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group shot of presenters and Johnson Farms family, recipients of S.D. Leopold Conservation Award Connie Sieh Groop
AWARD PRESENTATION: Pictured during a presentation of the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award prize at the Johnson Farm are David Bailey (left), western director of the Leopold Conservation Award Program; Lyle Perman, South Dakota Cattleman’s Association; Jim Faulstich, South Dakota Grassland Coalition; and Brian, Evelyn, Ella, Jamie, Lila, Leo, Alan and Mickie Johnson, all of Johnson Farms.

Conservation handoff takes farm’s soil health to next level

The Johnson family are the winners of the 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.

By Connie Sieh Groop

A conservation handoff from one generation to the next was celebrated during a tour of the Johnson Farms near Frankfort, S.D., this summer.

Alan Johnson and his wife, Mickie, farm with their son, Brian, and Brian’s wife, Jamie.

The Johnson family won the Leopold Conservation Award in South Dakota in 2019. They grow corn, soybeans and small grains and run 100 head of registered and commercial Angus cows.

About 35 years ago, the growing seasons in north-central South Dakota had developed a difficult pattern. It was wet in the spring and then dried out soon after planting and stayed dry. Alan was frustrated that soil moisture disappeared after he tilled and planted their crops.

No-till was a new, unproven practice at the time. But he approached Dwayne Beck, who then worked at the local soil conservation district. Beck, now a South Dakota State University agronomy professor, manages the Dakota Lakes Research Farm at Pierre, S.D. He is credited with spreading no-till across the state.

“I asked Dwayne, ‘Is this no-till going to work?’” Alan said.

Beck said he believed it would, and Alan decided to give it a try. He traded equipment and didn’t look back.

“The spring of 1986 [the first year he tried no-till] was wet,” Alan recalled. “I was one of the first ones in the field because I didn’t have to till the ground first.”

Although the weather again turned dry, the soil didn’t dry out and he got good stands established. The no-tilled crops had some soil moisture all season, even though crops on tilled ground suffered.

“We had a beautiful harvest that year,” he said.

black cattle grazing near waterwayBACK TO GRASS: Cattle graze one of the Johnsons’ pastures.

Alan said that, despite their early success with no-till, there were a lot of equipment challenges over the years. According to Alan, he couldn’t buy what he needed, so he had to rig things up to get things to work the way he wanted them to work.

“It took 20 years to get to where you could buy the right tools. Now changes in equipment and seed genetics make this a whole different world,” he said.

Alan and Mickie said they are pleased that Brian and Jamie share their enthusiasm for no-till and other conservation practices.

“I give credit to my son and his wife,” Alan said. “I started the no-till process, but Brian and Jamie took the ball and ran with it.”

What they’ve done

Brian and Jamie have taken Johnson Farms' no-tilling to a new level by:

Using precision farming tools. They variable-rate apply fertilizer by productivity zones.

Converting marginal cropland to grass. Producing forage for their cattle is better than spending $200 per acre on inputs and not getting anything, Brian said. The fields they put in the Conservation Reserve Program will stay in grass when the contracts expire. The additional pasture will allow them to add 50 more stock cows to the operation, Brian said.

Planting cover crops. They seed cover crops after small grains to improve soil organic matter and produce more forage. The Johnsons have also tried bio-strip till with cover crops, planting radish in next year’s rows and seeding vetch and lentils between the rows. The radish long roots break up compaction and their black-colored residue warms up like bare soil in the spring. The vetch and lentils provide nutrients for the following crop and protect the soil from erosion.

Running cattle on cropland. They graze cattle on cover crops and corn stalks in the fall. The Johnsons said they save more than $10,000 each year by grazing cattle until Christmas instead of feeding them hay in the late fall and early winter. Through the winter, they bale graze cattle on cropland rather than feed them in drylots. When they bale graze, the cows spread manure on and trample residue into the soil surface of next year’s grain fields.

Another handoff

The Johnsons are preparing for another conservation handoff in the future. Brian and Jamie are taking time to talk to their children now about conservation in ways that each can understand. Their children are Ella, 13; Lila, 11; Leo, 9; and Evelyn, 3.

Teachable moments for the youngest children include a game in a cover crop field called, “Who Can Find the Biggest Radish?”

The older children hear about how the radishes break up compaction and pull nutrients from deep the soil. Brian and Jamie answer their children’s questions about all aspects of conservation on cropland and grasslands — what cover crops they are planting, why they are moving cattle to new pastures, why it is important to rest the grass, etc.

“We talk about being loyal to the soil,” Jamie said.

The message is clearly getting through. During the tour, Ella and Lila shared their latest 4-H presentation on bale grazing.

“Each day we feed the animals, we move to a different place,” Ella said. “This is a clean area for them. And by feeding in a different spot, it spreads the manure around the field. Doing it this way saves time and energy. Cows provide fertilizer which is natural and inexpensive and mixes with the leftover residue on the fields.”

Connie Sieh GroopElla and Lila Johnson give a presentation on the benefits of bale grazing cows in the winter

STARTING YOUNG: Ella (left) and Lila Johnson give a presentation the benefits of bale grazing cows in the winter.

Jamie said she loves that they practice conservation together as a family.

“We hope the farm will be passed on for many more generations,” Jamie said, adding that she hopes each generation will do their part to be “loyal to the soil.”

Sieh Groop writes from Frederick, S.D. Lon Tonneson contributed to the article.
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