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.

Soil for Water’s Regenerator’s Atlas of America is now live!

With producers and consumers in mind, we have developed a platform where regenerative farmers and ranchers across the country can create a profile for their operation to be placed on the Atlas. By planting a flag on the map, producers can let people know who they are and where they’re located, and how they are regenerating their soils to hold more water.

Users can explore these farm and ranch profiles by filtering for a variety of topics. For producers, it can increase your operation’s visibility, open new markets, and allow you to connect and learn from others in your field. For consumers, it can connect you with farms and ranches in your area that have local goods and services that benefit the community. 

If you are a producer, help us grow the Regenerator’s Atlas of America by planting your farm or ranch on the map today.

“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.

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, 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.