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Resilience Rodeo - Eli Little - The Keys to Resilient Soil

On this weeks “Resilience Rodeo”, Eli Little shares how goals, patience, and bugs are all key to resilient soils.

Eli Little (right) of Castlewood, SD, pictured here with his father, Barry, are both holding daikon radishes that they’ve become confident are just one of many pieces to the puzzle of improving the health of the soil on their farm and rangeland. For Eli Little, he has been implementing regenerative practices for so long that their economic benefit is no question. In his area, it’s said that you need 4-5 acres per cow-calf pair. On his pasture they’re using less than 2. They often do not use pesticides or fertilizer and are on the path to not using them at all. The land is richer with crop and insect diversity, soil aggregation and root systems; all adding up to land that’s much more resilient to inclement weather, excess moisture, cold, heat, and drought. This makes for a much more financially resilient operation.

Eli emphasizes that the implementation of regenerative practices is a journey that takes time. Even with all his progress, he has goals for his future and emphasizes the importance of always having goals on the farm. Regenerative agriculture a process that is never over, it’s always a growing and changing relationship with the land.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Eli Little (right) with his father, Barry

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

I think cover crops, because that kind of led to everything else, really.

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?

I think about when, in 2015, I was only a couple of years out of college and was trying to get a loan from FSA. I hadn't quite paid off the last one, and they denied me. The guy there told me that maybe farming wasn't for me, and I took that quite personally. Four years later, I went back to them, and I’ve had operating loans through them for the last three years and I'm getting another one renewed. So, things look a lot better now than they did then.

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

I think just seeing how great our pastures could look, even though we’re not putting fertilizer on them. They're just green and lush using the rotational grazing and soil health practices. It's always fun to see in the summer.

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

There's a lot of misconceptions. Sometimes I feel like people try to make it fail. You know, they don't give it enough time, they try something and it doesn't work, so that means it just doesn't work. You’ve got to be patient with it, and you’ve got to work with it. It's not a one-year thing, you know, it's a journey.

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

Yeah, you’ve always got to have a plan or goals. We'd like to be able to get rid of the strip tiller and go a completely no till with our corn planter. We just have to get the right corn planter. We’ve had the strip tiller since 2013. You have to get rid of that stuff and get the right planter to fit all your needs.

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

I would say, looking at pasture side of things, if you want to do rotational grazing, you’ve got to have a plan. And a lot of times the NRCS will help you with those things; getting cost share for fencing and things like that, and help with paddocks if need be. But yeah, especially our in our FSA office, the ladies, they're great. They love what we do, and they love helping people get on this track. So, just talk to your [USDA] office.

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

Bugs. That's one thing that we like. We like to see bugs in our soybean fields, something that a lot of people get scared of. For every bad bug there are 1,700 good bugs. If we can get by without spraying an insecticide, which we typically do get by, that's just another year we built towards soil health and regenerative ag.

8) What does resiliency mean to you and what signs are you seeing in your cropland that your croplands are getting more resilient?

Well, I would say the ability to handle harsh weather. Last Spring, we were out planting corn and a neighbor of ours came by and asked “how are you able to plant your corn right now? We can't get into a field”. I said, “well, we do no-till, we do a lot of cover crops, we do rotations”. Then the next fall they went and tilled up their field anyway. I think the harsher the weather is, the more you see in our fields that we're able to handle the excess moisture and the droughts and the heat and the cold and all those things. That's where your resiliency comes into play.

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

On the pasture side of things where, in our area, they say you need 4 to 5 acres per cow-calf pair. And we're looking at less than two acres per pair out there. So, we can double the size of our herd and get as much or more out of the out of the pasture. The proof is in the pudding, right?


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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