Tag Archive for: Grazing

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