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Pheasant Country speakers discuss soil health, habitat loss

Jeffrey Zimprich, state conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, pours water over two types of soil, one no-till and one tilled, to illustrate his talking point on soil health, and how it affects water usage and productivity for farms and ranches. Zimprich was one of two main speakers during the Pheasant Country chapter of Pheasants Forever landowner appreciation and habitat education night banquet Sunday night at the Moose Lodge in Mitchell...

It was a night of food, friends, and, of course, pheasants Sunday at the Moose Lodge in Mitchell.

The Pheasant Country chapter of Pheasants Forever hosted a landowner appreciation habitat education night, which featured speakers, door prizes, a raffle, chapter event updates and awards.

Two speakers offered thoughts on habitat education, including Jeffrey Zimprich, of Huron, a state conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Zimprich said there are many pressures on the agricultural landscape, including land prices.

"As I look to the future, I see that pressure will probably continue," he said. "We're going to have a lot of challenges ahead of us to work on."

Despite those challenges, Zimprich said he believes habitat preservation and agriculture production, both crops and livestock, can work together instead of opposing each other.

He cited programs offered by the NRCS that are available to producers and landowners, and people who work for the USDA as valuable resources.

"There's a lot of different programs," Zimprich said. "Take advantage of our people."

One of the biggest things producers can do to tie habitat preservation and enhancing production, Zimprich said, is through active promotion of soil health.

"I think it's hard for a lot of people to get excited about soil health," Zimprich said. "We can manage our land differently ... and by doing so, can actually improve soil health."

Land, Zimprich said, includes everything used for crops, pastures, Conservation Reserve Program land -- and whatever is left.

The conservationist touted no-till practices as one way to improve soil health, as well as "proper use" of native species of grasses in pasturelands.

"I think it's a critical issue that we in South Dakota need to think about," Zimprich said.

Healthier soils can absorb more water, Zimprich said, which trickles down into everything else.

"You're going to be able to raise more crop and more grass ... and that's important for South Dakota," he said.

He even provided a short demonstration, pouring water over two types of soils: one tilled, and one no-till. The water flowed through the no-till soil into a container below, with virtually no runoff, while much of the water poured onto the tilled soil ran off into a separate container.

Zimprich held up the container of murky runoff water, saying he wants farmers and ranchers to take it to heart, and to use practices that will enable them to keep every drop of water in their own lands.

"I want you to be selfish," he said. "I want you to keep your water."

Zimprich's talking points and demonstration tied neatly in with the topic of the next speaker, Lyle Perman, on a "holistic approach to ranching in the 21st century."

Perman, a fourth-generation rancher from Lowry, said people have a tendency to look at issues on a singular basis, rather than the whole picture.

In a slideshow, Perman peppered talking points with pictures of land in his home county and on his family's ranch. One slide was titled "Happy Cows," which Perman said illustrates one of his ultimate goals in managing his lands responsibly.

"I want to see them comfortable, resting on a hill," Perman said.

As a lifelong rancher, Perman said he is familiar with the problems that plague many producers, such as bugs and problem plants. He cited the difference between a chemical versus a biological approach to managing those things, and said he has worked toward reducing the amounts of chemicals he uses to get rid of things like leafy spurge.

"When you apply a chemical, you kill all broad leaves," he said

Pouring certain chemicals over cattle to kill lice, he said, is another issue that sometimes has unintended consequences. Cattle poured in the spring will pass enough of the treatment through their manure to kill off dung beetles, which Perman said are important to the ecosystem. Now, Perman said, his operation only pours during the beetles' dormant season, in the fall.

"We're trying to look at the whole picture when we make those decisions," he said.

Each farmer and rancher contributes to that picture, he said, and each person's decisions can affect not only them, but their neighbors. Perman listed the increased amount of conversion of grassland into cropland as a factor that is changing the landscape, and agreed with Zimprich that overall soil health has changed water runoff, which causes erosion and other harmful consequences.

"Our land use practices make a difference when it comes to water infiltration and runoff," he said.

He gave a step-by-step way for farmers and ranchers to determine the amount of rainfall they each have to manage on their operation, which he called "cowboy math," and urged others to do the same.

"We want as much water as possible to infiltrate," he said. "We know we can't capture every gallon ... If it leaves our ranch, we'd like it to leave in as good of shape as it arrived. And I can tell you that's a real challenge."

It's a challenge worth tackling, though, because it will grow better grass, crops and provide more water for cows, and other livestock, to drink, he said.

And, it's not just for farmers and ranchers to consider. Perman cited urban sprawl as another factor in habitat loss, which affects water and wildlife -- pheasants and otherwise.

"For those of you that live in town, I'm not going to leave you alone," Perman said with a smile. "It impacts us all."

He said the next step, for everyone, is to "do the right thing," by looking at the big picture, supporting government policies that encourage conservation, and by mentoring others to do the same.

"You have some ideas on conservation; make sure you're teaching others," Perman said. "You need to be thinking about the next generation when you make the decisions for your operation."

In addition to Zimprich and Perman, Tim Peters presented the first-annual $500 Mark Peters Pheasant Country Scholarship to the John and Deanna Bennett, on behalf of their son, Zach, a Mitchell native studying wildlife and fisheries at South Dakota State University.

Tim Peters said the scholarship was started by him and three others in memory of his brother, Mark, a long-time Pheasants Forever member from Stickney, who died in April 2012.

"It's just kind of a way to keep Mark's memory alive," Tim Peters said.

Pheasant Country President Dave Allen said about 175 people attended the event, which he said is the largest Pheasants Forever banquet in the United States. Recognition awards also were presented to Chuck McPeek and Deb Kuchera. Allen also gave Pheasant Country members a breakdown of the chapter's 2013 projects. They include:

• $10,000 -- Biologist fund.

• $10,000 -- Purchase and transport seed for seed giveaway to be used for food plots, held in April.

• $5,000 -- Legislative act fund.

• $2,500 -- Sponsor Mitchell youth trap shoot.

• $2,000 -- Burn control equipment.

• $2,000 -- Power Horn Quick Draw National Shoot to be held at Cabela's in August.

• $1,200 -- Youth trapshooting day at Mitchell Trap Club to be held in September.

• $1,000 -- Pheasants Forever/Cabela's youth fishing day in June.

• $750 -- Youth pheasant hunt at Rooster Roost Ranch.

• $500 -- Chili cook-off at rodeo grounds in July.

• $300 -- Memorial Day weekend barbeque cook-off.