Like the five generations before him, Kansas Farm Bureau member Michael Thompson grew up knowing the challenges of farming and ranching in Norton County, in the northwestern part of the state. There were crop failures brought on by harsh weather. The scars left by tillage on semi-arid soil also stand out to Thompson.
As young adults, Michael and his brother, Brian, were told there wasn’t a future for them at Thompson Farm & Ranch. However, the avid learner and experimenter knew there had to be a different (and more profitable) way to grow crops and raise cattle.
Knowing his family’s land could not lose more topsoil from wind and rain, Michael began researching land stewardship and soil improvement. After seeking out peer groups across Kansas, he soon saw the benefits of growing a diverse rotation of cover crops, using no-till practices and rotational grazing.
Thompson’s work to improve the soil earned Michael and his family the 2022 Kansas Leopold Conservation Award. The award, given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, recognizes ranchers, farmers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands.
The Cattle Connection to Soil Health
Keeping farm fields covered with growing vegetation year-round would infiltrate water instead of letting it wash away. Though he was no fan of cattle in his youth, Thompson has come to see their role in a holistic, regenerative system. Their manure delivers nutrients to native rangeland and his corn, soybean and wheat fields.
He started small with a few acres of cover crops and some electric fencing. Grazing cover crops provided another source of feed for beef cattle and provided an unexpected benefit of giving existing pastures and rangeland more time to rest and grow between grazings. The extra rest produced a more robust and diverse stand of native grass species.
Growing cover crops coupled with a no-till system improved earthworm activity and soil life. An increase in nutrient cycling allowed for less fertilizer use. Improved water infiltration meant crops and forage grew even in years of drought.
Ultimately, rebuilding worn-out soils proved essential in allowing Michael and Brian to return home to farm with their father, Richard.
A Voice for Conservation
Thompson shares his knowledge and lessons learned with other farmers and ranchers. He’s a founding member and chairman of the Kansas Soil Health Alliance, president of No-till on the Plains, and a supervisor on the Norton County Conservation District Board.
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, statewide, regional and international conferences and field days.
He also serves as a mentor in the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy program that connects Kansas farmers and ranchers to improve water quality. He encourages his mentees to examine what goes on underground. In extreme droughts or after heavy rains, Thompson often digs below ground to examine root structure and worm channels. He teaches others that what happens deep within soil determines what grows above ground, and good soil management is key to enduring the weather extremes.
Despite being part of the National Association of Conservation Districts’ Soil Health Champions Network, Thompson doesn’t claim to be an expert. He humbly claims the path to lasting success is often through failure. His peers say this makes him an authentic, accessible and passionate voice for conservation.
Leopold Conservation Award
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust present the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 24 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.
In Kansas, the $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust, with state partners Kansas Association of Conservation Districts and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.
For more information on the award, visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.