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Mastering the Economics of Farming - Lori Tonak - Resilience Rodeo

On today’s “Resilience Rodeo”, Lori Tonak shares lessons she’s learned from working with producers throughout SD on the economic side of farm/ranch management through her role at Mitchell Tech.

While not a farmer or rancher herself, Lori Tonak helps producers across SD with accounting software and farm/ranch analysis in her role with the South Dakota Center of Farm/Ranch Management out of Mitchell Tech. In her role assisting producers in tracking various economic measures of success, she has been able to clearly see the benefits that soil health practices can provide to those who adopt them.

Lori Tonak in field
Lori Tonak

1) What is one thing that you feel has been most important to the producers you work with on their operations?

The most important things to the success of most of my producers are profitability and rainfall.

2) Can you recall a moment or a time that maybe a light bulb has gone off for some of your producers, that they've started to realize these soil health practices make sense usually?

Well, I have one particular young man I'll use in this example. When he took over his family farm the fields were in terrible shape. So, he started with a fall cover on the fields. He would graze it, then he would follow that with a spring cover on the particularly bad fields, and graze it again. The next year, he planted a crop in it. What he found after three or four years of doing this was that his inputs fell dramatically. His chemicals, his fertilizer, the spray, I mean, all sorts of things fell dramatically and it wasn’t impacted as much by rainfall. His production went up.

3) What do you feel surprises producers the most when they start changing the way they farm to include soil health?

I think it's the reduction of costs. When we track it by field, we can really see what the inputs are costing them, especially fertilizer and chemicals, because you're going to use those on almost every crop, not all, but there are a lot of them. When they start seeing those input costs really dropping, a lot of times drastically, that sells them and they will spread the word. But, it's sometimes 4 to 5 years before we start seeing that.

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

The biggest misconception would be that it doesn't work. People think doing cover crops and doing soil health “doesn't work” because they don't see it in the first year, so they quit.

I know a lot of farmers; beyond the ones, I work with. I tell guys that if they ask me, they still will often try it for a year and they don't see the benefits, so they quit. That’s definitely the biggest misconception, is they cannot get around that. Sometimes you’ve got to do it for four or five years before you really see it take off.

There’s another misconception here where we have so little rain, where we get 18 inches of average rainfall a year. The other thing is they say, “Well, it's going to take up more moisture because it's out there in the fall”. I keep telling them, no, when it rains, it holds moisture. But that's another misconception that they get. So those are the biggest two.

5) Is there something that you think a lot of your producers would still like to try to improve their soil health but haven't tried yet?

Most of my producers, once they start working with us, will become part of the Soil Health Coalition or the Rangeland Coalition because they want to try to improve. There are a few older guys that are never going to change their ways. Those guys, you know, we can't convince them. They'll do things like put on more fertilizer instead. My young guys are the ones that are really grasping this. I do have a few older guys, but the younger generation that's working with them has to prove it to them before they'll buy it. I do have some guys who were in their seventies who did cover crops and continue to do so, and they're now 80. So, I mean, there are some of those, but they're not as many as the younger generation.

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

I would say the best thing is to track what's happening on the field, to track their expenses, to truly make sure that it is working for them. I haven't seen anywhere it hasn't, but that is what I would highly advise farmers to do, which is to track either by crop or by field. Either one, because if they would I think they would see the benefits over three to five years.

7) When you walk across cropland or when your producers are walking across their cropland, what do you think are indicators of healthy soils?

We talk about the worms and drifting dirt because if you have healthy soil, your drift of dirt is not as high. You know, you could leave it a little bare and it won't drift because it's got structure. But when it's so overly worked, it's just a powder here. And then that's when we see blowing soils. But the worms are a big one. If you see a lot of worms, usually that indicates that your soil health is excellent.

8) What change have some of the producers made that they really told you they didn't think would work at first?

Cover crops. I mean, there's been a lot of no-till and minimum till. And people thought that would make it work the best where they were cropping. Well, then when they went to no-till with a cover crop, they really saw the benefits. It was just that much better.

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

Resiliency means to me that, when it's been dry like here this time of year, there are guys that can plant and they are getting germination. Then there are some other guys that have planted and there is no germination because the topsoil is too dry. That's the biggest thing I've seen here and that's what I see most of the time. The other thing is flooding. We have seen fields with cover crops that they can get in and plant right away. Then there's tiled fields where, if we get big rains like we had three years ago, they couldn't get into because they were too muddy.

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

I mostly see it in the reduction in fertilizer and chemicals. The weather here is so sporadic, that's not the indicator I usually look at. I usually look at what their inputs are costing them.


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