Frankfort, South Dakota
Spink County Conservation District
Brian Johnson is a fourth-generation farmer who runs a diversified no-till crop and cow/calf operation near Frankfort with his children and wife, Jamie. With crops consisting of a rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, barley, millet and cover crops being the Johnsons’ primary focus, they are discovering the increasing value of implementing a variety of soil health management practices.
It was Brian’s father, Alan, who implemented use of no-till practices decades ago to help retain moisture during dry cycles on their fields. The Johnsons enacted a variable-rate system in 2004. Realizing that different areas of each field have varying productivity, the father-son team liked not applying excess fertilizer in areas that could not use it – thus saving time, money and natural resources. The areas that contain high yield potential, in contrast, received the inputs needed to achieve their productivity potential. By placing the nutrients precisely, the Johnsons achieve excellent yields, a better return on investment, and they take pride in not over-using or wasting fertilizer resources.
“Dad started using a no-till farming system in 1986 to help preserve moisture,” Jamie said, “But with excess moisture, we discovered some challenges to our no-till management system.” Saturated subsoils caused Johnson to adopt additional conservation practices including cover crops following small grain crops, adoption of perennial grasses on high water table or saline affected acres, and implementation of tile drainage management systems.
The Johnsons started seeing salinity issues on about 80 acres of their cropland. Working with their local NRCS office, they learned that salt-tolerant perennial vegetation such as tall wheatgrass and Western wheatgrass could reduce surface evaporation and control encroachment of salinity characteristics into adjacent high producing cropland acres.
The Johnsons have been implementing deep-rooted cover crops like radishes and turnips, actively growing them later in the season following small grains to feed soil microbes and help manage soil moisture levels. “Growing cover crops promotes biologically active, healthy soils,” Brian says. “Between cover crops and crop residue breakdown, we are able to maintain an active soil biology all year, which facilitates increased organic matter. Increased organic matter means improved soil quality and better water-holding capacity in our soils. Once you get that cycle in place, soil quality improves each year.”
The Johnsons have found an outstanding synergy in the cattle and the cover crops. Wherever possible, they allow the cattle to graze the mature cover crops planted in their farm fields, providing an excellent fall-season food source. The hoof action spreads and incorporates the manure, further enhancing the cooperative relationship between the cattle and the land. The same system takes place on their corn stalks, where the cattle graze in the fall after harvest.
With different farming practices comes different equipment needs. For example, the Johnsons used a drill to seed their cover crops but found that the planter did a better job of seed placement. They retrofitted the planter to better seed the cover crop into bio strips to better accommodate their seed blend (radishes, lentils and vetch) and used sugar beet disks to get a perfect application. Planting the seeds in 20-inch rows, the radishes break up compaction, while the vetch and lentils provide valuable nutrients. Brian used this bio-strip technique for three years, and is pleased with the result, which provides amazing soil texture.
Learn more about the Johnsons’ operation in the six-part video series “Soil Health Applied“.
Updated Feb. 2019.