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Resilience Rodeo - Austin Carlson - Education & Diving into New Practices

This week on the “Resilience Rodeo”, Austin Carlson of the SD Soil Health Coalition shares his thoughts on the importance of educating yourself before diving into new practices for soil health and resiliency.

Austin Carlson works with the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, and with his wife manages both pasture and cropland near Garretson, SD. Farming was something he always wanted to do, but he struggled to get a foot in the door. For a while he worked assembling strip till equipment and teaching farmers how to use them. Through this work, Austin observed how expensive and labor-intensive conventional tillage can be. That got him started on the path to implementing soil health practices. Through attending soil health schools and the no-till example set by his father, Bruce Carlson, Austin is now an experienced advocate for soil health.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Austin Carlson

1)    What is the one thing you've done that has been the most important thing to the success of your operation?


I think the biggest thing that’s been a success in starting the soil health journey was probably going to some of these schools. Just being able to start my farming career working more with the land and with nature I think was very helpful for my practice in the long-term than if I would have got to farming right out of college. I would have had a much more conventional mindset then and a larger learning curve, and I would have been more stuck in my ways if I’d learned these things 20 years down the road.


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


The time that the light bulb went off for me to get interested in soil health was probably 2018 soil health school, everybody there was so welcoming. The rainfall simulator was very eye-opening for me.


3)    What surprised you the most when you started implementing soil health practices?


I think the most surprising thing about starting these new soil health practices could be the pushback you sometimes receive from local people in the community, people that haven't really learned about these practices. I make decisions, and sometimes they have been doing this a lot longer than me, and it’s sometimes a challenge when they think I should be going a different direction.


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


I think the biggest misconception I see with the soil health system that a lot of people have is that maybe you’re lazier in your farming operation or maybe on a really fringe budget, and that’s why you didn’t till or use conventional methods. When you’re driving down the road and you see a no-till field, with stalks standing up and maybe cows out grazing, and you just drop in with the planter– I think some people see that as a sign of laziness, or that you won’t achieve the same yields as the conventional-till neighbor. But I find that to be false. You have to be more in tune with your land and make very wise management decisions for it to work. And the yields– I’m not a seasoned farmer– but from working with my dad and doing the little bit that I’ve done, I’ve seen that the yields are just as good.


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


Something I’d like to do to improve the soil health on my farm would be to keep building that soil structure better. I’m transitioning some fields that were conventionally tilled and I can see a difference from my dad’s fields, who’s been doing no-till longer, versus this newly transitioned field. I have a little ways to go on building that soil structure. I think planting will get easier in time as we build the structure, because this spring it was tough.


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


Some advice I’d give somebody who’s looking to transition would be to get connected with people who are on this journey already. The soil health coalition, the grassland coalition, NRCS folks, I have found them all to be very, very helpful and instrumental in me really buying in and believing in these practices. You really need to be connected. Because if you’re just making the change, and you’re still running in the same circles with people who are not interested in these practices, it can be kind of depressing and you might be tempted to go back to your own ways, and in that case, you won’t get to see the exciting parts of farming, I think.


7)    When you walk across your croplands what do you look for as an indicator or as indicators of soil health?


An indicator I look for of healthy soils is to not have erosion. I can remember some of these hills after big rain, I mean, you’d almost feel kind of sick. Like knowing I had a part in creating these rills that are forming into little gullies. So now I look, after it rains, I don’t want to see any soil that moved.


8)    Was there a change that you’ve made that at first you thought would never work?


I guess a change that I made that at first I didn’t think would work, I look back to when my dad was doing some of his first no-till corn, and I was in the mindset that probably that isn’t the best thing to do around here. I thought we needed some amount of tillage to warm up the soil and get the fertilizer placed properly. So, I was on that strip-till mindset. But I’ve definitely been proven wrong and seen a lot of success since.


9)    What signs are you seeing in your cropland that your croplands are getting more resilient?


The signs I see for resilient cropland is the soil staying in place.  Sometimes no-till crops can look a little rougher or behind conventionally tilled fields early in the growing season, but as the season progresses, the no-till catches up and looks just as healthy, if not greater plant health than the conventionally tilled fields. Minimizing erosion is the key for me. Like last summer, we got a couple-inch downpour and I remember some of the neighboring fields, they had a bunch of soil wash into their ditch, even gravel washing off the road that came from some conventionally-tilled fields. In both of those occasions they had to literally dig material out of the ditch. By not having that around our fields, I think that’s a sign of success.


10) What does the word resiliency mean to you?


Resiliency means to me to be able to withstand some of the extreme weather conditions. I think the upper Midwest is just a very unique area, you know, it can be really, really dry, it can be really, really wet. To have resilient soil that can sustain through those dry periods, and on the flip side, if you can filter that water and put it deeper in the soil profile on the wet years, it’s just a way more resilient scenario. Even just having cover over the soil surface to buffer that temperature. You’re not getting the high spikes of the high temperatures and then really, really cold drops because you don’t have insulation or anything covering the soil.


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


Some indicators of soil health that have improved financially for my farm, I would say, not doing any tillage has helped save a huge fuel cost. I’m young in my farming journey so I have to rent a tractor every time I need to do something. I need to pay for that fuel and somehow track the hours I’m putting on the equipment. If I had to do an extra couple passes of tillage, it would add up. Another thing I think about when I’m filling up the tractors with fuel is the total number of gallons that have gone through that pump on the fuel barrel. It’s just kind of eye-opening when you think about it, we could have shaved off a third or half of those gallons over the course of time if we had been in a no-till system earlier. So, when you start putting a dollar figure to it all, it adds up very quickly.


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