South Dakota Grassland Coalition Blog
Noem Announces Leopold Conservation Award Winner
Award recognizes landowners for outstanding stewardship
PIERRE, S.D. – In conjunction with Earth Day, Governor Kristi Noem today announced that Johnson Farms of Frankfort has been selected for the 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold, this award recognizes private landowners who inspire others with their dedication to the land, water, and wildlife resources in their care.
In South Dakota, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. Johnson Farms will be presented with the $10,000 award, and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in December.
“Farmers and ranchers across South Dakota know how to balance agriculture production with conservation,” said Noem. “The intentional innovation, stewardship, and land ethic of the Johnsons and other producers ensures that our natural resources will be available for future generations.”
“The Johnsons are demonstrating how crops and cattle can work together to support their multiple-generation family farm while improving their natural resources and the bottom line,” said Steve Ollerich, president of South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association. “We congratulate them as our 2019 Leopold Conservation Award recipients and applaud their conservation ethic.”
“The Johnson’s focus on conservation, while managing multiple enterprises on their family farm, is commendable and we congratulate them on receiving the 2019 South Dakota Conservation Award,” said Jim Faulstitch, chairman of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. “We look forward to continuing to highlight their conservation story throughout the year.”
“Leopold Conservation Award recipients are at the forefront of a movement by America’s farmers and ranchers to simultaneously achieve economic and environmental success,” said Kevin McAleese, president and CEO of Sand County Foundation.
Finalists for the award included Bien Ranch of Veblen in Marshall County, Blair Brothers Angus Ranch of Vale in Butte County, and Hefner Ranch of Whitewood in Lawrence County.
Award applicants were judged based on their demonstration of improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple use benefits.
About the winner:
Alan and Mickie Johnson, with their son Brian and his wife Jamie, farm 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland in Spink County. Agricultural conservation practices and raising cattle make the Johnsons more efficient without buying more land.
The farm’s roots trace back to 160 acres that Johnson’s Swedish immigrant grandfather homesteaded more than a century ago. The Johnsons use a mix of old school practices and modern technology to leave the land in better shape for the next generation.
Alan Johnson adopted no-till farming practices in 1986 when abandoning the plow, disk and cultivator was much against the norm. Despite what the neighbors thought, Alan saw that tilling a field to rid it of weeds was also depleting it of moisture. By mid-summer, if rain was scarce, crops suffered.
By coupling no-till practices with cover crops, the Johnsons have improved water infiltration and soil health, increasing productivity.
The Johnsons also find that a diverse rotation of their corn, soybean, wheat, oat, and barley crops, and leaving crop residue in place, minimizes agricultural runoff, naturally eases pest management, and provides wildlife habitat. To further address soil erosion and salinity problems, the Johnsons enrolled land in the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program.
Realizing that different areas of each field have varying productivity, the Johnsons switched to a variable-rate fertilizer system in 2004. Applying the precise amount of nutrients on the soil saves time and natural resources, and delivers a better return on investment. Since the switch, the Johnsons have won a yield contest held by the South Dakota Soybean Association.
The Johnsons also raise a herd of Angus beef cattle. Whenever possible, the herd is allowed to graze on mature cover crops and corn stubble, creating a cooperative relationship between the cattle and the land. The cover crops provide feed, and the cattle naturally fertilize the soil with their waste.
Grazing used to mean turning the cattle out to pasture for the summer and bringing them home in the fall. It was easy, but it took a toll on the quality and variety of the grass. The Johnsons now rotationally graze their cattle and closely monitor grazing conditions and the timing of their calving season.
While the longtime crop farmers admit that managing grass and cattle requires additional time, the results are healthier land and a stronger bottom line.
For more information on the award, visit leopoldconservationaward.org
By Dan Rasmussen
The year was 1991. The air was cool for July as I stood on top of a tall butte with my Father and Dwayne Breyer. The three of us were looking out onto the ranch that I ran with my father. The pastureland was brown from hot summer winds and sparse rain. For the years, `90 & `91, I had been part of a new extension program called Bootstraps, designed to help people like me improve ranch management. Dwayne, a range consultant with Bootstraps, started pointing out the large green patches scattered throughout the winter pastures visible on the plain below.
“If I were you fellas,” he said, “I’d be rotating a large herd of yearlings through these pastures about now.” He pointed out the green patches we could see were warm season grasses; mostly big bluestem and side oats gramma. Dwayne went on to say the yearlings will seek out those “ice cream” grasses and leave the western wheat alone. That`s a good thing for us since western wheat is a great grass for winter grazing. He said that cows will have to be pretty hungry before they eat big or little bluestem in the winter when it is dormant. Not that they won`t but you can get a lot better use of those grasses by grazing in the summer with a fast rotation.
I was in the first Bootstraps class starting in 1990. Dwayne was a hired range consultant doing the Bootstraps follow up resource inventory. Dwayne stood between my Father, Skee, and I on the butte that July day when he recommended implementing a rotational grazing plan on the ranch. There was a long silence after he had made his pitch. Finally, Skee spoke, “Won`t those yearlings hurt our winter pasture? I am afraid they will eat out the good stuff and our winter grass won`t last.”
I looked at both of them and said, “lets try it.”
Dwayne, sensing my enthusiasm and Skee`s reluctance, adeptly shifted into his “be careful” lecture, “I’d suggest you start slow with a small herd”, Dwayne began, “get your feet wet for a couple of years and see how it goes. The worst thing you could do is jump in too fast and have a wreck. That might sour you from making some real progress.”
That first summer we rotated fifty yearlings through six winter pastures. Two years later we were moving 250 yearling steers every two to three weeks through 800 acre pastures. This rotation took us into August when we normally sold the yearlings. We were able to keep the yearling open heifers all summer instead of selling them in the spring.
After the first year of rotating cattle, my father was a huge fan of the practice. He would drive around the ranch evaluating utilization of warm season grasses and coaching me on how long to leave the yearlings in each pasture.
Standing on Cedar Butte that day in July of 1991, Dwayne made his second pitch, explaining how season long grazing was depleting our plant diversity.
“Your plant diversity may be the most important thing you have going on this ranch.” Dwayne said, “Where you summer long graze, the warm season grasses and forbs are just disappearing. If you can manage to get these pairs rotated even a couple of times during the summer it would make a tremendous difference in your pastures.”
It took a number of years for Dwayne`s wise words to be fully appreciated by my father and I. But, joined a few years later by brother-in-law Blake, we planned, sometimes failed, and re-planned grazing strategies. In drought years the yearlings were sold in May. Steadily the pastures improved. As a result, plant diversity is, as Dwayne predicted, the most important natural resource we have on our ranch today.
Dan is a past board member of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition of 18 years. He is currently the Educator/Consultant on the Coalition’s Collaborative Conservation Grant.
Recent graduates of the South Dakota Grazing School are eligible for a Bootstraps style range consultant visit. The range consultant may spend several days on the graduates ranch helping implement grazing practices. The cost is $150. The remaining consultant fees are paid by grants from NRCS, SDSU Extension, and other generous donors.
If you are interested in participating in the Grazing School Follow-Up program, contact Dan at:
If you would like to attend a grazing school, contact
Judge Jessop at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out April’s Our Amazing Grasslands Producers!
“Grasslands are not the poor land, it’s not the wasteland, this is an ecosystem that is by
far the most important ecosystem we have in North America and
yet it is disappearing at extraordinary rates.”
In our final video release of 2018, Tracy Rosenberg explains the importance of grassland ecosystems and the steps she is taking to preserve and enhance the Abbey Grasslands of the Prairie Coteau. Tracy embodies the spirit of conservation and encourages all of us to recognize the value of grasslands.
The SD Grassland Coalition partnered with the organizations listed below to enhance the grassland planner with a release of a short video story each month during 2018 promoting healthy soils, grasslands, and ecosystems. Please enjoy the Our Amazing Grasslands feature story for December 2018 featuring Tracy Rosenberg.
2018 Grassland Stewardship Communications Project Partners: The Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, American Bird Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Dakota, Ducks Unlimited, Partners for Fish Health, SD Game Fish & Parks, South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and SD Grassland Coalition.