Tag Archive for: Grazing

By Mike Morris & 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.  

source: dixonwater.org

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 Luz Ballesteros and Felicia Bell

Soil for Water network member High Hope Farm is located in the “black prairie” country of western Clay County, Mississippi, and is owned and operated by Johnny and Deb Wray. Soil for Water Mississippi team leader Felicia Bell recently sat down with Mr. Wray to record an interview, discussing his regenerative journey and the improvements he’s seen in his farm’s soils. 

 In 2008, the Wrays decided to commit full-time to farming and moved permanently to the farm, after being inspired by Wendell Berry’s sustainable agriculture and local food systems philosophy. On their 38-acre farm, they raise regenerative grass-fed beef and lamb with two goals — providing safe, healthy beef and lamb to local consumers and sharing their regenerative agriculture journey with younger generations, hoping someone will follow in their footsteps. They use no steroids, growth hormones, antibiotics, or other chemical products. Their “high hope” is “to have a place that offers hospitality to friends and strangers alike — a welcoming table of good, healthy natural food, and a spot where earth, animals, plants, and people live, work, and play together harmoniously.” 

When the Wrays first began, they tested their soil and found it was deficient in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) minerals. Going against conventional wisdom, they decided not to depend on chemical inputs to correct these problems but instead chose to follow intensive rotational adaptive grazing to improve their mineral cycle. These decisions have paid off with dramatic improvements in their soil health. After 14 years of regenerative-adaptive management, Johnny was happy to share that current soil tests show significant improvements in organic matter at almost 6% and no NPK deficiencies.  

Additionally, research on the farm by Mississippi State University showed that roots were deeper, soil microbiology was increasing, and some native grasses were returning, so much so that Johnny developed a new problem — growing too much grass. However, after consulting with Dr. Allen Williams, Johnny decided to let the paddocks he couldn’t manage rest because in the end tall grasses have deep roots that play a significant role in water infiltration and soil health. 

This increased soil health has made High Hope Farm more resilient to unpredictable weather changes. Johnny mentioned that he realized he is a “dirt farmer” because “as you improve your soil, you improve your grasses, and you improve your livestock.” He has noticed a decrease in water runoff and soil erosion. Keeping the ground covered year-round also keeps the soil’s temperature noticeably cooler during hot Mississippi summers. These are all indications of a healthy soil sponge that captures, holds, and uses water more efficiently. Johnny says that observing these improvements as a direct result of his management is “very encouraging,” and has made his operation profitable. 

Johnny mentioned great resources that helped him in his journey, including Understanding Ag, ATTRA, Soil Health Academy, USDA-NRCS, Mississippi State University, and regenerative movement pioneers like Dr. Allen Williams. He also emphasized the importance of being part of local producer networks to learn from others. These experiences have shown him firsthand how diversity and ecosystem dynamics are a fundamental part of regenerative farming.  

For more information about High Hope Farm, visit their website and listen to Felicia Bell’s full interview with Johnny Wray here: Episode 275. How ’Dirt Farming’ is the Foundation of a Mississippi Grazing Operation 

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 Lee Rinehart, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist 

“If you always leave grass behind, you never run out of grass.”

I was going to save this quote for the end of this article; when I heard it during our conversation, I knew it would nicely summarize Guille (Gil) Yearwood’s philosophy. Now, I think it’s better to start with this quote. It’s an observation he had, “one of those moments,” in his words, back in the 1980s when he began his transition from continuous grazing to a rotational system. “I’ll never forget that day years ago when I went back to a grazed paddock a week later and saw regrowth.” It was something he’d never seen before. “When you graze a pasture continuously, you have no idea how much grass you have because its continually disappearing.” After Guille switched to rotational grazing, his paddocks would look like a hayfield four weeks after grazing. This, in his words, “is totally different and totally better.”

Guille Yearwood has been ranching forever. He started during his teenage years—1975 to be exact—and has been raising cattle ever since. When he started, he had other businesses going as well as the cattle work—25 years in real estate for one—but Ellett Valley Beef Company has been his full-time job since 2008.

Ellett Valley Beef Company encompasses seven locations around Blacksburg, Virginia, mostly on leased property, on which he grazes seven groups of South Poll beef cattle—a total herd of around 350 animals. Back when he first got the rotational grazing bug, by paying attention to Virginia Tech’s rotational grazing research, Guille divided his pastures into eight or 10 paddocks and began grazing stockers through the rotation. This is when he had his “aha” moment. He saw his forage yield increase immediately, and though the gains per head were not what he was used to, he noticed a higher herd weight gain because he could easily increase his stocking rate. Guille realized this new system could be taken up a notch, and now has 80 paddocks spread across all his pastures.

Cows grazing fescue – Oct. 2021

Guille would travel up to 90 miles a day checking and moving cattle before he reduced the number of leases a few years ago from 13 locations. Now, they’re all closer to home, significantly reducing the time to check and move cattle. Now, he and a part-time hired hand can check and move cattle more efficiently. He relies on grass alone and follows adaptive management techniques with frequent moves, mostly daily, and recovery periods of seventy to ninety days to allow for full plant recovery before the next time cattle see the paddock. Guille considers his system to be truly regenerative. In fact, he started regenerative grazing long before term came about, and he’s glad it did “because it’s a good term.” It accurately describes his way of doing business. His regenerative practices include highly diverse pastures, grazing for animal impact and nutrient cycling, and long recovery periods for plant rest and accumulation of high amounts of organic matter to the soil.

Ranch Profitability  

“To be profitable, I need to graze all year, if possible,” Guille noted. His goal is to produce excellent grassfed beef and be profitable, and to accomplish that, his focus is on grazing as many cattle as he can through the winter. Some time back he began thinking about return on investment and started looking at the farm this way, realizing he needed to run this like his other businesses. He did an economic analysis and a budget and figured out that he couldn’t afford fertilizer or hay equipment. “I saw that [buying fertilizer and making hay] would not make a profit, so I got rid of them.” Instead, Guille buys hay to cover the 40-65 days during the year when he needs it. For the remainder of the year, the cattle graze fresh and stockpiled pasture. In fact, the interest he received from selling his hay equipment covered his hays costs, and he’s never looked back.

Guille’s pastures have been fertilizer-free since 2000. Prior to transitioning off of fertilizer, he had broadcast clover for several years, as he was particularly concerned about nitrogen fertility. But the second year after stopping nitrogen applications, he fertilized a fescue pasture in August, a common practice for preparing fescue for winter stockpile. However, after comparing days of grazing data between this and the prior year when no fertilizer was used, he realized he lost money with the fertilizer application. The days of grazing were the same for both years. This was the end of Guille’s use of purchased fertilizer. The diversity of his pastures, which included legumes and grasses, coupled with his adaptive management, provided the nutrient cycling and carbon sources he needed to be sustainable without it. All the while, he was ratcheting up his grazing techniques, trampling residue, and feeding hay on land that needed the nutrients. It seems that when he decided to go fertilizer-free, he had already been taking care of the soil for years, so he was ready.

Educational Philosophy

Guille’s college work includes an English degree from Virginia Tech and a master’s in English from Rice University. It is easy to tell from reading the blog entries on his website that his liberal arts education sharpened his critical thinking skills and gave him a foundation well suited for the complexities of agriculture. Since then, he has been inspired by Joel Salatin, especially his book Salad Bar Beef, which he says had a big impact on his philosophy. Other luminaries that inspired him include Andre Voisin, the “first true scientist that addressed rotational grazing,” Newman Turner, Jim Gerrish, and Allen Williams, who “has it figured out and is backed up with real science.” He learned about brix levels in forages from Williams, and though skeptical at first, he has seen a tremendous difference by moving cattle to new paddocks in the afternoon when brix levels are highest. Guille has learned so much and, with a natural drive and desire to help beginning and transitioning farmers, has much to share from his experience.

“The big challenges a new farmer needs to overcome are the tactile, physical problems. These are harder for people to pick up than we realize. For instance, a polywire reel is a foreign object to a beginner, but for me, it is an ordinary tool like a screwdriver.” Guille helps beginners by simply taking them out and involving them in moving cattle, checking cows, or moving polywire, and showing them how to shut off the power, tie polywire, or set posts. Newcomers are fascinated by the complexities of grazing tools and procedures, and he has come to understand how new this is to some people, so he trains people from this tactile perspective. Also, new farmers don’t know cattle and it’s a long learning process. His advice is to read all the books you can at night and during day go to the stockyard. Seriously, the stockyard. When a cow comes into the pen, evaluate her breed, condition, and weight, and especially listen to the people talking around you and pay attention to what they are observing.

“Some things we are just going to battle,” he said. For instance, weeds in fence lines are a major struggle for Guille. He has miles of electric fence and keeping them maintained is labor-intensive. He can spray a lot of fenceline in a short amount of time but would rather not use herbicides, and some lessors don’t want him to spray pesticides. “Weed eating would occupy me all summer, and then there’s the yellow jackets!” It’s an ongoing struggle, and he makes it clear he doesn’t have all the answers. “On this ranch you’ll see a lot of mistakes,” he said, but he has learned more in the past four years about grazing than in the 10 years preceding it. “Don’t panic… just try it” is the best advice he can give. “Don’t be afraid to set the field up and try it; if it doesn’t work, adjust and move on.”

Fine Tuning and Adaptation

Pasture with johnsongrass, fescue, clover, and stickweed (Verbesina occidentalis).

Guille doesn’t farm his land. Rather, he follows the truly regenerative practice of grazing what is available with one-day grazing periods and 70- to 90-day recovery periods. Plant communities change seasonally and yearly as different (adaptive) grazing practices are employed on the land. His pastures are diverse and include johnsongrass, which many graziers have tried to eliminate but he sees as complementary to his grazing system. Johnsongrass has usually been found in bottom land but now it’s moving on to upper lands, places he has never seen this hardy perennial grass before. It works out well in his grazing system because by the time he gets around to a paddock with johnsongrass, it’s fairly mature so it has no prussic acid problems. Also, there is enough diversity in the pastures and grazing them before the frost works well in his rotation.

Guille’s adaptive management hits a high note when it comes to finishing steers on grass. When trying to finish a group of steers (get ready, this is brilliant), he mimics continuous grazing (which, though hard on the pasture is good for optimizing individual animal gain) to allow the animals to exhibit more grazing selectivity. He keeps the rotation going at about the same grazing and recovery periods but gives the feeder steers bigger paddocks. “I’ve measured these results. On excellent pastures with medium-frame cattle, one group gained 4.2 pounds over six weeks and another group gained 4.6 pounds.” If a normal paddock size is a half-acre, he gives the finishers an acre and a half for the same period, giving them the ability to be more selective in their grazing.

Guille Yearwood currently serves as Farmer Advisor for the Virginia Soil for Water Project and is working with the Virginia Association for Biological Farming to plan a field day on his ranch in the spring of 2023, where participants can see up close the practices that he has been refining for the past 50 years. “This is the best job in the world,” Guille noted at the end of our last talk. His passion for the land and grass-based agriculture is palpable, as you’ll see if you make it to the spring field day. And, oh yes: Guille is an excellent writer, with a witty humor and deep love and knowledge of his subject, as you can see from the blogs posted on his website.

 

Related NCAT Resources

Soil for Water – Working to catch and hold more water in our soil

Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing – ATTRA (ncat.org)

 

Other Resources

EVBC Grassfed Beef (ellettvalleybeefco.com)

By Linda Poole, Regenerative Grazing Specialist

As most of the U.S. staggers through drought – and other areas are deluged by floods – the Soil for Water team scouts for practical solutions to water woes. And we found them in Dale Strickler’s book, “The Drought Resilient Farm.”

Dale Strickler knows drought. A sixth-generation Kansas farmer, he’s felt the despair of watching crops wither long before harvest, and he’s done the grim math to decide whether to sell his cows or buy over-priced feed when his pastures turned to dust. He’s seen more than a few farms fail and families fall apart in dry, hot, desperate times.

“The Dust Bowl isn’t just a sad chapter of America’s history. It’s happening again now, and it’s shaping up to be even worse this time around,” said Dale during a recent call. “The deserts of the Middle East were once grasslands teeming with life, and with poor choices our Great Plains could become desert too. But it absolutely doesn’t have to go that way. Through our farming practices, we can create our own droughts – or we can create abundance. We set the stage for our future by how we treat our soil today.”

Strickler is an educator, author, and professional agronomist (BS and MS from Kansas State University) 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.

Far better than a Google list of every trendy tool and technique available today, Strickler’s book delivers the nitty-gritty on dozens of the most promising ways to build resilience into your farm. He’s done the exhaustive research necessary to find all the options and innovations – and then he’s implemented many of the practices himself. For any practices Dale hasn’t tried, he’s interviewed farmers around the world who have. This grounded approach is invaluable because how many ideas sound great until you give them a try in the real world?

And Strickler isn’t shy about saying some things don’t live up to popular hype: Whenever the subject of improving root depth comes up, the first thing that tends to pop into a farmer’s mind is getting out their biggest tractor, hooking it onto a subsoiler, and tearing the soil up just as deep as they possibly can. Surprisingly, subsoiling is largely ineffective at improving rooting depth. (pg. 68)

The book is chockfull of farm-tested, cost-effective approaches that, when taken together, fully deliver on the promise of the book’s front cover to Improve your soil’s ability to hold and supply moisture for plants. Maintain feed and drinking water for livestock when rainfall is limited. Redesign agricultural systems to fit semi-arid climates.

But this blog post isn’t really a book report! As soon as the Soil for Water team read Strickler’s book, we knew we needed to share his expertise and ideas directly with all of you! Dale embodies the Soil for Water commitment to promoting practical, producer-proven methods to catch and hold more water in soils, so we are ecstatic that Dale has agreed to present a webinar and workshop series for us based on his books, which also include Managing Pastures (2019) and The Complete Guide to Restoring Soil (2021).

These participatory learning opportunities will be offered in late summer 2022 at no cost to Soil for Water network members, thanks to funding provided by a NRCS grant to Soil for Water. We’ll share an invitation and details soon at SOILFORWATER.ORG.

To whet your appetite for the savvy that Dale will share in his upcoming events, here are some gems gleaned from my recent chat with him:

My part of Kansas averages 36” of moisture a year, but this is really just a desert where it floods a lot. Our water comes mostly from intense thunderstorms, and there’s no telling when the next rain might fall. By restoring soil, I capture every raindrop that hits my farm, and I store it in place for the plants to use when they need it. This ability to store water – and to keep it from flooding away nutrients and topsoil – is priceless for farmers across the US.

In 15 years, I brought my soil organic matter up from 1.9% to 8.7%, and grass roots now stretch down at least 9 feet deep. By restoring soil health, we not only make the most of the land and water we have – people can double or triple or quadruple their profits this way! – but we also create conditions that can moderate local weather extremes. And that’s good for everyone!

Some people say ag causes climate change, that cow burps are killing the planet. I don’t want to argue about that. I will say that ag can be a big part of the solution to climate problems. Things that get plant roots pumping exudates to the soil microbes as long as possible every year – practices like minimizing tillage, growing cover crops, and rotationally grazing livestock – these things build resilience in our businesses and communities in the most environmentally friendly and biologically efficient way possible.

We should be looking critically at what we can we do better. Don’t make decisions based on advice from someone trying to sell you something. Go out and educate yourself – it’s easier to do that now than ever before. And try things out, experiment to see how a new idea might work in your operation. If you’re farming 1,000 acres, you won’t lose the farm if an experiment flops on 10 acres. And if it does work, just imagine what a difference that could make if done across your property!

In 2000 I bought an irrigated corn and soybean farm in Kansas. I farmed conventionally but made some minor changes to reduce tillage and add some cover crops. This made a lot of money for the seed dealer, the fertilizer dealer, the chemical dealer, and the equipment dealer. Everyone was profiting but me, my family, and my soil. So, I decided I was going to learn to farm differently so my children could inherit something other than debt and dead soil.

Want to learn more about how Dale changed things up to restore resilience, profitability, and joy to his farming operation? Visit his website, buy his books, and check out his many videos (such as Restoring the Skin of the Earth and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil). And be sure to check back here soon to register for Dale’s powerful Soil for Water workshop series on how you can build your own drought resilient farm!

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 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. 

Erik Tucker has been ranching in Southeast Colorado since his early 20s, and although he didn’t grow up on a ranch, he has long felt  that the old way of ranching just wasn’t working. He likes to observe the sunshine, rain, and natural processes of the world that culminate in pastures and healthy cattle. He knows livestock didn’t always need so much handling, especially when bison freely roamed the area. He often thinks about those times and wonders if they can be recreated in their efficiency.  

A meeting with Allan Savory, co-founder of Holistic Management International and founder of Savory Institute, confirmed what Tucker’s intuition told him all along: there is a way to ranch that promotes economy AND ecology, never one at the expense of the other. To accomplish that, Tucker makes sure three components are in order: stockmanship, grazing, and marketing. Tucker believes that if you invest in these three things, you’ll receive dividends that pay over a lifetime.  

The idea of proper stockmanship originated from Bud and Eunice Williams, creators of what BeefProducer called one of the most important innovations in 2011 (along with barbed wire and antibiotics) (Williams, 2022). In essence, Tucker says proper stockmanship is about getting the cattle to the right place at the right time for the right reasons. If a rancher understands what livestock want, could, and probably will do, they can get the animals to respond how they want them to, more often. The result is less stress on the animals and handlers, and more time for everything else. 

Appropriate grazing management is key to meeting your ecological goals, says Tucker. While he uses the principles of planned grazing, he says one’s specific context should ultimately drive decision-making. In fact, he thinks context is so important that he (and others) would like to add that as the sixth soil health principle. No two pastures are the same, let alone two ranches, so they should be observed diligently and acted on accordingly. By practicing proper grazing management, a rancher can catch and hold more water in their soil, leading to more dense and diverse pastures. Visit the Soil for Water Forum to read how others are catching and holding more water in their soils. 

Proper marketing is what brings the entire operation together and makes the engine move forward. Tucker is adamant that a rancher creates value by investing his time, effort, and energy into improving a product or service. The more skillfully a farmer does that, the more value that is created. Good marketing tells the story of that value, the story of that producer’s time, effort, and energy; it tells the story of why balancing economy and ecology is the responsibility of each of us, producers and consumers alike. This can no doubt lead to bigger margins.  

Sometimes economical decisions take precedence over ecological ones, or vice versa, but neither should be made at the expense of the other. Tucker suggests that all new producers first understand  why they want to get into the agriculture business. Then, he urges us to understand our context. There are already plenty of resources like the Soil for Water Network and its partners that can help new, transitioning, and established producers understand and work within the ecological limits of their land. There’s no end to better, as Bud Williams says. It takes the development of one’s intelligence, skills, and commitment to their work. Tucker reminds us that setbacks are good because they serve as a sign of what is broken and where to go next. That process adds value to an operation. As chiefs of whatever land we may be on, we can make sure every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of generations to come (Vecsey and Venables, 1980).

Reference: 

 

Vecsey, Chirstopher and Venables, Robert W (eds.). 1980. An Iroquois Perspective. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press. 

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.

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