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Keith Lambert's Journey to Soil Health Success in the James River Valley

This week in the “Resilience Rodeo”, Keith Lambert shares his experience of pushing through the first few rough years to get to the long-term benefits when managing your farm for soil health.

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            In the James River Valley in northeastern SD, Keith Lambert farms in an area dominated by corn and soybeans, with little evidence of small grains or livestock. When it comes to starting soil health practices and getting out of that strict corn-soybean rotation, Keith suggests starting small, learning how things work, and then scale up.

Keith Lambert
Keith Lambert


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


Probably having a better understanding of how the soil works.


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


I was at a soil health event and heard Dr. Dwayne Beck speak about how the water cycle works in healthy soil and how, well, it doesn’t in poorly managed soils.  Hearing that and remembering how many times we said “just pull it over in the grass at the edge of the field so we can get to it” with machinery, it began to click that we were creating a lot of our own problems with soil.


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


How long it takes to see results.  In farming we’re somewhat trained to spray this on or plant this type of seed and you have an instant result, or a result in that growing season. That's not the right measuring stick to use when you're doing this stuff. Realistically, it's at least three, if not five years before you start noticing significant changes, significant results.


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


Probably the biggest misconception is some of what we talked about previously. How long it takes to see success in the cover crops and that they don’t just cost money and waste time. They do cost money, and it does take time to implement it. But if you measure it over a larger timeframe, they work pretty well.


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


Trying to integrate livestock in some fashion, on a larger scale than what we do currently. We don’t have our own livestock right now. We've used some neighboring cattle to try some things out. I'd like to expand on that.


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


Sometimes we want to change things too fast when we’re 20 and not fast enough when we’re 70. So, I’d say start small. Pick one small corner of a field or one small area, whether it's an acre or ten acres or 50, whatever you have available to you. Pick one small spot and try one, two, or three things, as much as you can implement in that small spot. Try anything and begin to learn what might or might not work for you.


7)    When you walk across your crop lands, what are you looking for as an indicator of soil health?


The texture of the soil would be the first thing. When you stick a shovel in the ground and pull it out and see what it looks like, that's probably the first thing.


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


I was a little skeptical about growing soybeans into standing rye. It seemed like an awful big ask to drive through a 3-foot-tall rye crop that was green and growing, expecting soybeans to grow.  The spring was unbelievably late and wet, and I hadn't sprayed it yet. I was forced into it.  The previous year was prevent plant and we seeded rye out there in late summer and with the extreme moisture the following spring the rye went crazy.  I no-tilled planted through the standing rye, sprayed, and rolled it.  The beans came up better than expected and had no crusting issues with the rye covering the soil, it was fun to watch.


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


Resiliency would be seeing a large rain event and not losing 30% of your field due to ponding, or watching muddy water run off through the field. That's what we’ve struggled with here in the past.


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


A good set of yield maps over several years and a basic break-even figure shows the gains made along with the areas to be worked on yet.


Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:

1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts, and more.

2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.

3. Follow Growing Resilience on social media:


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