“Your soil health is going to keep you in business. If you take care of your soil, the land will give back to you.” Tina Weldon and her partner Orion are among a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

Join the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) on Thursday, February 17 for the world premiere of its film Soil for Water, with a panel discussion to follow.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is working to capture and hold more water in the soil by building a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to regenerate the land and strengthen their businesses. This voluntary, free network is now available to farmers, ranchers, and land managers in all 50 states.

REGISTER HERE

Don’t miss the world premiere of Soil for Water on February 17 at 11:00 a.m. MST/1 p.m. EST and join us for a panel discussion with the nationwide team working to support regenerators, and two Texas ranchers who are already seeing success.

Click here to register for this free, informative film screening and panel discussion.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is partnering with Holistic Management International (HMI) to bring its Armed to Farm training to the Southwest. Armed to Farm will take place March 28-April 1, 2022, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Participants will attend classroom sessions and travel to local farms for hands-on learning experiences.

Armed to Farm trainings include an engaging blend of farm tours, hands-on activities, and interactive classroom instruction. NCAT Sustainable Agriculture specialists will teach the training sessions. Staff from HMI, USDA agencies, and experienced crop and livestock producers will provide additional instruction.

This training is for military veterans in the Southwest, with preference given to those in New Mexico. The number of participants will be limited. Spouses or farm partners are welcome as well but must submit a separate application.

Click HERE to apply by February 11. NCAT will notify selected participants by February 18.

Sponsors

NCAT is organizing and hosting this Armed to Farm event in partnership with Holistic Management International. Funding is provided by USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.

Questions?

Please contact Margo Hale at margoh@ncat.org or 479-442-9824.

We highlight internationally renowned rancher, president of Pasticultores del Desierto, consultant for Understanding Ag group, and Soil for Water technical advisor, Alejandro Carrillo. In the early 2000s, at the request of his father, Alejandro took over his family’s ranch, Las Damas in Chihuahua, Mexico. At this time, he began researching regenerative agriculture methods in hopes of improving the revenue of the ranch, which had only been profiting approximately every four years. Luckily for him, there were people nearby who were already practicing regenerative agriculture, and who mentored Alejandro on his journey to revive the ecology of his ranch to grow more grass and revenue.

Sitting in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert, Las Damas receives an average yearly rainfall of ten inches. The Chihuahuan desert is the largest desert in North America and is considered the most diverse desert in the western hemisphere. Vast and diverse grasslands make this desert unique. However, it is also one of the most endangered regions in the world due to overgrazing, water depletion and diversion, urbanization, agricultural practices, resource extraction, invasive exotic species, and overcollection of native plants and animals. The good news is Alejandro, along with other ranchers and conservationists in his community, are doing what they can to regenerate and preserve this important ecosystem.

Alejandro used four simple tools over the last 15 years to regenerate the ecosystem on his ranch:  

  1. Added fencing to increase the number of pastures
  2. Moves the cattle daily between the pastures
  3. Increased and improve cattle drinking water infrastructure
  4. Allow 12-14 months of rest in each pasture between grazing periods

Las Damas has permanent cross-fencing consisting of a single high tensile strand, and movable polywire electric fencing throughout the ranch. What started as ten pastures across 25,000 grazable acres, has grown to 500 pastures, allowing cattle to graze each pasture once a year.

This allows for adequate rest before the next grazing to improve ideal forage. Depending on the density of vegetation in each pasture, cattle are moved once or twice a day to create short-duration, high-intensity grazing periods. Since drinking water for livestock is the greatest limiting factor on the ranch, Alejandro was very intentional about ensuring water distribution throughout. Round concrete water reservoirs capable of holding 40,000 gallons of water were placed at high elevations on the ranch. Then, smaller 2,500-gallon concrete water troughs were placed at lower elevations on the ranch. These smaller water troughs are gravity-fed from the large water reservoirs above and are shallower to allow cattle to drink. By investing $100 per hectare over 15 years on water and fencing infrastructure, Alejandro has made all the grazable lands on the ranch utilizable to livestock, improving his profitability by 350 percent.

Most ranches in the surrounding area of Las Damas stock one cow for every 125-150 acres. At Las Damas, Alejandro is stocking one cow for every 42 acres. Prior to transitioning to rotational grazing, the ranch averaged 200 head of cattle annually. It has since tripled to 600. By using the four tools, soil water infiltration rates on the ranch have improved from two inches of rain per hour to 18-20 inches per hour.

Besides a salt mineral, there are no supplements or vaccination protocols since all cattle are born and bred on the ranch; it is a closed herd. This removes many biosecurity issues involved when pathogens enter a herd from external sources. There is also evidence that grass-fed cows are more resilient to diseases due to the increased diversity of their gut microbiome, a critical element to health. Cow mortality rates dropped from 10% before the transition to now 1% annually.

Even though cows are being moved daily, the operating costs have decreased while profits have increased. Alejandro says the biggest benefit to the transition has been the improved communication among the three generations of the family ranch. Now, everyone gets excited about the projects and what they’re doing for the landscape. Everyone now has an opinion on how to continue to improve it.

“Going to the ranch and seeing what nature can offer brings joy and peace of mind. That has no price,” says Alejandro.  

While Alejandro recommends using the four tools of improved fencing, daily cattle movement, water infrastructure, and rest, he also recommends observing the land closely. There are no hard-and-fast rules for determining how long to graze a pasture, or when to reintroduce cattle again. There are so many variables at play that one cannot count on prescribed timelines or durations.

Finally, he recommends starting with the lowest-hanging fruit. He suggests starting with pastures that have healthier soil and higher grass density, then gradually moving on to improving less-fertile pastures. That will give the biggest and most immediate return on investment. It can also serve as the proof point needed to continue holistic management practices.

In the face of more ranches being abandoned and a younger generation that is less interested in pursuing agriculture, Alejandro has hope. He is here to win the battle of bridging environmental conservation, agricultural productivity, and economic prosperity. He believes we must be willing to lose sometimes, correct our ways, then try again. Throughout these trials, the goal of improving our ecosystem will remain the same.

For more information on Rancho Las Damas click here. For great resources on properly utilizing fencing, cattle movement, water infrastructure, land rest, and other regenerative tools, visit UnderstandingAg.com.

Learn more from Alejandro during NCAT’s second annual Soil Health Innovations Conference

Mark your calendars for NCAT’s second Soil Health Innovations Conference: Soil for Water, set for Tuesday and Wednesday, March 15 and 16, 2022. This will be a virtual conference offering plenty of networking opportunities with presenters and fellow attendees.

Join us to hear from presenters such as David Montgomery of the University of Washington and Dig2Grow, Alejandro Carillo of UnderstandingAg, and agroforestry expert Dr. Hannah Hemmelgarn.

Watch our conference website, SOILINNOVATIONS.NCAT.ORG, for a complete agenda and registration information.

We look forward to seeing you in March for this important event.

Adaptive grazing is a regenerative livestock production system that uses multiple paddocks, frequent moving of livestock with short grazing intervals, and long rest periods to provide full pasture plant recovery. It is a proven method of increasing the resiliency of pastures by building soil organic matter, increasing soil water infiltration, promoting water conservation, adding diversity, and decreasing surface runoff.

Dr. Allen Williams travels all over the world to teach about adaptive grazing. A former professor at Mississippi State University, he came to the realization that conventional methods of production were not working for many of the farmers he was trying to help. Farmers were having to use more and more inputs to get the same productivity and were having a difficult time staying profitable. This caused him to rethink his approach. He transformed his own ranch in Starkville, Mississippi, using adaptive grazing and, ultimately, he decided to leave academia to become a full-time rancher and consultant. He has been teaching other producers how to implement adaptive grazing on their land ever since.

In this video series, filmed at an in-person workshop at The Piney Woods School, Dr. Williams discusses and demonstrates the principles and benefits of adaptive grazing.

This video series was produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This video series also was supported a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as part of The Piney Woods School Sustainable Farming Outreach Project. The workshop was hosted in partnership with the Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Mississippi. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

As Chief Executive Director and Founder of the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, Lucille Contreras is committed to helping heal the generational trauma of native nations in Texas. The Texas Tribal Buffalo Project seeks to establish food sovereignty and reconnection to the buffalo by raising bison with good stewardship, offering quality bison meat that promotes the health and wellbeing of tribal members in Texas, providing Texans a chance to understand the buffalo, shared history and culture, and finally modeling regenerative agricultural practices.

The project prioritizes the three pillars of food, culture, and sustainability in everything it does.

Lucille says that since arriving at the ranch in early 2021, a wider variety of native grasses such as wintergrass and bluestem grasses are already beginning to make a comeback due to the bison’s grazing patterns. Lucille explains that on her property they gracefully chew the tops off the grass instead of yanking, they don’t overstress riparian areas, and their stomping and defecating are natural soil biological stimulators. Their large and sharp hooves serve to aerate the soil, create pockets that hold water when it rains, and help in planting seeds. Lucille has seen bison grazing help control the Mesquite tree population; a native but thorny and persistent shrub-like tree that beleaguers ranchers and dominates disturbed lands in the south and southwest. Lucille has observed bison feeding on tender mesquite leaves which, she suspects, may be causing her Mesquite trees to become stunted, and in some cases, die back completely.  

With a changing climate and more frequent droughts, the agriculture industry needs a new way of producing the food, fiber, and materials used to live. The Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, Lucille says, demonstrates the regenerative potential of working with bison to restore soil health and increase biodiversity for a more resilient food system. The Texas Tribal Buffalo Project allows people to learn about the bison’s history, their impact on the American landscape, and the indigenous cultures that developed with them. It provides a space that allows tribal people to reconnect with the buffalo relatives physically and culturally.

Lucille believes the spiritual and cultural importance the buffalo hold in the Apache tribe’s consciousness cannot be overstated. Bison are at the center of this cultural and spiritual reconnection for the Lipan Apache. According to prophecy, the return of the buffalo to Texas symbolizes native people of Texas regaining their strength.

“In taking care of bison, bison will take care of us,” says Lucille.  

Currently the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project sells frozen meat for consumption, bleached skulls for ceremonies, and tanned hides for aesthetic purposes.   To learn more about the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, visit their website here. Learn more about raising bison in this free informational download published by NCAT’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program.   

The views expressed in this featured story do not necessarily represent the views of NCAT. 

New Mexico is among seven states where the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Soil for Water project is expanding this summer. The Albuquerque Journal spoke with one of project’s Texas participants, rancher Maggie Eubank, who said soil, plants and water are just as important as the livestock on the land they manage.

“In this area of Texas, we get, on average, a good amount of rainfall, but it happens maybe twice a year,” Eubank said. “Water retention is paramount for us. We need to be able to capture as much water as we can and, if it all comes at once, we need to slow it down.”

The ranch team has cleared invasive plants, used no-till planting and rotational grazing, restored riparian areas and monitored native grass growth. 

NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Kara Kroeger explained the peer-to-peer network is now enrolling commercial livestock producers in New Mexico, Colorado, California, Mississippi, Arkansas and Virginia.

“One benefit most ranchers see when they start changing their management is an increase of organic matter in the soil,” Kroeger said. “That helps create that sponge effect so the soil can hold more water.”

NCAT will work with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service and the New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group to help land managers adapt the regenerative practices to their own ranching and farming businesses.

For ranchers like Eubank, the soil projects are worth the effort.

“We have two young boys, and they’re able to see with their own eyes how the work pays off when we do it right,” she said. “Seeing how the landscape changes the longer we’re here is amazing. All it takes is a different way of thinking, and some hard work.”

Read the Albuquerque Journal’s full piece here.

Column by Steve Thompson, NCAT Executive Director 

The soil that covers 93 million acres of sprawling Texas rangeland holds a remarkable story. It’s a tale of opportunity and ruin. At its best, the soil beneath our feet is the source of life, food, and economic security. At its worst, that same soil can crumble ranchers’ livelihoods and put at risk our local food systems and entire communities.

Much of the western United States is in the throes of a megadrought. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that nearly 60 million people now live in parts of the West plagued by drought. Farmers and ranchers are making hard choices about which herds to cull or land to leave fallow. But in the midst of this megadrought, an expanding network of farmers and ranchers is quietly taking steps to catch and keep more water in the soil that nourishes our food.

First-generation farmers Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank manage 2,000 acres in Texas Hill Country. They’re raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks on rugged land between San Antonio and Austin. It’s beautiful, tough land that Maggie Eubank says has been beat up on for a century. They’re working to change that. They’re using above-ground livestock to take care of the microscopic livestock living underground, which grows more grass and keeps more water in the soil. The Eubanks are turning overworked dirt into healthy soil.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Soil for Water Project is connecting the Eubanks with monitoring tools and a network of other ranchers who are doing what they can to use animals to keep more water in the ground. The USDA estimates that each 1 percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre – or more than an average swimming pool. When livestock are appropriately managed, those animals help build heathy soil that holds more water.

Regenerating farm and ranchland across the United States will have significant and lasting economic, environmental, and social benefits: Allowing vast swaths of the country to withstand drought conditions and bounce back faster after natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and decades of dryness. We know that regenerative agriculture can increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it can improve soil health and biodiversity.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is expanding beyond Texas this summer into Arkansas, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Mississippi, Montana and Virginia, supporting a nationwide movement of agricultural producers who are leaving the land better than they found it.

For the Eubanks in Texas, they got into ranching in-part because of its powerful mystique, an undeniable connection to the land they grew up on, and their desire to prove that large-scale regeneration can not only repair a century of misuse, but also provide for a profitable business.

Their grass-fed meat is sold at the local farmers market, and they’re selling subscription-style to consumers across Texas. At the same time, the ranch they manage is now sprouting native grasses and water seeps are opening in places that were once bone dry. It’s incremental progress that will take time to fully realize, but the Soil for Water project is ready to be a key player in regenerating and making more resilient farms and ranches across America.