Each morning, before heading out to work on his farm, Shawn Feikema pauses to ask himself two questions. How can he do more with less and how can he pass this to the next generation better than it was when he got it?

His answers form his guiding principles of how he runs his 7,000-acre row crop and cattle operation in Luverne, Minn., along with his uncles and his brother. Feikema and his brother, Mike, are the third generation of farmers managing what has grown into a sprawling operation since their grandfather started it in 1950.

They now grow thousands of acres of corn, soybeans, small grains, and hay along with operating a large cattle feedlot that markets about 6,000 head of cattle a year. The operation’s size and the family legacy they are working to uphold creates pressures Feikema says they carry with them every day and influence every decision they make on the farm. 

Feikema said he has always heard it is the third generation that struggles the most to keep a family farm going. He isn’t sure why that is the case, but he and his brother are committed to not just keeping it going but setting up the next generation for success as well.

Changing How They Farm

Those twin pressures reached a crescendo in 2014 when changing weather patterns forced them to look at their operation and decide whether to continue farming the way they always have or make radical changes to protect it for the future. 

“We’re dealing primarily with soil and we’re feeding our animals with the soil. The soil doesn’t change or do anything quickly,” Feikema said. “So, we just have to think long-term. You have to be able to spot things that are not maybe going in the right direction and make a change and be patient enough to wait for that change to show up and just have the faith that you’re doing the right thing.”

The decision to change was not without immediate risks, but guided by their faith, their love for the land and a desire to leave it better for the next generation they went forward and haven’t looked back. 

Up until 2014 they were largely a conventional tillage operation. They left residue on the field, but it proved to be inadequate as they were beset by multiple rain events which, Feikema said, caused major erosion issues on their fields. 

“It was just kind of one of those years where my brother and I and my uncle kind of just sat around the table and said ‘There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be something we can do that’s different, that’s better,’” Feikema said.

The first step they took was adding cover crops in some fields for the 2015 growing season. They went further in 2016 by purchasing strip-till equipment and adopting the practice throughout their farm. As opposed to a conventional tillage system, in strip-till only the narrow rows where the seed will be planted are tilled while the rest of the field is left untouched.

The Feikema family was so convinced the switch was the best move for their farm, they sold their tillage equipment that same year and by 2018 they were utilizing either strip-till or no-till on 100% of their acres except for special circumstances. 

“The reality is, if we don’t take care of our soil, we don’t have a long-term business plan,” Feikema said. “The soil is our long-term business. So, we have to take care of it.”

The Proof is in the Soil

Their biggest success story, Feikema said, came in a field they added in 2019 after they’d already adopted strip-till and cover crops throughout the farm. The field had been a wetland, but a century after being ditched, tiled, and farmed the soil “was so dead you could not find a worm in it.”

They planted cover crops, managed it with strip-till and in just a couple years it had returned to life. 

“I was planting, and we started digging around and there were worms all over in that soil,” Feikema said. “It was one of those moments where you got that, “Ha, what we’re doing and all this management of cover crops, strip-till and all this stuff, you see the benefits of it.’”

The positive results are apparent throughout the farm Feikema added. The fields absorb water better and have been more resilient in dry seasons. They’ve also reduced their herbicide input, diesel usage and labor costs due to better soils and fewer field passes.

A Systems Approach

The cattle feedlot also plays a major role in their soil health system. They utilize manure on their fields instead of commercial fertilizer. They’ve also started growing about 800 acres of small grains a year both as a cash crop and to grow their own cereal rye seeds for cover crops. The feedlot has provided a lot of flexibility to experiment with grain crops, because in the worst-case scenario they can bundle it up and feed it to the cows, Feikema said. 

“It’s really a systems approach to soil health is how I look at it. It’s a cycle,” Feikema said. “I use everything the soil gives us. We use it in the feed yard, we turn around and return it back to the field. That’s kind of how it works. I really feel like animals are a large part of soil health.”

Because they utilize the manure on their fields, Feikema has to invest resources into storing and hauling the manure. Recent regulation changes in Minnesota made that more difficult as they are no longer able to haul manure in February and March, their two biggest hauling months Feikema said. After exploring all their options, they decided their only path forward was to build a stacking pad to hold the manure in the months they can’t haul. The cost of the pad and related improvements was about half a million dollars, Feikema said, which was a project that was out of reach due to the slim margins in cattle. 

With the future of their feedlot in doubt, they turned to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for help. They applied and were approved for assistance through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which ended up covering 90% of the costs to install a waste transfer system, waste storage facility, a heavy use protection area and more related practices. 

“We wouldn’t have been able to do the project if we wouldn’t have had EQIP,” Feikema said. “It would have been impossible.”

The project was recently completed and removed a challenge as they work toward the long-term sustainability of the farm. It is all part of being the best stewards of the land that they can and making sure they are leaving the farm better for the next generation.

“Our core principles are we do the best we can with what God has given us,” Feikema said. “That is in everything we do. We have to do better with everything we do. This is the Earth He’s given us and we’re to make the most of it for ourselves, for our communities and the world. That’s our job.”

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