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Poorer Ground Producing Better Than Ever for Long-Time No-Tiller in Emmons Count

Tom Bernhardt, Linton, N.D., doesn’t chase the markets when he makes planting decisions.  Instead, he focuses on the long-term future.

Luann Dart writes from Elgin, N.D.

“Our crop residue and our crop sequence dictate what we’re going to plant,” he said.

Bernhardt reached that decision after attending roundtable sessions hosted by the Emmons County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in the mid-1990s. Those who were passionate about no-till shared both their successes and failures, and Bernhardt found valuable information. He also attended a session led by Dr. Dwayne Beck, manager, Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Pierre, S.D.

“When he puts this big screen up and shows this beautiful native prairie waving in the wind and says, ‘God doesn’t till,’ that kind of resonated with me,” Bernhardt said.


Bernhardt switched his acreage to no-till in the 1990s.

“We haven’t disturbed soil since 1995,” he said.

Today, he raises corn, soybeans, sunflowers and spring wheat, along with peas, oats and barley as forage crops. The farm also includes a commercial red Angus/red Simmental cross commercial cow/calf herd. He backgrounds the calves for 90 days, selling them at about 900 pounds.

Since switching to no-till, Bernhardt has seen the benefits.

“We could see detrimental effects of heavy rains or early spring windstorms. The whole countryside was up in the air. You get those fast rains in June and July and it just washed everything down. We knew that by leaving that root mass in place and always seeding a different crop into last year’s residue was so beneficial,” he said.

Crop diversity is one of the key points at the Bernhardt farm, planting sunflowers on corn residue and spring wheat into sunflower residue to assure the residue will help the next crop.

“We can tell we are building soil on our lighter ground and our poorer ground is producing better than it ever has,” he said.

He also saw his crops survive drier growing seasons when others failed.

“I credit it all to our crop residue, because even though we were hot and dry, we could still find some moisture,” he says.

Bernhardt has discovered one drawback to heavy crop residue.

“The amount of organic matter or crop residue when you have several good crop years in a row actually becomes a challenge to get good soil-to-seed contact,” he said. He overcomes that by using a trash ripper on the row crop planter. Controlled from the cab, the ripper pushes heavier residue away to seed.

“We’ve seen by sticking with it, you have an increased microbial activity and it seems the stalks go away faster because of all the microbial activity that’s occurring. And the earthworm population is great,” he said.

Bernhardt also relied on NRCS expertise to help him implement a rotational grazing system for his cattle, utilizing the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Through rotational grazing, he’s been able to increase his cow herd slightly and was able to keep his pasture intact during moisture shortages.

He has divided pastures into three, four or five paddocks, mostly using a once-over system, although he does sometimes graze each pasture twice.

“It all depends on the year,” he said.

He has learned that cattle should not be put into the pastures in the same rotation every year.

“You ruin all the cool season grasses and all the warm season grasses dominate,” he said.

He cross fenced his pastures using the EQIP cost share through NRCS, incorporating mostly electric fencing, and added one more watering system.

“It was a slow process. It took a while, but we don’t have those overgrazed areas anymore,” he said. He credits NRCS for assisting, both with financing and expertise.

“If it wouldn’t have been for those guys showing us and helping with the cross fence, I don’t know if we would have done it or it would have taken a lot longer,” he said.

Bernhardt and his wife, Tamie, were recognized as the 2017 Emmons County Soil Conservation District Achievement Award. The award recognition stated:

“The Bernhardts were selected for their dedication to establishing a diverse managed cropping system on a variety of soils, along with an extensive grazing management program. The Bernhardt family makes detailed management decisions to improve soil health, protect water quality, establish wildlife habitat and encourage ecosystem diversity. Tom and Tamie are advocates for the agricultural industry, a mentor to peers and are devoted to land stewardship,” the nomination stated.

With five children, the Bernhardts hope to pass that legacy along. Their son, Austin, a senior at North Dakota State University, hopes to return to the farm after graduation. That’s the long-term future Tom has been farming toward.