Grow Your Farm's Future with Climate Smart Practices

February 2, 2023

Focusing on feeding your soil with year-round plants and the carbon energy from sunlight will drive healthy soil to deliver longevity to your farm or ranch.

However, soils that live on a constant diet of synthetic fertilizer, monocropping, and excessive tillage are degrading soil biology. Even consumers driving our highways now comment on blowing dirt and eroded soil or black snow in ditches, relating that to the potential harm to their water quality.

To make challenges greater, this climate of temperature and moisture extremes adds to the distress of unhealthy soils. Regardless of the role that rising greenhouse gases play on the climate, what’s most important is increasing carbon and organic matter in your soils to increase income and business resilience.

Fortunately, innovative farmers and ranchers are implementing practices from no-till and cover crops to adaptive rotational grazing are regenerating soil health. The big challenge across South Dakota and the U.S. is getting these climate-smart practices on more acres to impact the environment positively.

Climate-smart funding help

Tillage and bare ground without living plants leads to erosion, poor soil health and a greater reliance on fertilizer and weed control inputs.

In 2021, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) examined farmer practices funded by its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to determine which ones could sequester carbon or lower carbon emissions.

These ‘Climate-Smart’ practices should receive priority in 2023, according to Jessica Michalski, NRCS State Resource Conservationist for South Dakota, awaiting final details from NRCS.

“Many of these practices are already in use, such as no-till, cover crops, nutrient management, grass-seeded field borders, filter strips, grass waterways, pasture and hay land plantings—all are climate-smart practices,” Michalski says. “Forestry management practices also are included, such as forest stand improvement and tree shrub establishment.”

Additional funding for these programs will come from the Inflation Reduction Act. It will provide $8.45 billion for EQIP, $6.75 billion for a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), $1.4 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and $1 billion for technical assistance.

In September, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA is investing $2.8 billion in projects under the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. It is part of the USDA’s broader strategy to position agriculture and forestry as leaders in climate change mitigation through voluntary, incentive-based, market-driven approaches.

Investing in soil improvement

Kent Vlieger, NRCS State Soil Health Specialist for South Dakota, encourages farmers and ranchers to think about soil health when understanding climate smart. “Whether it’s called soil health or regenerative ag or climate-smart, it really boils down to a focus on improving the soil and building soil organic matter over time,” he says.

“When you’re increasing organic matter, carbon is increasing automatically too. Carbon comes from the above-ground plant, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, essentially putting it back into the soil. And that soil acts as a sink or part of the carbon cycle,” Vlieger says. “Climate-smart agriculture’s carbon storage is another benefit within the practices that we have promoted and producers have practiced for decades.”

In side-by-side fields, the unhealthy soil on the left is due to decades of tillage and lack of crop diversity. Soil on the right exhibits great granular structure taken from a 15-year no-till field

The list of benefits from increasing soil organic carbon or organic matter is almost limitless. “It improves nutrient cycling, water storage and infiltration, water quality and air quality, Vlieger says. “Innovative producers and landowners have often been ahead of the game by adopting these practices before they become part of an incentive program. Climate or water quality improvement may not have been the original reason for adoption. In fact, many farmers and ranchers added these practices because they benefit th

eir operation and make fields more resilient and profitable during those heavy rain or drought years,” he adds.

To find and talk to farmers and ranchers about their journey to improved soil health, South Dakota offers a wide variety of contacts and educational videos. Request a copy of ‘Building Connections’ Conservation Mentor Network booklet from Cindy Zenk at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition (SDSHC), 605-280-4190, or email In addition, ranchers have a great mentor network resource online from the South Dakota Grassland Coalition (SDGC). You can also watch hundreds of farm and ranch producer videos f

rom SDGC, NRCS-SD Merit or Myth Season 1, NRCS-SD Merit or Myth Season 2, NRCS-SD Growing Resilience with Soil Health, or NRCS-SD funded Soil Health Labs Growing Resilience Through Our Soils.

Understanding the Soil Food Web

Since we cannot control the extremes of Mother Nature, we can adapt our practices to make our soils work for us in these environments.

“Over the past decade, we've realized how much biology can contribute to soil productivity and plant health,” Vlieger says. “When you look at the soil food web—remembering the biology class graphic of a tree with circular arrows above and below ground—it shows how plants, roots and microscopic bugs work together to feed each other.”

To regenerate soil and optimize the soil food web process, it begins with the sun and living plants in the soil year-round. Plants are the only energy source that drives proper soil food web functions. That's the gas pump or the electrical charging station filling your car to make it run.

Solar energy captured by plants will grow biomass and roots and push energy into the soil. Depending on the plant type, 20-40% of that energy is pushed out through its roots to feed the soil life. As the soil life grows—the mycorrhiza fungi, bacteria, nematodes, mites, and earthworms—they decompose organic materials and cycle nutrients back to the plant roots.

“We don’t have a complete understanding yet of the whole cycle,” Vlieger says. “But we do know that certain

practices benefit the soil life, and it boils down to the

basic soil health practices.”

Five principles of soil health

Following the five principles of soil health, you can begin a journey to optimize your soil food web.

  1. Soil Cover. Maintaining plant residue or a living canopy on the soil surface minimizes erosion and weeds, moderates soil temperature, saves moisture and cuts compaction. In addition, a residue cover creates food and shelter for soil biology to thrive.

  2. Limited Disturbance. Tilled soils destroy soil aggregates to decrease water infiltration and storage. Organic matter is reduced through air exposure. Erosion increases with water runoff, and the wind carries it away. Soil biology is disturbed without living roots year-round. Chemical disturbance occurs with excessive use of pesticides and monocropping.

  3. Living Roots. Maintaining a diversity of living roots from spring thaw to fall freeze delivers an energy source for healthy soil. Photosynthesis helps roots secrete exudates to form an active rhizosphere that feeds the soil organisms. Then the microorganisms produce nutrient-dense waste that feeds the plants.

  4. Diversity. A corn-soybean rotation lacks plant and root diversity needed to supply the soil’s diverse food needs to maintain a healthy diet—just like humans need. Rotating in a small grain is a great first step.

  5. Livestock Integration. Returning livestock to grazing cover crops or crop residue in winter helps balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio, recycles animal waste into the soil for future crops, manages weed pressure, and reduces feeding costs.

    Returning livestock to fields where they graze cover crops speeds up the soil health process.

“By understanding the soil food web biological processes and the practices that improve soil health, it’s easy to see how feeding the soil will, in turn, feed our operations through the growth of a crop or livestock,” Vlieger says.

“As producers experience this journey of making their soil more resilient and productive, over time, they see their operation become more profitable by

reducing inputs. That makes them believers in this management change when soils prove they can work for you,” he says.

Precision spade monitor

Soil in spades

Embarking on this journey to regenerate carbon and organic matter in your soils will take time. But within a few years, producers begin to see soil structure changes, more earthworms and improved water infiltration.

To understand the spade as a precision tool, note the spade of soil on the left in the photo. It shows unhealthy soil from a first-year no-till field located across the road from the healthy soil in the spade on the right.

Both share the same soil texture, but the left soil shows many years of tillage damage aided by a lack of crop diversity. You’ll notice blocky soil chunks that break off in plates or sheets. Roots grow laterally instead of downward, causing crops to expend too much energy and fail to push roots through the compaction layer six inches down. The result is crops that miss out on valuable nutrients and water. The soil on the right is from a 15-year no-till field across the road from each other near Garretson, SD. It shows a healthy soil structure that is crumbly, with roots growing downward, showing no apparent compaction layers.

While it’s not a high-tech monitor, the spade can provide satisfaction in knowing your rhizosphere around the roots and that the overall soil structure is improving. Any farmer or rancher mentor will be happy to dig field soil samples with you and explain the improvements and challenges.

Optimize your NRCS benefits

Spade – rhizosphere – This soil health tool helps track the improving rhizosphere around the roots and the overall soil structure.

As more money becomes available to help farmers and ranchers remove some of the investment risks to switch practices, NRCS’s Michalski advises gaining knowledge on these practices, updating your conservation plan, and having a good working relationship with your NRCS office.

“I think the main thing for producers is to keep a finger on the pulse of the opportunities. Do your research, look up the information on these climate-smart partnerships, examine funding levels and know your state-specific information,” she says.

Regarding EQIP, Michalski says NRCS will release payment schedule information in January, so she recommends examining practices that address your resource concerns. “The greater the knowledge, combined with a successful conservation plan, the more successful you’ll be at landing the right contract.”

Vlieger says NRCS has a lot of tools in the toolbox to help corn-soybean growers move the needle towards greater soil health. “It could be adding a small grain or planting green into cover crops to build diversity and tackle herbicide-resistant weeds in a climate-smart way. Sometimes we need to think outside the box a bit to begin adapting these practices into our systems,” he says.

Producers have some significant financial incentives to consider doing business differently. “It’s on all of us to improve the health of our cropland, our grazing lands and our forest lands—not just a producer's responsibility,” Michalski says.

By Kurt Lawton for SDSA Soil Health Initiative