By Kerry Hoffschneider
Cody Nelson’s dream of farming and ranching is being paved by his passion for helping others. That journey began when he was growing up on a small cow/calf operation in Central Minnesota.
“We were not exactly in cow country when I was growing up surrounded by corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. My dad had quit farming in the 1980’s, but we kept a registered Shorthorn operation going and my mom and dad worked off the farm. I spent my years working for neighboring farmers and spent a lot of time on different operations – from row crops to dairies,” Nelson began.
After high school, Nelson attended Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he earned a degree in Beef Production. After graduation, he managed a purebred Shorthorn operation in Clarion, Iowa for a couple years. Then he was offered a position with the American Shorthorn Association. It was this position that began to expand Nelson’s view of agriculture across the nation. He was also starting his own cow/calf operation in Renville, Minnesota with two other partners.
“We farmed about 800 acres and had around 300 cows,” Nelson said. “I had a partner focused on high-yields and I was focused more on profits. There would be arguments over issues like whether we should till the cornstalks or not. I was always looking at it that we were wasting feed if we tilled them. They were looking at it as they had always done it that way. That was before I understood the value of soil health.”
The partnership was accustomed to growing oats and chopping them for silage. Nelson said it made “exceptional feed for growing cattle and the bulls performed very well on the oat silage.” In 2008, they tried cover crops.
“The first year we did cover crops was in early August. I was out with the drill and three neighbors stopped me and said, ‘You cannot plant anything in August. It won’t grow.’ A part of me agreed with them, but I proved them and myself wrong when the oats and wheat got waist high. Then we brought a bunch of cows home and it rained about a week and they laid everything down flat. That was what would at first seem like my first big ‘failure’ in cover crops, but it was more a grazing management issue than a cover crop issue. Interestingly enough, that next year we experienced some of the greatest yields in our soybeans that we have ever seen,” Nelson said.
“My neighbor, Grant Breitkreutz, introduced me to high-stock-density-grazing during this time. We added peas and turnips the second year. On the cover crop alone, we netted over $300 in comparison to feeding cows in a dry lot. It’s about net profit-per-acre, not just high yields.”
During this time, Nelson also met his wife Melanie who was from Nebraska and the couple married in 2010.
“As the partnership grew, we also had a seed business, sold some chemicals, fertilizer, feed, bulls and other seed stock, and had the cow/calf operation. The soil health was one of the key drivers for me. I wanted to answer the questions ‘Why are the cows getting better with cover crops? Why are we getting bigger yields after cover crops?’. We were always told to allow the land to rest. But, I have learned that is not true. We need to heal it by growing plants on it as much as we can.”
As Nelson continued to become increasingly passionate about net-profits and building soils, the partnership ended up splitting up and he continued with his cow/calf operation and served as a manager for both a national and local seed company. These positions only expanded his view of agriculture and soil health even more.
“My soil health knowledge really picked up by working with and learning from farmers all over the country. I was able to visit areas like Pennsylvania that were years ahead of us and spent some time through the Mid-South helping some producers get things rolling and all the way through the entire Midwest,” he explained.
“I would have never been able to learn what I learned had I not been in those situations. One person cannot possibly learn that much on their own operation. You must spend time on other people’s farms and have those, ‘ah-ha’ moments. You end up with the opportunity to put everything together and help more people out and ultimately that is what I wanted to do.”
Nelson combined the knowledge he gained through extensive experiences into a cover crop calculator.
“I began using the cover crop calculator to work with farmers, identify resource concerns, and help set their operations up for success and prevent failures. I used the tool to save producers a lot of money as well. Then a farmer in Minnesota told me, ‘I think you have a business here helping people be more profitable.’”
“During this time, I was out for supper with Mel one night and we were talking about the potential of a business name and she said, ‘How about SoilRX? You could be the soil doctor.’ I thought that sounded pretty cool and we went with it,” Nelson said.
On January 1, 2019 Nelson began his SoilRX venture full time.
“I simply want to help farmers look at all the good things that can happen with cover crops and a focus on soil health. Farmers and ranchers need to be asking themselves how they can start cutting inputs while maintaining and increasing yields and really focusing on net profit along with conservation. I also want to help absentee landowners find farmers who are incorporating these practices to save their farms.”
Nelson said when it comes to focusing on soil health and cover crops specifically, livestock are able to give a big jump-start in the right direction.
“The majority of the farmers I work with want to incorporate livestock. Many may be interested but do not have the time or are reaching an age when they want to find a young livestock producer to partner with. I have some people doing custom-grazing for other people. This improves the land and at the same time gives others an opportunity. We have others who simply give the opportunity to livestock producers, allowing them to graze the cover crops for free if they do all the fencing and management. That is a win-win because the livestock owner is benefitting from the grazing and the farmer is gaining the nutrients.”
Nelson reiterated that he doesn’t turn customers away whom do not want to integrate livestock in their management plans though. He said there are alternative ways to build soil without the addition of livestock.
“Once you develop healthy soil, there are more than 2,000 pounds of living organisms in every acre. That is like having two cows inside every acre. Those ‘underground livestock’ need to be cared for too,” he said.
Beyond providing guidance to producers across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota through SoilRX, Nelson, Mel and their three children, Amelia (10), Coy (5) and Jace (3), own and operate Bar N Cattle Company – a Shorthorn cow/calf operation. The family runs about 70 cows in the Minnesota River Bottom near Belview Minnesota. Nelson said his experiences lead him to completely change the way he manages his cattle operation too.
“We have gone to calving in sync with nature in May and June. We have also dramatically cut back our inputs. The cows are getting through the winter on less and poorer quality feed when they need to be fed. We graze early in the spring and go as late as possible in the fall and are grazing into the winter most often. We practice bale grazing when we do feed and that has been very successful to stimulate some of our pastures. We have also started to reopen oak timber areas and are turning them into oak savannas. Bale grazing in those areas also helps establish really good grass growth,” he explained.
The Bar N cows are to be “efficient, maternally-oriented, small-framed, easy fleshing, and able to survive with minimal input,” Nelson said. The cow herd is 100 percent grass fed and the bulls are fed some grain and high-quality forages.
“The replacement heifers are raised exactly like the cows with maybe a bit of higher-quality grass hay. By doing that, we have really watched these cows last longer. We are weeding out the non-breeders quicker. We also marketed meat directly for a time too but went away from that so I could have the time to go out and help more farmers and ranchers.”
Just as he was helping neighbors in his youth while holding true to his own dreams of farming and ranching, Nelson has not strayed from his service-oriented approach to life and has no plans to stop in the near-future.
“I really want to help others. We are all going to be in a better situation if everyone adapts to these soil health principles. It affects everyone. We need to improve water quality and the nutrient density of our food and through these practices we are going to see that happen,” he said.
“We used to tell everyone to stay out of the coffee shop,” Nelson said. “But, I’ve flipped that script and told my guys to go to the coffee shop and tell them it is working. Those trying these improved practices need to tell their story. The fact that at one time in this soil health journey some of us were hiding what we were doing because we were worried what the neighbors would think, showed our doubt. Now we know there are things that work and that are successful. We need to show off these practices to everybody. We don’t have to start small anywhere anymore, the practices truly work and are profitable, too.”