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Soil Health Practices: The Foundation of Farming Success

On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, Chris Nissen talks about the importance of not only trying new practices you’re curious about, but the importance of having the mentality that it can and will work, and that just because something doesn’t change immediately doesn’t mean that it isn’t working.

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In the southeast corner of SD, Chris Nissen farms primarily corn and soybeans with his dad. They also grow cereal grains to provide themselves with cover crop for the following year, and help their soils improve in the process. Decreased inputs and more time for himself and his family have shown Chris that the benefits of soil health practices span far beyond just his soils.

Chris Nissen
Chris Nissen

1)    What one thing have you done that’s been most important to the success of your operation?


I think the number one thing is not being afraid to fail. Always try something. And to not worry about what the neighbors have to say.


2)    Can you recall a moment or a time when a light bulb went on for you that you realized soil health practices can make sense or that you should change the way you were farming?


Probably the biggest ‘aha’ moment was about four years ago. We had a really wet fall and at that time farmed a 120-acre piece that was just pure swamp. Three-quarters of that field I combined in four inches of water and the corn still had good yields. We are combining it not leaving a rut and the neighbors couldn't even combine. I had to slow down combining because the water would start to create waves and the header height would bounce.


3)    What surprised you most when you changed the way you were farming to include soil health practices?


Probably the amount of free time you pick up because you're not making multiple trips. The stress level goes down a little bit. Yeah. You still see the same yields and everything and it's like, I'm not making the passes, I'm not spending all the time and money out here. And the income is still the same. That was the surprising factor, for me.


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


I think that everybody thinks that the yields tank. I mean, you don't need a yield test, you don't need way wagons to see that if your neighbors no-tilling that you're getting the same yield because all the combines hold the same amount of grain. You can watch your neighbor dump and see the semi-loads leaving the fields. I mean, everybody is paying attention. I guess I just see the amount of labor that our neighbors who do conventional tillage have to have compared to what we have and the amount of free time that I have compared to them. But, I don't know, nobody wants to try it and I don't understand why.


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


I think one thing I'd like to try is to figure out maybe a strip-till method that I can broadcast my cereal rye in between my strips and then have my strip that I plant into so I can leave my rye longer into my corn growing season without having an effect. I just haven't found anybody with a strip-till rig around me yet that will try that.


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


The biggest thing is just give it a try. If you are going to try it and go, you need to commit to just like “these 80 acres, I'm going to do this on no matter what, I'm going to make it work”. Have that sort of mentality that it's going to work instead of just, “well, I'll try it and see how it works.” You have to have the mentality that it WILL work. That's the biggest thing. Like this year around us, we're super dry. All these guys that said before, “oh I can't no-till, my planter’s not set up for no-tilling”. Well, this year we're super dry and they must have done a lot of work to their planters over the fall because a lot of them no-tilled this year! It was convenient this year so they do it, but they won't make that next step next year.


I saw a Craigslist ad probably three years ago that was a guy selling a four-wheel drive tractor. And the reason for selling it said “converting to no-till, have to take temptation out of the system”.


7)    When you walk across your croplands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy soils?


Just, soil that isn't lumpy, look for earthworms, and the living roots, healthy plants and that my ground is staying put and blowing and washing away.


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


I think that cover crops would probably be it because the first year we tried to cover crop, we killed it too close to planting and completely wrapped everything up on the planter. It was the worst 40 acres I'd ever planted in my life; it took me three and a half hours to plant those 40 acres. And then we realized that you can't spray it. You have to be either two weeks ahead of the planting or after planting.


And then a lot of what I've learned, too, is that there is the data out there that, like some people or government agencies put out, that do the test plots. But a small acre test plot is not necessarily a good learning curve. It’s not as replicable as going out a 40 or an 80 and doing it. Some of the data they do isn’t the same as the results that I get. My outcomes seem better than theirs. I think it’s just that instead of just being this controlled, small plot, you know, on the big scale, it seems to work better.


The mentor program that the NRC has set up seems to be really beneficial, too. I can take the things I've tried and failed on, and I can put somebody three steps ahead of where I was because I've tried this and I’ve failed. I went this way, and it seems to help. So then instead of them making the same mistake I did and having to learn, well, they can go this way and they can build on what I've done and come back to me and say, “well, I tried this and that's worked really good”. So basically, in one year, you know, when you have more people doing something, you can do five years’ worth of changes in one here.


9)    What are the signs your cropland is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?


I think the signs are that I can go out there pretty much any time I want, drive across my fields, with any piece of equipment, I don't sink in and I don't leave ruts. And that the wildlife seems to stay in my fields more, and I just seem to have more of an ecosystem going on instead of just crops.


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


My inputs have all gone down and my yields have gone up, so that in turn, my return on investment is higher. I just don't spend as much money and I have more free time now, and I still get the same out of it.


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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