Johnson Farms named South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award winner
On July 17, more than 100 people gathered at Johnson Farms in Frankfort, South Dakota, where they toured the diversified crop and cattle operation to learn more about the conservation efforts being implemented there.
The Johnson family was recently selected as the 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award for their dedication to the land, water and wildlife resources in their care.
Alan and Mickie Johnson, along with their son Brian and his wife Jamie, farm 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland in Spink County along the James River.
The Johnsons have been farming since Brian’s great-grandfather immigrated from Sweden and homesteaded in South Dakota on 160 acres more than a century ago. Relying on a mix of modern technologies and tried-and-true management techniques that focus on conservation, the Johnsons have been able to get more per acre from their fields and pastures.
“Alan implemented no-till farming practices in 1986, and that gave us a good foundation to work from,” said Brian. “Since then, we have done some fine-tuning and technology has changed, which has allowed us to use more data to make the best decisions for the land.”
In recent years, the Johnsons have worked tirelessly to diversify crop rotations between corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and barley crops. They believe in leaving crop residues in place, strip planting, implementing a variable-rate fertilizer system, planting cover crops, placing marginal crop acres into CRP and growing more trees for shelter belts, just to name a few. These strategies have greatly helped the Johnsons best utilize the acres and cattle they do have without expanding the operation further.
And in doing so, the family has addressed soil erosion and salinity problems, minimized water runoff, provided extra wildlife habitat, increased biodiversity and organic matter in the soil, reduced pests and added new grazing opportunities for livestock, all while reducing input costs.
“We have realized that incorporating more cattle onto our land has helped us to improve in our conservation efforts,” said Jamie. “We graze corn stalks and cover crops, and soil tests in those areas show we need less fertilizer on those fields because of the manure. During the winter months when we feed hay, we do so with a bale processor and strategically place the hay so the cattle move evenly across the field instead of compacting in one place. Again, less fertilizer is needed in those wintering fields.”
“In addition to being another forage source for our cattle, the use of cover crops has helped our crop yields, too,” added Brian. “We plant a mix of cover crops that include radishes and lentils. The radishes work well because their root systems can drill down six feet deep and really loosen up any compaction layers that may be present in the field. It makes for a good root zone for the next crop.”
To maintain cover on their fields, the Johnsons plant cover crops in strips after the wheat harvest. The following year, they plant corn within two inches of those cover crop strips.
“We use the corn planter when we plant cover crops,” said Jamie. “We retrofit some sugar beet discs onto the planter, which allows us to use auto steer and precisely plant to match it up with our corn rows the following year.”
“Based on our soil tests, we have really seen an improvement in organic matter over the last several years,” said Brian. “Plus, we’ve seen improvements in water infiltration, increased yields, good fertility levels and cost savings because we spend less on fertilizer.”
The Johnsons credit the strong team of experts they work with in their conservation efforts.
“We really couldn’t do this without our strong business partners such as the folks at the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office and the Spink Conservation District,” said Brian. “We believe in surrounding ourselves with a team of experts, and maintaining relationships with these folks has allowed us to implement conservation practices that have helped our operation tremendously.”
The Johnson’s four children, Ella (age 12), Lila (age 10), Leo (age 7) and Evelyn (age 3), are also involved in the operation and enjoy helping with the farming and working their herd of Angus cattle.
“Running cattle is hard work, but it’s a way for us to further diversify and insulate ourselves against hard times,” said Jamie. “The kids enjoy working cattle alongside us, and as a family, we are constantly looking at ways to do more with the acres we have and the livestock we own. We’ve learned it’s important to think outside the box to make things work, to live within our means, to prepare to farm through good and bad commodity prices, to be careful with our investments and to tighten our belts during lean years.”
During the farm tour, visitors had the opportunity to listen to agricultural speakers, enjoy South Dakota State University’s signature ice cream and hear firsthand from the Johnsons, whose conservation efforts will be celebrated throughout 2019 as the Leopold Conservation Award winners.
The Leopold Conservation Award was inspired by Aldo Leopold, who recognized that there was a huge disconnect between the people who were the consumers of the production that comes off of privately-owned agricultural lands and what happens on the land.
The award is presented by Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award Program. The goal of the program is to honor leaders who love the land and to build bridges between agriculture, government, environmental organizations, industry and academia to advance the cause of private lands conservation.
“Most people don’t realize that more than three-quarters of the land in the United States is in private ownership, and what happens on those private lands affects not only those land owners, but also the general public,” said Stanley Temple, Ph.D., wildlife ecologist and Leopold scholar. “The entire community has a real stake in what happens in privately-owned productive lands. It affects our air, our wildlife — it affects a lot of what we consider our public trust, not just the perogative of the private landowner.”
In South Dakota, 24 organizations, including the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition and South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, support and endorse this award, which brings so many people together to celebrate conservation.
“There is strong support for conservation awareness in the state of South Dakota,” said Judge Jessop, South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, project coordinator. “Some states don’t collaborate as closely as we do here, but in South Dakota, this award brings many folks to the table from Game Fish and Parks, to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to farmers and ranchers and agricultural groups. We may have varied interests, but we all are willing to communicate and work together for the best use of the state’s natural resources. It’s a pretty great thing.”
This year’s 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.
“Even being a finalist is a huge honor; the caliber of applicants we receive each year is incredible,” he said. “It’s a testament to the Johnsons and the work they have done to manage their land — they are doing great things in Spink County, particularly when you consider some of the limitations and productivity of the soil there.”
As recipients of this award, the Johnson family will receive a $10,000 prize, a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold and a video production featuring their ranch. This video will debut at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in December 2019.
“We try to do what is best for the land, and to be recognized for that is deeply humbling,” said Brian. “We are obviously not done though. We will continue to work on our grazing systems to further improve the grasslands and manage our cattle. We want to integrate more livestock onto our cropland, as well. It’s an ongoing effort.”
Should the kids get involved in agricultural pursuits one day, the couple hopes they’ll benefit from the choices they make on the land today.
“We have plans to plant an L-shaped shelter belt in our pasture to help during calving season,” said Jamie. “It might take a little time to grow, but hopefully it will benefit our kids and grandkids when they’re farming and ranching one day.”