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NRCS Helps Beginning Farmers Catch Up in Stark County

Like many beginning farmers, Chad Brusseau and his wife, Carol, started from scratch when they rented their first farmland in 2007. Chad was already 40 years old and he had lots of questions.

Luann Dart writes from Elgin, N.D.

So, he quickly turned to the many experienced farmers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Stark County for advice.

“Starting later in life, I lost 20 years of learning in the field, so we had to team up with experts to give us a very, very quick learning curve and that’s where we relied on the NRCS,” he said. NRCS assisted Chad in converting land to no-till, implementing cover crops and starting precision farming.

“Working with Chad was great. He wasn’t afraid to try new ideas or conservation practices to make improvements to his operation and improve soil health,” said Russell Jordre, District Conservationist with NRCS in Dickinson. “By identifying his resource concerns, we were able to develop a conservation plan with the right conservation practices to meet his needs and address the resource concerns on his farm.”

Chad started a career with Dow AgroSciences as a chemical rep after graduating from North Dakota State University in 1989. He continues that career today and Carol is a third-grade teacher at Trinity East in Dickinson. They have two children, Tyler and Amanda. Together, they farm 1,500 acres of soybeans, wheat, sunflowers and corn.

farmers, conservation training

“We didn’t have the best or most modern farm equipment when I was a kid and I never wanted to farm again as I went to college,” Chad said with a laugh. But he remained closely linked to agriculture through his career, and when an opportunity came, they started renting 600 acres north of Dickinson in 2007.

“I remember talking to my landlord that first spring as the dirt was blowing through the yard. I looked at him and I said, ‘This will be the last year your land will ever blow,’ ” Chad said. “We’ve made all of our decisions based on that comment. I knew that western North Dakota was not a good place for tillage. The farmer did a good job of farming, but it was either invest in a whole bunch of no-till equipment or rent it out, and I was fortunate he took a chance on me and rented it out to us.”

Chad kept his word and started farming the land with no-till practices, utilizing the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“They were challenging years when we first started out. When you’re taking land from conventional tillage to no-till, you generally do OK the first and second year, then there seems to be a lag when the ground’s just not balanced out right in years three, four, five and six. We really started to see the benefits of continuous no till in years seven, eight and nine,” he said.

Chad continued to follow the guidance of NRCS to boost the land’s production and is now seeing the benefits yearly.

“The office has been very, very helpful,” he added.

In 2010, Chad added his family farm’s 480 acres that came out of the Conservation Reserve Program south of Dickinson.

To convert the CRP into crop production, he sprayed with Roundup, then used an off-set disc to break up the sod. In the spring, he worked the area with a super coulter and has not tilled the land since.

Chad also planted more saline ground into grass to keep the saline from spreading.

“That’s something my dad started years and years ago, but we just needed to expand it even further out than what he had done,” he said.

This year, Chad will implement precision farming for the first time. Rather than doing composite soil testing, he used Veris Technologies equipment on all his ground for site-specific soil testing. Ninety percent of his acres will be zoned, and precision farmed this spring.

“We will be doing precision fertility this year for the first time,” he shared.

With the aid of NRCS, Chad also implemented cover crops for the first-time last year.

“We want to break up some soil profiles and we’re also trying to do some wind erosion prevention following the removal of field peas that leave little residue after harvest,” he said.

Due to drought, last year’s field pea crop was baled rather than harvested. After the field peas were baled in July, Chad planted a cover crop mix suggested by NRCS of radish, turnips, German millet and tame oats.

“When we took the field peas off, there was no residue to speak of to hold snow,” Chad said. “That ground never blew after the cover crop emerged last fall.”

The German millet died with the frost, and Chad sprayed the oats in October, so it would not become a host for wheat curl mite. The radish and turnips died naturally. Those leaves cover 50-60 percent of the ground and the roots will break up the soil for better water penetration

Chad has also used a nitrogen stabilizer, Instinct, which is mixed with the liquid fertilizer on row crops to hold the nitrogen in place.

“We’re noticing the nitrogen stays in the roots for another five to seven weeks before the nitrification process starts,” he said. He’s seen a seven- to nine-bushel-an acre increase in corn since applying the Instinct, and he has had to apply less nitrogen the next year.

As a representative for Dow AgroSciences, Chad hosts crop tours at his farm to help educate farmers not only about products, but other aspects of agriculture, and to share his own experience with other farmers.

This year, he is partnering with NRCS to dig soil pits. One set of pits will show the soil profile in saline soil with no management compared to saline soils that have been planted with grass and alfalfa for 20 years. Chad is also working with NDSU to plant cover crop test plots and then demonstrate different root penetration densities by digging another soil pit approximately 1-2 feet deep.

“People want to understand more about soil health that occurs under the surface by not doing any tillage,” he said. “We’re slowly starting to see some growth in our organic matter. My 82-year-old dad says, ‘I can’t believe the amount of earthworms you have in the soil.’ When you see the earthworms, that’s a good sign for many different reasons.”

In 2017, Chad and his family were awarded the Stark and Billings Soil Conservation District Overall Achievement Award.

Chad has now been farming long enough to know that profits rely on a combination of plant health, technology, seed varieties and farming practices.

“You need rain with every one of those,” he said.

“It’s going to take more than just good farming practices to turn some black ink in the budget,” he said. “Financially, the drought was not good for anybody last year, including us. The NRCS program is helping us to weather some of these storms a little bit, no doubt.”