Successful Farming Magazine has released its 10 Successful Farmers list honoring ag professionals who choose to innovate, adapt, and sustain successful ag businesses. One of this year's honorees hails from Ideal, South Dakota, and his method is simple: Watch how Mother Nature takes care of herself and mimic her ways.
Let's talk about the magazine feature first, and then we'll talk a little bit about your operation. How do you end up on the pages of the, on the Top 10 list of 10 successful farmers, other than just being successful? What's the process like?
That's a really good question. I'm trying to figure that out myself. I guess just doing what we think is best. It's being recognized, and that's really cool. I think there's a lot of really good farmers out there. It's a really good opportunity, though, to promote a message about soil health, and that's one of the things that our family has been focusing on very intently for the last number of years.
Did editors from the magazine contact you, and did you have to submit a lot of information for them?
Actually, Gil Gullickson just gave me a call. I've known Gil for a number of years and—the last couple of years—I’ve done some speaking things for him in Iowa, talking about cover crops and various things. He gave me a call last fall and said that he wanted to do this top ten thing and that he thought that our farm and myself would be a good contender. I was honored and humbled by that. I really didn't have to do a lot. They came and interviewed and did a little short interview with me and then took some photos, so it really was quite simple.
Set the stage a little bit by telling us about your operation, and a little bit of its interesting history, as well.
Sure. We are a family-owned farm operation. My grandfather and grandmother settled here in Tripp County, just a few miles from our main headquarters, in 1909 and raised a fairly large family during the early '30s. At that time, a lot of people left the area because of the Depression and the drought, but they stuck it out. They had, of course, a big family and had to work very hard to make a living then. They moved to this current location in 1939, and we've been here ever since. My father, Martin Jr., took over the operation when he was 19.
He had two brothers that had to go off to serve in World War II and, unfortunately, only one of those brothers came back. At that point, he and his brother got into a partnership after he returned from World War II, and then my brother got involved in the mid-1970s, and then I got involved in the 1980s. My nephew, Cody, got involved in the mid-1990s, and my son, Nicholas, is now involved in the mid-2000s, so we kind of have this wonderful succession plan of our next generations coming in line. We have actually a fourth generation operating the farm, and the fifth generation is on the ground, so we look forward to keeping that going.
Let me ask you. You're all in in the 1980s. This is not a great time to enter agriculture in general. There's a farm crisis, and you look back to your grandparents in the '30s in Depression and dust bowl and drought. Let's talk a little bit about sort of the mentality that you have to have to endure being a farmer, [and even] long-term, multi-generational farmers.
First and foremost is faith. That without question. You got to have faith, then understand that the good Lord is probably going to take care of us no matter what—but I think it's having the faith to know that it's going to rain tomorrow or the next day eventually and just having the fortitude to stick it out when times are tough. The 1980s were difficult. I was just kind of in my college years at the time and coming back to the farm, and it was difficult because we had high interest rates. Fortunately, because of the way my father and his brother operated the farm, we didn't have a lot of debt, so we were able to survive quite well.
The other thing that, I think, sets us apart is our diversity. We grow a lot of cattle. We grow a lot of crops. We also do recreational activities, such as hunting, so it gives us a little bit more dimension to survive those tougher times. We're in the midst right now today of facing some pretty tough conditions with the drought. We communicate well. We have meetings, and we strategize on how to conserve and how to save things.
I guess it's a mentality that's been bred into us because of what my father and grandfather went through in the Depression, that you have to save things, you have to conserve, and you have to, even though we've expanded immensely since then. It's really important that we have some sense of conservation.
When you mean conservation, you're not just talking financially. You're talking about the land that you work, right?
Absolutely. The land resources are important to—not just us, but all civilization, and I think that's a mentality that we've had since day one. We were one of the earliest adopters of no-till back in the 1980s and then just recently, in 2015, we were chosen to receive the Leopold Award, the Aldo Leopold Award, which really humbled us a lot. It also made us really refocus a little bit more and try and do even more than what we were doing.
We've done some things the last couple of years management-wise to enhance even further what we've been doing. I think the other thing, too, is that we've focused more energies on outreach and teaching other people, other producers, the importance of soil health and to try and get them to do things that are going to make the soils better.
Let's talk a little about cover crops. As I was looking at this article, Bryan, a lot of details about cover crop, tell us a little bit overall how it works, and then let's get into some details of what some farmers and producers might not understand about how cover crop works that you find yourself explaining to others.
Sure. Cover crops have really taken off. They've kind of taken center stage in lots of parts of the country. I've seen a pretty sizeable increase in the number of acres that producers are starting to plant but, fundamentally, the importance of cover crops is really pretty simple. It's nothing new. My grandfather planted cover crops back in the 1940s. They did it for a little bit different reason but, conceptually, it's the same. It's trying to keep a living root system in our soils for a longer period of time.
To give you an example of that, if you think about how a native prairie works. It's, obviously been undisturbed for thousands of years, and the root systems are alive 365 days a year, which is an important part of the biological portion of the soil. You have a living system in your soil that relies upon living roots to sustain, giving them a place to live and provide them with needed nutrition.
In our system of cropping, we've kind of taken that away. If you think about how winter wheat works, for example, it's planted in the fall, and it grows for a short period of time, in the fall goes dormant and then comes in the spring, it comes back to life and grows until about mid-June until it ripens. We've got six months from June on that the soil, once again, goes dormant.
That, in part, and if you look at how we did wheat back in the 1960s and '70s, it was basically through fallowing, which we had an entire growing season that the soil was tilled brown or black, extensively killing off any microbial activity we had. We had almost two years, a year and a half of no life in the soil, which really led to the demise. The quality of our soils led to a lot of erosion. That's why cover crops, to me, are important.
The thing that people don't understand about cover crops is they think it's going to take too much moisture away for the next crop. That's not always the case. It can be in a year like this year, but I think the importance of having a living root in the soil offsets many of the negatives that some producers are scared of.
For example, I think if you really cut to the quick, the cover crops, for us, are beneficial because they capture any excess nutrient that the previous crop may not have used and cycles those nutrients, capturing more carbon in the soil. In doing so, you're not losing those nutrients to runoff or to water moving through the system and carrying those nutrients off. They sequester those nutrients for the next crop and, in doing so, it leads to a healthier soil and a much more vibrant biological activity in the soil.
Really, the toughest thing is managing those cover crops and finding “what do we do with them once we grow them?” I think that's where livestock integration is really important in bringing the livestock back to the land and letting them cycle those nutrients and the carbon so that we can get even a more even distribution of those nutrients, much like the buffalo did on the prairies before we took them over.
Are there strong similarities there between how cattle behave as they graze on land as buffalo or bison do, as well?
Are there significant differences?
The differences would be in how we manage them. If you think about the ruminant animal itself, the rumen and the soil are very similar in how they function. They're both very, very biologically active. The rumen has the ability to take residues and break them down into nutrients, and the soil is the exact same way. When you put those two together, they compliment each other. If we look at how cattle are similar to buffalo, they are very similar in that they both are ruminate animals, and they can both utilize a lot of different residues. The difference is how we manage our cows versus how the buffalo managed themselves in the native prairie.
If you think about what they did, they roamed our prairies in large mass groups, but they came into an area for a very short amount of time, two or three or four days, and then they were gone. They clipped down what was there and then allowed Mother Nature to let a different set or different species of grass or legumes take over. That's how we're learning now to manage our pastures. Through that, you get a diverse crop growing, so we take that same concept back to the crop plant, so let's grow a wheat crop, and then let's put a cover crop behind it that has a lot of different species in it, and then let's elongate that amount of time that those roots are active—so there's a lot of similarities if you look at it.
Let's talk a little bit, Bryan, about the drought and, particularly, the corn crop because July is always a big month to sort of make or break a corn crop, as I understand it. Is that true, first of all? Then, how is the drought really impacting the corn crop in your operation now?
Yes, it's very true. In fact, we were just discussing at our management meeting this morning between our partners about how this week is pivotal. The next ten days is pivotal for our corn crop. It's starting to tassel, and that means that it's leaving the vegetative stage and entering into the reproductive stage, so it's going to quit growing. It's going to start trying to produce pollen and silks so that it can form an ear. When it does that, it's very critical that, A) that it's not terribly hot, [as a temperature] above 95 degrees can be detrimental to it, and also B) that it has adequate moisture to fulfill that process.
We've got two strikes against us right now. We're dry, and we're expected to be hot, so if we go through the next week or ten days and none of those things are fulfilled, then we are taking into plan of action of cutting all of our corn for silage. We're in a pretty tough area, and I think it's a pretty significant portion of western South Dakota. I know the western third, for sure, is in a pretty similar boat. The northern part of the state was very dry early on, and has since received some moisture but, certainly, not enough to fulfill the crop.
Are we back to the faith conversation then at some point, or are there things that you can really do to sort of manage this?
There really isn't a lot that we can do. Mother Nature, it's really in her hands right now. If we could catch even half to three-quarters or an inch of rain in the next few days and stay away from those high heat levels, we could still raise a fairly decent corn crop here. One of the things that we've done in our operation is, instead of planting all corn for our coarse feed needs in the fall, is we're planting sorghum or milo, as well.
Milo is a little bit more tolerant to that. It doesn't have that narrow pollination window like corn does, and it also doesn't require as much water—so we've learned to spread our risk a little bit by planting some of those corn acres back to milo instead. It still takes rain to make grain at the end of the day.