RICHMOND, Minn. - For Dan and Crystal Ley, dairy farming with a keen focus on a sustainable future is a longstanding tradition for the family. The Leys were recognized as the 2016 Stearns County Outstanding Conservationists at the annual Pheasants Forever banquet March 4 in Sauk Centre, Minn. The award was presented on behalf of the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). "We're not really all about being in the spotlight," Dan said. "This isn't a big deal, it's just what we do." The Leys milk 50 cows and raise a small herd of beef cattle with their children - Ashley, 16, Derek, 15, and Alyssa, 6 - near Richmond, Minn. Since the late '90s, Dan and Crystal have farmed more than 300 acres of land. In 2006, the Leys purchased Dan's family's dairy operation and maintained the farm's conservation practices. Currently, the Leys manage 321 acres of land - crop farming 280 acres and preserving the remaining 41. Additionally, the Leys manage six waterways, buffers along the ditches, and rotationally graze their beef cows, dry cows and youngstock. Growing up, Dan would watch his dad implement sustainable practices on their farm, such as waterways and buffer strips to prevent soil erosion and runoff. "We're doing everything Dad did, and I think that's pretty great," Dan said. However, the Leys conservation efforts did not stop with the practices Dan's family began. In 2007, Dan and Crystal began a no-till practice on their tillable acres. "Honestly, I was tired of eating dust," said Dan, explaining his reason for no till. "When I was a kid, my dad plowed, but it didn't work. Then we tried chisel plowing, and this was the next step." Dan and Crystal first experimented with no-till in 1996 after a few dry years; however, it did not work as planned. Although uneasy at the second try, considering the light and clay soils that surround the Leys' farmstead, the Ley family has seen many benefits of no-till, most notably the fewer inputs, less soil erosion and greater yields. "The first year was rough and yields were down, but came back the second year and have trended up since," Dan said. "I can chop silage or spread manure, and you can't even tell where I drove the tractor. Even during a hard rain, we've cut back on erosion." Crystal agreed. "This saves us so much time sitting in the tractor and using fuel," she said. Shortly after the no-till practice was proven successful, Dan and Crystal looked for further conservation options. They received an Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) grant through the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to pursue cover cropping. "We looked into cover crops for the same reason as no-till, and we wanted to recycle our nutrients," Dan said. For the past eight years, the Leys have incorporated cover cropping into their farming protocol - typically planting ryegrass and hairy vetch, and sometimes turnips and rapeseed. "I always shoot for three different species in the cover crop," Dan said. With EQIP dollars, the Leys purchased a no-till drill, which they use for planting most of the cover crops. They also plant some aerially. "We signed up for three years (in EQIP) and it's evolved since then," Dan said. "We host field days and have been given grants to further develop our practices." Currently, the Leys are working with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and their Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant to research late-fall forage crops that will be harvested in the spring as baleage. This summer, the family will host a field day to share their findings. To further maximize the land's potential, the Leys apply manure as natural fertilizer, and let their cattle reap the benefits through grazing and providing a higher quality feedstuff. Since establishing no-till and incorporating cover crops, the Leys have become more efficient. Although, it was an efficiency that took time to adjust to. "Change is hard, but now we'd never go back," Crystal said. "After we put the cover crops on the field, we're done for fall." While the Leys are proponents of these farming methods, there were many challenges in establishing the methods on the Leys' dairy. Together, with the SWCD, the Leys have created a viable approach to farming with no-till and cover crops. "It's become a point where we help them (SWCD) and they help us," Dan said. "Whether we've made mistakes or not, and mistakes are going to happen, we're all learning from it." By overcoming the obstacles Dan and Crystal have been faced with over the years, dairy farming with conservation in mind has been rewarding for the Leys - a reward they hope to continue for many more generations as they continue farming in a sustainable manner and further incorporate different practices. "We're way better off than when we started," Dan said. "Not that the farm wasn't doing well before, but now we're going in a better direction and becoming a more sustainable outfit."