Learn How to Increase Yields & Profits During 2019 Soil Health School

Jun 19, 2019

PIERRE, S.D. – Learn how to increase yields and decrease input costs by improving soil health during the 2019 S.D. Soil Health Coalition (SDSHC) Soil Health School, held September 4-6 on the Kurt and Kathy Stiefvater farm near Salem.

Designed for agriculture producers and others interested in managing their soils for resiliency and profit, the Soil Health School brings together soil health experts, experienced producers and those new to soil health, to discuss tried and true management practices.

“Attending the Soil Health School changed my whole perspective on soil,” explains Don Nickelson, a Frederick farmer. Prior to attending the Soil Health School, Nickelson had been struggling to farm saline areas of a field. He implemented what he learned and instead of crops, he planted salt-tolerant perennial grasses for grazing and forage. “Today, I think about treating the cause of soil issues, instead of symptoms. I’m doing this with my kids in mind. I want to pass on good soils and management principles instead of bad habits.”

During the three-day Soil Health School, local and regional soil health experts will discuss the following topics:

  • Holistic Management
  • Soil Properties
  • Agronomics
  • No-Till Planting and Planter Set-Up
  • Crop Rotational Diversity
  • Cover Crops
  • Inventory of Farm Resources
  • Soil Assessment and Monitoring
  • Managing Soil Salinity
  • Water Infiltration and Dynamics
  • Economics
  • Soil Biology and Beneficial Insects
  • Fencing and Watering Systems
  • Forage Allocation
  • Implementing Grazing Practices

“For anyone interested in soil health, this is one of the best events to attend,” says Leola farmer, Trevor Zantow. “The presenters are not only involved in the practices but are knowledgeable of the science. This experience helped build my confidence to change my farming practices.”

Some of the local and regional soil health experts and producers presenting during the 2019 school include: Dr. Dwayne Beck Manager, Dakota Lakes Research Farm; Dr. Paul Jasa, Extension Engineer, University of Nebraska Lincoln; Jay Fuhrer, Soil Health Specialist, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Kent Vlieger, S.D. Soil Health Specialist, NRCS; Nathan Jones, State Soil Scientist, NRCS; Eric Barsness, Agronomist, NRCS; Gared Shaffer, SDSU Extension Weeds Field Specialist; Anthony Bly, SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist; Dan Forgey, SDSHC Director, Manager Cronin Farms & 2016 Leopold Conservation Award Recipient; Doug Sieck, SDSHC Director, Selby Producer; Nick Jorgensen, Ideal Producer & 2015 Leopold Conservation Award Recipient; Dr. Jon Lundgren, Blue Dasher Farms and Lee Briese, Agronomist.

Salem farmers, Kurt and Kathy Stiefvater share how managing soil health works on their farm. By Connie Groop, for SDSHC

Salem farmers, Kurt and Kathy Stiefvater will host the 2019 Soil Health School on their farm.
“I want to share what I know so people don’t have to make the same mistakes,” Stiefvater says. “There is not a cookie-cutter solution, but we can learn from each other to make the soil better.”

Stiefvater’s soil health management focuses on returning carbon to his soil. “By raising the organic matter, it builds resiliency, that can stave off extremes of weather events when we have excess rain or drought conditions.”

Stiefvater, returned to his family’s farm in 1987. About that same time, Stiefvater and his dad realized it was difficult to get greater production from their soil. So, they turned to no-till methods to conserve moisture.

“We knew we needed to protect the soil. We used the planter we had, planting in fields without tilling them first. I struggled for the first seven or eight years to learn how to manage the soil. We went against the norms of farming,” he explains. “I’ve gained more knowledge in the last 10 years and I understand my soils better. I’ve learned from my mistakes and learned to be patient. No-till practices allow infiltration and let the rain work for you.”

Today, Stiefvater’s corn yields are five to 10-bushels above average for the area. And, in drought years, the corn stays green longer. Because he’s reduced the number of passes necessary to raise a crop, with no-till, Stiefvater figured he saves about $15 an acre.

Over time, Stiefvater found no-till practices were not enough. “It needs to be a whole system approach, looking at the cattle and crops to figure out the synergies. We leave the leftover biomass as a food source for the microbes and earthworms. We eliminate extra labor.”

Today he manages his fields with a three-way rotation of soybeans, corn and oats. Oats are followed by cover crops which his livestock graze. Over the years, he’s experimented with a variety of cover crops. He’s tried winter barley, turnips, radishes, field peas, rye and clovers. He selects cover crop mixes based on what grows well, what his cattle like and seed cost.

Cover crops do more than improve soil health. “My hay needs are cut by about 40 percent. Since the cows are on pasture most of the time, I only haul manure from the lots every two years,” he says. “The use of cover crops is making my pastures more productive. By using rotational grazing, I’m able to run more animal units per year. It’s helped with weed control and I spray for weeds less often.”

He says being able to run his cattle on pasture through the winter improves their condition. “In the winter, even when it’s 15 below, the cattle may grab a mouthful of hay in the lots and then head out to graze on the cover crops,” he says. “They dig through the snow and find what’s there.”

Hands-on learning
During the Soil Health School held on Stiefvater’s farm, participants will get to see for themselves how management practices like no-till and cover crops impact soil health. They can check out soil pits to see how roots burrow into soil structure and allow for water and nutrients to penetrate the clay and the alkaline earth. Stiefvater will also demonstrate how soil health practices improve soils resistance to compaction and ruts. Plus, there will be plenty of time for Q & A with experts and experienced producers like Stiefvater.

“I don’t know if my kids will come back to farm but there is a farm with a future here,” Stiefvater says. “If the farm stays in the family, I’m building value. It will be a different soil than it used to be. I’m improving and building organic levels and infiltration. What I’ve done isn’t disappearing. It builds soil and prevents water and wind erosion.”

Registration information
To attend the 2019 Soil Health School, register at and click on the Events tab. For more information on the Soil Health School, or if you have questions about the event, contact S.D. Soil Health Coalition at or call 605-280-4190.

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