Seeds of Wisdom: Doug Sieck’s Conservation Vision

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Doug Sieck moves polywire fencing to control grazing patterns and grazing pressure at pastures on his South Dakota ranch. (Merilee Welton)

By Peter Carrels

As Doug Sieck gazes across his three-thousand-acre farm and ranch operation, his focus isn’t so much on the surface of the land as it is on what’s beneath the surface.

That wasn’t always his inclination.

“When I grew up, and for many years after that,” Sieck recalled, “my family and our neighbors summer fallowed roughly half our land. We’d plow it up and keep it black, and then we’d grow wheat on that land the following year. We thought we were doing the right thing. What we didn’t realize was that when we turned the soil, we destroyed living roots and eliminated a food source for microbes. I now understand that microbes are a key to soil health.”

Fifty-one year-old Doug Sieck knows what he’s talking about. The function of single-cell microbes in soil is quite complex, but it can be simply summed up: Soils lacking microbes are deprived of natural foods to feed plants. Microbes, you see, create foods for plants such as nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals while consuming the nutrients they need. Remove nutrients by turning and tilling soil, and you shrink the microbe population. It’s pretty basic cause and effect.

In 2007 Sieck traveled from his home base near Selby, South Dakota, to Burleigh County, North Dakota, to learn about soil health and progressive conservation agriculture. He met farmers and ranchers there who followed more thoughtful crop rotations than he did. He met land stewards who were planting for diversity rather than monoculturally. And he learned about cover crop strategies. When he returned home, his vision for his own agricultural enterprise was more comprehensive.

“I made some radical changes to how I managed my land starting in 2007,” explained Sieck. “I’d learned that Mother Nature wants more diversity, and just about the only places we see monoculture is where human beings have interfered.”

Doug Sieck is a red-blooded rancher, but he talks like a prairie-hugging conservationist. It was a natural progression, really; the sort of evolution that fit his conservative and conservation-minded philosophy. Sieck, you learn quickly when speaking with him, prefers to protect rather than destroy, and to conserve rather than squander.

Sieck’s three-thousand-acre operation includes two thousand acres of grassland and one thousand acres of cropland. He also runs two hundred cow-calf pairs. It’s a Black Angus herd, bred to favor smaller, thriftier animals. “There’s a split in the ranching community right now,” said Sieck. “Some producers prefer to grow bigger cattle. But there’s an increasing number intentionally producing smaller cattle. I think smaller cattle are more efficient. They make better use of resources.”

He’s done other interesting things with his cattle, including shifting his animals to calve later. This is a tactic, he explained, “that is more in sync with nature.” He’s also changed his grazing patterns and grazing pressure to be friendlier to the dynamics of grassland ecosystems. “We’re resting the grasses much more,” said Sieck, “and we’re using our cattle to mimic what buffalo did.”

Doug Sieck breeds his Black Angus herd to smaller animals because the smaller animals use resources more efficiently. (Merilee Welton)

While soil health is a big factor in Sieck’s land-management decisions, so are issues related to water.

“We used to take water for granted,” Sieck admitted. “These days I think often about farming’s impacts to water and how to protect and better use water. I’ve learned that the relationship of water to a pasture is very different than the relationship of water to cropland.”

Sieck described how pastures and prairie accommodate rainfall and moisture. “If you consider rain that falls on a well-managed pasture,” said Sieck, “you understand that it soaks into the ground, and it gets cleansed and filtered, and some of it nicely replenishes the water table.”

The reverse happens with cropland, he said. “Nearly all the cropland in our county is sprayed with chemicals. A lot of the water that falls on cropland runs off, instead of penetrating the soil, and it carries chemicals to ponds, creeks, and rivers. We know that the level of rainfall infiltration is far greater for grassland than cropland. The water that does penetrate cropland soils must soak through chemicals before it reaches an aquifer.”

“One of the most important contributions of growing grass and creating more pasture and prairie is to protect and improve water resources,” Sieck emphasized. “This is how we can guarantee the availability of clean water for present and future generations.”

Another component to Sieck’s land-management objectives involves cover crops, and this is a subject that especially ignites his excitement, and it dominated our conversation about stewardship.

Integral to his enthusiasm about cover crops is the impact cover crops have on subsurface resources. Sieck’s vision, it seemed, never wavers from including a subterranean vantage.

“I started experimenting with cover crops in 2007,” he recalled. “When you plant, rotate, and mix cover crops, you discover that you’ve accelerated microbe activity and populations. It’s also beneficial to use cover crops as an armor to prevent soil erosion. And we’ve found that if we keep a good layer of plant residue on our croplands, we don’t lose moisture. When you have roots in the soil and cover on top of the soil, you increase organic matter, and the soil becomes more porous and water soaks in better.”

Sieck has used some unusual cover crop mixes, including blending in radishes and turnips, and he admits to being “just about the only one in my area growing full season cover crops.”

He confirms his need for alliances and association with like-minded farmer-ranchers. “If you are going to try something unconventional, you’d better have a good group of friends doing the same thing,” he said. He counts members of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition as his main support group and describes them as mentors and kindred spirits.

This is a challenging time for agriculture, Sieck declared, describing American production agriculture as volatile, complicated, and influential on a vast array of resources. “Things must change, and things will change,” he said. “As ag producers we have already done plenty of commodity-based conservation. We now need to move to community-based conservation.”

Doug Sieck pursues his stewardship ethic by closely watching his land and paying attention to details. He tends to the top of his topsoil and to underground elements as well. As you listen to Sieck it becomes easier to believe that his so-called unconventional approach to agriculture—Sieck and his comrades call it conservation agriculture—has a genuine chance to emerge from the shadows to become the conventional approach to agriculture.

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