By Luz Ballesteros Gonzalez

The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT) Soil for Water program and  Understanding Ag provided scholarships enabling seven beginning small-acreage livestock producers from four different states to attend the Soil Health Academy workshop in Uniontown, Alabama, May 17-19, 2022. Scholarships covered workshop costs, which included meals, on-site travel expenses, and materials such as notebooks and cooling cloths. The food provided was grown regeneratively at Bois d’Arc (BDA) Farms, highlighting the importance of local and the sense of community and environmental stewardship.

Soil for Water technical advisor and soil health movement pioneer, Dr. Allen Williams, was one of the speakers at the school, along with two other nationally famous leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement: Gabe Brown and Doug Peterson. The hands-on workshop took place at Dr. Williams’ BDA Farm.

soil health academy partipants

Photo: NCAT

Attendees learned soil health basics and regenerative grazing techniques—more specifically, how to plan adaptive grazing with multiple species to build resilience and profit. Participants experienced intensive mob grazing and the moving of a one-million-pound herd. Additionally, they broke into teams to learn by observation about soils, forage diversity, plant identification, and herd impact. The core message of the training was that “Regenerative agriculture is not a set plan; it is an adaptive plan.” The Soil Health Academy teaches according to the ‘6-4-3’ rule: Six Principles of Soil Health, Four Ecosystem Processes, and Three Rules of Adaptive Stewardship.

A goal of NCAT’s Soil for Water program is to show that regenerative agriculture can be done at any scale, at low cost, and by anyone—beginners and experienced producers alike. To learn about other upcoming regenerative agriculture workshops, check out  NCAT’s event calendar .

Do you like to eat fresh food? Do you like variety in your diet? Most of us would probably answer ‘yes’ to both questions. Not surprisingly, livestock crave the same things we do. If that desire is not met, then we get less than optimal livestock performance. This can create health problems for the animals, increase costs, and reduce profitability. So how can we constantly provide fresh food for livestock and a diet that is diverse?
Justin Morris and Lee Rinehart

By Hernan Colmenero 

To understand something, we must be willing to observe it. Observe the movements, patterns, shapes, and textures of the thing. The distance, frequency, timing, and sizes, too. Determining soil health and water-retention capacity is no different and requires observation. Doug Garrison has been doing just that for 25 years in Malcolm, Nebraska. Using a “fresh grass and move” management technique, he has been comparing pasture forage production when compared to prescribed burning. The results are unquestionable.  

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Doug often visited his grandparents’ farm and grew to appreciate the animals and the outdoors. When he took over his current land in 1997, he tried a prescribed burning technique to reset the plant community and manage it. Much of the land was previously in old native prairie, trees, and a creek. Some of it was old farmland. After encountering health issues, he found grassfed beef to be a healthier alternative to conventionally raised beef. You can view some of that data here and here. Realizing that the whole ecosystem starts in the gut of the cow, he brought in 10 heifers and a bull to this land that had not felt animal impact for almost 100 years.  

DS Family Farms prairie

DS Family Farms prairie. Photo: Doug Garrison

From the start, Doug moved the cattle every day. He learned from Kit Pharo, Joel Salatin, Neil Dennis, and others about the concepts of mob and rotational grazing and has put those into action. Doug set up six main paddocks comprised of two-wire electric cross fencing, each containing one water tank. He then hangs poly wire off that cross fence to set up a less-permanent perimeter within each pasture. This creates a smaller paddock and allows Doug to contain the cattle on a small strip of land. After allowing the cattle to graze for one day, the poly wire is removed and installed further down the pasture, in essence doubling the strip of land. This process is repeated until one entire paddock is grazed without ever cutting off access to the paddock’s water tank. Then, the process is repeated in a different pasture. Doug will put up a poly wire fence to prevent cattle from overgrazing that first strip of land, which requires a different source of water, but cows don’t usually go back to the initial grazed area of that paddock. Doug tries to follow Holistic Management International’s principle to never let the animal take a second bite. Using this technique, 20% of the pasture will have more than one year to rest and recover. 

The benefit of this “fresh grass and move” technique is that it automatically gives the pasture long recovery periods. Planning is mostly removed from the equation. Doug used prescribed burning for 10 years before using grazing as a management tool and found differences in biomass production. He has averaged the monthly forage production at three points in the year (beginning of the growing season, summer, and end of the growing season) and found that grazing results in more biomass accumulation on average. There was 100 more pounds per acre at the beginning of the growing season, 200 more pounds per acre during the summer, and 300 more pounds per acre by the end of the year in his grazing operation, compared to when he would burn.  

Here it is again:  

10-year average total biomass under fire management only = 2,601 lbs. per acre
10-year average total biomass under cattle grazing = 2,899 lbs. per acre 

For the data junkies, more information can be found on DS Family Farms website, including information on a cool-season cover-crop trial that benefitted the grazing operation. Blessed with mild winters and 28 to 32 inches of rain a year, DS Family Farms enjoys year-round grazing, which has been enhanced with an annual cool-season grass for winter forage production. 

Doug emphasizes that portability and mobility of fencing is key to making his system work. Equally important to success is having a mentor. There are many innovative producers asking questions and providing feedback on the Soil for Water Forum, which is extremely useful, especially if you’re just starting. Additionally, “you have to have a passion and burning in your belly to really do this stuff,” says Doug. “You have to love the animals, and you have to love the outdoors.” The Soil for Water team could not agree more.  

Visit DS Family Farms for more information at the following links:

DS Family Farm website

DS Family Farm Facebook

DS Family Farm Instagram

Keep the conversation going at the Soil for Water Forum!

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.