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Resilience Rodeo - Bruce Carlson - The Journey to Improving Soils

This week on the “Resilience Rodeo”, Bruce Carlson shares how water, going into the ground rather than running across it, was a big part in starting his long journey in improving his soils.

Bruce Carlson has been dabbling in farming ever since high school. He went to school to be a diesel mechanic and worked as a service technician for John Deere before finding an opportunity to farm full-time. Since then, he has gone from a conventional minimum tillage and cow calf operation, to slowly toying with no-till soybeans in 2004 and exploring other soil health practices since. As of 2018, his operation in Garretson, SD has been 100% no-till. Bruce is a proponent of soil health but understands that every producer is on their own journey, and on their own time in learning what works for their soil, their budget, and what they may need to change.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Bruce Carlson

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

One thing I’ve done on this journey that’s been a big key, I think, is putting the cows into the cover crops, getting them that supplementary source to eat.

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?

I think the time that the lightbulb really went on for me was in 2018. We went to a soil health school, and they brought a rainfall simulator. We were able to see how much runoff there is in conventionally tilled land compared to no-till. What really impacted me was seeing what was absorbed by each soil when they flipped it over– in the conventionally tilled soil, the bottom was dry, and the no-till soil was moist. Sometimes we don’t get very much rain in South Dakota, so every drop counts and none of it should be running off.

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

What surprised me the most was how we didn’t have so much runoff. One field in particular, if it rained hard, there would be a gully that would run all the way down to the end of the field, underneath the railroad track, and then back into another field of ours. Since changing our practices, we’ve seen a lot less water pooling and running off, and more water retention.

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

The biggest misconception is that “it won’t work here”. People feel like they need to “warm up” the soil to make things grow, that tillage has to happen, and I think that is a misconception. Using the proper tools and methods, I think it can be done, you just have to change your mindset of what you expect and how to go about it.

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

I’d like to progress in interseeding corn; I’d really like to make that work consistently. And, I’d like to try planting green a little bit more.

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

My advice to someone who wants to start their soil health journey is to keep an open mind. Go to some of these schools– that rainfall simulator was just huge for me– so you can see for yourself what’s going on. Or talk to others that have tried it. Just know that you’re going to have to change some things, like how you used to think these things work. There’s going to be challenges. Just keep an open mind. There’s a lot of resources on the internet, and other producers that are willing to tell you what they’re doing.

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

When we walk across our land looking at what has changed or what looks healthy, to me, if you look on the ground and you see earthworms, that tells me there’s a lot of activity going on below. Normally I’ve got my pliers with me, and if I shove my pliers into the ground and it goes in nice and easy, and I flip the soil out and it crumbles real nice, that’s my indication we’re doing something better than we did before.

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

A change that we made that I didn’t think would ever work is planting into some of these heavier residues or planting into standing green crops. I would have never thought that would work, I would have never dreamt of doing that, but surprisingly, it works.

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

Signs that cropland is more resilient than it used to be, is that you don’t see the corn curling up quite as quickly. You know, it still will, but it seems like it hangs on better in this drier weather. Also, on the flip side of it, when it’s wet, it seems like the water goes into the soil, and we don’t have standing water or erosion problems as much. You can actually go out and walk across a field and the soil’s not going to stick to the bottom of your shoes. And, I feel like you could drive a tractor across it a lot quicker than something that was tilled.

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

Some of the indicators that have probably helped us in the pocketbook is definitely having the cows on the cover crops. We’re not using as much feed we did before, we have narrowed the window of when we feed hay, we don’t spend a lot of time hauling manure that we would if we had cattle in the lot, and fuel and time savings alone with the no-till have been noticeable.


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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