How to be a profitable hippie farmer
Reed Suelflow, a young farmer from White Lake, South Dakota, is trying his best to make a difference on the farm his family homesteaded in 1884. He tries new agricultural practices, reads voraciously on the internet, and gets data from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other government agencies. He’s a member of the Grasslands Coalition and the Soil Health Coalition.
He gets a few crazy looks from neighbors in corn/bean rotations, he says. Most just don’t understand. In this area just west of Sioux Falls, he’s an outlier.
His brother-in-law calls him a hippie farmer, says Suelflow, laughing. “I’m planting all these different plant species, so it may seem a little weird to some people. I’m OK with that. What I’m doing is definitely beneficial to me, so he can call me a hippie farmer all he wants!”
Building a herd and an ecosystem
Suelflow is building a herd of beef, and is figuring out how to meld conventional tillage and crop production, a former mainstay of the farm, with new rotational grazing practices for his beef herd.
“My farm is finally starting to perform like an ecosystem,” he says. “That makes it more resistant to droughts and to floods. For example, you can absorb more rainfall at a faster rate, and you can hold more of it as organic matter. If you’re leaving plant material on the ground for residue cover, it buffers the raindrops and helps absorb that much better. It reduces your inputs like fertilizer and chemicals. I’m starting to see that benefit.”
Bouncing along on his side-by-side through a pasture, he cuts off a running calf and watches it melt back into the herd. Suelflow started full-time farming on his own about five years ago when his dad retired. “It’s working really well. My dad’s letting me do what I want to do. I know that’s an issue for some younger farmers. I’m very fortunate.”
(Watch a video about the ranch here.)
He rolls up to a water tank. “We’re a pretty small operation here and there wasn’t really room for two people, so I was working off the farm until the opportunity where I could farm full-time on my own here came up.”
The first couple of years he hired custom work for the farm ground while he built up the cow herd. “I didn’t have any cows, so I started from scratch. It was it was a big challenge for me. I wanted to find a way to integrate the livestock back into the crop ground. I was grazing cornstalks, and thought planting some cover crops for grazing would be a good opportunity and good for the soil.”
There were challenges along the way, like finding the right species to plant and the right seed dealers to work with. It had to pencil out, he says.
“Grazing cattle on the crop ground complements the grassland,” he says, closing a gate. “I’ve been grazing standing corn in the winter. I found it’s a very cost-effective way to feed your cattle during those winter months.”
He saves one strip in every cornfield and then sections off so many pounds per day to give the herd. “It’s a cheap way to feed cows,” Suelflow explains. “I supplement with one or two alfalfa bales a week and a little bit of protein. Other than that, they’re grazing the corn and digging through the cornstalks.”
Another advantage is he doesn’t have to spread manure. “They’re spreading the manure on their own, and they seem to stay healthier that way,” he says.
He rotates the cows in wintertime through different crop fields. “I don’t just turn them into a whole quarter and let them pick through it. I section it off.” With small fields, this works well. It doesn’t take long for 200 cows to clean up a 30-acre field. A centrally-located, heated water fountain provides access to water for 80% of his crop ground. Some cows have to walk a mile to water, but it works fine, he says. “It’s actually good for the cows to get some exercise in the winter.”
Getting water to the pastures
On his summer pastures, Suelflow signed up for the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which enabled him to get rural water to all the pastures. It was set up as a flexible system with hydrants out in random spots, portable tanks, and a storage tank that could be placed wherever it needed to be. He also employs poly pipe that keeps the system mobile.
He moves his cows by watching their impact on plant life. “I don’t want to overgraze,” he notes, “I try in my rotation to just move to the next pasture instead of moving them halfway across the farm.” He moves the cows every three or four days.
Suelflow has three groups of pastures, with several smaller pastures in each one. He rests one group for the full growing season, and grazes the other two. The next spring, he grazes the one he rested.
“My production the next spring is quite a bit more than it was on the other pastures, so it makes up for what I was losing the year before by not grazing it,” says Suelflow. “It gives the native species the full years’ break to get more established.”
When you turn cows out in a pasture, native species are the first thing they go for, he explains. “After June, cows don’t really care for brome grass, which is pretty dominant in this country. That’s why I try to get out fairly early. It’s a good opportunity to knock back the brome.” He provides a 45- to 60-day rest period between grazings.
Suelflow is seeing more native species coming in. Looking out over what used to be cropland, he points out the newcomers to his pasture – big bluestem, side oats, and blue grama.
He attributes the increase healthiness of his animals to an increase in nutrition from eating native plant diversity. “They’re much healthier than they’ve been in the past.” Pinkeye is way down, he says. “Rotating the cows as fast as I do, it’s a much cleaner environment for them.”
Match the cover crop to your goal
The overall health of plants on his acres is better, too, he says, thanks to cover crops. “It’s best to plant a mix of things,” he advises. “Legumes will fix nitrogen for you and brassicas are really good at scavenging nutrients. You just need to know what your goal is and try to figure out which cover crop will match that goal.”
Walking through a pasture, he notes, “We used to have quite a bit of musk thistle around here and some wormwood, and I still have some, but instead of spraying the whole pasture I spot spray or take my shovel and chop them off. If I have an infestation, I move my cows in that area instead of spraying it. They eat the heads off. I use my cows as weed control.”
The longer you rotational graze, he explains, the thicker the plant stands get. The weeds get choked out. “They just don’t have an opportunity to express themselves.”
He watches a calf scamper back to its mother. Suelflow moved to May calving a few years ago. “I don’t rotate the cows as often while they’re calving, because it can be a little stressful on the calves. Those are pastures I rested the year before, so they do well.”
He transitioned all his hay ground into pasture or crop ground. “That way I don’t have to upgrade my equipment for haying, and I buy whatever supplemental hay I need,” he explains. “If I plan ahead and save enough winter grazing forage, I’ll be able to graze through most winters.”
Eliminating the hay ground has other benefits. “I can run more cows now because I have more acres of pasture,” he explains. “I don’t have the hay equipment or the labor. There’s a lot of labor with haying. Moving cows is easier than putting up hay and feeding it to them in the winter. I get more time to spend with my family.”
Suelflow is working on getting native plants more heavily populated on current hay ground. He started grazing it, for starters. He puts some seed in his mineral treatment for his cows, and they spread it around in their manure. He also spreads native seeds and forbs around the mineral feeders and water tanks where the ground is roughed up by the cattle. He lets the cows trample them into the ground, and that’s working, too.
By keeping his cows rotated through Platte Creek, which runs through the farm, he’s noticed willows growing back on the banks, little to no erosion, and a healthier plant community streamside. Less nutrient runoff, cleaner water, and a better environment downstream is the result.
Suelflow has enrolled some land he purchased in grassland easements. As a young producer, land costs are high and easements help pay for the land. He puts them on land he never intends to farm. "It’s ground that should not be farmed, and I don’t ever want to see it farmed. I always want grass as part of my operation, so I saw a benefit to advance my operation by putting an easement on it. That way the next generation will keep it in grass as well.”
Wildlife is an added benefit. “The wildlife in the area are benefiting from the diversity in the pastures and crop ground,” he says. “The wildlife are part of the ecosystem as a whole. Every year when we pheasant hunt, we hunt my cover crop fields. It’s very good pheasant habitat cover, and nearby grassland is good nesting habitat for them.”
Pheasant hunting operations are a big business in South Dakota, and Suelflow sees a future in a hunting operation along with his crops, grass, and cattle. “Since we’ve started this system, pheasant numbers have been increasing,” he says. “This morning when we were driving around we even kicked up a flock of about 30 sharp-tailed grouse.”
Important nesting area
Joshua Lifers, a range ecologist with Audubon Dakota, met Sueflow at a South Dakota Soil Health school. He helped him understand how to promote some of the habitat needs of birds and maintain and improve profitability at the same time.
“We’ve seen a significant decline in grassland nesting species in this area since a large-scale conversion of grassland and hay land to cropland occurred,” says Lifers. “We see overlap between the tall grass and shorter grass species, and we see a lot of things like grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, and bobolinks.”
The whole region is an important nesting area for waterfowl. “Reed’s rotational grazing system provides large blocks of grasslands,” says Lifers. “What Reed and his family are doing here is protecting these grasslands and maintaining them in large tracts that are attractive to birds and wildlife.”
Suelflow’s rotational grazing system provides the best mix, or heterogeneity, of habitats for grouse, says Lifers. “Prairies evolved under disturbances like fire, grazing, and droughts – major forces. That’s why there weren’t a lot of trees here when Europeans moved into this area. That disturbance maintained these tall grasses, the lack of trees, and a variety of habitat within the grassland ecosystem.”
Organizations are interested in working with ranchers, says Lifers, because a large percentage of the grasslands in the northern Great Plains are privately owned and managed. “They are our best resource for promoting wildlife and maintaining that grassland ecosystem. We know that grasslands need management, and we know that producers can provide that management.”
Suelflow’s wife, Jane, and their three young children love walking in the pastures. “My kids make me think about what I’m doing to the land,” he says. “I want it to be in better shape than when it was when I took over. I want to instill in them the principle of conservation and soil health so they will take it to another level.”
Native plant diversity
NRCS range management specialist Rod Voss says Suelflow is seeing benefits to his rotational grazing system, such as an increase in native plant diversity. By grazing pastures at different times each year, leaving residue, not overgrazing, and keeping minimum plant heights, Suelflow is giving plants a long time for recovery.
“Reed is capturing sunlight, and that powers his farm,” says Voss. “Sunlight is free to the producer, and he’s maximizing his production based on that sunlight. Reed is getting organic matter back into the soil. When you increase organic matter, you’re insuring yourself against drought and capturing more rainfall. When you capture more rainfall you increase your total production.”
Beneficial to the bottom line
Heidi Reitz, a district conservationist with the NRCS, started working with Suelflow and his family a decade ago. At that time, the family wanted to make changes, but didn’t know what. “We went through a lot of different alternatives and came to a decision to use portable and permanent fence, portable tanks, and pipeline,” says Reitz. “We could manage the grass better with prescribed grazing.”
She says she has learned from Suelflow’s experiments. “He’s willing to try different things and that’s really helpful,” says Reitz. “I’ve taken things I’ve learned from him and shared with a lot of other producers. Some of his neighbors have asked what he’s doing. It’s fun to share a little bit of the story to get them a curious and inspire them to want to try things.”
She uses Suelflow’s experiences with full-season cover crops as an example for others. “He’s more high-intensive grazing, and that’s not something everybody uses. It’s been really helpful in getting this message to others. Reed has also been great at networking and sharing the message of healthy grasslands and healthy soils. That means more to a producer than just hearing it from a professional.”
Suelflow looks out over his quietly grazing herd. “I’m not going to raise the biggest calves and I’m probably not going to raise the biggest crops, but I might be the most profitable. That’s my goal, anyway.”
Not bad for a hard-working hippie farmer.