Learn How Soil Health Can Decrease Need for Costly Inputs During 2020 S.D. Soil Health Coalition Conference

Dec 2, 2019

PIERRE, S.D. – Internationally acclaimed Australian soil health expert, Dr. Christine Jones shares how by increasing soil health, farmers can decrease the need for costly inputs during the fourth annual S.D. Soil Health Coalition Conference (SDSHC) held January 15-16, 2020 in Watertown, S.D. at the Ramkota Hotel and Watertown Event Center (1901 9th Ave. SW).

“I’m greatly inspired by the multi-species cover crop revolution in the United States. Leading-edge farmers…are showing it’s possible to maintain or even improve crop yields while winding back on fertilizer,” says Jones in an interview with Eco Farming Daily . “They’re building soil, improving the infiltration of water, increasing water holding capacity and getting fantastic yields. They have fewer insects and less disease. The carbon and water cycles are fairly humming on their farms.”

A member of Arizona State University’s Carbon Nation Team, Jones will provide SDSHC Conference attendees with information and case studies on how soil health building practices can reduce the need for fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Her presentation will discuss the role of root exudates on soil structure and function. She will explain how quorum sensing in soil microbial communities can be activated through proper establishment and management of high diversity crop and pasture mixes. Learn more about Jones and her work at

Jones is one of four leading experts invited to present during the two-day conference. The other presenters include Tom Cannon, an Oklahoma rancher who operates a cow/calf and stocker operation as well as a row crop farm; Derek Axten, a no-till diversified grain farmer from southern Saskatchewan, Canada who implements several soil health practices including intercropping; and Andrea Bjornestad, SDSU Extension Mental Health Specialist.

“We are excited about the caliber of presenters and the applicable information they will share with farmers, ranchers and all those eager to learn more about building soil health,” says Cindy Zenk, S.D. Health Coalition Coordinator.

Attending the 2020 SDSHC Conference to learn from experts and network with others engaged in soil health building practices is time well spent, explains rancher and presenter, Tom Goodson Cannon . Cannon credits a field day at Dakota Lakes Research Farm with changing the way he thought about land management. “It convinced me to try the principles of soil health and regenerative agriculture. They are solid and work everywhere.”

For more than 20 years, the fourth-generation cattle producer has implemented no-till, cover crops and other regenerative agriculture practices to build the soil health of what had been conventionally cultivated crop acres.

Cannon’s overall goal is to build up the soil health of crop acres to mimic the health of native grasslands his family’s cattle have grazed for 125 years. “Water infiltration rates are so much better and there is no erosion. By watching the native grasslands, I decided to implement cover crops,” Cannon explains that by adding cover crops to no-till acres, his water infiltration increased dramatically. “Cover crops increased the diversity of green living roots. Infiltration rates went up five to six times, compared to acres with no-till alone and my soil has become more productive.”

Although Cannon has 600-acres of irrigated farm ground, because of his soil health-building efforts, he rarely runs his pivots. “If I put an inch or two on in a season, that’s a lot anymore.”

Along with using less water, Cannon’s other inputs have decreased as well. “It didn’t happen right away, but about 11 years in, I am maintaining yields 30 to 40 percent above the county average. And I am using less nitrogen. I’m getting a bushel of corn for every .3 pounds of nitrogen.”

Like Cannon, by increasing species diversity, Saskatchewan farmer, Derek Axten has been able to boost soil health and yields. In 2007, Axten began focusing on building his farm’s soil health. “When I look at my kids and think about the next generation, I want to do everything I can to make the soil better to secure a future in farming for them,” says the fourth-generation farmer.

In addition to no-till and cover crops, Axten also implements intercropping. Growing two complimentary crops together, like yellow mustard and forage peas or chickpeas and flax. “We end up with more net product with lower inputs. Intercropping for us got us hooked on reducing inputs. We quit using synthetic fertility on those fields and did not see a yield difference.”

Axten separates and cleans the grain he harvests on his farm. In addition to discussing intercropping during his SDSHC Conference presentation, Axten will also share how through soil health building efforts he is able to not only save on inputs but also access more marketing opportunities. Axten is a member of Grounded Growth, a service that connects farmers with food processors who value regenerative agriculture practices.

“There are so many benefits to focusing on soil health. Simple things like our stress level. Because we are not spending as much on inputs, and our yields are good, even with the markets what they are, our profitability is up, so my stress level isn’t,” Axten explains.

Managing stress levels is a focus of Dr. Andrea Bjornestad ’s talk. The SDSU Extension Mental Health Specialist says South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers are at risk for mental health issues due to chronic stress resulting from the many factors out of their control in recent years.

“Whether it is the weather, market prices, tariffs or health care costs – farmers have no control over these external factors which have a direct impact on their lives and livelihoods,” Bjornestad says.

She explains that chronic stress takes a physical and mental toll on a body. “It can lead to difficulties sleeping, chronic pain or worse,” Bjornestad explains. “What is happening to producers is very serious. Agriculture sustains one of the highest mortality rates from stress-related illnesses. Suicide among farmers and ranchers is an international concern.”

Because the factors creating chronic stress are out of our control, Bjornestad says it is important farmers and their families make time for self-care. “Don’t isolate yourselves. Work to get more social interaction and peer support from other producers who understand,” she said.

Other self-care strategies may include:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy
  • Utilize effective time management
  • Engage in hobbies or interests
  • Obtain enough sleep
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs
  • Laugh
  • Try to keep a positive attitude
  • Politely stand up for yourself
  • Spend time with the people you love
  • Seek out social support
  • Schedule a physical with a doctor
  • Talk with a counselor

Register today
To learn more about the SDSHC Soil Health Conference and to register, visit or contact Cindy Zenk, S.D. Soil Health Coalition Coordinator at or 605-280-4190.

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