By Darron Gaus

Rangeland managers, whether grazers or wildlife conservationists, have many decisions to make about vegetation in their fields and the soil sponge that the vegetation covers. These decisions can be overwhelming when planning and learning from past data. The University of Montana, through funding from multiple U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and the Bureau of Land Management, has created an online resource called the Rangeland Analysis Program (RAP) to help land managers make decisions by visually displaying vegetation data for the United States.

RAP takes satellite imagery taken since 1986 and compares it with over 75,000 on-the-ground monitoring protocols to make a data-driven model of any rangeland in the United States. The two data points that RAP focuses on are percent ground cover and annual biomass. With these two data sets, rangeland managers can look as far back as 1986 and see what changes occurred on their land and where things might be headed because of current practices.

There are multiple tools developed on the Rangelands App website, including RAP, Production Explorer, cheatgrass app, Great Basin fire probability, and historical imagery. RAP gives data for percent ground cover broken down into perennial forbs and grasses, annual forbs and grasses, shrubs, trees, and bare ground. Once boundaries have been drawn for the property, a valuable graph, such as Graph 1 below, is generated and capable of being downloaded as a CSV or Excel file for later use.

Graph 1. Percent Cover

The percent cover table is automatically integrated with annual precipitation to easily see changes in comparison to the precipitation that year. RAP also generates a biomass average of each year in pounds per acre, such as Graph 2 below. Lastly, RAP can give 16-day averages over a given year to more accurately see when peak production for each field occurs.

Graph 2. Biomass in Lbs/Acre

 

Visualizing all this data can help managers make accurate assessments for their operation. Mostly this data could be used for making stocking rate decisions across the operation. The Rangeland App website makes this decision even easier with the Production Explorer tool, which does all the calculations for the user to give a maximum, minimum, average, and suggested stocking rate. Graph 3 below shows an example, including all the calculations used for the results. The manager can then use this information to better inform risk assessment over the last 35 years.

Graph 3. Stocking Rate Calculations

Users in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho can utilize the historical imagery tool. Seeing the shape and contour of the land with 35 years of growth or destruction can be an especially useful tool. It allows managers to see if certain management practices have helped or harmed the overall lay of the land.

The Rangelands App website tools make managing pastures as easy as a few clicks. Modern tools like this can make decision-making easier for grazers and wildlife conservationists, as well as save time and document change due to management. Share what modern tool you use to manage the land at the Soil for Water Forum.

 

By Hernan Colmenero 

West Coast to East Coast, Floodgate Farm knows nutrition. Having launched in Northern California, Bill Taylor and Jaye Moscariello moved their farm to Massachusetts to start anew after a devastating California wildfire. Salad University, their proprietary intensive farm and garden course, highlights the strong links between soil health, plant health, and human health through diversified cropping. And their outcome is a famous and nutritious salad mix with up to 63 different, and sometimes wild, ingredients.  

Bill and Jaye practice the soil health principles of keeping the soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance, increasing biodiversity, and maintaining living plants a very innovative way. For example, when planting, say, swiss chard, instead of applying mulch in between plants, the entire planting bed is planted with a mix of carefully curated annual and perennial edible plants. This minimizes competition, supports growth, and provides protection from pests (Kuepper and Dodson, 2001). More information on companion planting can be found in the ATTRA publication Companion Planting & Botanical Pesticides: Concepts & Resources.

Planting bed. Photo: Floodgate Farm

As various scientists and doctors since Hippocrates have known, a diverse diet promotes human health. The dynamic duo certainly recognizes that optimum human health can be a direct result of a varied consumption of plants. Research shows that plants produce more polyphenols under stressful conditions as a coping mechanism to withstand harsh environments (Sharma et al., 2019). These polyphenols are compounds that help prevent cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases (Pandey and Rizvi, 2009). When Bill and Jaye harvest from their leafy green plant beds to create their signature salad mixes, the end product contains up to 63 different ingredients, a lot of them normally considered “wild.” These include lettuce, cress, and arugula, but also less common varieties of mint, oregano, marjoram, fennel leaves and buds, parsley leaves and buds, multiple varieties of sorrel, rose petals, hollyhock, daisy, society garlic, calendula, leek, onion flowers, and the list goes on and on.  

All of this leads to a “beautiful jungle,” says Jaye. In addition to letting the ecosystem serve as an intricate biological pest control, the team prunes where necessary and uses organic treatments such as fish oil, neem oil, and herbal sprays. When a plant is not doing well, it is usually because it is planted too densely, or a plant nearby may be releasing allelopathic chemicals stunting its growth. Although diversified cropping contributes to more labor, Bill and Jaye welcome it because they can do more with less space and have bigger profit margins.  

salad mix

Salad mix. Photo: Floodgate Farm

To help their clients understand the links between soil, plant, and human health, they host Salad University, a three- to five-hour workshop focused on the principles of diversified plant management for soil health, harvesting from multi-species plant beds, and preparing and consuming the beautifully diverse salads. Participants learn that although there may be bigger margins from growing more cash crops in a smaller space, there are things to keep in mind in order to be successful. For example, fruiting crops may not be as big as those grown as row crops. Further, mechanizing the harvest is more difficult, if not impossible, and therefore, more labor-intensive. When others attempt to mimic their growing model, Bill and Jaye suggest planting less of one crop than they think they need because in the end, the density of plants can be too much in a given plant bed. They remind their Salad University audience of simple preparation techniques, such as tearing leafy greens instead of cutting, since that tends to shorten the lifespan of their peak flavor profile and nutrient content. Finally, they encourage their clients to dismiss fears of what we call weeds since they can be great sources of nutrition and biological controls in the farm.  

These days, the word healing sometimes comes to mean the management of symptoms, not actually healing the root cause of disease. Bill and Jaye would like to see that changed, for their soil, the plants on their farm, the neighboring ecology, and their own wellbeing. You can listen to their Farm and Garden radio show at BerkshireRadio.org and use the Soil for Water Forum to pose questions and connect with other producers such as Bill and Shaye. With a concerted effort, we can minimize disease for ourselves and our environment.  

For more information on Floodgate Farms, visit their pages. 

 Website 

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By Linda Poole, Regenerative Grazing Specialist & Mike Morris, Southwest Regional Office Director 

Learning about low-risk experiments at NCAT’s Soil for Water program!

Growing up, we all negotiated countless challenges for which there was no recipe or rule book. We didn’t sit in class to learn to walk or attend a seminar to learn to not touch hot stoves. Luckily, we humans are pre-wired to learn by trial and error—otherwise we’d still all be crawling around on our bellies with fire-scarred hands.

At Soil for Water, we promote learning from peers and through low-risk experiments. Australian rancher Graeme Hand has a special twist on low-risk learning that he’s dubbed “safe to fail trials.” He consults internationally, and in July we were fortunate enough to have him speak to our Texas regenerative grazing working group via Zoom.

Graeme Hand Safe to Fail paddock example

Graeme basically advises trying new methods at very small scale and with minimal investment of labor or money. For grazing operations, he recommends stoutly fencing one small paddock, sized to hold the herd for a very brief time. Imagine your herd in a corral with enough room to stand comfortably and move about a bit, but pretty tightly packed—that’s the stock density Graeme used. After packing your stock into the paddock and holding them there a few hours to produce near-total trampling of vegetation, you move the animals out and observe how the vegetation responds during an extended resting period of no grazing for at least several months.

When does the grass come back? Is it denser or greener than before? Is the stand more diverse? Does water infiltrate quicker or slower than across the rest of the ranch?

Learning from this experiment in ultra-high-stock-density mob grazing requires comparing the trial paddock with business-as-usual on the rest of the ranch. Graeme shared some quick, effective monitoring techniques to measure landscape functions like stability, infiltration, and nutrient cycling. He told the group that long-term success is all about improving these functions and “minimizing losses rather than maximizing production.”

In the example that he shared, Graeme’s goal was to completely shift plant species composition by extreme disturbance – and it worked well for him! But that’s not the only way to use low risk experiments. For example, farmers could test small patches of cover crops, compare several hand-mixed concoctions of biostimulants, or try managing one small part of their farm organically. Graeme noted that we often get into pointless arguments and speculation about management practices that we could try at a very small scale. Why not just see if they work with our own eyes?

Several members of our Texas grazing group are planning to do safe to fail trials in the coming year. Is there a new technique or practice that you’d like to try in a low-risk experiment on your property? Get in touch with the friendly and knowledgeable team at Soil for Water if you’d like help designing a trial – we’d love to learn alongside you!

You can watch Graeme Hand explain more in detail how to conduct a Safe to Fail Trial on the NCATATTRA YouTube. You can also find Graeme at his website and Facebook page.

By Darron Gaus 

It’s frustrating when you want your soil to be healthy, but challenges make the journey anything but easy. But help is here in the form of a great new resource from ACRES USA, called Healthy Soil Problem Solving Guide, that helps you solve key difficulties on your soil health journey. This great beginner to intermediate guide sets up 12 scenarios that you may be experiencing within your soil and offers quick, easy-to-read help to solve those problems. 

If you are reading this blog and are part of the Soil for Water network, you are most likely on a journey to make your soil act as a sponge for water, whether you are in a flood area or a drought area. You may have already come across some problems and asked a peer in our network for help. Soils are so diverse that you may have already received a solution that starts with “It depends…” Repairing your soil sponge can be a tricky and difficult challenge. 

Healthy Soil Problem Solving Guide begins with a fantastic article on the fundamentals of healthy soil. Much of the guide discusses 12 problems you might be experiencing in your soil and 12 solutions for how to approach these issues. What makes this guide so great is that its authors have approached the solutions without the “It depends…” stance on soil health but instead with general but immensely helpful guidelines for the thought process of repairing your soil sponge and health. 

The 12 problems addressed in the guide range from water retention to soil degradation. It includes basics of chemistry, biology, and even input timing. The last section even includes advice on one of the greatest barriers to regenerating our soil health, “Capital Funding.” Most topics are covered in an easy-to-understand approach of labeling the problem, what you should do first to fix the problem, and how to know when the problem might be solved. 

One of my favorite sections answers, “How does soil biology affect soil health?” The diversity of soil biology is challenging enough, but the way that the soil microbiome interacts with each other and the macrobiology in it is sometimes fascinating and infuriating at the same time. This guide keys in on the basics and makes it approachable and useful to all types of producers who utilize soil to grow their products. As farmers and ranchers, we are always looking for the right tool for the job. One of my favorite and most useful tools is having a growing, mental soil dictionary at the ready. This section explodes with great words that should be a part of all soil health practitioner’s intellectual property, such as, plant nutrition cycles, aggregate formation, soil structure, organic matter, moisture-holding capacity, and gas exchange. 

Whether you are just starting on your soil sponge timeline, or you already have seen your soil get better through soil health practices, the Healthy Soil Problem Solving Guide can be tremendously helpful. You can download this guide free. Don’t forget that the Soil for Water Forum is extremely helpful for these problem-solving discussions, as well.  

  

By Linda Poole, Regenerative Grazing Specialist

As most of the U.S. staggers through drought – and other areas are deluged by floods – the Soil for Water team scouts for practical solutions to water woes. And we found them in Dale Strickler’s book, “The Drought Resilient Farm.”

Dale Strickler knows drought. A sixth-generation Kansas farmer, he’s felt the despair of watching crops wither long before harvest, and he’s done the grim math to decide whether to sell his cows or buy over-priced feed when his pastures turned to dust. He’s seen more than a few farms fail and families fall apart in dry, hot, desperate times.

“The Dust Bowl isn’t just a sad chapter of America’s history. It’s happening again now, and it’s shaping up to be even worse this time around,” said Dale during a recent call. “The deserts of the Middle East were once grasslands teeming with life, and with poor choices our Great Plains could become desert too. But it absolutely doesn’t have to go that way. Through our farming practices, we can create our own droughts – or we can create abundance. We set the stage for our future by how we treat our soil today.”

Strickler is an educator, author, and professional agronomist (BS and MS from Kansas State University) who consults internationally on sustainable farming. His 2018 book The Drought Resilient Farm details myriad ways to restore soil biology, build resilience to droughts and floods, and create enduring health, wealth, and happiness for farmers.

Far better than a Google list of every trendy tool and technique available today, Strickler’s book delivers the nitty-gritty on dozens of the most promising ways to build resilience into your farm. He’s done the exhaustive research necessary to find all the options and innovations – and then he’s implemented many of the practices himself. For any practices Dale hasn’t tried, he’s interviewed farmers around the world who have. This grounded approach is invaluable because how many ideas sound great until you give them a try in the real world?

And Strickler isn’t shy about saying some things don’t live up to popular hype: Whenever the subject of improving root depth comes up, the first thing that tends to pop into a farmer’s mind is getting out their biggest tractor, hooking it onto a subsoiler, and tearing the soil up just as deep as they possibly can. Surprisingly, subsoiling is largely ineffective at improving rooting depth. (pg. 68)

The book is chockfull of farm-tested, cost-effective approaches that, when taken together, fully deliver on the promise of the book’s front cover to Improve your soil’s ability to hold and supply moisture for plants. Maintain feed and drinking water for livestock when rainfall is limited. Redesign agricultural systems to fit semi-arid climates.

But this blog post isn’t really a book report! As soon as the Soil for Water team read Strickler’s book, we knew we needed to share his expertise and ideas directly with all of you! Dale embodies the Soil for Water commitment to promoting practical, producer-proven methods to catch and hold more water in soils, so we are ecstatic that Dale has agreed to present a webinar and workshop series for us based on his books, which also include Managing Pastures (2019) and The Complete Guide to Restoring Soil (2021).

These participatory learning opportunities will be offered in late summer 2022 at no cost to Soil for Water network members, thanks to funding provided by a NRCS grant to Soil for Water. We’ll share an invitation and details soon at SOILFORWATER.ORG.

To whet your appetite for the savvy that Dale will share in his upcoming events, here are some gems gleaned from my recent chat with him:

My part of Kansas averages 36” of moisture a year, but this is really just a desert where it floods a lot. Our water comes mostly from intense thunderstorms, and there’s no telling when the next rain might fall. By restoring soil, I capture every raindrop that hits my farm, and I store it in place for the plants to use when they need it. This ability to store water – and to keep it from flooding away nutrients and topsoil – is priceless for farmers across the US.

In 15 years, I brought my soil organic matter up from 1.9% to 8.7%, and grass roots now stretch down at least 9 feet deep. By restoring soil health, we not only make the most of the land and water we have – people can double or triple or quadruple their profits this way! – but we also create conditions that can moderate local weather extremes. And that’s good for everyone!

Some people say ag causes climate change, that cow burps are killing the planet. I don’t want to argue about that. I will say that ag can be a big part of the solution to climate problems. Things that get plant roots pumping exudates to the soil microbes as long as possible every year – practices like minimizing tillage, growing cover crops, and rotationally grazing livestock – these things build resilience in our businesses and communities in the most environmentally friendly and biologically efficient way possible.

We should be looking critically at what we can we do better. Don’t make decisions based on advice from someone trying to sell you something. Go out and educate yourself – it’s easier to do that now than ever before. And try things out, experiment to see how a new idea might work in your operation. If you’re farming 1,000 acres, you won’t lose the farm if an experiment flops on 10 acres. And if it does work, just imagine what a difference that could make if done across your property!

In 2000 I bought an irrigated corn and soybean farm in Kansas. I farmed conventionally but made some minor changes to reduce tillage and add some cover crops. This made a lot of money for the seed dealer, the fertilizer dealer, the chemical dealer, and the equipment dealer. Everyone was profiting but me, my family, and my soil. So, I decided I was going to learn to farm differently so my children could inherit something other than debt and dead soil.

Want to learn more about how Dale changed things up to restore resilience, profitability, and joy to his farming operation? Visit his website, buy his books, and check out his many videos (such as Restoring the Skin of the Earth and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil). And be sure to check back here soon to register for Dale’s powerful Soil for Water workshop series on how you can build your own drought resilient farm!

By Hernan Colmenero

Badger Creek Ranch is a special place. High above the Arkansas River Valley in Central Colorado, guests can stay on a working cattle ranch rimmed by 14,000-foot peaks of the Rocky Mountains. A team of men and women on horseback tend these lands, forming a long chain of stewardship dating back to the people of the Ute, Jicirilla Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pueblo, Shoshone, and Comanche Tribes. Ranch owners Chrissy and Dave McFarren see to it that their legacy is one of regeneration and caring land stewardship, where a vibrant community is nurtured now and for generations to come.

Badger Creek Ranch LLC has ambitious goals. The ranch team is restoring riparian areas to catch, slow, and retain more rainwater. They work to reduce erosion by various methods, including carefully planned regenerative grazing with cattle.

By partnering with Full Circle Alliance, their closely affiliated nonprofit, Badger Creek Ranch fosters success for the next generation of land stewards. They create community by articulating the importance of regenerative agriculture to customers at the farmers markets where they sell their meat. Community is fostered, too, through learn-while-doing events, such as the building of Zuni bowls, erosion control structures that use rocks, water, biology, and time to heal the soil sponge. Partnerships with Audubon Society and Central Colorado Conservancy help the ranch team restore and conserve these lands, promote wildlife diversity, and at the same time, generate a feeling of kinship between community members and the land they inhabit together.

Photo: Badger Creek RanchWith access to water being the limiting factor for rangeland grazing in semi-arid West, Badger Creek Ranch has designed a new stock-watering system with the help of National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This water point project will allow further restoration of the lands through rotationally grazing cattle in areas that currently don’t have access to water. A watershed restoration group has helped with drilling a well. NRCS engineers designed the stock watering system, and NRCS staff provided a grazing plan that ensures cattle will always have access to water without damaging riparian areas. Before this project, Badger Creek Ranch staff (and adventurous guests) would push cattle out of the riparian areas on horseback because there were only two water points on the 8,000-acre ranch.

The project includes installing a solar-powered pumping station at a well, which feeds into two 5,000-gallon storage tanks. From there, buried pipelines distribute water to dedicated paddocks. Scattered along the pipelines are hydrants to fill water troughs, which can be moved from one paddock to the next to accommodate the grazing plan.

Currently, this set-up is being trialed on the Badger Creek Ranch horse herd. If it is demonstrated to be feasible, this operation will be scaled to include the cattle herd and other animals. If and when this approach is replicated across the ranch, land that is currently degraded and without access to water could be regenerated through carefully managed mob stock grazing, which optimizes plant health, adds essential nutrients, and stimulates the soil microbiome.

Managed correctly, this method will save time in rotating cattle, and the efforts will be aligned to the ranch’s philosophy of low-stress stockmanship. It will help, too, with regeneration of nutrient-dense perennial forage and with the restoration of riparian areas. But special attention will need to be given to the fencing of the paddocks with new water points. Where new water points are being put in, the ranch is also installing metal piping fencing, which creates a strong fence where cattle can come to drink. This keeps them where they are supposed to be, saves time in fence repair, and is safer. With higher concentrations of animals, old post and barbed-wire fencing may not hold up. Rough terrain and lack of roads make it difficult to repair fences and the stock watering system, but close monitoring of the land and animals, endless persistence from the team, and a bounty of hope keep the ranch strong.

When asked whether the addition of cattle and rotational grazing on the range has been worth the hard work, Chrissy gives an ecstatic yes! It is hard work, she says, but the “joy [of] working out on the land every day and watching it through the eyes of friends and guests has been great.” The ranch team is looking for ways to further strengthen their community.

Farmers and ranchers often toil in silence and the ag community at large may not understand the full menu of challenges, opportunities, ideas, and resources available. The Soil for Water Network aims to bridge that gap by connecting producers to one another and to practices that promote soil health and water retention. For established and beginning producers alike, Chrissy urges thinking about building bridges in their community, to “keep fighting the good fight, without fighting [each other].” She advises us all to stay connected to others who share a passion for the land, so we may do what is right for it and for ourselves.

Find Badger Creek Ranch online to learn more:

Website 

Instagram 

Facebook 

By Luz Ballesteros Gonzalez

The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT) Soil for Water program and  Understanding Ag provided scholarships enabling seven beginning small-acreage livestock producers from four different states to attend the Soil Health Academy workshop in Uniontown, Alabama, May 17-19, 2022. Scholarships covered workshop costs, which included meals, on-site travel expenses, and materials such as notebooks and cooling cloths. The food provided was grown regeneratively at Bois d’Arc (BDA) Farms, highlighting the importance of local and the sense of community and environmental stewardship.

Soil for Water technical advisor and soil health movement pioneer, Dr. Allen Williams, was one of the speakers at the school, along with two other nationally famous leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement: Gabe Brown and Doug Peterson. The hands-on workshop took place at Dr. Williams’ BDA Farm.

soil health academy partipants

Photo: NCAT

Attendees learned soil health basics and regenerative grazing techniques—more specifically, how to plan adaptive grazing with multiple species to build resilience and profit. Participants experienced intensive mob grazing and the moving of a one-million-pound herd. Additionally, they broke into teams to learn by observation about soils, forage diversity, plant identification, and herd impact. The core message of the training was that “Regenerative agriculture is not a set plan; it is an adaptive plan.” The Soil Health Academy teaches according to the ‘6-4-3’ rule: Six Principles of Soil Health, Four Ecosystem Processes, and Three Rules of Adaptive Stewardship.

A goal of NCAT’s Soil for Water program is to show that regenerative agriculture can be done at any scale, at low cost, and by anyone—beginners and experienced producers alike. To learn about other upcoming regenerative agriculture workshops, check out  NCAT’s event calendar  or the Events and Conferences  section of the Soil for Water Forum.

Do you like to eat fresh food? Do you like variety in your diet? Most of us would probably answer ‘yes’ to both questions. Not surprisingly, livestock crave the same things we do. If that desire is not met, then we get less than optimal livestock performance. This can create health problems for the animals, increase costs, and reduce profitability. So how can we constantly provide fresh food for livestock and a diet that is diverse?
Justin Morris and Lee Rinehart

By Hernan Colmenero 

To understand something, we must be willing to observe it. Observe the movements, patterns, shapes, and textures of the thing. The distance, frequency, timing, and sizes, too. Determining soil health and water-retention capacity is no different and requires observation. Doug Garrison has been doing just that for 25 years in Malcolm, Nebraska. Using a “fresh grass and move” management technique, he has been comparing pasture forage production when compared to prescribed burning. The results are unquestionable.  

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Doug often visited his grandparents’ farm and grew to appreciate the animals and the outdoors. When he took over his current land in 1997, he tried a prescribed burning technique to reset the plant community and manage it. Much of the land was previously in old native prairie, trees, and a creek. Some of it was old farmland. After encountering health issues, he found grassfed beef to be a healthier alternative to conventionally raised beef. You can view some of that data here and here. Realizing that the whole ecosystem starts in the gut of the cow, he brought in 10 heifers and a bull to this land that had not felt animal impact for almost 100 years.  

DS Family Farms prairie

DS Family Farms prairie. Photo: Doug Garrison

From the start, Doug moved the cattle every day. He learned from Kit Pharo, Joel Salatin, Neil Dennis, and others about the concepts of mob and rotational grazing and has put those into action. Doug set up six main paddocks comprised of two-wire electric cross fencing, each containing one water tank. He then hangs poly wire off that cross fence to set up a less-permanent perimeter within each pasture. This creates a smaller paddock and allows Doug to contain the cattle on a small strip of land. After allowing the cattle to graze for one day, the poly wire is removed and installed further down the pasture, in essence doubling the strip of land. This process is repeated until one entire paddock is grazed without ever cutting off access to the paddock’s water tank. Then, the process is repeated in a different pasture. Doug will put up a poly wire fence to prevent cattle from overgrazing that first strip of land, which requires a different source of water, but cows don’t usually go back to the initial grazed area of that paddock. Doug tries to follow Holistic Management International’s principle to never let the animal take a second bite. Using this technique, 20% of the pasture will have more than one year to rest and recover. 

The benefit of this “fresh grass and move” technique is that it automatically gives the pasture long recovery periods. Planning is mostly removed from the equation. Doug used prescribed burning for 10 years before using grazing as a management tool and found differences in biomass production. He has averaged the monthly forage production at three points in the year (beginning of the growing season, summer, and end of the growing season) and found that grazing results in more biomass accumulation on average. There was 100 more pounds per acre at the beginning of the growing season, 200 more pounds per acre during the summer, and 300 more pounds per acre by the end of the year in his grazing operation, compared to when he would burn.  

Here it is again:  

10-year average total biomass under fire management only = 2,601 lbs. per acre
10-year average total biomass under cattle grazing = 2,899 lbs. per acre 

For the data junkies, more information can be found on DS Family Farms website, including information on a cool-season cover-crop trial that benefitted the grazing operation. Blessed with mild winters and 28 to 32 inches of rain a year, DS Family Farms enjoys year-round grazing, which has been enhanced with an annual cool-season grass for winter forage production. 

Doug emphasizes that portability and mobility of fencing is key to making his system work. Equally important to success is having a mentor. There are many innovative producers asking questions and providing feedback on the Soil for Water Forum, which is extremely useful, especially if you’re just starting. Additionally, “you have to have a passion and burning in your belly to really do this stuff,” says Doug. “You have to love the animals, and you have to love the outdoors.” The Soil for Water team could not agree more.  

Visit DS Family Farms for more information at the following links:

DS Family Farm website

DS Family Farm Facebook

DS Family Farm Instagram

Keep the conversation going at the Soil for Water Forum!

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

Did you know that grazing practices could potentially enhance photosynthesis so that plants provide greater quantities of forage? Is it possible for weeds to provide equal or better nutrition than alfalfa? The second session of the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT) four-part webinar series, Advanced Grazing for Regenerating Soils and Enhancing Animal Nutrition, addresses these questions by focusing on the plant side of the grazing equation. 

This session starts with a discussion on how a disturbance can improve or degrade plant health and the health of a landscape, depending on the nature of the disturbance. Grazing is a disturbance with four dimensions: timing, duration, frequency, and intensity. Healthy pastures are more resilient to catastrophic events than unhealthy pastures. While catastrophic climatic events cause even the healthiest of pastures (green line) to drop in productivity, the drop doesn’t go as far or last as long compared to unhealthy pastures (red line), as shown in the graphic below. 

catastrophic event effect on pasture health 

We also talk about the process of photosynthesis to potentially enhance future plant health and productivity. Overgrazing—grazing a plant before it’s ready to be grazed—prevents plants from achieving a high level of photosynthesis, resulting in very low productivity. When livestock graze plants in the elongation phase, or phase II, plants recover faster from the prior grazing while pasture productivity, root mass, and root exudates increase. The key to prevent overgrazing is to ensure plants are fully recovered before grazing is re-initiated. Overgrazing in the fall is especially detrimental to the following year’s pasture productivity.  

Next comes a discussion on how weeds can be valuable as they can access soil nutrients through a deeper, more extensive root system compared to grasses, they can be highly palatable and very nutritious, and they can contain medicinal compounds and dewormers to improve animal health. Weeds can also reduce compaction, remove excess nutrients, provide pollen and nectar for wildlife, and be a food source for birds and mammals. Weed management can happen in a variety of ways, such by focusing on increasing competition with a dense stand of grasses and forbs, delaying spring grazing to let the favorable forages establish well, beginning grazing early in the spring to graze young weeds and annuals like cheatgrass, and deferring grazing until the fall. Grazing severely (very close to the surface) greatly increases the time plants need to recover. Residual carbon above and below the soil surface feeds soil microorganisms, protects the soil from moisture loss, maintains leaf area for photosynthesis, and encourages soil aggregation. Bare ground, low residuals, and too short of a recovery period are invitations to weeds. All plants have toxins—it’s a matter of how much of the plant animals eat. 

The session concludes the session with a discussion on the different ways to determine forage yield and initial paddock size. Various methods are detailed, ranging from the simple, such as using a pasture or grazing stick, rising plate meter, or using historic hay yields, to the more complex and time-consuming clip-and-weigh method. There are several ways to determine forage yield and initial paddock size. Paddock size and number of paddocks can be determined easily using simple formulas. Shorter graze periods with longer recovery periods are the key to improving plant health and carrying capacity in environments receiving less than 20-inches of precipitation. 

Register for the remaining sessions (May 26 and June 9) here. Watch Session 2 here, and Session 1 here.   

Related ATTRA Resources: 

Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing 

Pastures: Sustainable Management 

Why Intensive Grazing on Irrigated Pastures? 

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.