For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, Levi and Crystal Neuharth share their belief in the importance of education and experience for families and communities on regenerative agriculture, and that “just one fence” can start to improve your grasslands.
At Prairie Paradise Farms in Stanley County, South Dakota, the Neuharth’s farm about 2300 acres of ground and manage about 3,000 acres of grass. Levi and Crystal have a very diverse crop rotation and rotationally graze a variety of livestock while following soil health principles in both their farming and ranching operations. “You need healthy soil to have healthy foods to have a healthy family”, says Crystal. The Neuharths share the importance of these practices with their peers and community through their annual “Family Farm Day”.
1) What one thing have you done that has been most important to the success of your operation?
The one thing we've done that has been most important is diversity; not all of our eggs are in one basket. We're diversified to lessen risk and to try to capture the best of what mother nature gives us for moisture and weather. So, diversity.
2) Can you recall a moment or time when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?
I guess a moment in time when I had an “aha” moment, was we were going to meetings in North Dakota, and we would see all those different things on their operations. They said, “if you didn't change something within the first seven to 10 days, you weren't going to change something”. We wanted to add chickens to the operation, so we came home and we added chickens within the week. Our son had milk allergies and we added dairy goats and now it's becoming a very lucrative dairy goat herd and the kids love to show them. So that would be one of the moments, I guess.
That is exactly my light bulb moment. You took it from me.
3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?
I guess what surprised us the most was probably the amount of head that we were able to sustain on our land by rotating more and having more forage out there for the livestock to eat.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have, who are not managing their grazing system for resiliency and soil health?
I would say that the biggest misconception of people that are not managing their pastures for the soil health, is that they think it's too much work. They think that it takes too much time to go out there and put up a fence, but it is really rewarding, and it does so much good to the pastures that it isn't any work at all.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't done yet to improve your soil health or grazing system?
Another thing that we would like to do to try and improve what we are doing, and we are starting it, is to wean our cropland off synthetics, and we want to take a gradual approach and not a cold Turkey approach, but we're slowly eliminating some of the synthetics like the commercial fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides. We're doing our best to only use them only when necessary. There's a lot less resistance if you use it more responsibly and to be able to gradually eliminate that and maybe sometimes be pesticide, herbicide, insecticide, and synthetic fertilizer free and just do with what nature gave us. That's a goal of ours. It's going to be a long-term goal, but it's a goal.
6) What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing their grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?
I guess my advice for someone that's going to change their grazing system for soil health is that just one fence can improve stuff. Start it a little bit at a time and make sure that it looks like it's going to work for you, but in the long run it's going to work and it's going to get healthier. Just get started. You can do a lot with a few step-in posts, poly wire, and electric fence. And you can graze areas that you hadn't been able to graze before.
7) When you walk across your grasslands or croplands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy grassland and healthy soil?
An indicator we look for in our healthy grasslands is that the more diverse plant communities we have, we feel the more resilient that our grasslands are becoming. It's a fun game we have with the kids as we try to do plant identification and they're kind of one up on us on that as far as us confirming that they're correct because they are more knowledgeable with that. They can one-up us on that. But just seeing a lot more diversity in our grasslands make us feel like we're doing a better job each year.
8) What change have you made that you've at first thought would never work?
We've had a lot of faith in our resources and Dr. Dwayne Beck. He hasn't led anybody astray, and we just have had confidence in any mentorship that he has given us for the new things that we've tried and just networking with other producers to see what they have had success and failures with. We try to learn from them as well.
9) What are the signs that your land is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?
I guess signs that our land is resilient is that you can still make a crop in the wet years and in the dry years. Being resilient is being strong and being able to get through the extremes, I guess. We see that a lot as far as this year being a drought, we didn't have much rain and so it didn't have much chance to really grow, but when it got some rains, it really greened up and took off and stuff that we had grazed started growing. And it's ready to take off when mother nature allows it.
10) There are three important 'R's’, rotate, rest, and recover; grazing management words important to resilient range lands, which of the three do you relate to most and why?
Rest, Rotate, Recover.. That's a difficult question. Want to take a shot at it?
I guess, of the three 'R's and the grazing, I think that we probably relate to rotation the best, I guess, because when we first were doing it, we were season long grazers and now we rotate. And rotating through the pastures helps it get healthy and helps it get diversity in the pastures.
11) Tell me about your dad. I think that it's really important that we talk about it, cause I think he paved the way for you.
Yeah. It's been really great to have a father that came from the city and came to the country that they said he wasn't going to be able to make it work. But he was very resilient. He had lots of patience and was very open-minded. So, he went to his banker, told him he was going to sell all his tillage equipment and by a no-till drill and a sprayer. And from there and [with] the help of Dwayne and Ruth Beck and other mentors, is where it all started. It has been very great to have a father that has been so open-minded and willing to change, because change is really hard for some people. Sometimes the pain of not changing comes so hard that it forces people to change. It's been great to have a very supportive father and he's just been very helpful and just does a great job of showing hard work.
We’re trying to pass that on to our next generations, and it's just been a really good opportunity to be able to come into the soil health journey with my father. I pretty much didn't know anything different. I pretty much grew up into the system, but we've just been improving a little bit here and there and just keep going on and even if I didn't know anything different. I wouldn't change it. It's a great way of living and it's a great way to raise a family.
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