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Non-operator landowner Jack Majeres and tenant Larry Hauglid are working together to improve soil health and regenerate soils on the Majeres farm in Moody County.

Living soil is just a good concept that needs to be pursued by all agricultural landowners as well as producers.

When we asked non-operator landowner Jack Majeres and his long-time tenant Larry Hauglid about their joint journey into gradually using more and more soil health practices on the Majeres farm, three things stood out in their landowner-tenant relationship.

1. What you learn from parents at a young age can influence you for a lifetime.

Some people develop a conservation ethic later in life, others grow up with it. If your parents live and breathe conservation as you’re growing up, whether you actively farm the land later in life or not, you’re likely to carry that conservation ethic with you—put Jack Majeres in that camp.

Jack was born and raised on the Moody County farm his father, an avid conservationist, cared for so well it received South Dakota’s top conservation farm award more than 50 years ago when Jack was young and impressionable.

“It’s something that was passed on to me,” Jack says. Influenced by his father, Jack would graduate from South Dakota State University and afterwards go to work as District Manager for the Minnehaha County Conservation District in 1974. Seven years later, he switched to work full time for the South Dakota Air National Guard. But he loved farm life, and in 1984, Jack bought the 156-acre farm he was born and raised on from his folks and he and his wife Alice and their children moved back to become the fourth generation Majeres on the family farm. While he had stopped working for pay in the conservation office, he soon began to volunteer as a conservation district supervisor; he’s done so for more than 35 years, at local, state, and national levels, and in the process, kept close tabs on new conservation practices and soil building techniques.

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With that size of farm it was hard to justify buying the equipment to farm it myself.

2. A landowner who can put himself in a tenant’s shoes allows a renter to make management and equipment changes more confidently and leads to more satisfying long term soil health results.

“With that size of farm it was hard to justify buying the equipment to farm it myself, plus my work at the air national guard would have me deployed about the time I needed to be home doing something on the farm. So instead of losing the farm I decided to cash rent it,” Jack says.

With his conservation ethic reinforced by six years of experience working for the conservation district, Jack knew the value of crop rotations and insisted the annual rental contract would call for a four-crop rotation, with oats or small grains incorporated with alfalfa, corn and soybeans.

But he recognized the varying returns from different crops for his renter, and to be fair to both parties, Jack proposed to his tenant, Larry Hauglid, that cash rental rates would be adjusted to fit the particular crop that was being grown on a particular field each year. “Jack was more than willing to work with cash rent and that's really helped us on our side,” Larry says.

Jack was also patient. “We were conventional operators and between Jack and myself it took several years to slowly switch over to no-till,” Larry says. “In that transition our yields actually went down just because it takes time to transition; him being willing to work with cash rent really helped us be able to invest in a no-till drill and do things like that to make it work. We slowly worked into it and it's worked out fine for us.”

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My organic matter is running right at five percent.

3. Landowners who recognize soil health practices lead to higher productivity and profitability for themselves long term can make faster progress by sharing costs of soil building practices with their renter.

“The one thing that landowners should do is become more aware of what is happening on their farms,” Jack says. He’s been monitoring soil organic matter levels, a key indicator of soil productivity, for the past several years and has seen a gradual improvement. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. My organic matter is running right at five percent; everybody tells me that's a good number, but my goal is to get to seven or eight percent,” he says.

Jack says the “living soil” he sees on his farm is a concept that needs to be pursued by all agricultural owners as well as producers. “You're not only protecting the soil and building it back up again for future generations to use to raise their food, you’re improving the environment by pulling more carbon out of the air, reducing soil erosion, and reducing the amount of fertilizer inputs needed,” he says. Larry agrees—he’s been able to increase crop yields with lower fertilizer input in just a few years on Jack’s land. 

Cover crops are a key practice to all those benefits, but there is a cost for seed and planting—a cost Jack thinks needs to be shared. “The producer is out there year after year to try to make ends meet, and we need to be cognizant of that effort and share in the profits as well as the challenges that come along. I cost share the investment in cover crops each year with Larry 50-50, so that reduces his cash rental rates. I'm benefiting from it and he is benefiting from it—he doesn't need to stand the entire cost of implementing that cover crop,” Jack insists.

The fact that Larry has a cow herd gives both Jack and Larry another way to benefit. “With my livestock operation we were able to use the alfalfa and the small grain portion of it, and we can sometimes graze the cover crops and corn stalks in the fall,” Larry says. That grazing cuts Larry’s cost of hauling and spreading manure if the cows were confined to a lot, and the manure enriches Jack’s land, too. “Scientists tell us that cattle traffic is beneficial to healthy soils, not only by depositing their manure but also their hoof traffic helps soil organisms,” Jack adds.

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My crop yields increased with lower fertilizer inputs in just a few years.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

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