Hough Brothers Awarded the Hugh Hammond Bennett National Producer Award for Conservation Excellence

St Paul, MN. February 14, 2024 –Ryan and Michael Hough have been named the national winners of the Conservation Producer 2023 Hugh Hammond Bennett Awards for Conservation Excellence for outstanding conservation efforts on their farm, Hough Brothers, Barnesville, Minnesota.

Troy Daniel, NRCS MN State Conservationist, says, “Ryan and Michael Hough are innovative producers who have been willing to step outside their comfort zone to improve resources and enhance their farming operation. Minnesota NRCS has been honored to work with them as they continue to be leaders in conservation.”

The Hough Brothers farm 1800 acres of row crops and run a 600 head cattle operation in the triangle of Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties. This location graces them with the flat valley clay loam soil, gumbo clay soil and the rolling hills with clay tops. In 2008 they started renting some land of their own. In 2014 they took over the operation from their parents. They soon realized they wanted to make some changes. After hearing success stories from fellow no-till operators, Ryan and Michael Hough wanted to give it a try on their farm. They started with a 90ac. field in 2015. However, in 2016 they switched to a full farm no-till operation. Not only did they see labor savings from not having to incorporate fall tillage, but they also saw the benefit of saving soil moisture and controlling erosion. The brother said, “Switching the farm over to a no-till operation really suited us. Getting rid of the fall tillage wasn’t easy. We didn’t have a lot of support from neighbors because it wasn’t something that you see done in our area.”

Fast forward five years, the Hough Brothers look back and wouldn’t have changed a thing. They started integrating cover crops into the no-till operation to get the benefit of grazing the cover crop after the cash crop was harvested. The brothers said, “Utilizing cover crops as a feed source helps save on our winter feed bill.” This allows the brothers to extend the grazing period beyond the fall frost. They have also switched from conventional grazing to rotational grazing their pastures. The brothers said, “In 2017 we decided to try full season cover crops and added rotational grazing. We started with weekly moves for the herd to get the most use out of our pastures. The next year we switched it up to 3 day moves, and currently move every 3-7 days, depending on our workload.” They will tell you that it is a little more labor intense to have to set up the wires and get them moved daily but worth your time in the long run. They no longer split the herds up according to pasture size. They run the herd as one group through the intense grazing management plan.

Bob Guetter, Conservation Team Lead for Becker, Clay, Ottertail, Wilkin Counties, says, “The brothers are innovative producers willing to try things on their ground and share the ups and downs of their trials and experiences form over the years to help others grow and learn. You know which fields are theirs as you drive by, they are alive. There is wildlife, livestock, abundant microbes, and organisms on and in the soil, all working in a symbiotic relationship.”

The Hough Brothers have utilized the EQIP and CSP programs, along with grazing RIM, and are Ag Water Certified through the MN Dept. of Ag. Ryan has taken his turn serving as Chair on the MN Barley Council, National Barley Growers board member, and has been the speaker at numerous agricultural conferences. In 2019, with the help of NRCS, MN Soil Health Coalition and Anheuser-Busch, they teamed up with a neighbor and hosted a grazing cover crops workshop.   

When asked “What was the biggest challenge?”, Ryan laughed and said, “My brother, but all joking set a side, it would be getting past the mindset of not caring what everyone else thinks. It’s not easy but you need to drown out their opinions” He would go on to tell you that they didn’t have a lot of support from neighbors who were not familiar with no-till practices, but they see the response from the soil and yields and didn’t let it detour them. Ryan said he would encourage anyone interested to find a network of people that are practicing no-till and talk to the people willing to share advice.

Jonathan Quast, NRCS District Conservationist, Wahpeton, ND Field Office, says, “Ryan & Michael are producers every conservation planner would thoroughly enjoy working with because of their commitment to conservation and reflect NRCS’s mission and vision. Their goals and conservation are not mutually exclusive but intertwined and are having positive and compounding benefits for themselves and the land. Friendly, hardworking, inquisitive, and forward looking are apt descriptions of Ryan and Michael.  Planning with them is always fun, unique, and interesting because I’m never sure what the next idea would be thrown my way. Hugh Hammond Bennett would be proud of what they have done in being leaders and being a voice for conservation and that each one of us have the ability to shape our world for us and those to come.”

The Hugh Hammond Bennett Award is named in memory of soil conservation pioneer Hugh Hammond Bennett, the first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS) who led nationwide efforts to raise awareness about the critical importance of soil conservation and to help farmers recover after the Dust Bowl. Bennett believed that real and lasting change on the land comes from developing and following a conservation plan that is designed to meet the unique needs of that land and based on the available resources, natural resource concerns and producer’s goals.

NCPP was established in 2015 to emphasize the critical role that conservation planning plays in advancing voluntary conservation efforts on private lands. NCPP consists of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Association of Conservation Districts, National Association of State Conservation Agencies, National Conservation District Employees Association and National Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils. For more information visit www.ncpp.info.