Bill NelsonLake County, SD

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Bill Nelson plants cover crops and utilizes a three-crop rotation to keep his soils’ organic matter levels above 5.5 percent.

Bill Nelson

Lake County, South Dakota

When Bill and Linda Nelson bought his father’s farm in 1984, Bill set a goal of raising the soil organic matter to 6.5 percent. At the time, the organic content ranged from 1.9 to 2.2 percent because for the 15 years prior, the land was rented and not farmed with conservation practices. When Bill’s father worked the land though, the soil was in great shape, he remembers.

Growing up, Bill said, he would watch his father use a pitchfork in the fields to look for earthworms. His father also planted cover crops that he referred to as green manure crops. “He planted him mostly in the fallow year (and) thought the cover crops had to be plowed under to get the benefits. Now we know it is the roots that improve soil quality,” Bill said.

In this no-till bean field, Bill has documented a 10-year yield average of 44 bushels per acre. Following corn harvest here in 2012, he aerial seeded a cocktail mix of turnips, radishes, and rye and his yields increased to 48 bushels per acre in 2013.

In the 1980s when Bill took over the farm, he had to figure out how to cut costs and survive the farm crisis. He began by cutting back on tillage and planting more small grains that required fewer inputs and boosted soil moisture before spring planting. Next, he found markets for his rye and specialty crops to diversify this rotation. “There are markets out there, but you really have to work to find them,” Bill said.

He began using cover crops, eventually working up to three to four multi-species mixes, and also reintroduced cattle on the farm (his father milked cows and spread their manure on the cropland) to graze cover crops and corn stubble.

Today, Bill has nearly reached his soil organic matter goal thanks to his system of no-till, cover crops, and a rotation of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, rye, and other small grains. “My soil organic matter now ranges from 5.7 to 6.2 percent,” Bill says, which is about the same range that would exist on never-farmed, native prairie lands in the area.

“The system is working well,” he continued. “I’ve never experienced a crop failure and the fields have never been too wet to plant. The rye and other cereals create a firm soil structure, which holds up the planter when wet, and the cover crops use up extra moisture in the spring.” Corn and beans planted into cover crops have never been lost because it was too dry during the growing season, either. The stubble keeps the soil cooler, and the tall stubble filters the sunlight and protects young plants from blistering winds.

According to an economic analysis of the farm conducted by NRCS, Bill spends 48 percent less money on variable costs, like chemicals and fuel, than he would if he was a conventional farmer. His chemical bill is 80 percent lower, machinery operating costs are 25 percent lower, and labor costs are down 50 percent. Bill’s yields are comparable to his neighbor’s – his soybean yields doubled between 1982 and 1992 – and his net return is 16 percent greater.

“I am very happy with what we have been able to accomplish,” Bill said. “I can see my dad out there on his farm again.”

Bill Nelson’s “10 Top Tips” for boosting soil health:
  1. Develop a soil health management plan with the help of NRCS or your local conservation district.
  2. Talk to your family about the importance of soil health management techniques to restoring soil health.
  3. Do your homework on soil health management techniques.
  4. Set a goal for the amount of soil organic matter you’d like to achieve.
  5. Try no-till on a few acres to start. Hire someone in your neighborhood who owns a no-till drill or planter to put in your crop so you don’t have to buy a planter and make a big commitment right away. (Bill started no-till with 40 acres and converted the rest of his farm to no-till over the course of six years. “You’re not going to see results from no-till overnight,” Bill cautioned. “I started seeing an improvement in organic matter in about six years.”)
  6. Implement non-chemical weed control where possible by adding cover crops to your rotation.
  7. When corn or bean prices are predicted to be low, or a dry spring in on the horizon, be flexible. Look for cover or a specialty crop that will be beneficial to your crop rotation and maximize potential profit.
  8. Scout your fields for weeds, plant health, and general field conditions.
  9. Keep good records to evaluate your progress.
  10. Don’t give up after a year. “Go into it with a minimum of a three-year commitment. You should improvement by then,” Bill said.
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