By Mike Morris & Darron Gaus

With roots in regenerative land stewardship since 1994, the Dixon Water Foundation has been approaching one of Texas’s limited resources in a unique way. While many other groups promote better livestock management and land stewardship, Dixon is one of the few organizations nationally in its specific focus on using grazing to protect and improve water resources.  

Dixon’s mission of promoting healthy watersheds through sustainable land management is accomplished through integrating livestock, research, and education. The foundation manages four large ranches in west and north Texas totaling more than 15,000 acres “On Dixon Ranches, livestock are the tool we use to create healthier land and healthier watersheds,” says their website. 

When asked why Dixon takes such a specific approach to water conservation, Robert Potts, President and CEO, said, “Because it is what we know, and it is what we are good at.” Dixon is a leading organization in regenerative land stewardship, and they’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years, long before “regenerative” became a buzz word.  

source: dixonwater.org

Dixon was one of the Soil for Water Project’s first funders. Their mission is similar to ours, and we owe them a great deal of gratitude. We’re fortunate to have Philip Boyd, Vice President of Science & Research, and Casey Wade, Vice President of Ranching Operations, working alongside us as we provide education and set up small-scale “safe-to-fail” trials across Texas. Dixon works with researchers at universities and nonprofit organizations like Sul Ross State University’s Borderland Research Institute and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory to monitor their ranch management methods. These monitoring efforts include watersheds, soils, plants, and wildlife. In one study with Richard Teague, they were able to confirm that multi-paddock adaptive grazing improves water conservation and protects water quality. Philip also runs numerous education events at the west Texas ranches, along with Education Program Coordinator Melissa Bookhout at the north Texas ranches, providing practical firsthand knowledge to landowners, school children, and the public.  

Rachel Vasquez recently talked to us about her work as Vice President of Grants. She was enthusiastic about spreading the work of land stewardship and water conservation through the Dixon grants program and a new and upcoming apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship program will help new ranch managers coming out of college gain real expertise in regenerative practices that heal our land. Dixon is about conserving water resources for generations to come, so it’s appropriate that they are training young people.  

Learn more about the Dixon’s work here and connect with our Regenerative Grazing Specialists at the Forum.  

Related NCAT Resources 

Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing

Soil Health Indicators and Tests

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

By Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist 

Have you ever wondered where the best place is to get information on the soils for your land? What if that information could tell you what kind of soil you have, how deep it is, how much water it could hold, or how much forage could be grown on each acre of your land in a year. Fortunately, there is such a source. It’s called the Web Soil Survey and you can access it from any laptop or desktop. 

Launched in 2006 by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Web Soil Survey allows anyone to define any area they’re interested in within the United States and retrieve all sorts of soil-related information about that area. Here’s just a small sampling of what can be found: 

  • Soil map unit symbol and name 
  • Acres of a specific soil map unit within a defined area 
  • Soil textures in the top five feet 
  • Available water supply in inches for the top five feet 
  • Land capability classification 
  • Average annual precipitation 
  • Frost-free period 
  • Rangeland production during favorable, normal, and unfavorable years 
  • Yields of irrigated and non-irrigated crops including pasture and hayland 
  • And much, much more! 

For those of you who are familiar with the hard copies of the soil survey, those are no longer available. Once you get used to using the Web Soil Survey interface, getting just the information you need without combing through a thick hard copy page by page becomes far easier to use and more accurate. And for those who still want a hard copy of something, not to worry. Everything in Web Soil Survey can be printed.  

You can get started with Web Soil Survey. Once there, click on the big green “Start WSS” button. You’ll see a map of the lower 48 states with several tool buttons just above and to the left of the map. If you happen to be interested in an area in Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico, just click on the white hand tool to pan to those areas.  

Alternatively, you can jump to any area by moving your cursor over to the menu bar at the far left and clicking on Address or State and County.  

Once you’ve found the area you’re interested in, you can zoom in by using the cursor to select the magnifying lens with the plus symbol inside it. After clicking on the magnifying lens, move the cursor over the map and you’ll notice that the cursor turned into a plus symbol instead of an arrow. Click and drag over the area you want to see in greater detail. If you need to adjust the map east, west, north, or south to get everything in full view, click on the hand button to move the map image.  

Now that you have the area you’re interested in and it’s filling up the entire interactive map view, click on one of two AOI toolbar buttons above the map. The AOI (Area of Interest) button on the left makes a rectangle, whereas the AOI button on the right makes a polygon of nearly any shape. Because field boundaries are rarely ever straight, I almost always select the polygon button. Click around the area you’re interested in and then double-click your mouse to finish the polygon.

If you’ve successfully defined an area of interest, the polygon you traced will have blue diagonal lines through it, as you see above, along with an acreage count for that area. If you weren’t successful on your first attempt to create a polygon, just try again and be sure that on your last corner you double-click your mouse to complete the polygon. If you want to adjust the polygon you just created, then click on Clear AOI on the upper left. Unfortunately, you can’t edit a single point once the polygon has been fully created. This is why you have to clear the area of interest if you want to make any modifications. You can then start over until you get it to look the way you want it to. 

Now, let’s find out what soils are on this field. Scrolling up to the very top of the webpage, click on the Soil Map tab (see below). The blue diagonal lines on the map will disappear and be replaced by lines delineating soil boundaries. For this 125-acre field, there are just two soil map units – map unit 22, which is a Labenzo silt loam, and map unit 64, which is a Withers silty clay loam. Web Soil Survey shows the number of acres for each soil map unit and their percentage of the total. By the way, this is a great feature that the hard copy soil surveys of yesteryear could never tell you.  

Clicking on the map unit name on the left of the screen reveals a new window with lots of great information about that soil (see below). Here we see the map unit description for the Labenzo silt loam, which includes information on where the soil is generally located, its composition, setting, typical profile soil texture, and properties. 

After clicking on the X in the upper right corner to eliminate the map unit description window, go to the top of the screen and click on the Soil Data Explorer tab (see below).  

 

If you wanted to know what the potential alfalfa hay production is on this field, click on Vegetative Productivity (see above) under the Suitabilities and Limitations Ratings menu. This reveals a lot of different crops, some of which are not suitable for growing in this environment. Scroll down the list of different crops and click on Yields of Irrigated Crops (Component). Click on the dropdown menu and select Alfalfa Hay. Finally, click on View Rating

 

Now we have a rating for alfalfa hay in tons per acre for the whole field by soil map unit. The numbers listed under the Rating column are only an estimate and should be used as a rough guide, not as numbers that are absolutely accurate.  

If you want to save this information for the future or print it, click on Printable Version at the top right of the page (see below).  

This is just one of nearly countless ways to find soil and crop productivity information for a specific piece of land. I’ve covered maybe one percent of what Web Soil Survey has to offer. If you have additional questions on how to use this tremendous tool, just contact your local USDA-NRCS office.    

 

By Lee Rinehart, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist 

No level of education can prepare a student for the deep work of community building around resource conservation issues, especially in low-income counties that have experienced environmental catastrophe. But this is how Mary Sketch Bryant cut her teeth in the demanding world of land-use policy and environmental and community restoration. With a newly minted degree in environmental studies, Mary found herself in California working with a forest restoration collaborative. She began connecting with local folks to find answers around community resilience and conservation. How could she help rebuild this community devastated after the Butte fire tore through 70,000 acres of forest, farms, and homesites?

Mary’s experience in California gave her insight into the human dimensions of resource conservation— namely, how do people make decisions in land management and how do they translate into policy? A subsequent tour of duty at the Center for Rural Strategies in Tennessee highlighted the diversity of rural issues and the challenges, especially in changing the perception of rural communities. The power of communications and community leader-driven advocacy, especially in Black belt and Native nations, became paramount, particularly when communities are economically depressed. There is so much knowledge in local leaders, and natural resource conservation flows through all the issues rural communities face. Telling their story became her passion.

Graduate work at Virginia Tech helped strengthen Mary’s focus on the dynamics of human behavior in environmental work, and she realized this necessarily involved agriculture. She wanted to get more into agricultural working lands and put her passion for coalition building to work. Building power and strength in place-based communities and getting rooted in trust building among all land stakeholders was her new call. With her new position with Virginia Tech Extension, the Virginia Soil Health Coalition had an advocate, a leader to help bring a burgeoning organization together.

The Virginia Soil Health Coalition is a collaboration of soil scientists, policy advocates, practitioners, and farmers seeking to further soil-health practices across Virginia. The Coalition’s work is, however, about much more than fostering soil-health practices. Their work is more complex than just adding cover crops and no till; it takes a systems orientation and working with collaborators on the more intangible aspects of partnership, such as strategic planning and evaluation. Where do you start? There are so many intangibles, so where do you draw the lines of where you are having an impact and how do you record the results you do not see, such as a general awareness of soil practices among the greater population? And how do you get more people on board, addressing them where their actions are, where they live, whether they are advocates, gardeners, or farmers?

Virginia Ag. Expo in Caroline County, VA

Working with agencies and core nonprofits—NRCS, Extension, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Conservation Districts, Forage and Grassland Coalition, and many more—the Coalition currently has about 35 partners. There is a seat at the table for all who have this vision of soil health, and it is a vast network. Mary’s job is to make the Coalition, through advocacy and education, accessible to all involved. “There is a lot going on in Virginia related to soil health,” she said, “but the partners are spread so thin.” With a goal of knowing and supporting what each group is doing in the Coalition, the intangibles become more evident. The synergies between each disparate organization result in more collaboration, more conversation, and more farmers implementing practices that, on their own place and according to their own needs, hold more water in the soil, keep nutrients out of the bay, and in turn increase the productivity and economic resilience of Virginia agriculture.

In the fall of 2021, Soil for Water entered the scene. The Virginia Soil Health Coalition was well set, through connections with Virginia Tech Extension, a core Soil for Water partner, to serve as a hub to facilitate a broader partnership across Virginia. Soil for Water is furthering the adoption of regenerative grazing practices that keep water in the soil and the Coalition is key to this success. Each member of the Coalition has connections already solidified, making communications and cross-pollination among groups more productive.

Variable Nitrogen Rate Field Day in New Kent, VA

The focus on regeneration is crucial. According to Mary, the idea of regeneration goes beyond the soil component. It is about building more life into something. “We have such diverse partners, and we do not have a comprehensive definition for soil health. Rather, it is what a partner brings to the table that is important, for each has a different, though corresponding, definition…There is no check box of what to do in regenerative agriculture, and it is challenging but exciting. Defining regenerative agriculture is difficult, a buzzword we must move beyond toward a focus on more life in the soil and more widespread consideration of soil health,” Mary said. She invites us to “come together around ambiguousness” in this journey of regeneration. Again, the intangibles. I want to be engaged; how do I do that? Who are we reaching outside the Coalition? If Mary is right, engaging and knowing who to go to, and instilling a more common language and understanding of soil health among the broader population, is key. Building a spark and fostering energy among the myriad layers of influence in the community. This is the real work of coalition building.

So, what is the level of interest and commitment in Virginia to regenerative agriculture? “It is high, but maybe that’s my hope,” she said. “Maybe people don’t call it regenerative, but that is their perspective.” And maybe it is a little easier on a smaller scale. The biggest farms in Virginia are on a smaller scale than those in the West and Midwest, so it can be easier to implement certain practices, such as cover crops and no-till. “There are many progressive farmers in Virginia; there is energy and momentum. Who knows how good a particular farmer’s soil is, but they are thinking about it,” and that’s the point to start from.

“So much of state leadership is pushing for it [soil health, regenerative agriculture], so much cost-share is available on a state level. Even if some farmers will never apply for cost-share funding to implement a practice, it does trickle down.” Awareness is growing and to Mary, that is the point of the Coalition. “There is wide interest in Virginia, but the implementation piece needs work, especially on the economic front, because more farmers are paying attention and have numbers around this. It can be a strong incentive for others to adopt soil health practices.”

I asked Mary at the end of our conversation what advice she would give to a farmer interested in making a change to his soil-health practices. She responded that she would advise them to pursue farmer-driven resources, and farmer-to farmer-networks, and, importantly, to open the space for others to learn from the failures of their peers. “There is lots of innovation out there, but it is a slow process, and we are always pushing for the next step. People don’t get into farming to get rich, but they do need to make money and minimize risk. Most farmers want to learn and experiment but don’t want to risk their bottom line.” In Virginia, there is a focus on the bay and soil quality, and soil quantity and water capture are almost forgotten. This is an important paradigm for her producers and practitioners to realize, not to mention economics.

This focus on water capture and economics is what the Soil Health Coalition and Soil for Water are good at. Our common goals are connecting and networking, telling stories, and helping people imagine their own future.

Soil for Water and the Virginia Soil Health Coalition are sharing events and building capacity because there is so much overlap between them. We can leverage our work to reach a bigger audience. “We are working toward same goal, which is all that matters,” said Mary. “Let’s make it happen.”

 

Related NCAT Resources:

Soil for Water Forum

Other Resources:

Virginia Soil Health Coalition

4theSoil Project

 

 

By Mike Morris, NCAT Southwest Regional Office Director 

A few months ago, I was given the enjoyable assignment of updating the 2006 ATTRA publication Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods. I was curious to learn what had changed in the world of soil moisture monitoring and irrigation scheduling over the past decade or so.

Now, as always, you can do a pretty good job of checking your soil moisture with a shovel, the “feel and appearance” method (no cost), a hand push probe ($30-$70), or tensiometers ($50-$150 apiece). But if you’ve got anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to spend, I learned that there are some interesting new options to consider.

Browsing around the Internet, I learned that data logger setups have evolved and are now available in many wireless configurations. A data logger is a device, usually powered by batteries or a solar panel, that records data at intervals ranging from every few minutes to every few hours. Data loggers can be hooked up by cables to buried soil moisture sensors, automatically recording your soil moisture and storing months or years of data that can be downloaded at your convenience or sent directly via the Internet to your phone or laptop, in real time.

Most surprising of all was what I learned about satellite imagery. In 2006, using satellite imagery to estimate evapotranspiration (ET)—the combined effect of evaporation and transpiration—did not exist in any meaningful way. The closest thing we had was publicly-available weather station networks like the Bureau of Reclamation’s AgriMet network for the Pacific Northwest and the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS). These networks provide estimates of current and historical ET, although they have some real limitations, not least of which is the fact that the nearest weather station may be dozens or even hundreds of miles from your location.

Today, satellites are rapidly entering the mainstream. Among other advantages, satellite images can show soil moisture conditions over an entire field or farm. For a few years now, companies like IrriWatch have been providing satellite-based irrigation recommendations for an annual subscription cost of several dollars per acre. Then, in 2021, OpenET burst onto the scene.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Developed by NASA, the Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Geological Service, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and other partners, OpenET uses NASA satellite data (including things like leaf temperature, leaf size, and solar radiation) along with meteorological, soil, and vegetation datasets, to provide readily available satellite-based ET estimates for the entire western United States. You see a map, in familiar Google Earth layout, and can zoom all the way down to field scale, reading ET estimates for millions of individual fields or at the quarter-acre resolution of satellite data. You can also draw shapes on the map and see monthly and annual ET values within those boundaries.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

The maps are stunning, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. I found the site extremely user-friendly. It took me only about 15 minutes to set up a password and start zooming around the maps and looking at ET levels in almond orchards, wheat fields, and pastures around the country. Best of all, everything in the OpenET Data Explorer is free to view. A goal of the project is to keep the data free and easily available, although some users who need large-scale access will eventually need to pay.

To learn more about affordable soil moisture monitoring options, download the free, newly updated ATTRA publication Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods. And if you try OpenET, post a comment at the Soil for Water Forum and tell us how you liked it.

Related ATTRA Resources

Managing Soils for Water
The Irrigator’s Pocket Guide 

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 

Facebook

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