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Revitalizing Saline Croplands for Profit: Jeff Hamilton's Journey to Soil Health and Diversification

In this week’s “Rodeo”, Jeff Hamilton shares with us the successes he’s starting to see in his unproductive, saline cropland areas when he started thinking about them differently.

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Jeff Hamilton farms with his brother Scott and his son John in east central South Dakota. They primarily grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and have started planting other forage crops on saline soils.  Rye is also grown for seed, harvested as forage, and used for grazing.  The farm supports 1200 beef cattle, and they finish their own calves.  Jeff has started large-scale composting of the manure generated from the livestock to improve his soils’ health.

Jeff Hamilton
Jeff Hamilton

1)    What one thing have you done that's been most important to the success of your operation?


I would say staying diversified. Growing up, my number one income producing item was cattle sales. As grain prices rose, grain overtook the top spot on the income statement.  As a result, the cattle and fences disappeared in this part of the country. Much of the pastureland was converted to cropland. Folks didn’t want to work with livestock and invest that much capital and labor for keeping the cattle around. There was an economic decision to be made. Why should I keep the cattle? Where I live, there's a lot of marginal ground that's not suitable for growing corn and soybeans, even though that's what people have been trying do with it.  I've started putting those areas back to other uses. I just got tired of watching areas that shouldn't have ever been planted to cash crops get worse. Diversity has value in more than one way. Caring for the cows and finishing the calves is a good part time job and it keeps you out of the bar at night!


2)    Can you recall a moment or a time when the light bulb went on for you that you realized soil health practices make sense or that you should change the way that you were farming?


2019 was extremely wet in South Dakota, and it carried over into 2020. In 2019 there were a lot of prevent plant acres. We planted a 7-species cover crop mix on some of our ground, and even though my corn and soybeans looked phenomenal, it was the cover crop that excited me. The grain prices were such that even though I knew I was going to have a good crop, I wasn't going to make any money.


I found myself driving up and looking at the cover crop.  I would open up the canopy and realize what was growing. That’s when I started looking at things differently. In that mixture there was forage sorghum, Japanese millet, oats, radishes, turnips, and crimson clover. The Japanese millet grew to the water's edge, and on the hilltop, which was only five feet higher in elevation, was predominantly forage sorghum.  Everything else I planted was growing well together.  I remember taking a picture and thinking, why?


We have a lot of saline areas on our land. The water runs to the low ground, and during the summer it evaporates, leaving the salt. I had been planting corn and soybeans, collecting my prevent plant check and watching those areas get larger. It wasn't until I started looking at what the ground was telling me that it made sense.


3)    What surprised you most when you changed the way you farmed to include soil health practices?


The speed at which the soil can correct the saline areas if we let it.  The saline areas bothered me because they kept getting bigger. In 2016 we started seeding a blend of salt tolerant grasses and alfalfa directly into these saline areas.  I remember taking a picture and sending it to my consultant asking, “Is this success or is this failure?”  We started just haying it and now I am getting good quality and quantity of forage from these acres. A negative producing piece of land was turned to a positive. We have planted over 160 acres back to perennial grasses now. We did it three, four, or five acres at a time.


4)    What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their farming systems for resiliency and soil health?


Farming the easy way is the most profitable way. Farmers tend to think more yield equals more profit. You still need to produce bushels, but at the same time you have to do it profitably. If I look back at the last 10 years, there were some very tough years where we were basically running at break even or just below.  What would happen if we removed some of the lowest producing soils from our field and let the precision equipment do its job? 


Our cash crops are inundated with technology. To kill weeds, pests, diseases now we use multiple modes of action that overlap.  A few years back 1 mode took care of the problem.  When you add up all the inputs on the non-productive soils, it’s a no-brainer to stop farming them. But it is easier to drive straight, so most farmers do this and resist change. 


5)    Is there something you'd still like to do that you have not yet tried to improve your soil health on your farm?


I started composting. It was not on the list of things to do in 2022, but the whole composting process has made a believer out of me. I took cattails, rye straw, dry cattle manure, wood chips, and a little bit of rye grain, combined them with water and I watched it turn to humus compost in six weeks’ time. We've sent our compost to be tested chemically, biologically and are encouraged by what we are finding.


6)    What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing their farming system to one that is better for building soil health?


Start small and watch the plants. There are a couple older gentlemen I visited with and asked, “how do I tell if I’m succeeding?” One response was “If you want to know how much biology is working in your field, just take a rod, stick it in the ground. However far you can push that rod in is how far your biology is working.” Very, very basic answer. The other response was “just watch the plants”.


7)    When you walk across your crop lands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy soils?


Bringing back the diversity that was there when we started tilling the soil. When you stop doing stuff to the land and start working with the land you will see indicators that you are doing something good. One day while feeding cattle I was thinking, “why don't we have all these saline areas out in our pastures?”  God gave us a plant for every acre and the human, doing what humans do, we screw it up. We took out that diversity. We have been told that to grow corn, it cannot have any competition around it. To grow soybeans, it cannot have any competition around it. But look at Mother Nature, she doesn’t have 30 inches between her plants with no competition around them.


8)    What change have you made that at first you thought would never work?


Planting salt tolerant plants in ground that is barren and won’t grow kochia and wondering, “is this just a waste of $100 per acre of seed cost?” You have to have a little bit of faith or a lot of “what the hell” in you, because otherwise you say, “why would you do that?” That's a fair point. Who is going to spend $100 an acre and not know if something's going to grow?


9)    What are the signs your cropland is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?


My father bought a quarter of ground that was productive soil when my brother and I were in high school in the 1980’s.  By 2019 that quarter has 30 to 50 acres of moderate to high salt. I was the one who farmed it during those years and followed accepted farming practices. We let it get into that shape.  I do feel like a hypocrite. Those 30 to 50 acres are now growing a solid stand of oats and will be transitioned into perennial grasses.  The land is resilient and will correct itself if we let it.


10) What indicators do you have that healthy soil practices also make economic sense for you?


On my saline areas, I had grass seed investment that first year I took the saline soils out of crop production.  I don't have any costs associated with fertilizer or chemicals, yet my tonnage goes up. Those areas have plenty of moisture, but they don't grow any plants because the natural system is broken. We are going to study applying compost to my crop land and cutting back on commercial fertilizer to determine what the economic threshold will be. 


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