Jesse Hall is a student at heart, and that eternal drive to learn serves him well on his farm near Arlington, S.D. But Hall is also a willing teacher — appropriate for his major in human development and family studies at South Dakota State University. His plan was to become a counselor, which he thought would have tied in well with his farming path, letting him do counseling during the farm’s “off season.”
Instead, Hall worked for SDSU’s Crop Performance Testing during college, gaining valuable research experience in yield trials for corn, soybeans, small grains and field peas. He also minored in agronomy. Yield trials led him to work on crop breeding programs, before joining Peter Sexton at the SDSU Southeast Research Farm near Beresford, where he got into sustainable agriculture. Having that Extension experience has taught Hall the value of small-plot research, and he works to replicate that practice on his own farm. Though he farmed throughout his college years, Hall returned to the farm full time in 2014.
“What’s nice about small plots is that you can learn a lot with fewer resources, so you can try out multiple concepts,” he says. “It’s a really useful way to conceptualize things, and then as the farmer, you would look at the small-plot data, kind of figure out what you’re interested in, then you would try and make that applicable or make it more practical.”
As an example, Hall takes the SDSU yield trials and considers the best-performing corn and soybean hybrids, because he trusts the SDSU team’s diligence in “placing their plots in a drier, warmer zone and a cool, wetter zone.” He adds, “Then I’ll put them in my own plot.”
Hall does side-by-side comparisons and plans on a minimum of two replications in his fields. Some of his fellow producers also perform side-by-side trials, but he sees an error with some of them. “They’ll do a side-by-side plot, but if it isn’t replicated, it doesn’t really mean anything, and that’s the mistake a lot of farmers make.”
Admitting replications can be hard and tedious work, especially for farmers working solo, Hall compensates by planting half the width of his 12-row planter the entire length of his field, with two replications. “I’ll try and pick a spot where I’m grabbing some bottom ground and some hilltop, so you get the varying environments,” he says. “My hope is that by doing it on a larger scale like that, you’re kind of compensating for not having more replication.”
Learning from research
Hall drills his soybeans in 7½-inch rows, a lesson he learned from his days of doing university research. “Over the years when I was working on campus, we did I don’t know how many different row spacing studies, and most of the time we did 15 [inches] versus 30 [inches], and there’s almost always a 7½% yield increase with drilled,” he says. “But on a cold wet year, it’s even more profound. So worst-case scenario, they’re the same. But most of the time, drilled beans are better.”
Hall’s Extension experience also taught him the value of knowing who to contact to help answer some questions.
“If I have something that I’m interested in, the first people I call is Extension,” he says. “They have a scientific discipline, so it’s good. I mean, if a farmer with their practical ability teams up with the university personnel with the scientific and the statistical side of things, you can really get something good.”
In addition to his research experience with SDSU Extension, Hall also leans on his genes, as his late-father Lon and Uncle Jon Hall were some of the early adopters of no-till farming in Brookings County, a family not afraid to try things that may not be considered mainstream. He plans to use a small-plot planter that his father had built.
“If I want to get into cattle, I’m interested in forage oats,” Hall says, implementing some findings from North Dakota State University research that blended different crop species that showed a decrease in incidence of disease.
Looking specifically at crown rust resistance, Hall seeks to blend a rust-susceptible forage oat that produces good tonnage “with a more defensive one that maybe won’t ton out as good, and they’d have a synergistic relationship where you’d actually boost your tonnage, because you’d get the disease resistance out of the one variety and you don’t have to put on a fungicide.”
Seeing the value that livestock add to a cropping system, for three years Hall has been experimenting with mob grazing of cattle. He first set aside a 15-acre plot of straight cover crop that he opened for 20 animal units, giving the animals 0.86 acres every two or three days.
Hall admits his mob-grazing experiment didn’t give him the results he had expected, though the practice did result in a happy accident. In 2018, he planted the larger field that included the 15-acre grazing paddock to soybeans, and the following year he planted corn. A storm in late July of the corn year caused greensnap to about 65% of the crop. “But that little rectangle [that had been mob-grazed] was ahead of the rest of the field the whole year,” he says. “It tasseled about a week before the rest of the field and yielded about 60 bushels an acre better, and I had thought about giving up on the cattle.”
He now plans to bring mob grazing back on the ground to the small-grain portion in the rotation of corn, soybean and small grains. “Now I’m enticed to try it on more acres,” he says.
It’s safe to say that Hall won’t stop experimenting on his farm anytime soon, and he’s willing to educate his fellow farmers along the way.