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Sustainable Success: How Ryan Urban's Farming Practices Ensure Long-Term Prosperity

In this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, Ryan Urban talks about the importance of long-term thinking and doing the best you can to leave the land better for future generations.

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On a third-generation diversified cattle and grain operation in south central SD, Ryan Urban continues to build on the beneficial practices that his dad raised him doing, including planting cover crops, rotational grazing, and fostering wildlife. While his mindset has always revolved around these practices, he’s acutely aware of the importance of mindset when others try to adopt them for the first time. When producers, including himself, get stuck in their ways, Ryan suggests they ask themselves “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”, and have the mindset of borrowing the land from future generations to come. These will help direct goals and change a mindset to one that will build long-term success rather than only focusing on the short-term.

Ryan Urban
Ryan Urban


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


I guess if I had to quantify it down to one thing, it's more of an idea: being open-minded. My dad loved wildlife, so everything he did was geared towards wildlife, pheasants, deer, whatever. I don’t remember how many years ago he first started planting cover crops, rotational grazing, those sorts of things. A lot of guys are implementing new practices and this and that, and they're getting their “aha” moment, but I don't know that we've ever really had one of them, because doing those things is the only way I’ve ever known. The practices that my dad implemented 30, 40 years ago for wildlife, we're still doing them, and we've improved them. We’ve found out what works better, and what doesn't. It's always evolving, and every year comes with its challenges. So more or less, being open-minded is probably the single most important thing to the success of this operation.



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


There are “aha” moments in everything you do. There are little things like when you’re stuck in your ways and suddenly you think about it like, “Why are we doing what we're doing?” Every year, on virtually every acre of farm ground our place, we'll get soil samples, and we’ve been watching our organic matters climb. In this part of the state, we don't get a lot of rain. We average around 16 inches of rain a year. We don't have real deep topsoil. I've had people look at our samples and compare the organic matter levels in my soils to that of Minnesota where you think of deep, deep topsoil. That's where I can look at things and say, “Yes, we're making progress, we're doing what we want to do.” Our soil profile can only hold so much water and we only get so much water. So, we've got to be able to maximize absolutely every bit that we get, we’ve got to be able to hold it. The biggest first step to that is organic matter in our soil, and I've seen our yields steadily increase in the last 20 years. I can see how the fields will hang on through a dry spell.



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


I don't feel like we've necessarily changed anything, so nothing surprised me. The idea here has been the same since I was super little or probably even started before I was born. It's kind of always been the way we've done things, you know. I know that may sound a little cliché and again, I don't like to get caught up on doing things a certain way just because that's how the older generation did it. But, the goal that was established then is still the same now, so I can't speak to a time when we weren't implementing a whole lot of soil health practices.



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


The idea that we can just be here, you know, trying to make money off a piece of ground by any means possible. In my opinion, this land that I operate, I'm borrowing it from the next generations to come. I owe it to them to make sure I do the best I can with it. And I see that with a lot of people, maybe they're not thinking long term on things. I’ve got four boys. Hopefully at least one of them wants to come back to the farm when they get old enough.

I feel like we owe it to them to do the best we can to make it better when they decide to come back and take over. So, I would say that as far as the misconception, it's that people think they can farm a piece of ground and just take, take, take, and not give back to it. Looking at things near-sighted, not looking at the long-term, big picture.



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


I’ve got a big one I've been working on trying to figure out how we can implement it. If I can put a cover crop on an acre of ground, I'm going to do it. One area I've struggled with is in-crop cover crops, like standing corn and standing beans. We've tinkered with aerial application of cover crops. As far as our moisture goes, there's years that let it work, there are years that don't. We're 100% no-till, and have been for years. I own a disc, but I'd have to go cut some trees down to get it out. So, with aerial application of cover crops in standing corn and beans, we've struggled with seed-to-soil contact. That's something I'd like to be able to figure out how to do.



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


I tell them it's a no-brainer. But I will also say don't be discouraged if you don't see your results immediately. It's not something where you're necessarily going to see an improvement across all the practices in one year. Building organic matter with cover crops, for example, it can take you two, three, four, or five years of being committed to that before you really start seeing the noticeable results. And with rotational grazing, you can't just start one day in and all of a sudden everything’s going to be all better. It takes time. You have to build that resiliency with the soil. So, I guess my advice is to try new ideas but don't be discouraged if you don't see immediate results right off the bat.



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


Earthworms! I love earthworms! One concern with being a no-till farm though, is I feel like we will run into a problem with stratification of our phosphorus. Well, those earthworms are one way of opening that soil to allow it to breathe, to allow that phosphorus to go down. They're constantly moving nutrients. Seeing the earthworms in the ground, seeing how the microbes and such are working in the ground, that’s an indicator to me of our ground being healthy.



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


Decreasing our commercial fertilizers and gearing more towards keeping that microbiology working in the ground. We’ve cut our commercial fertilizer use down by a third. We went to a variable rate, only putting it in places where it's needed and not where it isn’t. We've cut back, but I have seen just a real steady increase to our corn and soybeans and wheat yields since we've been doing it. So, I guess to be able to decrease the use of commercial fertilizer and still be able to see our yields continue to rise was kind of the correlation to go fully management zone base on the whole farm.



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


We get 15, to 16 inches of moisture on an average year. It's not a matter of if, but when we will see a dry spell during the growing season. The joke around here is that we're always only one week away from being in a drought. So, being able to see how the crops handle that. How the crops still look healthy going through the hot, dry spells, you know. Whether it's being able to keep our ground cool, or being able to hold more moisture in our soil profile. That to me is a big one.




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


Watching our crop yields climb while our fertilizer use decreases. On the pasture side of things, it's seeing the grass, seeing the health of the pastures. Being able to increase our stocking densities, you know, being able to run a few more cow-calf pairs without being detrimental to the ground.


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.

3. Follow Growing Resilience on social media:


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