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'All in' for no-till earns Johnson Farms the SD Leopold Conservation Award

FRANKFORT, S.D. — Conservation is a conscious choice for the Johnsons, this year's winner of the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. Alan and Mickie, son Brian and wife Jamie farm 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland.

The focus on conservation at Johnson Farms started with the decision to go 100% no-till after Alan grew tired of watching the lack of moisture on their farm limit yield potential.

"Back when I grew up, it was always dry. You know, we were always struggling with moisture and it just frustrated me so much," he says.

So he talked to Duane Beck, at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre about switching to no-till on his farm.

"In 1986, I no-tilled every acre of corn into wheat stubble, just all in and it worked," he says.

Johnson was truly an innovator, because at the time, no-till went against the norm.

Johnson initially converted to no-till to save moisture but also integrated cover crops and diverse crop rotations into the system like corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and barley. Soon they realized many other benefits, such as better weed control, less soil erosion and improved soil structure.

"The ground has really mellowed up. The organic matter has come up, I know, from when I started. I have to look at the soil samples and check, but I know it's probably come up a point and a half," he says.

Johnson also adopted a no-till system because he was farming himself and he did not want to hire additional help. He says he's been able to achieve many more efficiencies beyond just labor savings.

"Oh, just less time, less fuel you know I mean it just helps with your costs. The whole system has worked for us," he says.

Alan's son Brian says for them, conservation and sustainability have always gone hand-in-hand.

"We've seen improvements in soil health as well as a water retention. Our cropping system helps build the soil aggregates and just have a lot of diversity in our crop rotation," he says.

The Johnsons have integrated cattle into the operation to utilize some of the land that is not farmable. The cattle also fall graze cover crops and crop residue.

"By using the cover crops and the crop residue for them to graze on in early winter until you get too much snow it helps. It adds to your bottom line and its good for the soil," Brian says. "They're breaking up that residue so that it breaks down faster the next season. It's better for the crop ground as well because we can cut back on our fertilizer application a little bit because of the livestock being integrated on the crop ground,"

Johnson Farms also participates in USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Conservation Stewardship Program to further address soil erosion and salinity problems. They're also enrolled in the Environmental Quality Insurance Program.

"Mostly because we're going to put some water tanks in some certain areas of fields for rotational grazing, put the livestock back on the cropland with the cover crops and the crop residue," Brian says. They also hope to improve their existing shelterbelts and build some new ones in the calving pastures.

The Johnsons have also adopted technology like variable rate seed and fertilizer application based on soil tests and moisture, which has increased production on their farm in both dry and wet years.

"We've had really good yields on our farm, they keep going up and now it's just a matter of making sure that it's profitable," Brian says.

He says a profitable operation involves being sustainable, which for them is doing what is right for their operation.

"Conservation is what we've been doing here for 30 some years, and it's why we're still here. If we're good to the environment and good to the soil on our operation it's something that we can continue for the other generations," Brian says.