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Resilience Rodeo - Alex Boekelheide - Stewardship-Based Management

On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, Alex Boekelheide tells us how focusing on soil health has created a stewardship-based management approach to help make his family’s farm more profitable and resilient.

The fifth generation on a farm that has primarily been corn and soybeans near Aberdeen, Alex Boekelheide incorporates diversity into the operation with a goal of continual improvement and stewardship. Shifting the farms approach to a longer-term view has helped them ensure that year to year they can remain profitable while also increasing the resiliency and overall health of their cash- and cover cropping systems.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Alex Boekelheide

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


I really think it's emphasizing the importance of continual learning. Knowing that there's always a better way to do things and never being stuck in a rut saying, “This is the only way” or “This is the best way”. Continuing to be your toughest critic, so to speak, and making sure that your practices align with the values of your operation. And that the practices that you're implementing are going to ensure the long-term success and sustainability for your operation, not only for the generation running it now but for future generations. It really starts with a mindset shift to guide decision-making.


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


As I mentioned before, stewardship is very important to us on our farm. We're in the northeast region of South Dakota and we could visually see some of our ground starting to go backwards. We just kind of hung our heads when we looked at some of the acres. We've been excessively wet the past few years and have also had extended periods of drought.

It’s been the extremes on both ends of the spectrum. These conditions really identified the weaknesses within our cropping system. Since the mission on our farm revolves around stewardship and leaving things better than the way we found it, we looked in the mirror and realized we needed to make some changes. So, instead of waiting until conditions were beyond repair, we wanted to be proactive and start making some changes now while we still had the ability to improve things and continue to build in resiliency and efficiencies within our operation. That’s why we changed. Seeing the resilience that you can have within a cropping system when you start deploying soil health-minded practices, we have started to feel good about every acre again.



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


Changing our approach gave our whole team on our farm a new sense of purpose behind the stewardship role we have as farmers. It's easy to kind of get into a monotonous repeat mode on how we farm. Now we have re-lit the fire around the “why” we're implementing different practices. It’s exciting to be a part of. You can look at yourself in the mirror and know you're proactively trying to make a change to benefit and enhance the resources that we get to operate on.


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


The biggest misconception is thinking that soil health practices are too difficult to implement while remaining profitable. It can be done. It takes a little more creativity and effort than other cropping systems but it is a doable task and I feel each year gets a little easier as the system evolves. We're very much in our infancy in comparison to some of the farmers that have been doing this for 20 to 30 years. But it all starts with a mindset shift and starting to incorporate changes within a cropping system to build the overall resiliency, sustainability, and performance of your operation.


5)    Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet done to improve your soil health on the farm?


Soil health testing is an area that I think we can improve upon to help us make data-driven decisions and quantify the progression of the functionality of our soils.


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


You have to minimize risk, and that means starting small. When you read about cover crops, no-till, soil health, all these diverse rotations, it sounds like sunshine and roses. But we all know that's not always reality. There's going to be challenges that you face that you didn't encounter before within a traditional cropping system. And that's why you have to start small to figure out some of those hiccups. So that when you do have problems, it's not going to put the financial position of your farm in jeopardy. Start by building confidence with your desired cropping system on a smaller percentage of your acres. Once you are comfortable, then start to roll these practices across all of your acres.


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


Plant growth and water infiltration. We battle saline soils in our region and that problem can be amplified if you have standing water being lost through evaporation instead of being utilized by a plant. So that's a big driver of why we need to do things differently to make sure we're using our water efficiently through a living root. And as we continue to refine our data collection methods, some soil health and functionality tests will start to be indicators to measure how we're doing.


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


No-till during a wet spring. You have to force yourself to be patient and let the soil come around on its own to be fit to plant versus forcing it to change with the tillage tool like we used to do in the past. In both 2022 and 2023, we battled through overly wet conditions in the spring planting window. We remained committed to our no-till goals and remained patient to wait for the right time to plant. In both 2022 and 2023, our crop yields were in the top 5 of our farm’s historical yields. That was an eye-opener for me because no-till is most challenging when conditions are wet and we were able to make it work and had a successful crop to follow.


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


The soil’s ability to infiltrate water after big rain events is a big indicator of resiliency and health. Another big indicator to me is smaller swings in our average yields from year to year, regardless of the growing conditions. When you can have strong yields year in and year out through all the different weather conditions we face, that is resiliency. It may not be the home run every year. But if we can hit base hits and doubles consistently, that’s how a farm stays in business for generations.


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


It requires a multi-year systems approach versus just year-to-year. This is where that mindset shift comes into play that I talked about earlier. The small grain acres may not be as attractive on paper, but when you wholistically factor in what that small grain acre does for you, it makes a lot of sense. Nutrient efficiencies, moisture retention, reduced herbicide use, yield improvement, and spreading the workload out on the farm are all factors that start to be influenced by these changes which in turn start to drive down the cost of production for each crop on the farm increasing profitability.


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.

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