Cattle find their place on regenerative ranch

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

As young adults, Thompson 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.

Thompson began researching land stewardship and soil improvement. He knew his family’s land could no longer afford to lose more topsoil from wind and rain. 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. Keeping farm fields covered with growing vegetation year-round would filter 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 was no fan of cattle in his youth, but he’s 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 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’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.

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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, statewide, regional and international conferences and field days.

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 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.

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

Submitted photo

“Michael’s passion for conservation and improving soil health serves as an inspiration to farmers and ranchers across Kansas,” said Mike Beam, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture. “His commitment to sharing his experience and knowledge with others makes him very deserving of the honor of being a Leopold Conservation Award winner.”

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

In Kansas the award is presented annually by the Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust, 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 contagious. He is always learning and sharing his knowledge and experiences with others,” said Dan Meyerhoff, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director. “Michael exemplifies the extraordinary commitment celebrated by the Leopold Conservation Award.”

Earlier this year, Kansas landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural 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 award.

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