Soil Health Conference on adaptive stewardship and what it could mean |

Soil Health Conference on adaptive stewardship and what it could mean

Maddie Hokanson
for Tri-State Livestock News
The importance of water is universally agreed-upon, but who manages that water and how has always been an issue. Recently-released memos written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reveal that they have many concerns with the Waters of the U.S. rule that has been touted as a joint rule between the Corps and the EPA that is supposed to be implemented August 28, and is the subject of several lawsuits. Photo by Amanda Merkel.

Farmers and ranchers in South Dakota are working to utilize their observations and intuition to be better stewards of their land and soil.

Allen Williams, an expert in regenerative agriculture and soil health, spoke on the topic of adaptive stewardship for all kinds of operations at the 2019 Soil Health Conference and Annual Meeting in January.

“When we bring in people not tied to agriculture and tell them about what soil health really means, they get it just like that,” said Williams. “Yet, many farmers and ranchers want to fight it and deny it.”

He stressed the importance of those individuals in production agriculture realizing how closely related soil health and production success are to one another.

The idea of adaptive stewardship is nothing new. It is simply learning to work with the environment instead of against it to gain the best results for the land and for the people working it.

“We are not in control. Nature does always win,” said Williams. “So how can we work with her instead of against her, always trying to fight her?”

Core Principles of Adaptive Stewardship

“These apply no matter where you are in the world, not matter your soil type, no matter what you grow and no matter your climate. None of that matters,” said Williams. “What matters is the application and understanding of these three principles.”

1. Principle of Compounding

The principle of compounding explains that your actions never just have one singular effect or impact. When you make a decision for your land for one reason or intended result, it will always positively or negatively affect another part of the soil. It’s very important to consider the long-term ripple effects that occur from soil management.

2. Principle of Diversity

The second principle related to adaptive stewardship is the principle of diversity.

“We want highly diverse, complex pastures and annual mixes, not monocultures,” said Williams during his presentation. He went on to say that monocultures are the very things that have led to the serious degradation of our soils today.

In order to create diversity, the three functional plant groups of grasses, legumes, and forbs must be introduced to pastures. Diversity is key. When diversity can be created and facilitated, then farming systems will really be able to start to thrive.

In Allen Williams’ words, “There is no such thing as an objective definition of a weed. It doesn’t exist. Any definition of a weed is purely subjective, and I’m going to submit to you that every plant that’s growing there, whether you like it or not, is growing there for a purpose. It’s growing there to heal something in the soil that we caused.”

3. Principle of Disruption

Finally, the principle of disruption best explains how nature is resilient and responds positively to challenges.

“We like to have a formula or system for doing things. Once we settle into doing that, we want to do the same thing every time, every year,” said Williams. “But somehow those routines or things we found that worked so well the first time never quite work out as well the next time around. When you do the same thing over again, you are stagnating nature.”

Similar to an elite athlete, you can’t do the same “exercises” day in and day out and expect continuous improvement. Change and disruption to routines is what allows anything to really grow to its fullest potential.

Williams shared that the surest way to success in adaptive stewardship is flexibility because it is not a rigid, one-size-fits-all routine. He also said that the best tool you have in your toolbox is observation with all five of your senses.

When it comes to the cost of starting something like this, it can vary greatly, depending on what you are already doing. However, any investments that are necessary tend to be very minimal because there isn’t an additional need for heavy equipment or capital. On the other side of cost is the potential for a high return on investment (ROI).

Time and labor is another consideration that makes many producers wary of adopting these principles. It’s important to understand that instead of increased labor, you are really just trading out one kind of labor for another, so instead of spending more time to implement these strategies, you are really just re-orienting what you do with your time.

As agriculture becomes more integrated and reliant on technology, some may question if seemingly traditional production methods can still be relevant.

“There certainly is a place for modern-day technology and adaptive stewardship,” said Williams in response to that question. “It’s about re-orienting what we do with these modern technologies.” He went on to say that precision agriculture can work very well with soil health in monitoring important components and indicators within the soil. It’s all about using this technology to make better informed decisions that favor biology.

This conference was put on by the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, an organization started in 2015 with a vision of increasing sustainable ag production through diversification and improved soil health. With over 100 members who are all open and willing to share their information and experiences with one another, it has led to very positive change in South Dakota.

“One of the best things I think South Dakota has gained from this effort has been the cooperation from our partnerships with NRCS, SDSU and the USDA,” said Bryan Jorgensen, one of the current board members who has been part of the organization since its beginning. “They are all very tightly bound, and as farmers, we are able to gain access to those partnerships and resources very easily.”

The 2019 Soil Health Conference and Annual Meeting was a two-day event taking place on January 22-23 in Brookings, South Dakota at Club 71 on SDSU’s campus. For more information or questions about the coalition, visit or call (605) 280-4190.