By Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist

Have you ever wondered how to make a digital map that can show the existing and planned infrastructure for virtually any piece of land in the world? Have you wondered how you can measure the area of a particular field or the length of a proposed fence or pipeline? Have you wondered what the elevation is at different locations? The answers to all these questions lie in getting familiar with the free tool Google Earth Pro.

Google Earth, a computer program that’s been around since 2001, is a great tool for visualizing a landscape. There are three versions of Google Earth currently available, depending on the type of device being used and the features that are needed. There are two versions of Google Earth—one is web-based and the other is for mobile devices. These two versions are not designed for creating maps that require infrastructure to be added to them. The third version, Google Earth Pro, is the full-feature version that is best for creating maps. The Pro version only works on desktops or laptops running Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems. A high-speed internet connection is also very helpful to minimize the refresh time for aerial imagery.

Steve Gabriel with Wellspring Forest Farm in central New York released a four-part video series on YouTube that does a fantastic job showing how to create a map of a farming/ranching operation using Google Earth Pro. Following are links to each of the four videos, along with their respective run times.

Program Installation and Basic Navigation (12 mins, 35 sec)

Drawing Infrastructure, Measuring Distances and Areas (14 min 54 sec)

Making Contour Maps and Importing Soil Survey Information (18 min 22 sec)

More Applications for Farming and Ranching (13 min 39 sec)

Related NCAT Resources:

Using Web Soil Survey to Learn Your Land’s Potential


By Elise Haschke, Climate and Agriculture Program Manager, and Darron Gaus, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

It’s early Fall on New Leaf Agriculture, a USDA-certified organic, diversified, specialty crop farm in Central Texas. New Leaf grows vegetables, fruits, fiber, and natural dye plants, along with raising pastured eggs. We’re walking the farm alongside its director, Matt Simon, and identifying all opportunities for carbon capture and storage on the farm. This journey is part of the creative Carbon Farm Planning process, which maps every square foot of a farm property and paints the picture of an abundantly fertile working landscape through the adoption of conservation practices that maintain living roots, integrate agroforestry systems, minimally disturb the soil, utilize alternative soil amendments, and incorporate species diversity.

Carbon Farm Planning is a comprehensive conservation planning framework that centers carbon as the organizing principle on working lands. Developed by Carbon Cycle Institute in 2014, Carbon Farm Planning recognizes that solar energy is the main driver of agroecosystem dynamics and that carbon is the carrier of that energy. In partnership with Carbon Cycle Institute, NCAT is expanding this planning framework into Texas with funding from Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) and The Meadows Foundation.

A Carbon Farm Plan begins with the farm goals, historical and current land use, and a full site assessment of soils, hydrology, climate conditions, wildlife, and resource concerns. The Planner and producer then work together to identify all opportunities for enhanced carbon capture and storage with concurrent co-benefits, including greater adaptation to extreme weather, improved water-holding capacity, biodiversity, and productivity. NRCS conservation practices are then selected and the greenhouse gas benefits of selected practices are quantified using the COMET tool. The final Carbon Farm Plan report includes a table of recommended practices and implementation guidelines.

Each farm’s Plan is an adaptive tool intended to support producer decision-making over time. It is a living, malleable document with neither rigid timelines nor contractual agreements. The canvas is soon full of new ideas and practices that the farmer and Planner agree are best for farm goals and carbon sequestration capabilities. It is now time to look at how these brush strokes come to life at the farm.

Back on New Leaf, we observe two fields in particular that have been struggling to produce annual crops. What’s happening in these fields to compromise soil health and productivity? We bent down and scooped small handfuls of moist Wilson clay loam in our hands. Preliminary soil tests had revealed slightly basic, calciferous soil with low levels of potassium. The immediate recommendation was to apply potassium sulfate, K-Mag, and Azomite to begin decalcifying the soil and lowering the pH. This process can take up to six months. Meanwhile, NCAT’s Darron Gaus recommended a longer-term regenerative strategy to re-balance the soil microbiome. The four-step succession begins with broadcasting cover crop seeds to establish living roots and aerate the soil with large root system species. Two months later, the cover crop stand is to be mowed low, but kept alive, and grazed by the farm’s 150 chickens in order to avoid disruptive tillage and to work natural fertilizer into the soil. Grazing is followed by another low mowing and a 6-inch application of compost. Then transplants or large seeded direct seeding of annual cash crops goes directly into the compost.

Matt recently summarized the process to an interested audience as working with a team of carbon farming technical assistance providers to help the farm get “real” about practice goals, offer accountability, and align practices with NRCS standards while distinguishing the farm with specifics that intrigue customers and provide values-added integrity.

Additional recommendations for New Leaf include planting windbreaks in the direction of the prevailing northerly winter winds and southeasterly summer winds, establishing pollinator hedgerows and multi-story cropping orchard fields, prescribed grazing throughout the farm, and planting conservation cover and herbaceous wind barriers along the berms and swales. Down the road, biannual soil samples will be collected per NCAT’s Soil for Water soil sampling protocol and sent off to Regen Ag Labs to monitor and track soil health indicators over time.

Now the painting starts taking on real-life animation. Matt and the New Leaf team, including refugees through the Multicultural Refugee Coalition who have been given “the potential to thrive in their new communities through dignified, fair-wage work,” all begin work on implementation of the Carbon Farm Plan practices. New Leaf’s already rich, diversified farm begins to take a new, breathtaking approach toward carbon sequestration. A beautiful food forest has begun to take shape in Central Texas, thanks to CCI and the Carbon Farm Planning process. New Leaf has already enhanced the new thought process with fresh ideas, all while growing fresh produce and sustainable products that will provide unmeasurable benefits to the surrounding communities.

To learn more about Carbon Farm Planning, register for our annual conference, Growing Hope: Practical Tools for Our Changing Climate. This free, virtual convening will feature Carbon Cycle Institute and producers with a Carbon Farm Plan on Tuesday, February 28. If you would like to reach out to us about potential Carbon Farm Planning at your farm, ranch, or land stewardship project, email If you would like to discuss carbon in your operation with other like-minded peers, post your question or comments to the ATTRA forum.

Related ATTRA Resources

Episode 284. Carbon Farm Planning 

ATTRA Annual 2023 Conference, Growing Hope: Practical Tools for Our Changing Climate

Other Resources

New Leaf Agriculture

Multicultural Refugee Coalition

Carbon Cycle Institute

Southern SARE

The Meadows Foundation


By Lee Rinehart

In the summer of 2004, I was a cooperative Extension agent in southwest Montana. A county agent’s job description is as big as the Montana sky… almost infinite. Sometimes organizing educational events or visiting remote ranches to take forage samples. 4H club meetings and weighing steers at the county fair. Walking barley and alfalfa fields scouting for noxious weeds or setting up grazing trials and tallying leafy spurge plants on the uplands. But walking the semi-arid rangelands with a small group of ranchers that summer taught me one of the most important lessons I would learn as a grazingland educator: we as grassland stewards need to look down more. We need to calibrate our eyes to the plant community on the land as opposed to scanning the pasture and guessing what is there.

Why? Well, knowing what plants (and how many) are growing in the pasture is crucial for making informed management decisions. To determine a stocking rate, we need to know how much dry matter is available for grazing and how much to set aside to keep the pasture healthy. This is actually a really fun exercise, and you can read more about how to do it in ATTRA’s Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing. But in addition to matching forage supply to animal demand, I believe it is equally crucial for us to have a good sense of the plant community that is out there, to have baseline data of the population and track it over time. With this information in hand, we can determine the effects of our grazing practices. With a few easily acquired and inexpensive tools, and just a few hours per year, we can gather data that will empirically show us whether we are making positive or negative impacts on the land.

In my work in pasture monitoring, I have found that the most important qualities to measure are canopy cover, frequency of plants, and plant composition. There are many other attributes to look at and you can go as deep as you want, but these work for me. Canopy cover is an expression of the percentage of the ground surface that is covered by plants. Frequency is a measure of the abundance and the distribution of the plant species present. And plant composition is a calculated measurement that reflects the proportion of plant species in relation to the total sampling area. These characteristics answer the question “what plants, and how many, do I have in my pasture?” It’s easy to see where this information would be useful. As land managers, we can use them to track landscape changes over time and to see if we are increasing or decreasing in plant community diversity over time given our grazing practices.

For pasture plant community monitoring, I have two favorites. One easy, and one just a little less easy but providing more accurate data. I will start with the less easy method.

The Daubenmire Method involves using a 20- by 50-centimeter quadrat frame placed along a measuring tape at permanent transects. The tape (100- or 200-foot) is stretched along a selected bearing in the pasture. Drive steel pins into the ground surface at the zero point on the tape and at the end of the transect to mark the permanent location. A T-post can be used to mark the permanent location and make it easy to find in subsequent years.

Now comes the fun part! Place a 20 x 50-centimeter quadrat frame along the tape at specified intervals, which may be every 10 feet, 20 feet, or whatever you choose. Then you can estimate the canopy coverage of each plant species within each quadrat along the transect and record the data on the Daubenmire form. From there, you can easily calculate the percent canopy cover by species, the percent frequency for each plant species, and the species composition. Voilà! You now have a baseline of information, and you can come back each year to track plant community changes.

Daubenmire form

Daubenmire form. Source: BLM

I learned the Daubenmire method on Montana rangelands and it really gave me a new perspective on the landscape. As I alluded to earlier, having data on pasture plant composition has really calibrated my eye… and when I would subsequently gaze out over a landscape, I had a better idea of what, and how much, was really growing there. So, if you’re interested, I have placed a great resource from the BLM in the below that provides detailed information on how to construct a quadrat, how to lay out a transect, and how to count plants and make the calculations. Go for it!

Now, the easy (or easier) method. The Step-Point Method is a simple procedure for counting individual plants and the best part is that it can be done just by having a casual walk across the pasture. It can be done several ways, but most references suggest placing a mark on the tip of your boot (maybe a notch or a mark with a black Sharpie). I like to use a walking stick, or a pasture rule with a nail taped at the end with electrical tape. As you walk the field, every five or 10 paces you look at the boot-mark (or walking stick nail) and identify what it is touching. This could be a single grass plant of a particular species, a forb, bare ground, a rock, whatever is important for you to monitor. Each observation is called a “hit,” and you record this on the Step-Point form. Once you have taken 50 to 100 hits, you simply tally the hits for each individual species or plant types you recorded, and then calculate percent composition. For a fun variation on this, take along yard darts and randomly throw them out along your transect and record just as you would the Step-Point method.

We have put together a video where you can follow along as I perform the Step-Point Method. Watch it here.

Related NCAT Resources:

Test Driving the New LandPKS Land Monitoring App

Rangeland App: Modern Tool for Graziers

Other Resources:

Sampling Vegetation Attributes

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. 

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.