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

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

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

catastrophic event effect on pasture health 

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

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

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

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

Related ATTRA Resources: 

Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing 

Pastures: Sustainable Management 

Why Intensive Grazing on Irrigated Pastures? 

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

By Nina Prater, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

The terms regenerative grazing and soil health have started to seem almost ubiquitous in the world of agriculture. This is heartening for me as a soil specialist with NCAT, where I consider it part of my job to help producers understand and take care of their soils, as it is key to their long-term success as farmers and ranchers.

Photo: Nina Prater, NCAT

As a farmer, the evolution of language around grazing has been interesting to watch over the past 15 years. I first moved to Arkansas and became part of a livestock farming family in 2007, and I’d never heard of regenerative grazing. My husband and I, the third generation of the farm family, did a lot of reading when we returned to the farm and learned about continuous vs. rotational grazing, management-intensive grazing, mob grazing… on and on. We were awash with terms from different schools of thought about grazing management. Instead of getting hung up on the language, though, we just tried to implement a grazing management practice that improved pasture and soil health. When I finally did hear the term regenerative several years ago, it resonated immediately as what we were trying to do. To me, regenerative means restoring health to the whole farm system. I find it to be such an empowering term because it carries with it the implication that soil health can be restored. You’re not just stuck with what you’ve got right now. You can improve the health of your soil through a variety of practices, and in doing so, increase the productivity and profitability of your farm. Isn’t that exciting?!

Thanks to funding from a Southern SARE grant, I have been working to demystify the terms regenerative grazing and soil health for a variety of folks in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas (and via virtual platforms for people in other places). I think if farmers, ranchers, extension staff, NRCS staff, and other agriculture professionals understand these terms and how to work towards those goals we could see improvement to our agricultural landscapes across the country.

On the ATTRA website, we recently shared two resources that are a part of this project. The first is a recorded virtual workshop that covers soil health, regenerative grazing, and farmer support. It includes presentations by two Arkansas graziers, Jeremy Prater and Rick Crunkleton, who are regenerating their land through their grazing management practices. The second resource is a regenerative grazing presentation, by NCAT’s Regenerative Grazing Specialist Justin Morris, as a stand-alone for folks who want to learn more about that concept specifically.

And in case you missed it, last year we hosted a virtual workshop with Dr. Allen Williams of Understanding Ag, LLC on this topic as well. He is an excellent teacher and explores these topics in great depth, and this workshop would complement the two listed above very well.

I hope you will check these recordings out and start your journey on the path of soil health and regenerative agriculture. And please share with anyone you think would benefit from learning more about these topics!

Related ATTRA Resources:

Livestock and Pasture

Regenerative Grazing 

Soils and Compost 

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. This blog was also made possible in part by funding from the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SSARE) Professional Development Program. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

By: Hernan Colmenero 

Researchers at Northern Arizona University found evidence that soils use different biochemical pathways to process nutrients, respire, and grow, depending on the type of soil and perhaps other factors. Using the 13C metabolic flux analysis technique, the researchers were able to tag individual carbon atoms in a glucose molecule in much the same way wildlife is caught and tagged to be identified later. They then added the labeled glucose molecule to a marsh soil, an alpine conifer forest soil, and a cool desert grassland soil and found stunning results. Carbon dioxide was produced from different carbon atoms depending on the soil type. This suggests that the soil microbial community is using a different biochemical route to process sugar.  

Standard ecology assumes that soil metabolism is a homogenous process, where only the rate of metabolism changes (think hot and humid versus cold and dry). While nobody yet knows why metabolic pathways differ or change, the researchers hypothesize that some pathways may provide protection against oxygen stress.  

This means that moving forward, it will be harder to generalize land management results from one soil type to another. “We need to focus on microbial metabolism in soils, and we need more diverse and more powerful tools to do so, no matter how difficult such study might be,” says co-author Michaela Dippold. Only in this way will we be truly able to harness the power of soil biology for regeneration and sustainable health.  

For more information, check out these two articles discussing the results of their paper. Let us know what you think on the Soil for Water Forum.

Soil microbes use different pathways to metabolize carbon, EurekaAlert!

Assumptions of a long-term goal on soil microbe carbon use have been lifted, List23

NCAT’s headquarters in Butte, Montana, has a complicated growing climate to say the least. That makes John Wallace’s job as farm manager of NCAT’s Small-Scale Intensive Farm Training program – or SIFT – challenging as well. In this episode of Voices from the Field, John talks with NCAT Energy Analyst Victorian Smart about the SIFT farm’s strategies for conserving water. Since the farm is located in what is essentially a high mountain desert and relies on city water, those strategies are essential, as is increasing organic matter in its decomposed-granite soil. Voices from the Field Episode 253 

By Hernan Colmenero

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is meeting for its 15th session in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, from May 9 to May 20, 2022, where delegates from Africa, Asia, Latin America the Caribbean, Northern Mediterranean, and Central and Eastern Europe countries will meet. They will negotiate topics of drought, gender in land use and land tenure, sand and dust storms, civil society participation and collaboration with the private sector, among other things.

This year’s theme is “Land, Life, Legacy” and aims to regenerate land across the world for future generations. These international movements help propel ideas about sustainable land use and the rights and responsibilities of a global population, to transform the industries society relies upon for sustenance. If you’re interested in learning more about the work they’re promoting on the ground and in their country’s federal policies, check out their website.

To learn how Soil for Water advisor Alejandro Carrillo, a previous UNCCD speaker, has reversed desertification, regenerated his farm in Mexico, and the effects it has had on his family, the environment, and his pocketbook, read his story here.

Tune in to what others are saying and join the conversation at forum.soilforwater.org.

By: Hernan Colmenero, Sustainable Food Consultant 

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification has released its Drought Toolbox, which contains an abundance of useful information for producers living through a drought. The toolbox includes three modules: Monitoring and Early Warning (great if drought effects haven’t really been felt yet); Vulnerability and Risk Assessment (essential to prepare for against the next drought); and Risk Mitigation Measures (crucial for protecting ourselves now and in the future). It even includes an amazing decision tree for producers or policy makers that helps identify specific actions one can take with high/low drought risk, local/national scales, time of expected return on investment (ROI), by climate type, and by economic sector (livestock, forestry, transit, etc.) One can even get help on specific actions to take by soil type. These resources have been made available because the world at large is recognizing that without soil, humanity cannot survive. We must do everything in our power to catch and hold more water in our soil, regenerate our land, and prepare for a water-scarce future.  

You can read or download the Drought Toolbox here. Don’t forget to let the Soil for Water team know how we can best support you in your efforts to try new regenerative practices on your farm. If you’re a Soil for Water Network member, you can get free professional support from a team member by reaching out at the Soil for Water forum. 

By Hernán Colmenero, Sustainable Food Consultant

Have you ever thought, “how much water am I saving by starting a rotational grazing plan?” “Can cover cropping increase water retention in my soil, by exactly how much, and is it worthwhile?”

These and other questions seeking to quantify the amount of water that can be saved are what the latest peer-reviewed report from the Soil Health Institute aims to answer.

This report introduces a new method to quantify the impacts of soil organic carbon changes on water storage capacity. Previous methods showed varying levels of impact, but this new equation helps researchers and producers accurately and easily measure how much water is being saved.

This aids in quantifying the benefits of various soil management practices that increase soil organic carbon, helps calculate how much money is being saved, and models the effect of management changes on drought resilience.

Read an article summarizing it here on CSRWire. Read the full report here on the Soil Science Society of America Journal. And let us know what you think at forum.soilforwater.org.

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

Did you know that the most important livestock on your farm are the ones you never purchased and, in most cases, have rarely, if ever, seen? These livestock, along with plant roots, play an essential role in improving soil health, which is the foundation of any agricultural operation. But what is soil health and how does one go about improving it? The NCAT four-part webinar series Advanced Grazing for Regenerating Soils and Enhancing Animal Nutrition begins by addressing this question. 

Soil health is defined as the continued capacity for soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that enhances the well-being of plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soil should be full of life, from earthworms and dung beetles on the large scale down to bacteria and fungi on the smallest scale. Our very existence is dependent on life that can only be seen, in most cases, under a microscope. Yet it’s these microscopic life forms that create stable soil aggregates that provide a host of benefits ranging from improving water infiltration to improving plant-available water and even improving gas exchange. Well-aggregated soils allow our landscapes to be more resilient to the environmental extremes of severe droughts and floods that are becoming increasingly prevalent and severe.  

So how do we get well-aggregated soils that can make our grazing operations more resilient going into the future? We focus on five soil health principles through our grazing management: 

  1. Optimize disturbance – lack of disturbance is harmful to the soil ecosystem when plants aren’t grazed periodically, and too much disturbance through overgrazing is also harmful as soil life goes on a starvation diet. 
  2. Optimize biodiversity – different plants are associated with different beneficial soil microorganisms that help facilitate soil aggregation in a variety of ways. 
  3. Optimize soil cover – too little cover exposes the soil to extreme weather conditions and too much cover slows down and halts nutrient cycling. 
  4. Grow living roots throughout the year – the longer the time roots grow, the longer soil life is fed that helps to create and maintain more stable soil aggregates. 
  5. Integrate livestock on cropland where possible – livestock grazing a diverse blend of annual forage plants in addition to growing cash crops can improve the feeding of soil aggregate-building microorganisms in addition to growing cash crops. 

In session 1 of the webinar series, we begin to break these concepts down and discuss diversity and disturbance as linchpins that hold a resilient ecosystem together. In resilient pastures, everything is in flux and managers can imitate the natural successional processes through optimized disturbance to move the pasture system toward a natural polyculture and increased biodiversity. 

These principles are followed by a discussion on how physical and chemical processes form stable soil macroaggregates only in association with soil life. Without this collaboration, plants cannot promote the conversion of sunlight energy into carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and medicinal compounds that livestock, and eventually humans, need to thrive.  

We wrap up the session by tying in grazing management principles that enhance and improve pasture resilience and livestock productivity. We detail various ways land managers have provided optimal disturbance that fosters biodiversity and resiliency by the fluctuation of grazing duration and frequency (see figure below).  

Session 1 of the webinar can be viewed here. The remaining three sessions of this series will be held on May 12, May 26, and June at 5 pm Central time. Register here.

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 Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist

Did you know you can do a soil health assessment on your own pasture without having to send in soil samples to a laboratory? And this assessment costs only your time because it requires no special tools. Using the senses of sight, smell, and touch, along with very simple hand tools — a shovel and a knife — you can determine the health of the soil in your pasture in less than 30 minutes.

The goals of the pasture soil health assessment are to:

  • Become more familiar with the soil that supports the plants that feed your livestock
  • Determine the current state of soil health at the time of the assessment when compared to a nearby area of high soil health
  • Determine whether soil health is improving or worsening based on at least two assessments conducted in the same spot at two different time periods
  • Gain insight on whether past and/or current grazing management efforts are making a positive or negative change to soil health

I created a video to demonstrate how to conduct a soil heath assessment, where you’ll learn:

  • Where to conduct a soil health assessment
  • How to conduct a soil health assessment beginning with the condition of the soil surface
  • Indicators of good or poor soil health
  • How grazing management affects soil health

Click the play button below to watch the YouTube video on how to do the assessment. Have questions? Feel free to contact me at justinm@ncat.org or 406-494-8664.

Related ATTRA Resources: 

Soils & Compost

Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production 

Soil Health 101: Cover Crops and Water Infiltration  

Soil Health 101: Grazing and Soil Health with Jody Reye

Other Resources: 

Soil for Water

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 a new video series: Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Nina Prater makes the case for modeling soil health strategies after nature’s blueprint that produced that situation in the first place.

We all know the basic story. Plants photosynthesize sunlight and make sugars. They use the sugars to build leaves and stems and roots and seeds – pretty much everything that makes a plant a plant.

But at the same time, they share the wealth by exuding sugars from the roots to feed a “community” of soil microbes and fungi that in turn help keep the soil healthy for the plant.

A classic win-win situation.

“This layer of productive soil on top of the bedrock that we all have to work with is this vibrant living thing that has a community of life within it,” Nina says. “You have to treat it like a living thing because it is.”

And just like any living thing, there are practices that can keep it healthy and practices that can cause it harm.

Nina and other NCAT staffers produced a three-part webinar series – Soil Health 101 – through the ATTRA sustainable agriculture program, along with support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (Southern SARE).

You can watch the webinars here:

The series has a particular focus on the role livestock can play in soil health, but its strategies for keeping soil healthy is good information for any producer.

Those strategies are often described as the principles of soil health. Nina breaks it down to five.

  • Minimize disturbance to the soil
  • Maximize biodiversity on the land
  • Keep the soil covered at all times
  • Keep living roots growing in the soil during as much of the year as possible
  • Incorporate animals and use regenerative grazing practices

Nature provides models for how to put those principles of soil health into place, Nina says, and the webinar is full of practical examples of just that.

“To build soil health on our farm, we have to look to nature to figure out how to do that. Nature built all of these soils in the first place,” she explains. “The planet wasn’t created with all these, you know, lush terrains and prairie and everything. All that evolved over time. And it evolved with these ecosystem that built soil.”

To learn even more about the importance of soil health, and to connect with farmers, ranchers, and land managers taking steps to regenerate their soils, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.