Agronomist Brian Chatham is working with agriculture producers in South Dakota to assess the health of their soil and help them develop a plan to improve production. The program asks farmers and ranchers to sign a 5-year contract for technical and financial assistance with a tailored management plan.

"I talk to the producer to learn about the land and their operation so I can personalize a management plan focused on their needs," Chatham said. "We want to know what issues they have had, what crops were planted, what future crops will be planted and other land use goals. Then we develop a plan for cover crops or other management practices that will improve the soil for the upcoming season and improve outcomes."

It takes two years of soil sampling to get a solid baseline of the soil characteristics. Chatham is analyzing soil samples taken this past spring and summer across almost 20,000 acres from 21 different producers. The analysis will give a snapshot of the biology of the soil including microbe health, nutrient profile, soil compaction, water infiltration and earthworm count. If there are any nutrient deficiencies, a cover crop or other prescription can be made to provide for the needs of future crop plantings and soil improvement.

"For example, if the soil has a phosphorus deficiency and the field just came out of wheat and the farmer is planting soybeans next season, I suggest a full season cover crop that includes flax or buckwheat that will make phosphorus more available for the crops planted the following spring," Chatham said.

Monitoring is a significant component of the soil health program. The DU agronomists and biologists work with the producers as they implement the management plan. They evaluate how the strategies are working and impacts on soil health. If things aren't working, they adjust the plan and make sure the producer has the help and information they need.

Word is spreading about Ducks Unlimited's soil health program in South Dakota and more producers are interested in working with DU. There are 15 additional producers signed up to have their soils analyzed next spring. Chatham will be working this winter building plans and preparing for the next growing season.

Contact Brian at