PIERRE | Johnson Farms of Frankfort has been selected for the 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.

In announcing the award on Monday in conjunction with Earth Day, Gov. Kristi Noem said that Johnson Farms would receive the prestigious award, given in honor of renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

The award recognizes private landowners who inspire others with their dedication to the land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

In South Dakota, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

Award finalists included a pair of West River ranches: Blair Brothers Angus Ranch of Vale in Butte County, and Hefner Ranch of Whitewood in Lawrence County, along with the Bien Ranch of Veblen in Marshall County.

"Farmers and ranchers across South Dakota know how to balance agriculture production with conservation," said Noem, in a release.

"The intentional innovation, stewardship and land ethic of the Johnsons and other producers ensures that our natural resources will be available for future generations," she said.

Alan and Mickie Johnson, with their son Brian and his wife Jamie, farm 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland in Spink County.

The Johnsons will be presented with the $10,000 award, and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold, at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in December.

Crop prices are uncertain, and available farmland is scarce. Agricultural conservation practices and raising cattle make the Johnsons more efficient, without buying more land.

The farm’s roots trace back to 160 acres that Alan’s Swedish immigrant grandfather homesteaded more than a century ago. The Johnsons use a mix of old school practices and modern technology to leave the land in better shape for the next generation.

Alan adopted no-till farming practices in 1986. Back then, abandoning the plow, disk and cultivator was much against the norm. Despite what the neighbors thought, Alan saw that tilling a field to rid it of weeds was also depleting it of moisture. By mid-summer if rain was scarce, crops suffered.

By coupling no-till practices with cover crops, the Johnsons have improved water infiltration and soil health, making the land more productive than when homesteaders first broke it open.

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The Johnsons also find that a diverse rotation of their corn, soybean, wheat, oat and barley crops, and leaving crop residue in place, minimizes agricultural runoff, naturally eases pest management, and provides wildlife habitat.

To further address soil erosion and salinity problems, the Johnsons enrolled land in the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program.

Realizing that different areas of each field have varying productivity, the Johnsons switched to a variable-rate fertilizer system in 2004. Applying the precise amount of nutrients on the soil saves time and natural resources, and delivers a better return on investment. Since the switch, the Johnsons have won a yield contest held by the South Dakota Soybean Association.

The Johnsons raise a herd of Angus beef cattle. Whenever possible, the herd is allowed to graze on mature cover crops and corn stubble creating a cooperative relationship between the cattle and the land. The cover crops provide feed, and the cattle naturally fertilize the soil with their waste.

Grazing used to mean turning the cattle out to pasture for the summer and bringing them home in the fall. It was easy, but it took a toll on the quality and variety of the grass. The Johnsons now rotationally graze their cattle and closely monitor grazing conditions and the timing of their calving season.

While the longtime crop farmers admit that managing grass and cattle requires additional time, the results are healthier land and a stronger bottom line.

“The Johnsons are demonstrating how crops and cattle can work together to support their multiple-generation family farm while improving their natural resources and the bottom line,” said Steve Ollerich, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association President. “We congratulate them as our 2019 Leopold Conservation Award recipients and applaud their conservation ethic.”

“The Johnson’s focus on conservation, while managing multiple enterprises on their family farm, is commendable and we congratulate them on receiving the 2019 South Dakota Conservation Award,” said Jim Faulstitch, South Dakota Grassland Coalition Chairman. “We look forward to continuing to highlight their conservation story throughout the year.”

“Leopold Conservation Award recipients are at the forefront of a movement by America’s farmers and ranchers to simultaneously achieve economic and environmental success,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer.

Award applicants were judged based on their demonstration of improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple use benefits.

The Leopold Conservation Award in South Dakota is possible thanks to generous contributions from South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, South Dakota Grassland Coalition, First Dakota National Bank, South Dakota Department of Agriculture, South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources–Discovery Center, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks, South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota State University College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, Bad River Ranches, Belle Fourche River Watershed Partnership, Ducks Unlimited, Millborn Seeds, South Dakota Pheasants Forever, Daybreak Ranch, Audubon Dakota, South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, North Central SARE–Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Professional Alliance, South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, The Nature Conservancy in South Dakota, Todd Mortenson family, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service–Partners for Fish Wildlife, Wagner Land & Cattle Company, and McDonald’s.

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 13 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.

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