By Katelyn Amador, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

The Hub of Prosperity is an urban 5-acre farm managed by sustainable agriculture students like me at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas. At the Hub, alongside UTRGV classmates, coworkers, and community members, we dive deeper into building a sustainable food system in the Rio Grande Valley. Water conservation in an area as hot and dry as the Rio Grande Valley can be tough, especially when it comes to irrigation. The Hub of Prosperity ventures into different water conservation methods with a 3,000-gallon rainwater harvest tank and drip irrigation. This large water tank is connected to a rain gutter and aids in the collection of rainwater that can be used to water the farm’s crops. Experimenting with water conservation practices at the UTRGV Agroecology Garden and the Hub of Prosperity farm helps our community understand the importance of implementing water conservation projects.

A key point that is discussed in our tours of the farm and with community garden members is why we use drip irrigation. There are many forms of irrigation, the most common being drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, and flood irrigation. Drip irrigation distributes water through plastic tubing that contains spaced-out emitters, which drip water slowly and directly onto the soil directly to the plant root zone. Drip irrigation is effective because of its water-saving ability compared to other methods of irrigation that use more water than necessary. According to NCAT’s The Irrigator’s Pocket Guide, microirrigation helps retain 85-95% of water to the root zone.

In the Rio Grande Valley, flood irrigation, or simply waiting for it to rain, is much more common than drip irrigation. The use of drip irrigation on a large-scale farm can become very difficult very quickly when it comes to affordability, set-up time, and plastic longevity.

As the size of a farm increases, choosing an irrigation method becomes more complex. Not only does the size of the farm matter, but access to water, budget, and environmental impacts also contribute to irrigation method choice. How must our farmers gain maximum efficiency in watering crops when they are so limited in the number of resources that are available?

Converting the irrigation method of a farm can be stressful, especially when the farm has used another irrigation method for a long time. If a farm wants to implement drip irrigation but does not know where to start, the USDA-NRCS provides a program called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). EQIP can help farms financially and technically to implement drip irrigation to replace the former method of irrigation. This program helps farms make the switch from a less efficient irrigation method to drip irrigation and funds it for the sake of natural resource conservation. Financial and technical support through NRCS programs and conservation demonstration sites like the Hub of Prosperity can help ease the process of adopting more water-smart practices and guide our region into a more water-conscious and sustainable future.

Related ATTRA Resources:

The Texas Irrigator’s Pocket Guide

Energy Saving Tips for Irrigators 

Maintaining Irrigation Pumps, Motors, and Engines

Sustainable Irrigation: A Beginner’s Guide 

Other Resources:

Hub of Prosperity

By Luz Ballesteros Gonzalez and Felicia Bell, NCAT Agriculture Specialists

When you have common goals, things align much easier and faster. This is what has been happening in Mississippi through the MS Holistic Management International (HMI) Regenerative Agriculture Mentor Program (RAMP) organized by Felicia Bell, NCAT Agriculture Specialist. The MS HMI RAMP Cohort has been actively working together with a common goal of learning to take care of the environment and develop thriving enterprises.

What is HMI?

HMI is an adaptive management and decision-making framework that encompasses the social, economic, and environmental aspects of a ranch or farm. In summary, it helps producers make decisions and embark upon projects that work for them and the land. Learn more here: What is Holistic Management?

What is RAMP? 

RAMP is a mentor program by HMI that brings together producers, researchers, and agriculture professionals to learn the holistic decision-making approach. Through NCAT’s Soil for Water project and the support of a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) grant, this program is free to the Mississippi cohort. Learn more here: 3HMI’s Regen Ag Mentoring Program (RAMP).

What is Happening in Mississippi?

The Mississippi cohort, led by HMI Educator Linda Pechin-Long and comprised of James Burch, Fulton McField, Dr. Leyla Rios, Elmarie Brooks, Kelli Randle, and Towanda Herrington, has been busy learning and embarking on a series of exciting projects brought forward through NCAT Soil for Water and guided by Felicia Bell.

One of these projects is the implementation and development of Safe to Fail Trials, with the goal of observing the changes to the land in response to the implementation of regenerative agriculture practices without the risk of not being fruitful on the entire operation. Learn more here: Graeme Hand – Safe to Fail Trials.

Another project, being carried out in collaboration with Dr. Rocky Lemus and Dr. Leyla Rios, both of MSU Extension, strives to better understand forage present and soil health results from the implementation of conservation practices through an HMI framework. Dr. Lemus has been crucial in assisting the livestock producers across Mississippi understand the needs of each individual pasture toward better soil health.

It’s exciting to see this cohort not only grow and learn together but also share their knowledge. If you have any questions about projects happening in Mississippi or how to be part of them, feel free to contact Felicia Bell at

Related ATTRA Resources:

Soil topic area

Livestock topic area

Alternative Soil Amendments 

Drought Resistant Soil 

Managing Soils for Water: How Five Principles of Soil Health Support Water Infiltration and Storage 

Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods

Tipsheet: Organic Management of Internal and External Livestock Parasites

Paddock Design, Fencing, Water Systems, and Livestock Movement Strategies for Multi-Paddock Grazing 

Small-Scale Livestock Production

Holistic Management: A Whole-Farm Decision Making Framework 

High Hope Farm: Regenerative Agriculture in Action

By Luz Ballesteros Gonzalez, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

When will it rain again? How much will it rain? These questions are becoming more common—while such uncertainty has always existed, it’s now more prevalent. In the wake of unpredictable weather, the opportunity to work synergistically with soil and plants has opened up again. Farmers all over the United States are changing the way they farm to boost soil health, use less water, and reduce fertilizer and pesticide use 

Lighthouse Herb’n Farm is located at the base of Palomar Mountain in San Diego and is run by Damian Valdez and Jaime Williamson. In recent years, they have experienced harsh climates and constant drought.

“It kind of feels like you’re on the frontier of climate change,” said Damian.

However, this hasn’t stopped the pair from adopting conservation practices like cover crops, such as sunn hemp, to help fix nitrogen and produce biomass. They mow it down and use the mulch as an organic ground cover that breaks down naturally feeding the soil microbes. Mowing the cover crop leaves the roots in the soil allowing those air pockets and pores to be intact and for water to be captured. As Damian said, “It’s really about moisture retention.”

You can watch and learn about the work Damian and Jamie are doing in this video:

Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about what cover crop might work best for your situation, you can find more information in the following ATTRA resources:

Cover Crop Options for Hot and Humid Areas

Cover Crop (340) in Organic Systems

Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures

Episode 243. Cover Crops and Their Impact on Soil Health, Crop Productivity

Weekly Wednesday Workshop: Winter Cover Crops

You can also send your most pressing cover crop and soil health questions through ATTRA’s online chat, by calling 1-800-346-9140, by email, or posting it in the ATTRA forum.

By Luz Ballesteros and Darron Gaus, NCAT Agriculture Specialists

Farmers and ranchers are weather watchers—we begin the day by turning on the local news or checking our apps for the weather highs, humidities, and chances of rain. A lot of us have noticed that temperatures are getting higher, for longer periods of time, and come with little or no rain. Here in Texas, summer is in full swing and most of us are seeing consistent 90+ degree temperatures, with no signs of it stopping until we get into October. NCAT’s Climate and Agriculture Program Manager, Elise Haschke, and our Climate Solutions team focus on these historical trends and future projections linking agriculture and climate disruption. You can read more in ATTRA’s Climate Primer.

The increasing heat causes stress for all of us. There are steps we can take to not only keep you, your staff, and your animals safe, but also to help mitigate climate change and have a more resilient agricultural operation.

This extreme heat has an impact on anyone working outside. When the weather is constantly 90+ degrees and people are outside for prolonged periods of time, the risk of getting a heat-related illness increases. According to the National Center for Health and Statistics, heat-related deaths in the U.S. have increased since 2020 and are projected to continue increasing as prolonged days of heat are a direct result of increasing global temperatures and adapting jet streams that trap hot air in heat domes.

Heat-related illnesses are sneaky, especially when you have stuff to get done. These are the signs and actions you need to take in the event of a heat-related illness:

Chart of heat-related illness symptoms and action steps

Adapted from OSHA Occupational Heat Exposure Table

It is important to take preventative measures and encourage friends and staff to do the same. The best way to prevent heat-related illness is to stay hydrated; wear loose, breathable clothing; and take breaks in the shade or an air-conditioned area. Avoid the hottest hours of the day and wear sun- protective gear, such as long- sleeve shirts, sunblock, and hats. Sometimes it is not feasible to implement all preventative measures, so make sure you have an emergency plan in the event you, your friends, or staff experience signs of heat illness.

Just like us, livestock and plants need extra care during these longer periods of higher temperatures. Livestock performance goes down. Cows spend more time dealing with stress than they do consuming daily rations. Plants lose water faster through their pores than they can uptake from the soil. The resources listed below can give you good guidance on when you need to start planning and looking for signs of heat stress.

Providing water and shade are the best adaptations to climate change. Incorporating silvopasture into your operation is a great way to provide livestock with critical shade and shelter while also bringing more carbon into the agroecosystem. Some animals and plants are better adapted for certain climates, so choosing those breeds and varieties is important, especially when first starting a new enterprise. If you care for any fowl, looking at their rear-end feathers and any signs of poop sticking to them will help know if they need electrolytes added to their water supply. Problems tend to compound as heat stress becomes more prevalent, due to rising temperatures and intensifying drought.

Luckily, there are ways to start making a change to reduce the impacts of climate change and build resilience. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are accumulating in our atmosphere and raising average temperatures each year can be reduced or sequestered in our farming and ranching practices. There are many Climate Beneficial Practices that can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert solar energy into the liquid carbon pathway beneath our feet. Carbon is the life blood of everything we grow as producers. Focusing on soil health principles increases temporary and long-term carbon in the agroecosystem and improves the health of plants, animals, and humans. Additionally, adopting conservation practices like agroforestry can help create cooler microclimates that benefit both livestock and people.

Tell us how you are beating the Summer Bummers and taking part in mitigating the effects of climate on the ATTRA Forum. Reach out to or if you have any questions on your journey or want to learn how you can have a positive impact on climate change while making your operation more resilient.

Related NCAT Resources:

Climate Solutions

Climate Primer

Climate Beneficial Practices

Episode 235. Silvopasture 101


Farmer Well-Being

Other Resources:

Heat Stress Indices for Livestock, Iowa State University

Heat Stress in Cattle, Texas A&M University

National Center for Health Statistics

USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub

By Stephanie Kasper, University of Texas Rio GraSoil for Waternde Valley Program Manager

As a south Texas farmer, there’s not much I love more than a refreshing rainy day. However, my rain appreciation grew deeper this year after my partner John and I installed a 1,650-gallon rain harvest system at our house.

After moving into our home just outside Edinburg city limits in February 2022, we replaced most of our turf grass with a 336-square-foot vegetable garden in the front yard and an 840-square- foot one in the back, surrounded by vibrant native wildflowers.

The transformation from a lawn to food-producing gardens brought us both joy and water savings. Drought-adapted native plants require less water than traditional grass lawns, and we use drip irrigation for the vegetables, which is more efficient than overhead sprinklers. However, we wanted to reduce our reliance on the municipal water supply for outdoor plants even further, and help save the cleanest, highest-quality water for human consumption.

This desire felt ever more pressing as we settled into another hot, dry south Texas summer. Falcon Reservoir, which supplies water to the Rio Grande Valley, reached a historic low of 9% capacity in August 2022, leading to water use restrictions. Frustrated by complex water management issues and worried about our region’s long-term water supplies, I channeled that energy into action at home. I mapped my roof’s runoff potential and natural drip points, gathered supplies from Lowes, found six food-grade, 275-gallon IBC totes on Facebook Marketplace (with free delivery!), and studied YouTube videos on gutter installations.

The first rainfall after installing the gutters and tanks had me running from tank to tank, blissfully soaked, watching the water pour in. Even after nearly a year, I’m still out there for nearly every rainfall, happily watching the tanks fill and clearing any debris blocking the water flow.

A rain harvester rule of thumb is that 1 inch of rain on 1 square foot yields 0.6 gallons of potential water capture. With a roof area of 2,000 square feet and an average of 23 inches of rain in Edinburg per year, over 27,000 gallons of water flow off my roof annually. My 1,650-gallon tank storage can be filled entirely with just 1.5 inches of rain.

I arranged the tanks based on the flow rates of each roof section and with the destinations for water use in mind – two tanks in the front yard for the smaller front garden and four in the back for the larger backyard garden. The two front yard tanks are located at natural drip points, where 438 square feet of roof runoff can be channeled into them without additional gutter installations. These natural drip points are the easiest entry point for rain harvesting.

Once the rainwater is collected, the key is to use it efficiently. We use a 12V plug-in water pump to send water directly into the existing garden drip irrigation systems, eliminating the need for manual water hauling. The front yard drip irrigation uses 1.3 gallons per minute, so the 550 gallons of stored rainwater can provide about seven hours of irrigation time. The backyard system, with a water use rate of 2 gallons per minute and 1,100 gallons of water storage, provides nine hours of irrigation time.

In the past year, the stored water has helped reduce our municipal water use even further. The front yard garden required supplemental city water for only 50 out of 365 days (14%), and the back yard needed it for 153 out of 365 days (42%), with the gardens collectively producing 148 pounds of food in that time. Our city water usage came mostly during a 97-day dry stretch between late December and late March, when we received a total of only 0.5 inches of scattered rainfall. Since the backyard system was not complete until midway through last year, I expect our city water needs to decrease even further next year. The system is modular, and we can add additional tanks to increase water storage capacity based on our needs, providing flexibility for the future.

Installing a rain harvest system takes planning, funds, and maintenance, and I’m not going to suggest that it’s an easy sustainability swap that’s right for everyone. I’ve only saved a few dollars each month on my water bill at most. However, it has given me confidence in the resilience of our food-producing gardens amid heat waves and droughts and made me a more conscious water user.

Rainwater harvesting is already supported in Texas through exemptions from state sales tax on equipment and supplies. Some cities, like San Antonio and Austin, also offer educational programming and rainwater storage rebate programs to encourage rain harvesting. However, more efforts are required to promote rainwater harvesting on a larger scale, especially as Texas stares down the impacts of climate change and prepares for significant potential water shortfalls by 2040. Confronting these challenges in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond must include a reconsideration of our relationship with water, in small ways and large, to secure a sustainable future for all.

Related NCAT Resources:

Topic Area: Drought

Drought and Disaster Resources for Texas Producers

The Texas Irrigator’s Pocket Guide

Managing Soils for Water: How Five Principles of Soil Health Support Water Infiltration and Storage

Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods

Other Resources:

Agroecology and Resilient Food Systems, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


By Nina Prater, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

Almost every day, I am lucky enough to be able to take a quick walk to the creek that runs at the western edge of our property. I watch it change with the seasons. It becomes a tumultuous riot in the spring, sometimes it dries out completely in a droughty summer, in the fall the river birches drop their yellow leaves that float like tiny boats down the calm current, and in the winter ice forms on the banks and on the branches that dip into the water. This stretch of creek that feels like an old friend to me is affected by everything that happens upstream – how people manage their farms, yards, forests, and even their septic systems, as well as development – and it all can impact the clarity of the water, the health of the insects, birds, fish, amphibians and even people who spend time at the water.

This was on my mind when I was researching for an ATTRA podcast I recently recorded with my NCAT colleagues, Guy Ames and Lee Rinehart. We tackled the topic of phosphorus, an element essential for life and productive farming, but one that can have devastating negative impacts on lakes and streams if it washes off the land and into the water.

Over-application of phosphorus either in the form of a synthetic fertilizer or as manure is one of the main reasons for the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and for miles of beaches being closed every summer because of toxic algae blooms in lakes, rivers, and coastlines around the country.

I personally refuse to accept that this is “the price you pay” for food security. There are so many better ways to manage the essential macronutrient of phosphorus, and to manage waste from livestock operations so it is a resource, not a waste product, while still growing the food our communities need. We can have our clean waters and eat our cake too. (Is that how that expression goes? Something like that.)

Here are some ways to make sure you are being a good steward of your land and all the waterways downstream from you:

Regular soil testing: If your phosphorus levels are already high, don’t apply more!

Manage pH: If your soil pH is above or below the ideal range of 6-7, phosphorus becomes much less plant-available. Try to adjust your soil’s pH first before adding phosphorus.

Encourage mycorrhizal fungi: Mycorrhizal fungi partners with plant roots to help the plants access more phosphorus, in exchange for photosynthates. Try to reduce tillage to avoid damaging mycorrhizal fungi and have a diversity of plant species.

Choose the right cover crops: Some cover crops are good at scavenging and holding phosphorus in organic forms.

Follow the four R’s of fertilization: Right rate, right source, right placement, and right timing.

Keep your soil protected: Prevent phosphorus from leaving your fields in the form of soil erosion.

There are many other strategies for phosphorus management. Find our recent podcast here where we talked about the history of phosphorus fertilizer, the importance of getting it right, more tips and tricks for proper management, and much more. We all deserve to live and work on farms and ranches where you can take a dip in a cool creek after a long day’s work and not worry about fish kills and toxic algae. Proper soil and phosphorus management is essential in order to keep our waterways thriving. I’m sure everyone has their favorite spot like my creek – a swimming hole, a lake, a pond, a stream, a favorite beach vacation spot – some place you have special affection for, some place that can motivate you to find the best way to grow food or fiber, without causing harm. To find out more ways to do this, listen to our podcast, or reach out to me, Guy, Lee, or one of our many other ATTRA specialists. We are more than happy to hear about your favorite fishing hole and help you find ways to be a productive farmer with a good fertility management plan.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Episode 304. Phosphorus and the Beauty of Biology

Toolkit: How to Reduce Synthetic Fertilizer Use

Rising Fertilizer Costs: Look to History for Answers 

Nutrient Management Plan (590) for Organic Systems 

Nutrient Management in Organic Small Grains 

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.

This video is a primer on how to use LandPKS, a phone app that lets you gauge the production and conservation potential of your land through easy monitoring, tracking, and data-analysis tools.

The presentation by Laura Hamrick, Program Coordinator for LandPKS, and Jeff Herrick, a soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Las Cruces, New Mexico, demonstrates how to use LandPKS to identify the soil, monitor soil health, monitor vegetation, track management, and track wildlife on an operation’s land.

This video 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 Justin Morris

Could you ever live in a house that collapsed on itself? Probably not. To begin living there, we would have to rebuild the house by adding more space between the walls, ceiling, and floor. By the same token, soil life cannot live in soils that have collapsed where there is no place for them to live. They need enough space provided by good soil structure to live and grow. And because healthy soil structure is so important to creating resiliency to droughts and floods, as well as providing nutrients for growing our food, healthy soil structure is the house of life! 

What is Soil Structure? 

Soil structure is the arrangement of individual soil particles and the space between them. Soil microorganisms fed by sugars released by plant roots group soil particles together into larger units called aggregates. Soil structure can vary from granular where there is a lot of space between aggregates (think cottage cheese or a fluffy chocolate cake; see Photo 1) to being very tight and compact where there is very little to no space between soil particles and no aggregates are visible (see Photo 2).   

Why is soil structure so important? 

Photo 1: Healthy soil has a granular or crumbly structure. Photo: USDA-NRCS

Agriculture is the conversion of solar energy into harvestable, life-giving energy. Solar energy is captured by plants, which release that energy in the form of biochemical compounds to soil life. Soil life produces glue-like compounds that enable sand, silt, and clay particles to rearrange while also bringing nutrients to plant roots. As soil particles rearrange during the aggregation process, cavities called pores are created. Pores allow soil to infiltrate and hold water that’s essential for plants and soil life. Pores also allow air to get into the soil so soil life and roots can breathe while allowing carbon dioxide to be released from the soil. Carbon dioxide rising out of the soil is captured by plants so photosynthesis can continue. Life on earth is dependent on a healthy soil with a granular or crumbly structure that promotes the capture and release of water and

Photo 2: Unhealthy soil with no visible aggregates. Photo: USDA-NRCS

promotes the exchange of gases. In short, a granular soil structure allows soil life and plants to drink and breathe.  

Think of soil structure like a house. The wood, concrete, and steel that make up the foundation, floor, walls, and ceiling are like sand, silt, and clay particles. The nails, screws, and staples are like the glue-like compounds secreted by plant roots and soil life. With nails, screws, and staples in place, the house has lots of room to live inside. But if a large earthmover moves through the house, the house collapses and the livable room inside the house is eliminated. Similarly, when tillage or another disturbance happens too frequently, the soil structure collapses on itself. Collapsed soil structure diminishes the habitat soil life needed to obtain nutrients for plants and to facilitate water infiltration and air movement.  

What are the key practices that can improve soil structure? 

Practices that can facilitate improved soil structure include the following: 

  1. Reduced tillage, strip tillage, or no-till 
  2. Three or more crops in rotation from three different plant families 
  3. Cover crop mixtures with at least eight plant species and three plant families
  4. Grazing perennial pastures that focuses on: 1) adequate leaf area post-grazing; and 2) full plant recovery pre-grazing 
  5. Grazing cover crop mixtures on cropland where possible 
  6. Mulching 
  7. Controlled traffic farming 
  8. Converting annual cropland to perennial mixtures 

Photo 3: Nine species cover crop mixture. Photo: USDA-NRCS

Healthy soil structure is the house of life. As we focus on improving the life in our soils, that same soil life can begin creating healthy soil structure with plenty of space within and between soil aggregates. This can give us healthy food plus resilience to droughts and floods. That sounds like a win-win-win!


Related ATTRA Resources 

Building Healthy Pasture Soils – ATTRA – Sustainable Agriculture (

A Tale of Two Pastures: Pasture Response to Catastrophic Events – ATTRA – Sustainable Agriculture (

Soil – ATTRA – Sustainable Agriculture (

Grazing – ATTRA – Sustainable Agriculture (

This publication 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 Lee Rinehart, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

I recently received an email from a farmer in New England. They have put a lot of effort into their beef farm to bring their soil to life after decades of conventional corn and hay production with substantial chemical inputs. They have been working to improve the health of their pasture soils by overseeding with clover and rotationally grazing and have begun a regime of applying organic amendments to help stimulate microbial activity. In their words, they are “weaning their soils off chemical dependance,” even if at times they feel like they are “shooting in the dark.”

I feel that way a lot. Shooting in the dark. Many of my consultations with farmers and graziers over the years have taken on this quality. But really, what is happening is we are having a conversation about a complex living ecosystem that we barely understand. What I have learned is that good grazing comes from experience. And experience is informed by observation and science.

For this most recent conversation, we started off with the idea of kick starting the soil biological community. The single most beneficial way to do this is to increase soil organic matter. After all, it is what soil bacteria eat. This is the best way to build aggregate stability and lower soil bulk density. It turns the soil from a brick to a sponge. A good way to do this inexpensively is bale grazing with livestock in high density for a short period of time, somewhere above 100,000 pounds of live weight per acre (this is highly variable). Bale grazing is an excellent way to build soil over time and is especially useful on pastures in the dormant season or for renovating poor performing fields during the grazing season. An intentional, planned disturbance of short duration with a long rest period for full plant recovery disturbs the soil surface with hoof action, pushes plant residue close to the soil surface for rapid decomposition, and distributes manure and microorganisms from the animals’ saliva and haircoat. Think of it as biological priming for soils.

Sometimes a grazier will ask about planting improved species. After all, when they look across their fields they see a scattering of annual forbs, perhaps the resilient stalks of perennial weeds, and short, closely cropped perennial grasses holding on for dear life. It makes sense, though, to think about planting better grasses. The logic is sound. But I have learned that this seldom works and can be extremely expensive. For success, it just about means farming the field… some kind of tillage, weed control, fertilizer, and water. And it takes time. A grazier can drain their savings account in one season farming this way. Farming is risky enough without adding to our debt load.

Then I learned how many seeds are just sitting in the soil, waiting for the opportune time to emerge. Sure, there are lots of weed seeds. These are often the first to emerge and they do this for a reason. The annuals come up and provide soil cover, a band aid, the first step in healing damaged soil. But this is the time to use animal impact and see if we can release the native seedbank and get the good stuff to emerge.

For the beneficial grass and forb seeds to germinate and grow, we need disturbance. But I don’t mean tillage, I mean the kind of disturbance I described above. Getting organic matter into the soil will help to increase water infiltration, it will make mycorrhizal fungi and bacterial populations explode in numbers. It will create aeration, little passages in the soil for air and water to pass through.

I was talking to Allen Williams a few weeks ago, and he mentioned something that made me think. These little channels, caused by soil aggregation, earthworms, and dung beetles, provide a passage for deeply buried seeds to travel up closer to the soil surface where they can germinate. Think about it… when water infiltrates, the seeds that are buried deep in the soil profile have a route to float up and get within the germination zone. Perhaps this explains what I have seen after a few years of grazing with thoughtful disturbances – fields that become highly diverse and productive with plants I didn’t even know were present in the seedbank.

So that’s one way to establish a better forage stand. Another approach that graziers have been using for years is frost seeding. Remember, frost seeding is when we broadcast a small seeded species in the late winter when the soil is undergoing a sequence of freezing at night and thawing in the day. This action serves to pulse the soil surface ever so slightly to help cover small seeds with soil over the course of a few days or weeks, allowing them to germinate when the temperature gets to around 60°F. Red clover works well for this, as does white clover and many other small seeded legumes. Grass seeds are larger and, because of this, frost seeding is seldom recommended for establishing grass stands, though I know people who have tried it. If you are making your frost seed decision late, you can perhaps mimic the freeze-thaw action by turning livestock into the pasture after broadcasting seed and let them trample it in.

Some other things came to mind as I was talking to this grazier, logistical things to help ensure their animals could provide the impact they needed them to perform when they needed it. One was to ensure their watering systems are portable to give more control of paddock use. It is much easier to time the grazing and rest periods of paddocks when water access is not an issue. Another is to use polybraid and step-in posts to strategically enclose paddocks and try to match herd weight (the herd dry matter intake requirement) with the forage available. As a rule, I have adapted the old adage “take half leave half” to “take half trample half.” The ATTRA publication Paddock Design, Fencing, Water Systems, and Livestock Movement Strategies for Multi-Paddock Grazing goes into detail on water and fencing, so I’ll direct you there if you’d like more on these and other logistical concerns.

Finally, make grazing decisions based on observation of impact on previous fields and the needs of the current field based on goals (animal productivity, weed pressure, renovation, need for incorporating organic matter, going on vacation, etc.). And try not to re-graze a field until the plants have fully recovered. This is the cardinal rule in grazing. And never do the same thing on a paddock season after season and year after year. Nature is fickle and changes things up regularly. Mimicking nature in this way opens the opportunity for various things to happen, from new forages appearing in the fields to providing wildlife habitat for ground-nesting birds. Change it up, observe what happens, and try to capitalize on nature’s methods.

Getting off chemical dependance, and in this case synthetic fertilizer, is achievable in pasture systems. Instead of ammonium nitrate, we rely on nitrogen from mineralization and legumes. Soil aggregation is key. After the soil has begun to wake up and nutrient cycling is running at optimum, you can start the weaning process. I like to recommend Christine Jones’s regime for doing this: 20% reduction in the first year, followed by two years of additional 30% reduction, culminating with two years of minimal applications of about 4.5 pounds per acre to jump-start the grazing season. Many have gone cold turkey and it has worked. But those graziers have been doing regenerative soil management for decades. My advice is to add organic matter, build aggregation, and go off fertilizer slowly.

Related NCAT Resources:

Toolkit: How to Reduce Synthetic Fertilizer Use

Adaptive Grazing – You Can Do It

Managed Grazing Tutorial

No-Till Farmer

Other Resources:

The Soil for Water Forum

Healing Battered Fields, Pastures with Adaptive Grazing

Lee Rinehart, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

Each year, a half million tons of pesticides are applied to U.S. farmland to produce crops (U.S. Geological Survey). Because of persistent pesticide use, much of our soils, as well as some of the crops and food products produced, are contaminated with chemical residues (NSW Department of Primary Industries). Additionally, land can become contaminated by heavy metals from agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, biosolids, wastewater, metal mining, and and milling, or by airborne sources (stack or duct emissions) (Wuana and Okieimen). Other sources of pollution include landfills and waste disposal sites, highways and parking lots, and construction sites. Residues and metals from industrial sites can remain in the soil at high levels well after the industrial activity has ceased. And it can be difficult to obtain actual numbers of all contaminated sites in the United States because a monitoring system of all polluted sites in in this country does not exist (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Soil testing on suspect sites is the best method for determining if soil is safe for food production or human and other animal habitation. Soil residue tests can determine if residues are present to help farmers and gardeners assess their risk, manage exposure, and remediate contaminated sites. The importance of soil testing on suspect sites cannot be over-stated, since approximately 59% of the American population lives within three miles of a contaminated site (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Below are some useful resources for getting soil tested for specific pesticides or heavy metals. However, the first place to check is your local land-grant university. Your state Cooperative Extension will have information on whether university chemical and heavy metal testing labs exist in your state.

Labs Providing Contaminated Soil Testing Services

Cooperative Extension Testing Labs. Find your state and contact your local Extension office for more information on labs in your area.

Heavy Metals Analysis, Ward Laboratories

Heavy Metals Testing, Cornell Soil Health Laboratory

Soil Health Testing

Though not directly related to chemical testing, soil health testing can help farmers and gardeners obtain baseline data from which to set goals for soil improvement. Soil health practices such as the addition of organic matter (i.e., clean compost) to soils, maintaining a pH of 6.5 or higher, and mulching or planting cover crops can help mitigate exposure from contaminated soils. The labs listed below provide soil-health testing that goes beyond nutrient and pH analysis by assessing the soil’s biological functions, which are indicators of soil health and the soil’s ability to immobilize chemical compounds.

Cornell Soil Health

Regen Ag Lab

Ward Laboratories

Woods End Lab

Useful Resources for Understanding Soil Contamination

Soil Contaminants, Soil Science Society of America

Soil Testing for Environmental Contaminants – Interpreting Your Heavy Metals Test Results, University of New Hampshire

Urban Agriculture Soil Contaminants and Soil Testing, University of California

Bioassay for Pesticide Residue – A Home Test

Chemical residues can negatively affect plant growth and may lead to chemical exposure to humans and other animals that encounter the soil or food produced on contaminated soil. A bioassay is a quick and easy way to determine if chemical residues (insecticides and herbicides) are in a soil, and to test if the soil can be safely planted to a crop. This is accomplished by planting a susceptible plant in the soil to be tested to observe how the plant germinates and grows in the suspect soil. Depending on the chemical present, the test plants will manifest specific symptoms such as leaf curling, stunted growth, or discoloration (North Carolina State Extension). For more information on conducting a bioassay, see the resources below.

Conducting a Bioassay For Herbicide Residues, North Carolina State Extension

Check your soil for herbicide residue, Grainews

What Can I Do to Prevent Exposure to Potential Contaminants in My Soil?

First, get the soil tested. Find out about the history of the field, lawn, or site. Was it previously farmed conventionally using chemicals? Did the prior owner or user use chemicals or store potentially contaminated substances on the land? Was the site used for manufacturing? Then, depending on the test results and the severity of contamination, there are some practices you can do to help prevent exposure (Cornell Cooperative Extension):

  • Use clean soil and compost
  • Use raised beds
  • Avoid treated wood (railroad ties and pressure-treated wood)
  • Maintain healthy soil and neutral pH
  • Use cover crops and/or mulch to reduce soil splash and dust
  • Monitor children, pets, and livestock
  • Clean farm and garden tools and implements after use
  • Wash your hands after garden work
  • Wash and/or peel vegetables harvested from the garden

Related ATTRA Resources:

Topic Area: Soil

Toolkit: How to Reduce Synthetic Fertilizer Use

Other Resources:

Manage Compost and Soil Contaminated with Broadleaf Herbicides in Residential, School, and Community Gardens, North Carolina State University Extension

Herbicide Contaminated Soil and Amendments, Montana State University Extension

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.