In this webinar series, Dale Strickler covers all aspects of creating drought-free agriculture. Strickler is a rancher, educator, and agronomist 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.

Session 1: Building Drought Resilient Soils

Session 2: Ranching for Rain and Drought Resilience

Session 3: Creating Drought-Free Agriculture

This webinar series is based upon work that is supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number NR203A750001C025. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider.

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 Linda Coffey, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

As I write this, it’s the last week of 2022. I am thinking about upcoming tax information to file and looking at the barn to see if our hay is going to last longer than winter. I’m looking at our pregnant ewes and wondering: “Was this a good year? Will 2023 be better?”

Last year, the weather was a big factor for us. A cold, wet spring was followed by sudden and intense heat, and cool-season grasses didn’t do well. Then rainfall was sporadic and finally stopped for weeks. The fall was hot and dry and again, and cool-season grasses didn’t do well. We were not able to stockpile fescue because our animals needed the feed. Winter came early, with three snows before Thanksgiving (in Arkansas!), and December brought more snow and brutal cold, so we are going through our hay stash at an alarming pace.

The weather is not in our control and not in yours, either. But we are not helpless. Let’s think about some of the ways we can be sure that 2023 is a better year.

Match the number and kind of animals with your farm resources. This was well discussed on a recent ATTRA podcast by agriculture specialists Lee Rinehart and Nina Prater. Having animals that can thrive in your environment and with your management means better health, fewer problems, and lower cost of production. On our farm, our Gulf Coast sheep certainly thrive and are trouble-free, if you don’t count their disrespect for the electric fence this year. In hindsight, though, when the weather turned hot and dry, it would have been smart to cull the least productive ewes so that the farm could easily support the better ones. Why didn’t we? We are optimists! In 2023, I plan to adjust more quickly to the weather patterns.

Watch body condition on the livestock, especially going into winter, before giving birth, and before breeding. Research has shown that animals kept in moderate body condition have a stronger immune system, get through the winter with less feed and in better shape, have more twins (for small ruminants), breed back more easily, and are better mothers. For beef cattle, body condition score (BCS) has been linked with profitability, as shown in the South Dakota State University article (link). See “Influence of Body Condition on Reproductive Performance of Beef Cows” from October 2020 SDSU Animal Science Department article (Walker, et al.) and pay special attention to Table 2. There, the connection between BCS, pregnancy rate, calving interval, calf gains, weaning weights, calf prices, and finally “$/Cow Exposed” are listed. A BCS of 6 more than doubled the income compared to a BCS of 3. In 2023, I plan to monitor body condition and improve the amount and quality of feed offered at the critical times to boost twinning and milk production, resulting in more productive ewes.

Manage the grazing to improve soil health and forage production. While we cannot make it rain, our management affects how much rain we keep on our farm and how much goes to a creek. Only the water we keep is growing our grass. The great news is that the management needed for soil health also is good for keeping plants healthy and growing, and it’s a continuously improving loop, as Lee and Nina discussed in their podcast. Check out NCAT’s Soil for Water program to learn more about increasing soil health on your farm, and please join the network and the conversation to share your knowledge and your questions. In 2022, our weak link was the aforementioned disrespect for the electric fence. Sheep are not the smartest grass managers; they like the forage short and sweet. Clipping forage too short exposes sheep to parasite larvae, hurts pasture regrowth, doesn’t allow enough energy in the diet thus causing weight loss, hurts soil health by exposing bare ground, leaves us vulnerable to weeds due to the bare ground, and can eventually kill out palatable plants, leaving only the tough, unpalatable ones. These are the cascading effects of grazing too short. Instead, I want to make the decisions about where they are grazing, moving them off before the grass is 4 inches tall and not letting them back until it is fully recovered. I want short grazing periods so that they have less chance of picking up internal parasites and less chance of grazing regrowth. By controlling the grazing, I can influence the total productivity of our farm—plants, soil, and livestock. By providing better nutrition, I can improve gains on lambs and productivity on the ewes, leading to better BCS. In 2023, I plan to work on our electric fence, testing it often and keeping it around 9,000 volts or higher. If I see a rogue animal in the wrong pasture, I will bring it in for retraining in a small lot with hot wire. Repeat offenders belong in our freezer or on a truck headed to a sale.

There is lots more I could decide to do to improve profitability; these ideas really deal with nutrition and caring for the pastures. Of course, recordkeeping, marketing, and planning are vital, and there are useful resources listed below to help with those aspects. Please listen to the podcast Episode 281 about improving profitability and then share your ideas and comments. We all learn best from other farmers, and I look forward to hearing from you. Post your questions and comments on the ATTRA Forum. Best wishes to you and your farm in 2023!


Walker, Julie, George Perry, Warren Rusche, and Olivia Amundson. 2020. Influence of Body Condition on Reproductive Performance of Beef Cows. South Dakota State University Extension.

Fernandez, David. Body Condition Scoring of Sheep. University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. FSA 9610.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Episode 281. Improving Profitability on Livestock Operations 

Episode 261. Summer Grazing for Winter Stockpile

Managed Grazing Tutorial

Demystifying Regenerative Grazing and Soil Health with Dr. Allen Williams

Small Ruminant Sustainability Checksheet

Beef Farm Sustainability Checksheet (EZ)

Other Resources:

Ranching for Profit 

Holistic Management International

Understanding Ag

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

By Mike Morris and 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.  

Photo: The Dixon Water Foundation

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 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. 



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.