SustainAg Network Connects Farmers & Ranchers with Funding for Producer-Led Conservation Practices

Above: Luke Hiebert on his farm, where he is using sustainable practices to increase access to forage for his cow/calf herd.

by Lura Roti for AgSpire’s SustainAg Network

Fields of bright green rye stand out among the mostly brown early spring fieldscape on Luke Hiebert’s crop and livestock farm northeast of Huron, South Dakota.

“Traditionally, at this point in the season, nothing would be growing out in those fields. This is the reason I decided to plant rye,” said Hiebert, during an early April conversation. “It has been growing since last fall, and I like having a living root in the soil as long as possible. It helps with compaction, reduces erosion, increases water infiltration, builds organic matter and overall, improves soil health.”

There are additional benefits to this sustainable practice. Because Hiebert is enrolled in the Covering America Program through AgSpire’s SustainAg Network, he will receive a premium for the rye seed when he harvests it late summer.

The program will also cover the costs associated with the late season, multi-species cover crop he plans to plant on the same acres for his cattle and sheep to graze late fall. And, AgSpire connected him with one of their Technical Advisors to provide expert insights throughout the process.

“I and my wife, Briana are the third family trying to earn an income from this farm, so I need to look at value added opportunities because this farm is not large enough to support all of us,” explained the third-generation farmer who has been farming fulltime with his dad and uncle since he was 18.

For nearly a decade, Hiebert has been working to expand his cow/calf herd by increasing on-farm access to forage by implementing an intensive, daily grazing rotation. Extending the grazing season with a late season cover crop is yet another way for him to maximize the farm’s forage production.

For ag producers by ag producers

According to the recently released SustainAg Insights quarterly report, Hiebert is among 278 producers from across the U.S. who make up AgSpire’s newly formed SustainAg Network of farmers and ranchers interested in adopting sustainable land and livestock management practices through programs like Covering America. Since fully launching the Network in January 2024, AgSpire continues to expand its program offerings to farmers and ranchers, currently offering five programs, including a beef program in partnership with McDonald’s.

“AgSpire is focused on improving resiliency and sustainability across the entire agricultural supply chain,” explained Ryan Eichler, director of producer programs and a Lake Preston, South Dakota cattle producer. “Through The SustainAg Network, we connect producers with funding opportunities as well as resources to implement regenerative or sustainable practices.”

South Dakota crop and livestock producer Jared Knock came up with the idea for AgSpire after he observed a chronic disconnect between conservation-minded agriculture producers caring for land and livestock and funds allocated for regenerative agriculture practices by corporations and government entities.

“As a farmer who owns an ag retail business, I am closely connected to many farmers and ranchers trying to make changes on their land to increase soil health or livestock efficiency. At the same time, I was listening to what companies were saying about their desire to invest in farms and ranches in rural America for a positive environmental impact. But there was not a great way for the two groups to connect,” said Knock, who helped launch AgSpire in 2021.

“Our team has built an organization that connects sustainability-minded producers with those companies, developing and implementing programs around regenerative agricultural practices that benefit producers and improve our environment at the same time,” said Jared Knock, South Dakota Farmer and one of AgSpire’s founders.

Jared Knock meets with farmers in South Dakota to talk about the benefits of sustainable practices and how programs can help producers invest in their land.

Above: Jared Knock discusses regenerative agricultural practices with farmers in South Dakota, sharing how programs like Covering America can help them invest in their land and natural resources.

Regenerative agricultural practices like planting late-season cover crops.

Hiebert said knowing that there is financial and technical help planting a late season cover crop motivated him to join The SustainAg Network and enroll in the Covering America Program.

“I had been thinking about planting a late season cover crop, but I knew it would be more difficult to get it going and I was not ready to invest in the risk,” Hiebert said. “With SustainAg Network, I have financial assistance, and because I don’t have a lot of experience planting cover crops, I appreciate the fact I also have access to a Technical Advisor.”

The SustainAg Network offers voluntary, incentive-based grant and private-market sustainability programs, like the Covering America Program, that are designed with producers like Hiebert in mind, explained Eichler.

“We keep the agriculture producer at the forefront of everything we do because quite frankly, without producers, none of this can happen,” Eichler explained. “We use a highly customizable approach because each farm and ranch is very different. The last thing that we want to do is dictate practices or environmental programs if they don’t fit the producer’s land or livestock efficiency goals.”

Ryan Eichler meets with a farmer and rancher in Minnesota, where they discuss how The SustainAg Network's programs could help him improve his on-farm grazing potential.

Above: Ryan Eichler meets with a farmer in western Minnesota to discuss available programs in The SustainAg Network, and how they can benefit his land and business.

Eichler said The SustainAg Network’s team of advisors are essential to the process. “What sets us apart are our technical advisors,” Eichler said. “This team takes the time to meet with producers to understand their overall operation goals. And then they provide the support needed for a practice change to succeed.”

Once a producer selects and enrolls in a program, they connect with an advisor who helps them figure out the details and best practices for success in their growing conditions. Advisors also verify the practice and streamline incentive or premium payments.

“We are working on behalf of farmers and ranchers to help them increase revenue opportunities and overall resiliency,” Eichler said.

Learn More

The Not-So-Hidden Cost of Erosion

During these winter months, the AgSpire technical advisors and myself often work with farmers to help address a common issue: soil erosion.

Click here to read about the critical role that cover crops play to combat soil erosion >>>

When visiting farms in the Northern Plains and across the Midwest, it is common to see what is referred to as snirt. This is the combination of snow and dirt that accumulate in ditches during the snowy winter months in northern latitudes. Not having the soil armored during the winter allows for topsoil to be eroded from the fields and transported anywhere downwind, including ditches.

Topsoil mixed with snow in a ditch in Eastern South Dakota

These pictures are of a snow drift near my house in eastern South Dakota.  Much of the soil came off a field that had soybeans on it last year and will go to corn this spring. To prepare for the coming corn crop, it is most likely P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) were applied in the fall to give the field more nutrients before planting. Because of the fall application and the fallow soil, these nutrients have the potential to leave the field as soil erodes, ending up in the ditches instead.

Analyzing lost nutrients

To see how much fertility was being lost to erosion, I collected a soil sample from a snirt pile near my house. The soil sample analysis showed (full analysis at end of article):

> Very high range for P (31 ppm, weak bray), Mg (magnesium, 399 ppm), and Ca (calcium, 4133 ppm)

> Medium range for K, with 178 ppm

These are all nutrients that are being lost before a plant can ever utilize them. Not to mention, this lost topsoil is also the best regarding humus, organic matter, and CEC rating – making it critically important to best nurture a coming crop.

As the snow melts, what happens to these nutrients? Some will be utilized by the fauna in the ditch, while most of it will be washed into drainage systems and transported to water ways and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

The cost to producers

This lost fertility represents a huge loss to the farmer. Rough calculations show a yearly cost of nutrient loss per acre to be:

> Phosphorus: $196.80

> Potassium: $581.16

By simply multiplying the ppm number of P and K by two, we can calculate the lbs/acre for each of the nutrients from the soil report. We can then calculate the P and K fertilizer values with the lbs/acre lost from the soil sample. A ton of MAP (11-52-0) cash price is $820 with a ton of MOP (0-0-60) at $490 cash price. It takes 120 lbs of MAP/acre to equal 62 lbs p/acre while it will take 593 lbs mop/acre to equal 356 lbs k/acre. With these number we can calculate the field loss as $49.20 in P and $145.29 in K per acre in a three-month span.  We can quadruple these number for a per acre yearly cost of nutrient loss.

These are just rough numbers from a single soil sample – but reveal the potential cost of these nutrients being blown off fallow fields every year. Soil erosion and degradation is a sneaky and leaky drain on producers’ financial well-being and the sustainability of our food system.

By following soil health principles, producers can significantly reduce the soil erosion in their operation and keep the most productive, valuable portion of a field in the field. It doesn’t matter if you look at soil erosion from an environmental point of view or an economical one – it doesn’t pencil out in the long run.

About the Author

Derek Ver Helst | Senior Conservation Agronomist

Derek holds a bachelor’s degree in Biology from South Dakota State University and a master’s degree in Agronomy from Iowa State University. He is a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA), Technical Service Provider (TSP) for the NRCS, and is also a small business owner. Prior to joining AgSpire, Derek spent more than 15 years working with landowners and corporations to design, manage, and validate research trials to maximize short- and long-term crop outputs.