The Land is Our Legacy: Mitchell Farmers Reflect on Business of Farming & Building Soil Health

Apr 11, 2019

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Soil Health Coalition

Brothers, Gene and Craig say as far back as they can document, the Stehly family has farmed. “In fact, we have the deed for the quarter our great-great-grandfather homesteaded in South Dakota, signed by Grover Cleveland in 1865,” Gene explains.

However, when the men reflect on their farming practices and business philosophy, the brothers don’t focus on traditions or conventional practices, instead for nearly 40 years, they have focused on building their soils’ health and in return, their farm’s profitability.

“Our first motivation is always profit. We are running a business. If you look at the result of the journey, we started 40 years ago, we have soil that is much healthier in every way. We can raise more bushels with less inputs,” Gene says.

Profits were scarce when the brothers began farming in the early 1980s. A depressed farm economy, coupled with multiple seasons of drought and soil sample results showing low organic matter, motivated them to begin no-till farming.

“In those drought years, no-till worked well to stop erosion and conserve moisture,” Craig says.

Not tilling their fields also saves on equipment costs, time and labor. And, in today’s high moisture climate, Craig explains no-till, together with other soil health-building practices, helps manage water efficiently. “It comes down to managing the water you have as efficiently as you can. Where we farm, we have most of our moisture in the spring. Instead of letting it run off, soils with higher organic matter and cover crop residue, hold water in the soil for when the plants need it.”

Now, results weren’t immediate. They explain it takes time to build organic matter. “You can take away organic matter faster than you can build it. It takes decades to build,” Craig said. “It’s a long-term commitment.”

Together with their nephew, Skip Young, the brothers operate a large farm on owned and leased acres; raising corn, soybeans and wheat.

When the brothers discuss soil health, they explain that on their farm it includes much more than no-till farming practices. Inspired by research conducted by Dr. Dwayne Beck at Dakota Lakes Research Farm and SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist, Anthony Bly, the brothers are among South Dakota’s soil health pioneers, implementing practices, like interseeding cover crops into corn, soybeans and wheat. In January 2019, they were recognized for their efforts with the Legacy Award by the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition.

“Soil health isn’t just one thing. It’s a system approach, combining no-till, crop rotation, cover crops and planting native grass seed into our sensitive areas – wetlands, and salinity areas along watersheds – to try to make our land not only profitable but sustainable for the future,” Craig explains.

Grid sampling is also key. Since 1979, the brothers have closely monitored their soil’s organic matter and available nutrients. Working closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the SD Department of Game, Fish & Parks, they take underproductive acres out of production and return them to native grass or wetlands.

“We have been developing habitat since the 1980s. It goes back to making every acre count,” Gene says. “In this Prairie Pothole Region, on average, 10 percent of every field we farm, has some reason we cannot make money on it. Most the time, it is wetlands. Which is why we utilize wetland CRP so much.”

Craig adds, “Instead of getting a negative return, there are areas in nearly every one of our fields that we have converted back to wetlands or native prairie.”

The Stehly brothers manage 45 parcels of land enrolled in various conservation programs, including a bee program establishing pollinator blocks in fields that are close to bee hives. Their actions enhance not only soil health, but improve water infiltration, reduce runoff and create wildlife and pollinator insect habitats.

These benefits do not go unnoticed.

“We rent a lot of farmland from people who are non-farmers…so that is why we have made a real push to involve our landowners so they can understand what we are doing and why we are doing it,” Gene explains.

Hunting is one way they do this. And, their favorite example is a 350-acre riparian area along Firesteel Creek, that feeds into Lake Mitchell.

Ten years ago, it was just pastureland with a section of Firesteel Creek running through it. Today, the area is home to more than 48 native forbs, pollinator insects, deer, pheasants, meadowlarks and other wildlife and birds. A 2018 test of Firesteel Creek showed dramatic improvement in water quality.

“The land is our legacy, so it does go beyond money with us. We want to do what’s right,” Gene says.

Anyone interested in evaluating their landscape to make changes or enhancements like the Stehly brothers have, can contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for free one-on-one technical advice for their land.

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