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Resilience Rodeo - Bruce Toay - Fostering the Health of Soil & Wildlife

For the “Resilience Rodeo” this week, South Dakota’s Ducks Unlimited manager of conservation, Bruce Toay talks about the overlap in importance of wetlands and cropland in the prairie pothole region, and that fostering the health of soil and wildlife can easily go hand-in-hand.

Bruce Toay is the manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in South Dakota. Ducks Unlimited is a nonprofit organization partnered with the USDA to focus on conserving wetland and grassland habitat for waterfowl. Bruce champions the use of livestock to regenerate land and emphasizes the importance, not only to waterbirds, of preserving natural habitats and landscapes. He encourages the use of perennial grasses and adaptive strategies in order to regenerate perpetually degraded land, such as the saline seep areas in South Dakota. He currently cooperatively manages the Dale Demonstration farmland for Ducks Unlimited with the Beadle Conservation District, NRCS, and a cooperating tenant. The farm is an active demonstration where regenerative land practices are implemented and demonstrated for farmers of surrounding land.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Bruce Toay

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

One thing we’ve done that has really been beneficial to the Dale Demonstration farm here is to try to think outside of our comfort zone– let’s try to invite partners in here and generate ideas that we haven’t thought of that might really speak to local producers– we have one shot to get them here and show them what works.

2) Can you recall a moment in time or time 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?

One thing that I can recall that really opened my eyes was when I saw Dennis Hoyle give a presentation up in Ipswich. He talked about soil health practices on his operation; retaining livestock, adding grasses, reducing tillage, and not relying on drain tile. These were all things that Ducks Unlimited was interested in, and we thought– we need to learn about soil health and how this works for farmers.

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

One of the surprising things that happened when we started focusing on soil health in croplands in particular was that it really helped us to have conversations we couldn’t have before with landowners. We became interested in not just the wetlands, but the land around the wetlands that farmers utilize to raise income for their families. So it enabled us to have conversations with farmers about what interests them and find a way to manage the habitats that also interest us.

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

One of the biggest questions we get frequently is, “Why does Ducks Unlimited care about soil health?” Well, we reached a point of realizing that to retain prairie pothole wetlands, we have to keep the landscapes healthy; and to do that we have to manage those adjacent upland areas. So, if we have healthy soils around wetlands, we have healthy wetlands and they remain intact. So that’s often a starting point for our conversations– the misconception that a focus on wetlands excludes a focus on soil health.

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

One of the things we haven’t done yet here that I think would be great to get on the Dale Demonstration farm is integrating more perennial species on some of those problem areas. I think we’re getting to the point of comprehending that those soils are simply not suitable for annual cropland production, so I want to try integrating some perennial species and livestock to find ways to raise income on those marginal acres.

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 have for producers in the area that have a lot of wetlands and are interested in improving soil health is to reach out to partners. There are all sorts of organizations and agencies in South Dakota that want to help you get that job done. They have experience in your local geography, and they often have opportunities for cost-sharing to help start some of those new practices. So, don’t do it alone, and start out small to find out what works for you on your farm.

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

When I walk across the demonstration farm here, the wetlands on this site are really ephemeral in nature and they’re kind of flashy– we call them temporary seasonal wetlands, because they only have water for sometimes a few weeks out of the year. Just last week, every pothole wetland out here was bone-dry because it was a pretty dry spring. You get an inch of water over the weekend and now some of those fill up again. That’s one of the problems we face when raising crops in these wetland-dense areas, so if we can continue to improve soil health on those adjacent croplands, it’s going to help the producer manage those wet areas. When the rain comes here in quick bursts, it soaks into healthy soil instead of running off and carrying sediment and fertilizers into the wetland basins.

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

A change that we’ve made or tried to make that we weren’t sure about was the integration of cover crops. You know, our growing season in South Dakota can be very small, particularly in a corn and soybean system there’s just not much time in the fall to integrate cover crops. So it’s been neat to integrate small grains and even try to change how we raise corn on the demonstration farm to provide new opportunities to integrate cover crops and improve soil health on this tract.

9) What are the signs of resiliency on your land?

Some of the signs of resilience on the Dale Demonstration farm here ultimately are if we can manage those saline areas, if we can get some of those areas back in a condition where they are raising any kind of vegetation, if we can retain healthy wetlands on this site, and if we can have good healthy soils that raise the crops that our tenant needs to make a living.

10) What soil health and wetland health practices also make sense economically to you?

A practice we’ve implemented here on the Dale Demonstration farm that financially makes sense to me is the integration of cover crops, perennial species, and livestock on marginal acreage to turn them into something profitable.

11) What does resilience mean to you?

Resilience in the prairie pothole region means something unique– this region is really hot, really cold, really wet, really dry, we need land that can manage all of those scenarios, it’s got to capture the moisture when we get it, it’s got to retain that moisture, and we’ve got to have some habitat at the same time to make use of that water.


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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