Place strategy

Livestock find their home on a regenerative ranch

Like the five generations before him, Michael Thompson grew up knowing the challenges of farming and ranching in northwest Kansas. There have been crop failures caused by bad weather. He also remembers the scars left by tillage on semi-arid soil.

As young adults, Thompson and his brother Brian were told there was no future for them at Thompson Farm & Ranch. However, the eager learner and experimenter knew there had to be a different (and more profitable) way to farm and raise livestock.

Thompson began researching land stewardship and soil improvement. He knew his family’s land could no longer afford to lose more topsoil to wind and rain. After researching peer groups across Kansas, he quickly saw the benefits of growing a diverse rotation of cover crops, using no-till practices and rotational grazing. Keeping agricultural fields covered with growing vegetation all year round would infiltrate water instead of letting it wash away.

Thompson of Almena is the 2022 recipient of the Kansas Leopold Conservation Award, announced at the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts annual convention in Wichita.

Thompson admits he wasn’t a fan of cattle growing up, but he’s come to see their role in a holistic, regenerative system. Their manure provides nutrients to the native rangelands and its fields of corn, soybeans and wheat.

He started small with a few acres of cover crops and a few electric fences. Pasture cover crops provided an alternate source of feed for beef cattle and provided an unexpected benefit by giving existing pastures and rangelands more time to rest and develop between grazing. The extra rest produced a more robust and diverse stand of native grass species.

Cultivation of cover crops coupled with a no-till system improved earthworm activity and soil life. An increase in nutrient cycling has resulted in reduced fertilizer use. Improved water infiltration meant that crops and fodder grew even in drought years.

In the end, rebuilding the worn soil proved essential in allowing Michael and Brian to return home to Norton County to farm with their father, Richard.

Thompson shares his knowledge and lessons learned with other farmers and ranchers. He is a founding member and president of the Kansas Soil Health Alliance, president of No-till on the Plains, and supervisor of the Norton County Conservation District Board.

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Thompson, who worked as a kindergarten teacher for a dozen years before returning to the farm, now shares his conservation experience with thousands of people each year at local, national, regional conferences and field days. and international.

He also serves as a mentor in the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) program that connects Kansas farmers and ranchers to improve water quality. He encourages his mentees to examine what is happening underground. During extreme droughts or after heavy rains, Thompson often digs underground to examine root structure and worm channels. He teaches others that what happens deep in the ground determines what grows above ground, and good soil management is essential to withstand extreme weather conditions.

Although he’s part of the National Association of Conservation Districts’ Soil Health Champions Network, Thompson doesn’t claim to be an expert. He humbly asserts that the path to lasting success is often through failure. His peers say this makes him an authentic, approachable and passionate voice for conservation.

Northwestern Kansas farmer Michael Thompson examines the growth of a soybean plant. Thompson often hosts field days and shares his experience with others.

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“Michael’s passion for conserving and improving soil health is an inspiration to Kansas farmers and ranchers,” said Mike Beam, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture. “His commitment to sharing his experience and knowledge with others makes him well worthy of the honor of being a recipient of the Leopold Prize for Conservation.”

Awarded in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forest owners who inspire others through their dedication to the land, water and wildlife resources they care about. charge.

In Kansas, the award is presented annually by the Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust, along with state partners: the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.

“Michael’s passion and drive as a leader in the soil health movement is infectious. He is always learning and sharing his knowledge and experiences with others,” said Dan Meyerhoff, executive director of the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts. “Michael exemplifies the extraordinary commitment celebrated by the Leopold Conservation Prize.”

Earlier this year, Kansas landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Nominations were reviewed by an independent panel of agriculture and conservation leaders. Among the many outstanding Kansas landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Ray and Susan Flickner of Wichita, Kevin Karr of Emporia, and Glenn and Barbara Walker of Brookville.

Winners receive $10,000 and a crystal prize.

The first Kansas Leopold Conservation Award was presented to Sproul Ranch in Sedan in 2015. Last year’s recipient was Dwane Roth of Holcomb. See all recipients at