No-till saved their farm

Frustrated by back-to-back years of drought, Alan Johnson bucked a trend 40 years ago and tried his hand at no-till. It made all the difference.

Alan Johnson is proud that his grandchildren know the land. “We’re driving through the pasture in the UTV,” he says, a broad grin spilling across his face. “Lila reaches out after we get through the gate and grabs a couple stems of grass. ‘Oh, this is crested wheat grass,’ she says, showing them to me. ‘And this one here is brome grass.’ That’s kind of neat. They can identify grasses and they’re really proud of what we’re doing here.”

Proud with good reason. The Johnsons were named the South Dakota Leopold Conservation award winners for 2019, a prestigious award that recognizes excellence in land stewardship and conservation ethics. 

The progressive nature of the Johnson operation began nearly 40 years ago when Alan, frustrated by back-to-back years of drought, bucked a trend and tried his hand at some no-till practices on their cropland. Initially implemented to combat those drought years, he learned that no-till helps get them down the trail to success in wet years as well. Coupling no-till with crop rotations and cover crops, they’ve been able to increase water infiltration and increase soil health overall. Increased implementation of livestock on crop ground is the next big thing.

grass-pasture

“Some of the decisions Alan made years ago are paying off now,” said Shane Jordan, the district conservationist with the NRCS in Redfield and Clark Counties. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping residue on the ground. The Johnsons’ operation has residue levels that are 80% plus — or more. It’s just not enough to have 30% residue on soils in Spink County. We can’t generate enough residue from a corn-bean rotation. Even in a no-till system with corn and beans we cannot generate enough residue on some of these fields to keep them from having this continued resource concern of salinity problems, compaction, low infiltration, low water-holding capacity – all those things we see across the county that continue to cut into a producers’ profitability.” 

Today, fourth-generation farmers Brian and Jamie Johnson run the bulk of their family farm operation with a fifth generation of young Johnsons waiting in the wings. The Johnson farm sits in northeastern South Dakota in Spink County, near the town of Frankfort. Spink is a relatively flat county by South Dakota standards, and the Johnson operation sits on the southern tip of what used to be the Dakota Lake Plain. It’s populated with farmsteads here and there, pheasants running down the road, deer in the draws, and eagles nesting high in giant cottonwoods. When hundreds of years ago the lower ground formed the James River, there were good deposits of silty-loam soils left there. It’s a good location for a farm, with fairly elevated ground and a good mix of creeks and waterways, and not as many rocks left behind by glacial action as there are in many other parts of Spink County.

Brian’s great-grandfather immigrated from Sweden in 1906 and started farming here in the 1930s. Brian’s parents, Alan and Mickie, started running the farm in 1974. Brian began working the farm after college in 2004. Now he and wife, Jamie, work it with help of four kids:  Ella, 12; Lila, 10; Leo, 7; and Evelyn, 3.

johnson-land

When Brian came back to the farm in 2004, it had been no-tilled for over 20 years. “I didn’t know any different, because my dad started that practice when I was only 4,” he says. “No-till’s been ingrained in my brain since I was little, and it works.”

In 2000, the family switched from 30-inch rows to 20-inch rows. That change in management really increased residue, says Brian. “You’ve also got increased yield potential and simplified planting methods with soybeans. We just split the corn rows with soybeans. I didn’t have to change a whole lot because the footprint had already been made.”

Around the late 1990s, the weather changed in the Dakotas, says Brian. “We became very wet vs. very dry like we were in the ’70s and ’80s. We had to handle that extra water and use it efficiently.”

The family wanted to maintain their rotation of cereal grain in the operation, and it became a challenge with wet springs. “We couldn’t physically get in the field in April or May,” says Brian.

Enter the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

butterfly-southdakota

It was pretty simple to figure out how to redistribute acres to CRP, says Brian. “With the technology that we were using – yield mapping and zone mapping – we knew the unproductive parts of our cropland that needed to be changed.” Seven parcels on the farm, from 2 to 25 acres, were put into the CRP program. “Those were little areas on the farm that needed attention. That took care of the erosion and the salinity issues,” says Brian.

“Because of that change, we’re more profitable on those acres as well as the cropland acres,” he says. “It’s become easier to farm those acres because we don’t have water issues next to the cropland. It provides enjoyment for our hunters who harvest pheasants and deer.” 

Going forward, Brian says the farm will focus on changes to the livestock and grass management areas. “We’re going to be letting livestock graze the cover crops and crop residue in the fall more than we do now,” he says. He expects one or two of their children to come back to the farm. “Livestock provides them an avenue to come back and grow this operation.”

Walking a pasture with daughter Lila, Brian laughs at her antics as she tries to get an Angus heifer to take a handful of feed from her hand. “We’ve had an abundance of rainfall, and the ground still seems to be absorbing all that rain,” he says. “A lot of our success with water issues has to do with my dad making the switch to no-till back in ’86. That system allows us to withstand extremes in the environment and be able to get in the field in the spring in a timely fashion. Living roots in the soil absorb the moisture and use the nutrients. A conventionally-tilled operation cannot handle the water that a no-till system can.”

johnson-farm-cattle

Walking in the hip-high grass, Brian explains the benefit of having their cattle on cropland. Their cows utilize cover crops and crop residue as a feed source, spreading fertilizer through their manure as they go. “We produce a forage crop, followed by a cover crop, and have the cattle out there to utilize that cover. The next year they’ll graze cornstalks. That livestock integration into those cropland acres has not only improved our profitability and saved our feed costs, but has improved our nutrient requirements on those fields and the ability for water to be absorbed. Our soil structure is continuing to improve.”

One of the keys to success in their cropland operation is the variable-rate fertilizer and seed prescription service they use, says Brian. In 2004, they signed up for a zone-based prescription program for their cropland that creates multiple zones within a field. Using soil and tissue samples within those zones, the Johnsons can fine-tune nutrient requirements. “The data is based on our yield goals, and prescribes only the amount necessary,” says Brian. “We’re never overapplying any nutrient. It’s an efficient, economical, and environmentally friendly way of farming. You’re never flat applying anything. You’re never overapplying or underapplying. It’s exactly what that crop needs – the right source, right time, right place, at the right rate: the four R’s of nutrient stewardship,” he explains.

Jamie grew up on a Nebraska cattle farm. “It’s been a goal to bring these cattle back to the carrying capacity the pastures can hold, using rotational grazing,” she says. “I want to integrate the cattle onto crop ground.” 

She credits Alan for building a solid base. “Brian and I do a lot of the forward talking for the farm and Alan likes to stay in the background, but he’s the one who went through the hardest changes,” says Jamie. “He did all the heavy lifting, switching to no-till when there weren’t as many resources to get help. I’m sure there was talk at the coffee shop about what the Johnsons are doing with cover crops.”

They have had cover-crop failures, she says. “We’ve learned to adjust our herbicide to accommodate what we want to do with our cover crops. Those failures turn into learning moments. Sometimes it takes a couple of years.”

The NRCS has been a valuable resource with the cover crop mixes and tree plantings, says Jamie. 

The Johnsons have areas of their farm that have never been touched. The native prairie is used as livestock pasturelands, and it’s rotationally grazed.

“Someday our kids are going to take this operation even further than we will,” says Brain. “Failure on our farm is not really a failure, but a learning experience.”

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