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Resilience Rodeo - Brian Johnson - Working with Mother Nature

For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, farmer and cow/calf producer, Brian Johnson, talks about a past of fighting against Mother Nature and how his experiences changed his mindset to one focused on working with her instead.

Brian Johnson is a fourth-generation farmer who runs a diversified no-till crop and cow/calf operation near Frankfort, South Dakota with his children his and wife, Jamie. In the 80’s, Brian’s father first implemented no-till practices on their land to try to retain moisture. Over time, Brian observed that maintaining living root structure as well as planting and grazing cover crops are important counterparts to those no-till practices. When facing saline seeps, Brian champions perennials as a tool to work alongside Mother Nature and restore balance to the soil biology.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Brian Johnson

1)    What is the one thing you've done that has been most important to the success of reclaiming some of these salinity seeps?


The most important thing we’ve done is probably change our mindset. Instead of fighting nature, we’re working with nature on those acres. We used to continually try to fight the problem and grow a crop there instead of allowing nature to grow a perennial there. That seems to be probably the most successful thing that we changed.


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?


I think it was probably a couple decades ago when we were still trying to crop a saline area in one of our fields. It would be dry on top, but if it got a little slick under that top crust for any reason, the wheels would spin and you might get stuck there with the tractor. So, you realize, why am I continually doing this every year? As you're sitting there waiting for help to come pull you out, the light bulb goes off and it’s like, maybe we need to do something different here. Maybe instead of planting corn and beans here every year it's a perennial that will fix the problem, so we don't have to keep losing money on these acres. Because they truly are not profitable. The data shows us that it's not profitable to crop those acres, the yield maps and the profitability maps show us that it's not profitable. If you put in a perennial, you’re going to be profitable on those acres because your inputs go down significantly.


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


I think what surprised me the most was that you could see a drastic change in just two years. Sometimes it takes longer, of course. But on certain spots where we planted the perennials, we could see that change very quickly in the span of two to three years. And not only do you see the growth of those perennials, but your stress level goes down because now you're not having to fight those acres trying to crop them.


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 is that you can fix the problem without a perennial. I think people try to change it just by installing tile and thinking that change alone is going to solve the problem or think that continuing to grow corn and beans but not tilling it is going to fix the problem. At the end of the day, you need living roots in the soil to fix that problem. And those living roots need to be perennials.


5)    Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet done to improve salinity conditions on your land?


What I’d like to improve with our salinity is to fix all of our acres. We still have spots that will show up from time to time. We know how to manage them now, but there is still a problem area occasionally when you have the right weather conditions and the wrong rainfall at the wrong time. Or the wrong crop in that field. Nothing’s ever perfect and we’re never done learning, but I'm always going to be trying to improve those acres for the rest of my life.


6)    What advice would you have for someone who is just starting to face their salinity seeps?


I would say find somebody who has remedied some of those acres of their own, or talk to a technician in your NRCS office or a soil health professional, and they will help to lead you down the right path and give you options of how to fix that. There’s a lot of knowledge about how to fix these problems now, there's a lot more information out there available, so you don't need to reinvent the wheel on your own. Don’t be afraid to open your mind and ears to somebody that maybe has a lot of expertise in that area and can help you fix it and give you a lot of options for your farm. There’s a lot of organizations that have taken a role in trying to fix this problem now, they’re working together collaboratively. Every Acre Counts is a great tool for producers to highlight the acres that they need to change. There’s Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited and a lot of other soil health organizations that are out there and we all have the same goal: to do what’s best for the soil and for the land, but what’s best for the producer as well. So, we’ve all got the same end goal. And it’s not just for the sake of the soil, but a lot of times it’s good for the wildlife as well, and that provides another opportunity for the producer.


7)    When you walk across your crop lands and your native rangeland, what do you look for as indicators of soil health?


For me, if I can't see the bare soil, I know we’re doing something right there. At the end of the day, residue is insulating the soil from the sun and the wind, it helps prevent erosion on our farm and it helps retain the moisture. When we go back to the mid-80’s, the reason my dad switched to no-till was to retain moisture. Well, you need residue to help do that here in South Dakota. So you leave the cornstalks intact on the field, you grow a cover crop before soybeans, you grow rye so you've got a living root in the spring before soybeans, you've got a lot of residue and organic matter there. If I can see residue covering the soil, I feel good about my chances.


8)    Is there any change you’ve made that you thought would never work?


When we first started out, our first test with rye was my wife’s garden. It’s probably no more than a forty-by-forty little plot, and because rye was not something you saw in this part of the world produced very much or as a cover crop, I had to see firsthand what it did to the soil but also how it helped control the weeds. From there we tried it on a few fields the next year, and within three years we were doing aerial application of a rye cover crop on a hundred percent of our corn acres in the fall that then go to beans the next year. In a span of three years. So that’s a big change. It was a little nerve wracking for my father because he viewed rye as something that would use up moisture when you wanted to save it. That comes from his experience of struggling with really dry fields in the 80’s. What we saw in the spring of ‘22 was a massive amount of rye cover crop in our field that was actually insulating the soil from the sun, and so that first inch of soil was moist. Then once you place the seed about two inches down it was perfect. So, the rye was helping us retain moisture in that case, and it wasn't utilizing any extra. My biggest learning experience was trusting the wife there. She knows what she’s doing in the garden, and I can carry those principles out into the farm and the crop fields.


9)    What are the signs that your land is resilient?


I think we saw some of the signs earlier today when we put a shovel in the ground on a high-residue wheat field. We’ve been extremely hot and dry here this spring, way more than normal, and to see that amount of moisture that deep in the profile, it shows me that we’re insulating ourselves from the extremes of Mother Nature in a way, because we can retain so much water and that is usually our limiting factor here. If we can replicate that on most of the acres on our farm, it can take away probably the most limiting factor for crop production for us; water. It’s purely water. It gets me really excited to see that moisture retention because our land here can get really dry.


10) What does resilience mean to you?


To me, resilience means being productive and healthy for years to come. And I think that’s what we’re creating on our farm, what my father helped create and what we’re taking to another level through a variety of cover crops and livestock on the soil. So, it's about passing it on to the next generation better than how we found it.


11) As a row-cropper, what’s in it for you economically to change things and start considering perennials?


I think the first step for producers towards change is knowing your cost per acre. Some people do and others don’t. So that’s the first hurdle: are you tracking input costs at the field level and at the acre level? Because most people have the yield maps, but until you know your costs and you coordinate them with the yield maps, you don't know your true profitability on those acres. That's usually when the light bulb goes off for those producers. If you're not making money on those acres and it’s an every-year occurrence that you're in the red, you should consider doing something different. And if that change is a perennial rather than a crop, you're going to be more profitable, it's guaranteed. Because you're not losing money on that parcel. And at the end of the day, isn't our goal to be profitable as a business? So, it should be something to seriously consider.


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