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This fifth-generation farmer has a unique approach to soil health

Reid Suelflow is a leader, not a follower.

Reid Suelflow is doing his best to make a difference on the White Lake, South Dakota, farm his family homesteaded in 1884.

He tries new agricultural practices, reads voraciously on the internet, and gets data to analyze from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other government agencies.

The farm is a legacy, and he puts in the work to secure its future. He does so by taking his own unique approach to farming.

A farmer kneels in the grass to check the small solar panel next to the fence
Photo by Mitch Kezar.

Suelflow’s Start

Bouncing along on his side-by-side through a pasture, he cuts off a running calf and watches it meld back into the herd. Suelflow started full-time farming on his own about 10 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,” he says.

Suelflow 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,” he says.

The first couple of years, he hired custom work for the farm ground while he built up the cow herd. Starting out on his own was a big challenge, but resources like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) really helped, he notes.

“When I first took over, I did go through EQIP to cross fence and get water out to my pastures,” Suelflow says. “I have good water for the summer and winter because of that program.”

Suelflow is set up with a flexible watering system with hydrants in random spots, portable tanks, and a storage tank that can be placed wherever it’s needed. He also employs polyethylene pipe that keeps the system mobile.

“With the water in place, I wanted to find a way to integrate the livestock back into the crop ground. I was grazing corn stalks, and thought planting some cover crops for grazing would be a good opportunity and good for the soil,” he says.

He again used EQIP to plant a cover crop cocktail. In addition to receiving a yearly payment per acre, Suelflow sees another payoff: The soil improves from the diversity of the native plants and from the cattle grazing the land in the fall.

He gets a few crazy looks from neighbors in corn/bean rotations, he says. In this area just west of Sioux Falls, he's an outlier.

His brother-in-law calls him a hippie farmer, says Suelflow. “I’m planting all these different plant species, so it may seem a little weird to some people. I’m OK with it. What I’m doing is definitely beneficial to me, so he can call me a hippie farmer all he wants!”

A farmer drives a gator through the yellow grassy pastures
Photo by Mitch Kezar.

Grazing Cattle

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. 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.”

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. “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,” he says.

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 cropland. Some cows have to walk a mile to water, but “it’s actually good for the cows to get some exercise in the winter,” he says.

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. 

He 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 year’s 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 bromegrass, 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 says. He provides 45 to 60 days of rest for the land between grazings.

A farmer in a blue shirt holds up a tall plant that has a clod of soil caught in the roots
Photo by Mitch Kezar.

Soil and Cattle Health

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 improved health of his animals to an increase in nutrition from eating diverse native plants. “They’re much healthier than they’ve been in the past,” he says, referencing a sharp decline in pinkeye. “Rotating the cows as fast as I do, it’s a much cleaner environment for them.” 

The overall health of plants on his acres is better, too, he says, because of  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 what 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 into that area instead of spraying it. They eat the heads off. I use my cows as weed control.”

The longer the span of rotational grazing, he explains, the thicker the plant stands get. The weeds get choked out. “They just don’t have an opportunity to express themselves.” 

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 in pastures I rested the year before, so they do well.”

He transitioned all his hay ground into pasture or cropland. “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 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

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 and deer hunting operations are a big business in South Dakota, but the populations of pheasants and prairie chickens had been in decline.

“Since we’ve started this system, pheasant numbers have been increasing,” Suelflow says. “This morning when we were driving around, we even kicked up a flock of about 30 sharp-tailed grouse.”

In 2020, Suelflow planted a tree belt designed specifically to provide wildlife habitat, and he is now looking into adding water sources for the wildlife, including a free-flowing well and a dam restoration.

“My only water source out here is rural water, which is very reliable, but if there were ever an issue, I don’t know what I’d do,” says Suelflow. These sources would pull double-duty as a backup to rural water and an essential resource to keep the deer, pheasants, and grouse thriving.

This year, Suelflow started renting another pasture about 15 miles from his home, which gives him more flexibility for grazing and another space for wildlife.

“With this new pasture and my ground at home, I’ll be able to stockpile so I’ll have more habitat and different heights of pasture for good diversity throughout the year,” he says.

By alternating grazing pastures each year, leaving residue, not overgrazing, and keeping minimum plant heights, Suelflow is giving plants a long time for recovery.

A family of farmers stands in yellow grasses
Photo by Mitch Kezar.

Farming for the Future

Suelflow’s wife, Jane, and their three young children (pictured above) 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 what 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.”

His advice to other farmers planning for their future is to think critically about investments in machinery and equipment.

“You can always find someone to custom-hire or buy older equipment to work with, depending on what you’re skilled at,” he says. “Until you really understand your situation and find your niche, don’t invest in too much too soon.”

As he has done, Suelflow says to put the soil first.

“Try to build up your soil gradually. You can’t always do everything you want to right away and because it’s an investment, make sure your cash flow and finances will work,” he says.

Finding a network of people who are in the same boat and have made mistakes you can avoid is beneficial, too.

“You’ll make mistakes and learn a lot, so it’s important to be willing to adapt. Your operation will change as you grow and there are many things out of your control,” he says.

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 hardworking hippie farmer.

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