farmers admit that managing grass and cattle requires additional time, the results are healthier land and a stronger bottom line.

“The Johnson’s focus on conservation, while managing multiple enterprises on their family farm, is commendable,” said Jim Faulstitch, chairman of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

In South Dakota, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. Johnson Farms will be presented with the $10,000 award, and a crystal depicting conservationist Aldo Leopold at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in December.

Finalists for the award included Bien Ranch of Veblen in Marshall County, Blair Brothers Angus Ranch of Vale in Butte County, and Hefner Ranch of Whitewood in Lawrence County.