NCAT’s headquarters in Butte, Montana, has a complicated growing climate to say the least. That makes John Wallace’s job as farm manager of NCAT’s Small-Scale Intensive Farm Training program – or SIFT – challenging as well. In this episode of Voices from the Field, John talks with NCAT Energy Analyst Victorian Smart about the SIFT farm’s strategies for conserving water. Since the farm is located in what is essentially a high mountain desert and relies on city water, those strategies are essential, as is increasing organic matter in its decomposed-granite soil. Voices from the Field Episode 253 

By: Hernan Colmenero

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is meeting for its 15th session in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, from May 9 to May 20, 2022, where delegates from Africa, Asia, Latin America the Caribbean, Northern Mediterranean, and Central and Eastern Europe countries will meet. They will negotiate topics of drought, gender in land use and land tenure, sand and dust storms, civil society participation and collaboration with the private sector, among other things.

This year’s theme is “Land, Life, Legacy” and aims to regenerate land across the world for future generations. These international movements help propel ideas about sustainable land use and the rights and responsibilities of a global population, to transform the industries society relies upon for sustenance. If you’re interested in learning more about the work they’re promoting on the ground and in their country’s federal policies, check out their website.

To learn how Soil for Water advisor Alejandro Carrillo, a previous UNCCD speaker, has reversed desertification, regenerated his farm in Mexico, and the effects it has had on his family, the environment, and his pocketbook, read his story here.

Tune in to what others are saying and join the conversation at forum.soilforwater.org.

By: Hernan Colmenero, Sustainable Food Consultant 

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification has released its Drought Toolbox, which contains an abundance of useful information for producers living through a drought. The toolbox includes three modules: Monitoring and Early Warning (great if drought effects haven’t really been felt yet); Vulnerability and Risk Assessment (essential to prepare for against the next drought); and Risk Mitigation Measures (crucial for protecting ourselves now and in the future). It even includes an amazing decision tree for producers or policy makers that helps identify specific actions one can take with high/low drought risk, local/national scales, time of expected return on investment (ROI), by climate type, and by economic sector (livestock, forestry, transit, etc.) One can even get help on specific actions to take by soil type. These resources have been made available because the world at large is recognizing that without soil, humanity cannot survive. We must do everything in our power to catch and hold more water in our soil, regenerate our land, and prepare for a water-scarce future.  

You can read or download the Drought Toolbox here. Don’t forget to let the Soil for Water team know how we can best support you in your efforts to try new regenerative practices on your farm. If you’re a Soil for Water Network member, you can get free professional support from a team member by reaching out at the Soil for Water forum. 

By Hernán Colmenero, Sustainable Food Consultant

Have you ever thought, “how much water am I saving by starting a rotational grazing plan?” “Can cover cropping increase water retention in my soil, by exactly how much, and is it worthwhile?”

These and other questions seeking to quantify the amount of water that can be saved are what the latest peer-reviewed report from the Soil Health Institute aims to answer.

This report introduces a new method to quantify the impacts of soil organic carbon changes on water storage capacity. Previous methods showed varying levels of impact, but this new equation helps researchers and producers accurately and easily measure how much water is being saved.

This aids in quantifying the benefits of various soil management practices that increase soil organic carbon, helps calculate how much money is being saved, and models the effect of management changes on drought resilience.

Read an article summarizing it here on CSRWire. Read the full report here on the Soil Science Society of America Journal. And let us know what you think at forum.soilforwater.org.

By Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist, and  Lee Rinehart, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist 

Did you know that the most important livestock on your farm are the ones you never purchased and, in most cases, have rarely, if ever, seen? These livestock, along with plant roots, play an essential role in improving soil health, which is the foundation of any agricultural operation. But what is soil health and how does one go about improving it? The NCAT four-part webinar series Advanced Grazing for Regenerating Soils and Enhancing Animal Nutrition begins by addressing this question. 

Soil health is defined as the continued capacity for soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that enhances the well-being of plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soil should be full of life, from earthworms and dung beetles on the large scale down to bacteria and fungi on the smallest scale. Our very existence is dependent on life that can only be seen, in most cases, under a microscope. Yet it’s these microscopic life forms that create stable soil aggregates that provide a host of benefits ranging from improving water infiltration to improving plant-available water and even improving gas exchange. Well-aggregated soils allow our landscapes to be more resilient to the environmental extremes of severe droughts and floods that are becoming increasingly prevalent and severe.  

So how do we get well-aggregated soils that can make our grazing operations more resilient going into the future? We focus on five soil health principles through our grazing management: 

  1. Optimize disturbance – lack of disturbance is harmful to the soil ecosystem when plants aren’t grazed periodically, and too much disturbance through overgrazing is also harmful as soil life goes on a starvation diet. 
  2. Optimize biodiversity – different plants are associated with different beneficial soil microorganisms that help facilitate soil aggregation in a variety of ways. 
  3. Optimize soil cover – too little cover exposes the soil to extreme weather conditions and too much cover slows down and halts nutrient cycling. 
  4. Grow living roots throughout the year – the longer the time roots grow, the longer soil life is fed that helps to create and maintain more stable soil aggregates. 
  5. Integrate livestock on cropland where possible – livestock grazing a diverse blend of annual forage plants in addition to growing cash crops can improve the feeding of soil aggregate-building microorganisms in addition to growing cash crops. 

In session 1 of the webinar series, we begin to break these concepts down and discuss diversity and disturbance as linchpins that hold a resilient ecosystem together. In resilient pastures, everything is in flux and managers can imitate the natural successional processes through optimized disturbance to move the pasture system toward a natural polyculture and increased biodiversity. 

These principles are followed by a discussion on how physical and chemical processes form stable soil macroaggregates only in association with soil life. Without this collaboration, plants cannot promote the conversion of sunlight energy into carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and medicinal compounds that livestock, and eventually humans, need to thrive.  

We wrap up the session by tying in grazing management principles that enhance and improve pasture resilience and livestock productivity. We detail various ways land managers have provided optimal disturbance that fosters biodiversity and resiliency by the fluctuation of grazing duration and frequency (see figure below).  

Session 1 of the webinar can be viewed here. The remaining three sessions of this series will be held on May 12, May 26, and June at 5 pm Central time. Register here.

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

by: Hernan Colmenero

Tammi and Stephen Bell are the kind of couple who believe that less is more. Their motto seems to be to let the plants and animals do the work. That’s exactly what they’re doing at Waterline Farm in Pryor, Oklahoma.

Now, they are not completely hands off. Although they don’t usually mow their lawn, much to the chagrin of their neighbors, their goats do the mowing by grazing it. Similarly, they believe it’s important to first think about infrastructure. That means digging small trenches to direct the flow of water and building hügelkultur mounds to slow and keep water on their land a bit longer. It also means being patient and observing the land. They may agree with Michelangelo when he said “the task of the sculptor [is] to discover [the statue].” They want to discover the beauty of the land and help it become what it wants to become.

The Bell’s goal with Waterline Farm is to become a homestead demonstration site practicing regenerative agriculture with an emphasis on ecological stewardship. Their operation has seen its fair share of challenges, but the Bell family has turned them into opportunities. In 2019, a massive flooding event raised the level of Lake Hudson in Oklahoma, on which their property is located, and crept up several hundred feet onto the pasture. As the water receded, it created natural contour swales, which they used to plant sycamore and oak trees to increase water absorption and retention, therein slowing the flow of water to the lake. Realizing that their shoreline was fragile after seeing how their neighbor’s shoreline receded, they also planted several more sycamore and cypress trees closer to the shore, creating a wide strip of protection. Additionally, they made use of the silt the lake water brought and let the native grasses grow tall, allowing the deep roots to take hold in the soil. This added organic matter, created more soil aggregates, and increased the presence of wildlife, such as Monarch butterflies and a resident bald eagle. Both of those changes served to expand their silvopasture system while making progress on their goals of regeneration and wildlife conservation by simply giving the land more of what it could use.

But not everything can be accomplished by watching from afar. Stephen is adamant that one needs to get their hands dirty, their boots muddy, and observe the land from various places to get an idea of where the water is going and what the land is doing. Then, it’s important to act. In this way, he noticed that rainwater was flowing from his property into his neighbor’s. So, he built up hügelkultur mounds along that edge of his property to slow the flow of water. Most recently, he dug a trench with his 39-hp tractor to direct water to his orchard. All these actions serve to catch and hold more water in their soil, lessening the potentially damaging effects of floods.

Even though the Bell family doesn’t do it for the money (they’re both comfortably retired), they expect to turn a profit this year. They are saving money by not buying costly fertilizers and by supplementing their groceries with the food they grow and harvest themselves. Even their livestock enjoy the fruit of their harvests, which means less spent on buying animal feed. Moreover, their farm has garnered the attention of Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), the Oklahoma Forestry Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and perhaps most importantly, their fellow community members. Some of this has led to grants and other beneficial financial opportunities. Tammi says it is “the big circle coming back.”

The Bell family says that the peer-to-peer learning systems such as Women, Livestock, and the Land course and the Soil for Water Network, both part of NCAT, have been instrumental to their success. “People feel isolated and when they see others doing something similar, that works,” says Tammi.

Learn more in the YouTube video, Welcome to Waterline Farm.

By Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist

Did you know you can do a soil health assessment on your own pasture without having to send in soil samples to a laboratory? And this assessment costs only your time because it requires no special tools. Using the senses of sight, smell, and touch, along with very simple hand tools — a shovel and a knife — you can determine the health of the soil in your pasture in less than 30 minutes.

The goals of the pasture soil health assessment are to:

  • Become more familiar with the soil that supports the plants that feed your livestock
  • Determine the current state of soil health at the time of the assessment when compared to a nearby area of high soil health
  • Determine whether soil health is improving or worsening based on at least two assessments conducted in the same spot at two different time periods
  • Gain insight on whether past and/or current grazing management efforts are making a positive or negative change to soil health

I created a video to demonstrate how to conduct a soil heath assessment, where you’ll learn:

  • Where to conduct a soil health assessment
  • How to conduct a soil health assessment beginning with the condition of the soil surface
  • Indicators of good or poor soil health
  • How grazing management affects soil health

Click the play button below to watch the YouTube video on how to do the assessment. Have questions? Feel free to contact me at justinm@ncat.org or 406-494-8664.

Related ATTRA Resources: 

Soils & Compost

Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production 

Soil Health 101: Cover Crops and Water Infiltration  

Soil Health 101: Grazing and Soil Health with Jody Reye

Other Resources: 

Soil for Water

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

Erik Tucker has been ranching in Southeast Colorado since his early 20s, and although he didn’t grow up on a ranch, he has long felt  that the old way of ranching just wasn’t working. He likes to observe the sunshine, rain, and natural processes of the world that culminate in pastures and healthy cattle. He knows livestock didn’t always need so much handling, especially when bison freely roamed the area. He often thinks about those times and wonders if they can be recreated in their efficiency.  

A meeting with Allan Savory, co-founder of Holistic Management International and founder of Savory Institute, confirmed what Tucker’s intuition told him all along: there is a way to ranch that promotes economy AND ecology, never one at the expense of the other. To accomplish that, Tucker makes sure three components are in order: stockmanship, grazing, and marketing. Tucker believes that if you invest in these three things, you’ll receive dividends that pay over a lifetime.  

The idea of proper stockmanship originated from Bud and Eunice Williams, creators of what BeefProducer called one of the most important innovations in 2011 (along with barbed wire and antibiotics) (Williams, 2022). In essence, Tucker says proper stockmanship is about getting the cattle to the right place at the right time for the right reasons. If a rancher understands what livestock want, could, and probably will do, they can get the animals to respond how they want them to, more often. The result is less stress on the animals and handlers, and more time for everything else. 

Appropriate grazing management is key to meeting your ecological goals, says Tucker. While he uses the principles of planned grazing, he says one’s specific context should ultimately drive decision-making. In fact, he thinks context is so important that he (and others) would like to add that as the sixth soil health principle. No two pastures are the same, let alone two ranches, so they should be observed diligently and acted on accordingly. By practicing proper grazing management, a rancher can catch and hold more water in their soil, leading to more dense and diverse pastures. Visit the Soil for Water Forum to read how others are catching and holding more water in their soils. 

Proper marketing is what brings the entire operation together and makes the engine move forward. Tucker is adamant that a rancher creates value by investing his time, effort, and energy into improving a product or service. The more skillfully a farmer does that, the more value that is created. Good marketing tells the story of that value, the story of that producer’s time, effort, and energy; it tells the story of why balancing economy and ecology is the responsibility of each of us, producers and consumers alike. This can no doubt lead to bigger margins.  

Sometimes economical decisions take precedence over ecological ones, or vice versa, but neither should be made at the expense of the other. Tucker suggests that all new producers first understand  why they want to get into the agriculture business. Then, he urges us to understand our context. There are already plenty of resources like the Soil for Water Network and its partners that can help new, transitioning, and established producers understand and work within the ecological limits of their land. There’s no end to better, as Bud Williams says. It takes the development of one’s intelligence, skills, and commitment to their work. Tucker reminds us that setbacks are good because they serve as a sign of what is broken and where to go next. That process adds value to an operation. As chiefs of whatever land we may be on, we can make sure every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of generations to come (Vecsey and Venables, 1980).

Reference: 

Vecsey, Chirstopher and Venables, Robert W (eds.). 1980. An Iroquois Perspective. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press. 

In a new video series: Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Nina Prater makes the case for modeling soil health strategies after nature’s blueprint that produced that situation in the first place.

We all know the basic story. Plants photosynthesize sunlight and make sugars. They use the sugars to build leaves and stems and roots and seeds – pretty much everything that makes a plant a plant.

But at the same time, they share the wealth by exuding sugars from the roots to feed a “community” of soil microbes and fungi that in turn help keep the soil healthy for the plant.

A classic win-win situation.

“This layer of productive soil on top of the bedrock that we all have to work with is this vibrant living thing that has a community of life within it,” Nina says. “You have to treat it like a living thing because it is.”

And just like any living thing, there are practices that can keep it healthy and practices that can cause it harm.

Nina and other NCAT staffers produced a three-part webinar series – Soil Health 101 – through the ATTRA sustainable agriculture program, along with support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (Southern SARE).

You can watch the webinars here:

The series has a particular focus on the role livestock can play in soil health, but its strategies for keeping soil healthy is good information for any producer.

Those strategies are often described as the principles of soil health. Nina breaks it down to five.

  • Minimize disturbance to the soil
  • Maximize biodiversity on the land
  • Keep the soil covered at all times
  • Keep living roots growing in the soil during as much of the year as possible
  • Incorporate animals and use regenerative grazing practices

Nature provides models for how to put those principles of soil health into place, Nina says, and the webinar is full of practical examples of just that.

“To build soil health on our farm, we have to look to nature to figure out how to do that. Nature built all of these soils in the first place,” she explains. “The planet wasn’t created with all these, you know, lush terrains and prairie and everything. All that evolved over time. And it evolved with these ecosystem that built soil.”

To learn even more about the importance of soil health, and to connect with farmers, ranchers, and land managers taking steps to regenerate their soils, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

Soil for Water’s Regenerator’s Atlas of America is now live!

With producers and consumers in mind, we have developed a platform where regenerative farmers and ranchers across the country can create a profile for their operation to be placed on the Atlas. By planting a flag on the map, producers can let people know who they are and where they’re located, and how they are regenerating their soils to hold more water.

Users can explore these farm and ranch profiles by filtering for a variety of topics. For producers, it can increase your operation’s visibility, open new markets, and allow you to connect and learn from others in your field. For consumers, it can connect you with farms and ranches in your area that have local goods and services that benefit the community. 

If you are a producer, help us grow the Regenerator’s Atlas of America by planting your farm or ranch on the map today.