Making Sense of Sustainability Event

By Lura Roti for AgSpire 

Cow/calf producer Brady Wulf often finds himself talking with consumers because he and his wife operate a vacation rental on their family’s multi-generational Minnesota ranch. And when he shares about the positive impact the family’s cattle have on the environment, Wulf said their guests are surprised. 

“I explain how our cattle are sequestering way more carbon than they are putting out, and our guests’ jaws just about hit the floor,” said Wulf. “Because this is not the story they have been told.”  

When it comes to sustainability, beef producers do have a great story to share. But they need data to prove it.  

This became a focus that Wulf and the other panelists discussed with a large group of cattle producers during the Making Sense of Sustainability panel discussion hosted by AgSpire, June 21 ahead of the Prime Time Cattlemen’s Foundation Gala held in Sioux Falls, S.D.


Panel Discussion Video

Making Sense of Sustainability

During the Making Sense of Sustainability Panel Discussion industry experts discuss emerging opportunities for ranchers and how sustainability practices and programs can benefit their operations.

“I want to give people the right to eat beef and remove some of the guilt that others are trying to drive, but we can’t do that without numbers,” explained panelist Tim Hardman, Global Sustainability Director at Fulton Marketing Group (FMG), the company responsible for procuring 700 million pounds of beef for McDonald’s each year. 

To accomplish that goal, FMG and McDonald’s teamed up with AgSpire.  

AgSpire works with ranchers – like Wulf – to incentivize and implement sustainable management practices, while also helping capture and quantify the positive impact grazing livestock have on soil and grassland health, explained panel moderator, Jared Knock.  

Knock is one of AgSpire’s founders and a Willow Lake, South Dakota cattle producer.  During the panel discussion, Knock shared the inspiration behind AgSpire. “When I think about what is going to keep animal agriculture viable for the long term …it is really the environmental concern about beef production that I see as the biggest risk factor for my children’s children to continue in the industry.” 

Panelist Don Gales agreed. The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Friona Industries, the second-largest cattle feeder in the U.S., said, “Sustainability starts at the calf level – a sustainable (beef) operation needs to be both sustainable with the environment and sustainable with economics, this is what we are working to do.”  

Friona Industries also works with AgSpire to support ranchers in their supply chain. Companies like Friona Industries and FMG represent a growing cohort of public and private organizations who are taking action to help cattle producers in their efforts to enhance soil and grassland health, as well as reward them for the positive environmental impacts. 

Through AgSpire’s SustainAg Network, cattle producers get to choose a program that fits with their operation’s goals, receive expert advice, resources and funding to cover costs associated with implementation of sustainability practices. And data is collected throughout the process to quantify the impact of these practices.  

AgSpire is focused on assisting producers improve their operational efficiency, resilience, and profitability, explained Ryan Eichler, director of producer programs at AgSpire and a Lake Preston, South Dakota cattle producer. “We help producers capture incentives and use them to further producers’ business goals.” 

Wulf participates in AgSpire’s Grass is Greener program. Funded through a partnership between AgSpire, South Dakota State University, and others, Wulf is able to expand his operation’s use of cover crops and perennial plantings, thereby increasing forage available for grazing.  

Like many agriculture producers enrolled in AgSpire programs, Wulf and his family have been implanting regenerative agriculture practices on their land for generations. He appreciates the ability to now have data to support what his family has known for years. 

“We’ve completely revitalized our grasslands with our cattle and there are a lot of measurables, like carbon sequestration, but then there are a lot of things you can’t measure, like water infiltration, like plant diversity, like controlling runoff, controlling wind erosion,” Wulf said.  

But it is the measurable carbon sequestration data collected from Wulf’s cattle ranch and others that corporations like McDonald’s and Friona Industries need, explained Hardman. 

“The numbers AgSpire is helping us collect, will drive a more meaningful sustainability conversation with consumers in the future.”  

Below: Audience members engaged with the panelists during the Q&A

AgSpire Partners with SDSU & Others to Advance Resilience on Cattle Ranches 

By Lura Roti for AgSpire

Recognizing the positive role cattle play in advancing sustainability, companies and other agriculture stakeholders are increasingly investing in efficiency and resiliency at the ranch level. This gives new opportunities to ranchers to make improvements to their land and herds.

The world’s largest fast-food chain is one such company. McDonald’s wants to support cattle producers in their efforts to increase overall herd efficiencies, while at the same time enhancing soil and grassland health.

To accomplish this, McDonald’s teamed up with AgSpire to provide cattle producers with expert advice, resources and funding through the Ranching for the Future program, offered through AgSpire’s SustainAg Network.

“It’s so rewarding to walk alongside cattle producers in their quest for improvement,” explained food animal veterinarian, Dr. Kristina Porter.

Porter is among the team of SustainAg Technical Advisors at AgSpire who support producers by understanding the operations’ existing management practices and overall herd health to determine if there are any operational efficiencies that could be gained through enhanced genetics or implementation of other customized management practices, like interseeding rangeland or pastures with native or non-native perennial grasses.

“Cattle margins are pretty small, so to be able to suggest customized practices that a producer can try out with less risk because the costs are covered is pretty exciting,” Porter said.

Third-generation North Dakota rancher Karl Bartholomay agreed. For decades, Karl and his dad, Keith, have focused on implementing conservation practices on more than 4,000 acres of cropland, native range, river bottoms, and pastures that make up Bartholomay Kattle Kompany near Sheldon, North Dakota.

And their efforts have been rewarded. As their grassland and soil health have continued to improve, so have overall herd health and efficiency. And another bonus – today an abundance of wildlife now call their ranch home.

“As our rotational grazing intensified, we began to see more wildlife,” Karl said. “It is fun to see the cows interact with the pheasant, deer, turkeys, and grouse that wander through while they are grazing. It is nice to see that by implementing regenerative practices we are not only helping our own operation – the land and cattle – we are helping the whole ecosystem. Everything goes hand-in-hand.”

In 2023, the Bartholomay Kattle Kompany was recognized in North Dakota for their sustainability efforts with the national Leopold Conservation Award.

Karl said he and his dad will continue to do more as funding allows. But finding funds for conservation practices has been a challenge. “We discovered that most cost-share programs are for ranchers who were just getting into conservation. And then we connected with AgSpire and their SustainAg Network,” Karl said.

The Bartholomays recently enrolled in the Ranching for the Future program. After Porter and an agronomist visited the ranch, they determined that interseeding pastures with perennial legumes would further enhance the ranch’s grassland health.

“Interseeding is something we have wanted to do, because it could make a big jump in species diversity in a short timeframe. But the cost is something we need to consider because this ranch needs to support my family and my mom and dad,” explained Karl, who together with his wife, Becca, have two young daughters, Olivia, 4, and Elaine, 9 months.

Connecting conservation-minded agriculture producers, like the Bartholomays, with voluntary, incentive-based grant and private-market sustainability programs is the focus of AgSpire’s SustainAg Network.

“In agriculture, the greatest resources we have are our soil and our kids who we want to be able to return to the farm or ranch,” Porter said. She explained regenerative practices – like increasing grassland diversity – have a positive impact on soil health, while also improving the overall health of grazing cattle. “Cattle thrive on grass because every species of grass matures at a different time. By increasing species diversity, there will be quality forage for cattle throughout the grazing season,” Porter said.

Interseeding perennial grasses also improves an operation’s overall resiliency, explained Hector Menendez, Assistant Professor and SDSU Extension Livestock Grazing Specialist.

“Re-establishing grasslands on marginal agriculture acres or diversifying existing grasslands through perennial plantings and different grazing management practices ultimately helps build resilience to weather extremes like drought or extreme moisture on a ranch,” said Menendez, who works on the Grass is Greener program through a partnership between AgSpire and South Dakota State University.

The partnership began after SDSU received an $80 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant – The Grass is Greener on the Other Side: Developing Climate Smart Beef & Bison Commodities.

Hector and a team of SDSU researchers are tasked with reviewing cattle producers’ diverse grassland management practices and measuring the actual output of methane by cattle, as well as grassland’s ability to sequester carbon. “Today’s livestock producers face increasing public scrutiny because animal agriculture is often cited as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. However, this negative perception does not take into account the carbon sequestration benefits of grazing livestock,” reads the grant explanation on the SDSU website.

SDSU partnered with AgSpire to help with this program in two ways. First, through its SustainAg Network, AgSpire connects with producers, helping them select and implement practices that align with their land and management goals. Then, AgSpire helps provide incentives and premiums to producers that implement regenerative practices through the program.

Producers like Minnesota cattleman, Mitch Pederson. Pederson is currently utilizing the Grass is Greener program to fund the transition of about 100 row crop acres on his farm to forage for his cow/calf herd. Starting the transition by seeding a forage cover crop mix to graze this fall, Pederson plans to follow the cover crops with a perennial forage seed mix.

Because his farm is located in the Prairie Pothole region, Pederson’s ultimate goal is to transition all his row crop acres to perennial grasses and use his cattle to harvest them. He is using the Grass is Greener and other SustainAg Netwok programs to help cover the costs. AgSpire offers short-term contracts – one to five years, depending on the practice – so that producers like Pederson can make management decisions based on how the program outcomes align with their overall goals.

“I love the perennial systems for resiliency – perennial grasses weather the extremes much better than row crops,” Pederson said. “With perennial grasses, I no longer need to fight against Mother Nature. When we get rains, the grasses will help with water infiltration and when we are faced with drought, the perennial roots will tap into water below the soil’s surface.”

Weathering extremes is important. He explained that in the first five years after purchasing the farm from his great uncle, the farm saw both the wettest and driest years on family record.

In addition to helping cover the costs associated with establishing the perennial forages, AgSpire connected him with one of their Technical Advisors to maximize success. And because Pederson is enrolled in the Grass is Greener program, he will also receive a per-head premium for cattle that graze on the pastures where he implemented the practice.

“Increasingly, we are seeing corporations who want to invest in the positive environmental outcomes that result when cattle are raised sustainably. It is an opportunity for conservation-minded cattle producers to receive a premium for their practices,” explained Ryan Eichler, director of producer programs at AgSpire and a Lake Preston, South Dakota cattle producer.

Grass is Greener and Ranching for the Future are two of six programs offered by AgSpire through the SustainAg Network. AgSpire continues to expand its program offerings to farmers and ranchers through new partnerships, like these with McDonald’s or SDSU.

Learn More:

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.