On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, SDSU Soil Field Specialist, Anthony Bly, shares about all the little moments that have come together to start and continually improve his soil’s health and resilience.
Based in Sioux Falls, Anthony Bly supports South Dakotan’s in his role as the SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist. Through a no-till approach and cover crop integration on his own family property, Anthony aims to find his niche within nature to heal soils while supporting his family’s livelihood in the process.
1) What is the one thing you've done that has been most important to the success of your operation?
Success means something different to everybody. To me, success is feeling good about what you’re doing. Definitely the monetary part has to come along with that, but I really believe it will if you make the right decisions for our environmental resources. You know, I didn't realize this until I recently answered a similar question, but my dad saved this farm with conservation. He didn't know soil biology. He didn't know the importance of diversity. But, he knew we had a resource that we had to protect, so he set our farm on that road. My parents bought this farm in the early 80’s, when the ag. economy was going backwards and people were selling out. To buy a farm during that time was difficult, but right away we went into conservation practices– terracing, reducing our tillage, putting straight points on our chiseled plow, trying to make fewer passes. To me, that is success; taking your situation, adapting to it. People get so wrapped up in the annual basis of economic success, and I think that’s getting in the way of seeing the most important things. I believe that hard work and informed decisions will pay off economically.
2) Can you recall a moment when the light bulb went on for you that you realized soil health practices make sense or that you should change the way you were farming?
Well, I don't know if there’s any specific moment, I think it happens often. I’ve seen it happen with other people. They would call it an “aha” moment; you can see it in them. I had really good mentors in college, and they really helped me to see things in a different way. It wasn’t all-of-a-sudden, it was bits-and-pieces at a time. Because this is really complicated, we’re talking about physical properties, biological properties, and chemical properties, and we’re all in this business to try to educate agriculture about each of those things, and that’s difficult. I can go to a moment in my career just a few years ago when I traveled the United States on a fellowship and went on a number of organized tours visiting other farms. I could say I had several “aha” moments on that tour. So, I'm constantly trying to pick up new things, learn new things and relate them to other people, and connect people through what I’ve learned. I think it’s so important when you see a producer struggling and you know another producer that has been through that, to connect them. That’s really powerful.
3) What surprised you the most when you started changing the way you farmed?
I’ll go back to ‘91, ‘92, when we went no-till, the surprise was the amount of water that soaked into the soil rather than running off of it. That was huge. To hear other people in our family recognize that, and have people coming to the farm and saying, ‘There used to be a lot of water that comes out through here, what happened?’ Then you go to work explaining what we’re doing differently on this farm. So that was the most surprising thing, how the infiltration had improved, and we no longer saw a lot of water running off. The soil structure improvement, the biology, the microbiology consuming the residues; I even started to get concerned that we wouldn’t have enough residue to cover the soil. But it is working out so far. So yeah, I think that’s probably the thing that surprised me the most, that this microbiology can do powerful things.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their farming systems for soil health and resiliency?
We could drive around the community right now and I could show you some awesome-looking crops on fields that are tilled in fall and spring, and they just look great right now. On the other hand, some of our no-till crops appear to be struggling. But I think we’re learning more about biology, and that the conception of what looks good or what doesn't look good could be flipped on its side. I think a lot of people that are naysayers about what we’re doing look at what they see in the moment, and they don’t look at or beyond August 1st as much. That’s kind of sad to me because they're all in a hurry to get to cropping, get it taken care of, and then wait for the combine to enter the field. But there’s more to it than that. And so those are the kind of misconceptions I am trying to deal with. Because I hear from other producers the same story; ‘Why does this no-till field look a lot worse than that one over there?’ And I answer the question the same way each time, ‘Well, they’re burning up their organic matter, and the crop is responding to that.’ They all know that when they call, we just have to wait until August, and it will look better than those tilled fields. They all know that, but there’s still something in the psychology of all this that we’re in a rush to have things looking nice.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet done to improve soil health on your operation?
Oh golly, I’d really like to do some rotational grazing. My son pushed me hard to bring some sheep back to the farm, and we have a very, very small flock of sheep. So that’s one of these dreams that I think could be a reality, but I'm gonna need help. I'd like to rotationally graze sheep on either annual or biannual pasture situations and just move on that way. I think that would be the next big venture for the Bly farm.
6) What advice would you have for someone who is considering changing their farming system to one that's better for building soil health?
Oh that’s easy, you’ve got to start hanging around the right groups of people that are like-minded, and you get that through the Soil Health Coalition, the No-Till Association, or other meetings where those like-minded people go. Then you start listening, you start asking questions, you try to trade phone numbers, you get on the Growing Connections app that the South Dakota Soil Coalition has. You start asking questions and you just build your knowledge, read books, search on the internet. Just get educated and it won’t end, it’ll keep going. I also think it’s important to establish goals, like what you want your farm to look like, and then establish some objectives. You've got to start somewhere and just go with it. That’s my biggest set of advice.
7) When you walk across your croplands, what do you look for as indicators of soil health?
Well, I like to see the ground covered. But just because the soil is covered doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Soil cover isn’t a soil health indicator itself, but it leads to improved health and it indicates to me that we’re taking care of some things. I don't like to see bare patches; I like to see the protection. When we’ve dug soil pits and taken soil samples, you can see the mixing of the soil– the topsoil with the subsoil and the subsoil with the topsoil. And that’s nature’s way of doing tillage, of moving those nutrients around, of taking geology and making it soil. Those are the things that I key in on. As far as the crop side, I'm an agronomist at heart so I like to see even stands, I like to see good growth. I've fully recognized, though, that plants don't have to look good all the time to be successful, they don't. They're like people. They get sick and don't feel good but eventually the important moment is the end of the year. I like to see a good cover crop growing. In the last couple of years with the dry autumns it has been very difficult, even here in eastern South Dakota. I like to see different plants growing, and, being an agronomist, I like to grow different plants. So, just being successful with that in this situation is what I look for.
8) What changes have you made that at first you thought would never work?
Oh that’s easy, in my graduate student days I was involved with a research project in a no-till environment, and that no-till corn-on-corn situation just looked terrible. That’s what kept me from adopting Dwayne Beck’s rotation that he talked about for a decade or more: planting corn-on-corn in a no-till environment. I had to get over that little anxiety, wondering, ‘am I going to be able to make that work?’ I’m educated, I have two degrees, but it takes more than that. It takes great willingness to take a risk. So, I did that, and it’s worked really well. In fact, this year my corn-on-corn is probably my best corn right now. It's hard to explain why that’s even occurring. I have an idea but even I don't know for sure.
9) What signs are you seeing in your cropland that your croplands are getting more resilient?
Well, we talked earlier about nutrient cycling and the fact that the biology on my fields and my soils are cycling residues very well. That’s a sure sign that resiliency is underway. I call that a fire, if you will, because it generates some heat, some temperature on a micro scale. We need to feed that fire a continued supply of carbon; we’re carbon deficient here. So, the first time I heard Dwayne [Beck] say that we should focus on carbon and not nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, I'd really thought he’d lost it. I was thinking, are you kidding me? We should be fertilizing with carbon? It was so radical. Such a thought-provoking statement. But I believe it to be true now. It’s absolutely true. We need those other elements– nitrogen first, phosphorus second, but we need them all. Carbon is the cornerstone or the foundation of how all of those other cycles function and work. There’s another “aha” moment. So, it's all about the carbon.
10) What does resilience mean to you?
To me, it started when we first started no-tilling, and we stopped a lot of the water runoff. We stopped the majority of those gullies and rills, and I mean we had serious gullies that we would plow into with our small equipment and farm again. That soil was not resilient. It was going backwards in a fast way. Now we have improved water infiltration, we’ve built our soil microbiology, these soils are building again, we’re actually building soils here, I'm really confident of that. We have a great variety of different soil types, they’re all similar in nature, but some are more eroded than others. Even the eroded ones are turning around and coming back well, but the other soils are doing it more quickly. They're not all moving at the same pace, but I am impressed with the evenness across fields now. We used to have a huge discrepancy between yield on our eroded soils and yield on our depositional soils. That gap has closed. To me, that’s resilience: building soil, being able to overcome five inches of rain in an hour. Being able to stand that, that is resilient soil.
11) What indicators do you have that healthy soil practices also make sense economically to you?
Well, I don't know the pocketbooks of many other producers, we can talk about what you have and don't have. We’re a family that doesn't have to have exceedingly nice things, but we like to have fun once in a while. Despite an off-farm income, this farm is contributing to my family’s well-being. We’re not sticking money into the farm. A lot of people have questioned me, saying that I can only afford to farm because I have another job. And I quickly correct them and say no, the farm is supplying income that I need to supplement my off-farm income. So, I guess that's a kind of gauge that we are going in the right direction. We’re not slaves to any corporation or bank or anything like that. We take care of ourselves, and I think that’s a good indicator of economic safety.
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