Tag Archive for: Soil for Water

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 Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist 

Have you ever wondered where the best place is to get information on the soils for your land? What if that information could tell you what kind of soil you have, how deep it is, how much water it could hold, or how much forage could be grown on each acre of your land in a year. Fortunately, there is such a source. It’s called the Web Soil Survey and you can access it from any laptop or desktop. 

Launched in 2006 by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Web Soil Survey allows anyone to define any area they’re interested in within the United States and retrieve all sorts of soil-related information about that area. Here’s just a small sampling of what can be found: 

  • Soil map unit symbol and name 
  • Acres of a specific soil map unit within a defined area 
  • Soil textures in the top five feet 
  • Available water supply in inches for the top five feet 
  • Land capability classification 
  • Average annual precipitation 
  • Frost-free period 
  • Rangeland production during favorable, normal, and unfavorable years 
  • Yields of irrigated and non-irrigated crops including pasture and hayland 
  • And much, much more! 

For those of you who are familiar with the hard copies of the soil survey, those are no longer available. Once you get used to using the Web Soil Survey interface, getting just the information you need without combing through a thick hard copy page by page becomes far easier to use and more accurate. And for those who still want a hard copy of something, not to worry. Everything in Web Soil Survey can be printed.  

You can get started with Web Soil Survey. Once there, click on the big green “Start WSS” button. You’ll see a map of the lower 48 states with several tool buttons just above and to the left of the map. If you happen to be interested in an area in Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico, just click on the white hand tool to pan to those areas.  

Alternatively, you can jump to any area by moving your cursor over to the menu bar at the far left and clicking on Address or State and County.  

Once you’ve found the area you’re interested in, you can zoom in by using the cursor to select the magnifying lens with the plus symbol inside it. After clicking on the magnifying lens, move the cursor over the map and you’ll notice that the cursor turned into a plus symbol instead of an arrow. Click and drag over the area you want to see in greater detail. If you need to adjust the map east, west, north, or south to get everything in full view, click on the hand button to move the map image.  

Now that you have the area you’re interested in and it’s filling up the entire interactive map view, click on one of two AOI toolbar buttons above the map. The AOI (Area of Interest) button on the left makes a rectangle, whereas the AOI button on the right makes a polygon of nearly any shape. Because field boundaries are rarely ever straight, I almost always select the polygon button. Click around the area you’re interested in and then double-click your mouse to finish the polygon.

If you’ve successfully defined an area of interest, the polygon you traced will have blue diagonal lines through it, as you see above, along with an acreage count for that area. If you weren’t successful on your first attempt to create a polygon, just try again and be sure that on your last corner you double-click your mouse to complete the polygon. If you want to adjust the polygon you just created, then click on Clear AOI on the upper left. Unfortunately, you can’t edit a single point once the polygon has been fully created. This is why you have to clear the area of interest if you want to make any modifications. You can then start over until you get it to look the way you want it to. 

Now, let’s find out what soils are on this field. Scrolling up to the very top of the webpage, click on the Soil Map tab (see below). The blue diagonal lines on the map will disappear and be replaced by lines delineating soil boundaries. For this 125-acre field, there are just two soil map units – map unit 22, which is a Labenzo silt loam, and map unit 64, which is a Withers silty clay loam. Web Soil Survey shows the number of acres for each soil map unit and their percentage of the total. By the way, this is a great feature that the hard copy soil surveys of yesteryear could never tell you.  

Clicking on the map unit name on the left of the screen reveals a new window with lots of great information about that soil (see below). Here we see the map unit description for the Labenzo silt loam, which includes information on where the soil is generally located, its composition, setting, typical profile soil texture, and properties. 

After clicking on the X in the upper right corner to eliminate the map unit description window, go to the top of the screen and click on the Soil Data Explorer tab (see below).  

 

If you wanted to know what the potential alfalfa hay production is on this field, click on Vegetative Productivity (see above) under the Suitabilities and Limitations Ratings menu. This reveals a lot of different crops, some of which are not suitable for growing in this environment. Scroll down the list of different crops and click on Yields of Irrigated Crops (Component). Click on the dropdown menu and select Alfalfa Hay. Finally, click on View Rating

 

Now we have a rating for alfalfa hay in tons per acre for the whole field by soil map unit. The numbers listed under the Rating column are only an estimate and should be used as a rough guide, not as numbers that are absolutely accurate.  

If you want to save this information for the future or print it, click on Printable Version at the top right of the page (see below).  

This is just one of nearly countless ways to find soil and crop productivity information for a specific piece of land. I’ve covered maybe one percent of what Web Soil Survey has to offer. If you have additional questions on how to use this tremendous tool, just contact your local USDA-NRCS office.    

 

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 Lee Rinehart, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist 

No level of education can prepare a student for the deep work of community building around resource conservation issues, especially in low-income counties that have experienced environmental catastrophe. But this is how Mary Sketch Bryant cut her teeth in the demanding world of land-use policy and environmental and community restoration. With a newly minted degree in environmental studies, Mary found herself in California working with a forest restoration collaborative. She began connecting with local folks to find answers around community resilience and conservation. How could she help rebuild this community devastated after the Butte fire tore through 70,000 acres of forest, farms, and homesites?

Mary’s experience in California gave her insight into the human dimensions of resource conservation— namely, how do people make decisions in land management and how do they translate into policy? A subsequent tour of duty at the Center for Rural Strategies in Tennessee highlighted the diversity of rural issues and the challenges, especially in changing the perception of rural communities. The power of communications and community leader-driven advocacy, especially in Black belt and Native nations, became paramount, particularly when communities are economically depressed. There is so much knowledge in local leaders, and natural resource conservation flows through all the issues rural communities face. Telling their story became her passion.

Graduate work at Virginia Tech helped strengthen Mary’s focus on the dynamics of human behavior in environmental work, and she realized this necessarily involved agriculture. She wanted to get more into agricultural working lands and put her passion for coalition building to work. Building power and strength in place-based communities and getting rooted in trust building among all land stakeholders was her new call. With her new position with Virginia Tech Extension, the Virginia Soil Health Coalition had an advocate, a leader to help bring a burgeoning organization together.

The Virginia Soil Health Coalition is a collaboration of soil scientists, policy advocates, practitioners, and farmers seeking to further soil-health practices across Virginia. The Coalition’s work is, however, about much more than fostering soil-health practices. Their work is more complex than just adding cover crops and no till; it takes a systems orientation and working with collaborators on the more intangible aspects of partnership, such as strategic planning and evaluation. Where do you start? There are so many intangibles, so where do you draw the lines of where you are having an impact and how do you record the results you do not see, such as a general awareness of soil practices among the greater population? And how do you get more people on board, addressing them where their actions are, where they live, whether they are advocates, gardeners, or farmers?

Virginia Ag. Expo in Caroline County, VA

Working with agencies and core nonprofits—NRCS, Extension, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Conservation Districts, Forage and Grassland Coalition, and many more—the Coalition currently has about 35 partners. There is a seat at the table for all who have this vision of soil health, and it is a vast network. Mary’s job is to make the Coalition, through advocacy and education, accessible to all involved. “There is a lot going on in Virginia related to soil health,” she said, “but the partners are spread so thin.” With a goal of knowing and supporting what each group is doing in the Coalition, the intangibles become more evident. The synergies between each disparate organization result in more collaboration, more conversation, and more farmers implementing practices that, on their own place and according to their own needs, hold more water in the soil, keep nutrients out of the bay, and in turn increase the productivity and economic resilience of Virginia agriculture.

In the fall of 2021, Soil for Water entered the scene. The Virginia Soil Health Coalition was well set, through connections with Virginia Tech Extension, a core Soil for Water partner, to serve as a hub to facilitate a broader partnership across Virginia. Soil for Water is furthering the adoption of regenerative grazing practices that keep water in the soil and the Coalition is key to this success. Each member of the Coalition has connections already solidified, making communications and cross-pollination among groups more productive.

Variable Nitrogen Rate Field Day in New Kent, VA

The focus on regeneration is crucial. According to Mary, the idea of regeneration goes beyond the soil component. It is about building more life into something. “We have such diverse partners, and we do not have a comprehensive definition for soil health. Rather, it is what a partner brings to the table that is important, for each has a different, though corresponding, definition…There is no check box of what to do in regenerative agriculture, and it is challenging but exciting. Defining regenerative agriculture is difficult, a buzzword we must move beyond toward a focus on more life in the soil and more widespread consideration of soil health,” Mary said. She invites us to “come together around ambiguousness” in this journey of regeneration. Again, the intangibles. I want to be engaged; how do I do that? Who are we reaching outside the Coalition? If Mary is right, engaging and knowing who to go to, and instilling a more common language and understanding of soil health among the broader population, is key. Building a spark and fostering energy among the myriad layers of influence in the community. This is the real work of coalition building.

So, what is the level of interest and commitment in Virginia to regenerative agriculture? “It is high, but maybe that’s my hope,” she said. “Maybe people don’t call it regenerative, but that is their perspective.” And maybe it is a little easier on a smaller scale. The biggest farms in Virginia are on a smaller scale than those in the West and Midwest, so it can be easier to implement certain practices, such as cover crops and no-till. “There are many progressive farmers in Virginia; there is energy and momentum. Who knows how good a particular farmer’s soil is, but they are thinking about it,” and that’s the point to start from.

“So much of state leadership is pushing for it [soil health, regenerative agriculture], so much cost-share is available on a state level. Even if some farmers will never apply for cost-share funding to implement a practice, it does trickle down.” Awareness is growing and to Mary, that is the point of the Coalition. “There is wide interest in Virginia, but the implementation piece needs work, especially on the economic front, because more farmers are paying attention and have numbers around this. It can be a strong incentive for others to adopt soil health practices.”

I asked Mary at the end of our conversation what advice she would give to a farmer interested in making a change to his soil-health practices. She responded that she would advise them to pursue farmer-driven resources, and farmer-to farmer-networks, and, importantly, to open the space for others to learn from the failures of their peers. “There is lots of innovation out there, but it is a slow process, and we are always pushing for the next step. People don’t get into farming to get rich, but they do need to make money and minimize risk. Most farmers want to learn and experiment but don’t want to risk their bottom line.” In Virginia, there is a focus on the bay and soil quality, and soil quantity and water capture are almost forgotten. This is an important paradigm for her producers and practitioners to realize, not to mention economics.

This focus on water capture and economics is what the Soil Health Coalition and Soil for Water are good at. Our common goals are connecting and networking, telling stories, and helping people imagine their own future.

Soil for Water and the Virginia Soil Health Coalition are sharing events and building capacity because there is so much overlap between them. We can leverage our work to reach a bigger audience. “We are working toward same goal, which is all that matters,” said Mary. “Let’s make it happen.”

 

Related NCAT Resources:

Soil for Water Forum

Other Resources:

Virginia Soil Health Coalition

4theSoil Project

 

 

By Mike Morris, NCAT Southwest Regional Office Director 

A few months ago, I was given the enjoyable assignment of updating the 2006 ATTRA publication Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods. I was curious to learn what had changed in the world of soil moisture monitoring and irrigation scheduling over the past decade or so.

Now, as always, you can do a pretty good job of checking your soil moisture with a shovel, the “feel and appearance” method (no cost), a hand push probe ($30-$70), or tensiometers ($50-$150 apiece). But if you’ve got anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to spend, I learned that there are some interesting new options to consider.

Browsing around the Internet, I learned that data logger setups have evolved and are now available in many wireless configurations. A data logger is a device, usually powered by batteries or a solar panel, that records data at intervals ranging from every few minutes to every few hours. Data loggers can be hooked up by cables to buried soil moisture sensors, automatically recording your soil moisture and storing months or years of data that can be downloaded at your convenience or sent directly via the Internet to your phone or laptop, in real time.

Most surprising of all was what I learned about satellite imagery. In 2006, using satellite imagery to estimate evapotranspiration (ET)—the combined effect of evaporation and transpiration—did not exist in any meaningful way. The closest thing we had was publicly-available weather station networks like the Bureau of Reclamation’s AgriMet network for the Pacific Northwest and the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS). These networks provide estimates of current and historical ET, although they have some real limitations, not least of which is the fact that the nearest weather station may be dozens or even hundreds of miles from your location.

Today, satellites are rapidly entering the mainstream. Among other advantages, satellite images can show soil moisture conditions over an entire field or farm. For a few years now, companies like IrriWatch have been providing satellite-based irrigation recommendations for an annual subscription cost of several dollars per acre. Then, in 2021, OpenET burst onto the scene.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Developed by NASA, the Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Geological Service, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and other partners, OpenET uses NASA satellite data (including things like leaf temperature, leaf size, and solar radiation) along with meteorological, soil, and vegetation datasets, to provide readily available satellite-based ET estimates for the entire western United States. You see a map, in familiar Google Earth layout, and can zoom all the way down to field scale, reading ET estimates for millions of individual fields or at the quarter-acre resolution of satellite data. You can also draw shapes on the map and see monthly and annual ET values within those boundaries.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

Screenshot from the OpenET website.

The maps are stunning, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. I found the site extremely user-friendly. It took me only about 15 minutes to set up a password and start zooming around the maps and looking at ET levels in almond orchards, wheat fields, and pastures around the country. Best of all, everything in the OpenET Data Explorer is free to view. A goal of the project is to keep the data free and easily available, although some users who need large-scale access will eventually need to pay.

To learn more about affordable soil moisture monitoring options, download the free, newly updated ATTRA publication Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods. And if you try OpenET, post a comment at the Soil for Water Forum and tell us how you liked it.

Related ATTRA Resources

Managing Soils for Water
The Irrigator’s Pocket Guide 

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!

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 .

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) has launched its Regenerator’s Atlas of America, an interactive storytelling map connecting farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil. The Regenerator’s Atlas of America is part of NCAT’s Soil for Water project.

“From Maine to Minnesota, Texas to Idaho, the Regenerator’s Atlas of America is sharing the stories of farmers and ranchers who are finding ways to catch and hold more water in the soils, making their businesses more resilient to drought, erosion, and extreme weather,” NCAT Executive Director Steve Thompson said. “The Regenerator’s Atlas of America is creating a virtual gathering place and information-sharing platform for the growing number of agricultural producers who know that soil health is key to a strong business.”

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is about connecting producers with each other to share land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants, all while improving the profitability of their businesses.

Doug Garrison, owner of DS Family Farm near Lincoln, Nebraska is among the nearly 200 farmers who have joined the free and voluntary Soil for Water network, and he’s also added his place to the Regenerator’s Atlas of America. For 25 years, Garrison has been practicing regenerative grazing and wants to connect with other ranchers who are trying similar methods.

“My main interest in Soil for Water is to learn from others who are practicing regenerative ag in their specific context. We like to see what others are doing, think about what they are doing and see what their results are,” Garrison said. “Then, we may take some of their ideas or techniques and adapt it to our farm context and try it.  We look for both similar and opposite techniques from what we are doing. You never know where you might find the next breakthrough idea for your operation.”

Unhealthy soil doesn’t absorb much water. Healthy soil acts like a sponge, capable of holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in an acre. Climate trends across much of the U.S. indicate longer, hotter drought periods punctuated by storms that often are more severe, according to a 2021 USDA report. Regenerative farming practices enable the soil to capture rainfall that otherwise might disappear as runoff. Economically, these practices can increase crop and forage production, drought resilience, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, they can improve soil health and biodiversity.

The Regenerator’s Atlas of America joins the Soil for Water Forum as another way farmers and ranchers can connect and learn from one another.

To learn more about the newly expanded Soil for Water project, add your pin to the Regenerator’s Atlas or chat at the Forum visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

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THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY has been helping people build resilient communities through local and sustainable solutions that reduce poverty, strengthen self-reliance, and protect natural resources since 1976. Headquartered in Butte, Montana, NCAT has field offices in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Learn more and become a friend of NCAT at NCAT.ORG.

by: Hernan Colmenero

Tammi and Stephen Bell are the kind of couple who believe that less is more. Their motto seems to be to let the plants and animals do the work. That’s exactly what they’re doing at Waterline Farm in Pryor, Oklahoma.

Now, they are not completely hands off. Although they don’t usually mow their lawn, much to the chagrin of their neighbors, their goats do the mowing by grazing it. Similarly, they believe it’s important to first think about infrastructure. That means digging small trenches to direct the flow of water and building hügelkultur mounds to slow and keep water on their land a bit longer. It also means being patient and observing the land. They may agree with Michelangelo when he said “the task of the sculptor [is] to discover [the statue].” They want to discover the beauty of the land and help it become what it wants to become.

The Bell’s goal with Waterline Farm is to become a homestead demonstration site practicing regenerative agriculture with an emphasis on ecological stewardship. Their operation has seen its fair share of challenges, but the Bell family has turned them into opportunities. In 2019, a massive flooding event raised the level of Lake Hudson in Oklahoma, on which their property is located, and crept up several hundred feet onto the pasture. As the water receded, it created natural contour swales, which they used to plant sycamore and oak trees to increase water absorption and retention, therein slowing the flow of water to the lake. Realizing that their shoreline was fragile after seeing how their neighbor’s shoreline receded, they also planted several more sycamore and cypress trees closer to the shore, creating a wide strip of protection. Additionally, they made use of the silt the lake water brought and let the native grasses grow tall, allowing the deep roots to take hold in the soil. This added organic matter, created more soil aggregates, and increased the presence of wildlife, such as Monarch butterflies and a resident bald eagle. Both of those changes served to expand their silvopasture system while making progress on their goals of regeneration and wildlife conservation by simply giving the land more of what it could use.

But not everything can be accomplished by watching from afar. Stephen is adamant that one needs to get their hands dirty, their boots muddy, and observe the land from various places to get an idea of where the water is going and what the land is doing. Then, it’s important to act. In this way, he noticed that rainwater was flowing from his property into his neighbor’s. So, he built up hügelkultur mounds along that edge of his property to slow the flow of water. Most recently, he dug a trench with his 39-hp tractor to direct water to his orchard. All these actions serve to catch and hold more water in their soil, lessening the potentially damaging effects of floods.

Even though the Bell family doesn’t do it for the money (they’re both comfortably retired), they expect to turn a profit this year. They are saving money by not buying costly fertilizers and by supplementing their groceries with the food they grow and harvest themselves. Even their livestock enjoy the fruit of their harvests, which means less spent on buying animal feed. Moreover, their farm has garnered the attention of Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), the Oklahoma Forestry Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and perhaps most importantly, their fellow community members. Some of this has led to grants and other beneficial financial opportunities. Tammi says it is “the big circle coming back.”

The Bell family says that the peer-to-peer learning systems such as Women, Livestock, and the Land course and the Soil for Water Network, both part of NCAT, have been instrumental to their success. “People feel isolated and when they see others doing something similar, that works,” says Tammi.

Learn more in the YouTube video, Welcome to Waterline Farm.