Boost Farm Succession Through Soil Health Practices

March 17, 2023

It’s hard to imagine how turning a farm’s first 80-acre cropland field into a variety of monoculture grass pastures in 1999 could eventually lead to a son returning to the farm.

It certainly wasn’t a vision seen by Willow Lake, SD farmer/ranchers Darin and Jessica Michalski as they embarked on developing their business in the late-90s. But like all farmers and ranchers with kids (or without), it’s a joy to see a new generation continue a legacy.

Trial and error, program assistance, peer education and perseverance helped build a growing resilient business over the last 24 years. The Michalski’s cited several key factors that drove success over time:

  • A different and open whole-farm mindset.

  • Cropland and grassland diversity.

  • Soil focus and no-till cropland shift.

  • Youth involvement.

  • Honest communications.

“The most important thing my husband and I have done to contribute to a successful ranching operation is really thinking from a different mindset,” Jessica says. “There is a big value in thinking beyond what is growing above ground, thinking about the health of our soils, water infiltration rates, crop diversity on the landscape—truly thinking about a whole system dynamic beyond beef, soybean or corn bushels produced per acre,” she adds.

Constant learning, progressing

Jessica and Darin grew up farming, graduated college and began adapting crops to fields. “I gained a rotational grazing mentality when my parents converted less-desirable cropland into divided pastures by seeding both cool and warm season native grasses,” Jessica says. “This really helped when Darin and I got married as he also wanted to focus more on grassland and soil health.”

The ranch has improved thanks to great partnerships using both financial resources for infrastructure projects and conservation assistance programs from NRCS; U.S. Fish and Wildlife; South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and other organizations. In addition, Jessica helped further diversify the operation through her employment with South Dakota NRCS since 2003, currently helping farmers as State Resource Conservationist.

Like sponges, Jessica and Darin’s three children (Cutler, Kasey and Shay) have helped with crops and cattle from an early age, watching and absorbing farm changes and improvements. Their oldest son, Cutler, a senior at South Dakota State University, was raised helping interseed pastures with native grasses, removing thistles and moving grazing cattle by measuring grass. “It taught me the importance of a grazing and soil health mentality, realizing the benefit of taking half and leaving half the grass, plus the fun of moving a lot of cattle,” Cutler says.

Open communications are critical

The Michalski’s saw Cutler’s deepening ranch interest during high school. Yet Jessica knew his success with math could lead to an engineering or technology field, so they didn’t want to push his decision to return. “When we started talking about college his junior year of high school, he told us he wanted to come back to the ranch after attending SDSU.”

After many more open conversations and financial planning for a future ranch addition, Cutler began building his economic value by obtaining FSA financing to purchase 30-head of bred heifers before he started at SDSU. The timing worked well as nearby ranchers contacted him to offer pasture rental. “They saw how he helped us care for and improve pastures, which these landowners desired,” Jessica says.

Cutler appreciated how the ranch continued to experiment during his high school years. “We were increasing our intensive grazing among smaller paddocks, measuring and recording data for the CSP program,” he says. “It was a valuable learning experience to understand what the grass was capable of when you let it heal itself and allow the soil to work for you.”

In 2020, Cutler interned with the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, gaining additional knowledge and understanding of how other farmers adopt soil health practices. “He has definitely bought into the value of soil health, helping us to continue improving our land,” Jessica says. “We’ve instilled the value of learning from peers by attending pasture walks, Grassland seminars, and a tour of Gabe Brown’s operation. Cutler has also helped us share our experiences with peers during grassland and soil health conferences.”

Soil health drives financial health

Bringing on a family member started becoming viable after seeing the benefits of years of pasture and cropland improvement. Over time, improved water infiltration and soil health have extended the grazing season with greater stocking rates.

“We’ve probably increased our grass production by 25% by adding those warm season grasses we were missing before,” Jessica says. “That has helped us to ensure we have adequate forage production even in a drought years. And this success spilled over into more changes with crop ground.”

Cropland diversification to their soybeans and corn enterprise has further entrenched no-till success through healthier soils and more revenue stream possibilities that fit well with a cattle operation. The Michalski’s grow oats, alfalfa, hay millets, cover crops and pollinator habitat.

“We’ve made huge improvements to our bottom line,” Jessica says. “Crop yield bragging rights are not important to us. What is important is reducing our input costs thanks to implementing no-till and cover crops. We reduce our feed costs by grazing cover crops and crop residue from fall into winter. By improving grazing management, we’ve increased our carrying capacity. And we’re improving labor and management skills by adding Cutler to the farm,” she adds.

Darin and Jessica are proud to have their son return to the farm. “Right now, we’re set up to handle adding Cutler on a salary basis, plus he has his cattle. Eventually, he will transition into the Michalski Cattle LLC,” Darin says.

The Michalski’s have established a strong appreciation for the land, conservation and soil health practices, and the perseverance needed to achieve business success. “We’re grateful to pass along land better than we started with, and really hope future generations continue on this path,” Darin adds. “It would be fun for my grandkids to have good land, soil and water – I guess that’s my main goal.”

To learn more details of the Michalski journey, find the 2022 SD Soil Health Conference “Preparing for the Next Generation – Michalski Family” YouTube video presentation.

By Kurt Lawton for SD-USDA NRCS and SDSA Soil Health Initiative