South Dakota became a state in 1889, but before papers were signed and a flag was raised, a few settlers had already made themselves at home on the plains. Bob Metz’s family was among them, and in 1885, they homesteaded a piece of the land he now farms in Peever. Bob and his wife, Karen, are heading into their 44th planting season together, but a lot has changed since got their start.
Even with more than four decades of farming in their rear-view, the Metzs are always seeking new ways to improve their sustainability and efficiency. For South Dakota soybean farmers, sustainability means doing what’s best for the environment and continuously improving the land for future generations. This is especially important for Bob and Karen as they are the fifth generation to continue their family’s legacy and farm with the sixth: two of their sons, Justin and Josh, and their son-in-law, Steve. The family grows soybeans and corn and, this year, they’re adding wheat to their rotation for some extra diversity – just one of the adjustments they’ve made to help improve yields.
Preparing for planting is no last-minute task. The Metzs start planning as the previous crop is being harvested. They monitor yields, sample the soil in their fields and pay close attention to what worked and what didn’t so they can fine tune their strategy and come in even stronger the next spring.
“We’ve used yield monitors for many years so, as we’re harvesting, we can tell if there’s an issue with a field,” said Bob. “Then, we’ll take a closer look at the area to see if it’s something we can improve.”
With soil sampling, the Metzs can track the nutrient levels of their fields and apply fertilizer according to the land’s specific needs. Then they use vertical tillage to work those nutrients into the ground while still preserving crop residue to enrich the soil and minimize erosion.
“We’re always looking at a field trying to figure out how to get a better yield out of it,” said Bob. “We keep track of every corn and soybean variety we grow and at the end of harvest, rank their performance in a spreadsheet.”
While the Metzs make many small adjustments every year, they add up to big changes over time. “Years ago, we planted soybeans in 30-inch rows and hoped they got 20-25 bushels per acre,” said Bob. “Today, through far less tillage, better varieties and planting dates, it’s not unusual to get more than 50 bushels per acre.”
The Metzs have also become more efficient with the land. They now plant nearly triple the corn plants per acre compared to when they started and plant almost a full month earlier. That makes a big difference when it comes time to harvest because the longer a crop has to grow, the better its yields will be.
“Planting has changed tremendously from when I started farming 44 years ago,” added Bob. “Significant differences in planting dates, the amount of seed we plant, how we handle the land and advancements in equipment have made us more efficient and sustainable.”
Technology has also played a major part in these improvements. By using precision technology guided by satellites, Bob can plant seeds and apply fertilizer with half-inch accuracy. This minimizes waste and input costs, while making sure only what’s needed is used. Bob and his family also participate in the Conservation Stewardship Program, which encourages farmers to try innovative conservation practices.
Throughout the growing season, the Metzs keep a very close eye on their crops. To get a birds-eye view, Bob even flies a small plane over the fields twice a week to monitor their health and progress. He can make helpful observations from the air that are harder to see from the ground, such as insect or weather damage and test-plot performance. They also work with a professional agronomist who provides another set of skilled eyes.
With a rich family history rooted on their farm, sustainability is an essential objective for the Metzs.
“We wouldn’t do anything in the short term at the expense of the land because we want to provide the opportunity for future generations to farm if they want to,” said Bob. “We’re always trying new varieties, seed spacings, row spacings, populations and micronutrients to see if they can improve yields while remaining economical. Those are things that make us more sustainable and make us better farmers. At the end of the day, a sustainable farm is one that’s profitable. When making decisions, we have to ensure they make sense financially while doing the right thing for the land long term.”
Many of South Dakota’s family farms have been around for several generations. Read the story of another fifth-generation farmer, David Struck, here.
Hungry for Truth is an initiative about food and farming funded by the South Dakota soybean checkoff. The goal is to connect South Dakotans with the farmers who grow and raise their food.