Producer Dan Buerkle and NRCS Supervisory District Conservationist Ann Fischer look at soil structure of wheat field during drought. Fallon County, MT.
Watch their story in Conservation for the Future: No-Till and Soil Health with Dan Buerkle, Plevna, MT.
Producer Dan Buerkle of Fallon County has long been a community leader in regenerative agriculture. Perhaps decades of his ancestors’ land management practices provided his motivation. “Dad was an early adapter and not afraid of risk,” states Dan. “But this was tired old land and farmed for a long, long time. I’m not bad-mouthing my ancestors, but we all know back when fertility and farming practices were less,” states Dan. “People back then would not break the bank to buy fertilizer or pesticides for that matter and weeds were just eating us up. Those were just the farming practices of the time.”
Dan returned to his family’s land after college graduation in the 1970’s. He and his wife bought an additional three sections to add to the hard-worked land he inherited. Today, Dan is president of the family corporation B&B Farms and an avid practitioner of soil health principles. “Dan was certainly a pioneer in the county working with no-till. We see across the landscape not near the erosion we would have seen,” states NRCS Supervisory District Conservationist Ann Fischer. “This year is one of the worst droughts in a lot of peoples’ memory, in this county for sure,” continues Fischer. “I would say if we were to have seen this land 20 years ago before the advent of no-till, it would have been horrifying.”
Dan began no-till on his land in 2006, starting with a hoe drill and later moving to a disc drill to prevent moisture loss and reduce soil disturbance. “The disc drill allows biology to stay intact. Some of the higher-level soil biology is heavily impacted by disturbance,” states NRCS’s Fischer. “Bacteria not so much, but you get to the fungal component, it doesn’t take disturbance.” Prior to 2005, the family had done some no-till and continuous cropping but used conventional farming practices, meaning tillage and a grain followed by grain crop rotation. “In 2006, we decided to develop a rotation. We started seeding peas, safflower, corn, millet for hay and crop, lentils and canola, not all to good effect,” continues Dan. “But we are trying.”
Dan farms around 2,500 acres in annual diverse crop rotations. “I believe, particularly with the rotations, we have been able to help ourselves an awful lot,” states Dan. “If you introduce different kinds of biology into the soil it all has a synergistic effect. Diverse rotation attracts a whole different kind of biology and different root structures can benefit the soil long-term,” he states.
“What goes hand in hand with less soil disturbance is keeping the ground covered,” continues Dan. “Our problem is not so much keeping it as growing it.” That’s why Dan is a not a huge fan of low residue crops like the corn he seeded this year. On the other hand, he does appreciate the varied root structure and soil benefits it provides. And while not all of his crops prove successful as cash crops, particularly in years with little to no rain, Dan believes not all is lost, “I would agree with the saying that there is no agricultural wreck that a cow can’t fix.”
Most of B&B Farms 6,400 acres is contiguous land. “This is operationally good for rotating cattle,” states Dan. “But water is quite often a problem; it is deep and scarce and always a concern as we figure out grazing rotations.”
Through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), stockwater wells and pipelines have enabled Dan to get water to his cattle in key locations across his rangeland. “Through EQIP, on a section of land coming out of CRP, we drilled a well and ran pipeline, put permanent cross fences in and divided them into six paddocks to rotate through,” states Dan. “That has really benefited the soil. Grass is always good there. It’s really impressive; it is the centerpiece of our grazing operation and it couldn’t have happened without NRCS involvement. It would have been too cost prohibitive for us to do on our own financially. When I look back and I think what a terrible waste that would have been not to be able to use that resource and improve the grass and cattle distribution.”
Within those six paddocks, Dan is able to graze his 230 cow/calf pairs during different times of the year, allowing the land to rest over the next twelve months. “People drive by and shake their heads, wondering why we are not using that grass,” states Dan. “But we stockpile that grass and on years like this, we can use it. And that is pretty important to our operation.”
Much of Dan’s success with grazing can be attributed to the systems and practices he has put into place over the years. Across dry rangeland, the cattle are moved frequently, leaving 50 to 60 percent of the forage for soil cover and growing roots when he leaves a pasture. “Because of the systems we have incorporated on Dan’s place, he is able to graze through pretty reasonably,” states NRCS’s Fischer. “That’s because he has kept cover on the soil and hasn’t taken all the grass every year. That’s allowed deep root systems to build and with the recovery time of the pastures that has also helped build those root systems as well as developed more biomass on top of the ground.”
Regenerative practices like those Dan has incorporated have proven even more beneficial on drought years like 2021 when fellow producers have had to resort to selling down their cattle. “Several of our neighbors have had to sell down substantially so we are very fortunate in that regard,” states Dan. “Some might look at our operation and say, ‘you must have been understocked’. I guess it depends on your point of view. I am glad that we are where we are, it’s good to see our cattle fat and happy, and healthy. And knowing that we are not degrading the resources. That’s the big thing - no degraded resources. So, in that regard I feel really good. I don’t feel too badly about using our grass a little harder this year, because we have lots of stock built up.” NRCS’s Fischer agrees, “Some people do not have the resources, don’t have the grass, maybe don’t have the forage base. But, with what Dan has been doing, he can raise different crop types, he can utilize some of those crops for hay or for grazing, and also he has built up storage on his grazing land and is able to use that on years like this one.”
There is always more to learn.
After fifty years as a one-man operation, Dan is often asked when he plans to retire, but learning about regenerative agriculture may have changed his plans. “I guess it is time for me to figure out how to segue out of this story,” he says. “But all of this has revitalized my interest. There’s a huge learning curve and I am only about one third of the way up it. There are a lot more programs that I could implement and I am starting to understand it more and more. Just the fact that I am starting to get it makes the farming part more satisfying and more fulfilling. So, I am not really that excited about quitting,” he concludes.
“I think it’s really important for producers like Dan to share their experiences. And we have several in this county,” states NRCS’s Fischer. “I’ve learned so much from other producers that I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned. That is where people get and trust their information. Those implementing those practices are going to tell you the good, the bad and the ugly. I think it’s important for all of those producers who are moving toward a regenerative place to share their experiences and I definitely appreciate those like Dan who do that.”