Tag Archive for: Soil Health

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  or the Events and Conferences  section of the Soil for Water Forum.

By Nina Prater, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

The terms regenerative grazing and soil health have started to seem almost ubiquitous in the world of agriculture. This is heartening for me as a soil specialist with NCAT, where I consider it part of my job to help producers understand and take care of their soils, as it is key to their long-term success as farmers and ranchers.

Photo: Nina Prater, NCAT

As a farmer, the evolution of language around grazing has been interesting to watch over the past 15 years. I first moved to Arkansas and became part of a livestock farming family in 2007, and I’d never heard of regenerative grazing. My husband and I, the third generation of the farm family, did a lot of reading when we returned to the farm and learned about continuous vs. rotational grazing, management-intensive grazing, mob grazing… on and on. We were awash with terms from different schools of thought about grazing management. Instead of getting hung up on the language, though, we just tried to implement a grazing management practice that improved pasture and soil health. When I finally did hear the term regenerative several years ago, it resonated immediately as what we were trying to do. To me, regenerative means restoring health to the whole farm system. I find it to be such an empowering term because it carries with it the implication that soil health can be restored. You’re not just stuck with what you’ve got right now. You can improve the health of your soil through a variety of practices, and in doing so, increase the productivity and profitability of your farm. Isn’t that exciting?!

Thanks to funding from a Southern SARE grant, I have been working to demystify the terms regenerative grazing and soil health for a variety of folks in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas (and via virtual platforms for people in other places). I think if farmers, ranchers, extension staff, NRCS staff, and other agriculture professionals understand these terms and how to work towards those goals we could see improvement to our agricultural landscapes across the country.

On the ATTRA website, we recently shared two resources that are a part of this project. The first is a recorded virtual workshop that covers soil health, regenerative grazing, and farmer support. It includes presentations by two Arkansas graziers, Jeremy Prater and Rick Crunkleton, who are regenerating their land through their grazing management practices. The second resource is a regenerative grazing presentation, by NCAT’s Regenerative Grazing Specialist Justin Morris, as a stand-alone for folks who want to learn more about that concept specifically.

And in case you missed it, last year we hosted a virtual workshop with Dr. Allen Williams of Understanding Ag, LLC on this topic as well. He is an excellent teacher and explores these topics in great depth, and this workshop would complement the two listed above very well.

I hope you will check these recordings out and start your journey on the path of soil health and regenerative agriculture. And please share with anyone you think would benefit from learning more about these topics!

Related ATTRA Resources:

Livestock and Pasture

Regenerative Grazing 

Soils and Compost 

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This blog was also made possible in part by funding from the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SSARE) Professional Development Program. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

By: Hernan Colmenero, Sustainable Food Consultant 

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification has released its Drought Toolbox, which contains an abundance of useful information for producers living through a drought. The toolbox includes three modules: Monitoring and Early Warning (great if drought effects haven’t really been felt yet); Vulnerability and Risk Assessment (essential to prepare for against the next drought); and Risk Mitigation Measures (crucial for protecting ourselves now and in the future). It even includes an amazing decision tree for producers or policy makers that helps identify specific actions one can take with high/low drought risk, local/national scales, time of expected return on investment (ROI), by climate type, and by economic sector (livestock, forestry, transit, etc.) One can even get help on specific actions to take by soil type. These resources have been made available because the world at large is recognizing that without soil, humanity cannot survive. We must do everything in our power to catch and hold more water in our soil, regenerate our land, and prepare for a water-scarce future.  

You can read or download the Drought Toolbox here. Don’t forget to let the Soil for Water team know how we can best support you in your efforts to try new regenerative practices on your farm. If you’re a Soil for Water Network member, you can get free professional support from a team member by reaching out at the Soil for Water forum. 

By Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist, and  Lee Rinehart, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist 

Did you know that the most important livestock on your farm are the ones you never purchased and, in most cases, have rarely, if ever, seen? These livestock, along with plant roots, play an essential role in improving soil health, which is the foundation of any agricultural operation. But what is soil health and how does one go about improving it? The NCAT four-part webinar series Advanced Grazing for Regenerating Soils and Enhancing Animal Nutrition begins by addressing this question. 

Soil health is defined as the continued capacity for soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that enhances the well-being of plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soil should be full of life, from earthworms and dung beetles on the large scale down to bacteria and fungi on the smallest scale. Our very existence is dependent on life that can only be seen, in most cases, under a microscope. Yet it’s these microscopic life forms that create stable soil aggregates that provide a host of benefits ranging from improving water infiltration to improving plant-available water and even improving gas exchange. Well-aggregated soils allow our landscapes to be more resilient to the environmental extremes of severe droughts and floods that are becoming increasingly prevalent and severe.  

So how do we get well-aggregated soils that can make our grazing operations more resilient going into the future? We focus on five soil health principles through our grazing management: 

  1. Optimize disturbance – lack of disturbance is harmful to the soil ecosystem when plants aren’t grazed periodically, and too much disturbance through overgrazing is also harmful as soil life goes on a starvation diet. 
  2. Optimize biodiversity – different plants are associated with different beneficial soil microorganisms that help facilitate soil aggregation in a variety of ways. 
  3. Optimize soil cover – too little cover exposes the soil to extreme weather conditions and too much cover slows down and halts nutrient cycling. 
  4. Grow living roots throughout the year – the longer the time roots grow, the longer soil life is fed that helps to create and maintain more stable soil aggregates. 
  5. Integrate livestock on cropland where possible – livestock grazing a diverse blend of annual forage plants in addition to growing cash crops can improve the feeding of soil aggregate-building microorganisms in addition to growing cash crops. 

In session 1 of the webinar series, we begin to break these concepts down and discuss diversity and disturbance as linchpins that hold a resilient ecosystem together. In resilient pastures, everything is in flux and managers can imitate the natural successional processes through optimized disturbance to move the pasture system toward a natural polyculture and increased biodiversity. 

These principles are followed by a discussion on how physical and chemical processes form stable soil macroaggregates only in association with soil life. Without this collaboration, plants cannot promote the conversion of sunlight energy into carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and medicinal compounds that livestock, and eventually humans, need to thrive.  

We wrap up the session by tying in grazing management principles that enhance and improve pasture resilience and livestock productivity. We detail various ways land managers have provided optimal disturbance that fosters biodiversity and resiliency by the fluctuation of grazing duration and frequency (see figure below).  

Session 1 of the webinar can be viewed here. The remaining three sessions of this series will be held on May 12, May 26, and June at 5 pm Central time. Register here.

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

by: 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.

By Justin Morris, NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist

Did you know you can do a soil health assessment on your own pasture without having to send in soil samples to a laboratory? And this assessment costs only your time because it requires no special tools. Using the senses of sight, smell, and touch, along with very simple hand tools — a shovel and a knife — you can determine the health of the soil in your pasture in less than 30 minutes.

The goals of the pasture soil health assessment are to:

  • Become more familiar with the soil that supports the plants that feed your livestock
  • Determine the current state of soil health at the time of the assessment when compared to a nearby area of high soil health
  • Determine whether soil health is improving or worsening based on at least two assessments conducted in the same spot at two different time periods
  • Gain insight on whether past and/or current grazing management efforts are making a positive or negative change to soil health

I created a video to demonstrate how to conduct a soil heath assessment, where you’ll learn:

  • Where to conduct a soil health assessment
  • How to conduct a soil health assessment beginning with the condition of the soil surface
  • Indicators of good or poor soil health
  • How grazing management affects soil health

Click the play button below to watch the YouTube video on how to do the assessment. Have questions? Feel free to contact me at justinm@ncat.org or 406-494-8664.

Related ATTRA Resources: 

Soils & Compost

Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production 

Soil Health 101: Cover Crops and Water Infiltration  

Soil Health 101: Grazing and Soil Health with Jody Reye

Other Resources: 

Soil for Water

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

In a new video series: Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Nina Prater makes the case for modeling soil health strategies after nature’s blueprint that produced that situation in the first place.

We all know the basic story. Plants photosynthesize sunlight and make sugars. They use the sugars to build leaves and stems and roots and seeds – pretty much everything that makes a plant a plant.

But at the same time, they share the wealth by exuding sugars from the roots to feed a “community” of soil microbes and fungi that in turn help keep the soil healthy for the plant.

A classic win-win situation.

“This layer of productive soil on top of the bedrock that we all have to work with is this vibrant living thing that has a community of life within it,” Nina says. “You have to treat it like a living thing because it is.”

And just like any living thing, there are practices that can keep it healthy and practices that can cause it harm.

Nina and other NCAT staffers produced a three-part webinar series – Soil Health 101 – through the ATTRA sustainable agriculture program, along with support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (Southern SARE).

You can watch the webinars here:

The series has a particular focus on the role livestock can play in soil health, but its strategies for keeping soil healthy is good information for any producer.

Those strategies are often described as the principles of soil health. Nina breaks it down to five.

  • Minimize disturbance to the soil
  • Maximize biodiversity on the land
  • Keep the soil covered at all times
  • Keep living roots growing in the soil during as much of the year as possible
  • Incorporate animals and use regenerative grazing practices

Nature provides models for how to put those principles of soil health into place, Nina says, and the webinar is full of practical examples of just that.

“To build soil health on our farm, we have to look to nature to figure out how to do that. Nature built all of these soils in the first place,” she explains. “The planet wasn’t created with all these, you know, lush terrains and prairie and everything. All that evolved over time. And it evolved with these ecosystem that built soil.”

To learn even more about the importance of soil health, and to connect with farmers, ranchers, and land managers taking steps to regenerate their soils, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has officially re-launched its Soil for Water project, opening access to the free, voluntary network to all commercial farmers, ranchers, and land managers across the United States. Soil for Water aims to connect farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are interested in 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 sustaining a profitable business.

In this episode of Voices from the Field, NCAT Communications Director Emilie Ritter Saunders speaks with NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist Linda Poole about the expanded Soil for Water effort and the new community-building tools we’ve launched to support this expanding network.

Connect with the Soil for Water community at SOILFORWATER.ORG.

Contact Emilie Ritter Saunders and Linda Poole via email at emilies@ncat.org and lindap@ncat.org.

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You can get in touch with NCAT/ATTRA specialists and find access our trusted, practical sustainable-agriculture publications, webinars, videos, and other resources at ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. Learn about NCAT’s other cutting-edge sustainable agriculture programs.

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As a camera soars over an impressive piece of Rocky Mountain ranch land, the narrator says, “The soil that covers U.S. farm and ranch land holds a remarkable story. It’s a tale of success and setbacks. At its best, the soil beneath our feet is the source of life, food, and economic security.”

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) has released its short film, Soil for Water, to highlight a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers across the United States who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

“Your soil health is going to keep you in business,” Texas rancher Tina Weldon says in the film. “If you take care of your soil, the land will give back to you in terms of your productivity.”

More than 120 farms and ranches in 20 states have already joined the free and voluntary Soil for Water network. The project aims to include farmers and ranchers who discover and 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.

“If we’re going to be successful ranching in the long-term, we need to do a better job working together with other ranchers and learn how to do things regeneratively and profitably,” Montana rancher Dusty Emond explains in the short film.

The Soil for Water project is about implementing practical, cost-effective, and lasting ways to regenerate our soil — making farms, ranches, and communities more resilient in the face of climate disruption.

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 expanded Soil for Water project encourages the adoption of regenerative land management practices through an interactive website, peer-to-peer forum, in-person and online networking opportunities, and the ability to connect with experts and land managers who are finding success with varied practices.

To learn more about the newly expanded Soil for Water project visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has opened registration for its Soil Health Innovations Conference: Soil for Water, March 15 and 16.

The two-day conference will convene online, and the highly interactive format will connect agricultural producers and educators in a critical conversation about soil health. As was the first conference, it will be an in-depth exploration of agriculture’s sustainable future: on-farm practices, soil biology, carbon markets, and public policy. This year’s conference will focus on farm and ranch strategies to catch and hold more water in the soil.

“The inaugural Soil Health Innovations Conference last spring really exceeded our expectations,” said NCAT Executive Director Steve Thompson. “We were especially struck by the engagement of the participants, both during the conference and afterward through NCAT’s ATTRA sustainable agriculture program. It goes to show that we live in a time when producers and food companies, as well as policy makers, realize how important healthy soils are as we design practical approaches for supporting resilient regenerative agriculture.”

The conference will bring together leading experts and innovative farmers from around the U.S. to share the latest in soil science, best practices in soil management, opportunities for policy change, and the emerging technologies that will drive the future of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Two sessions will focus on the potential to reduce downstream flooding through watershed-scale soil health practices. Keynote speakers will include University of Washington and Dig2Grow’s David Montgomery and regenerative rancher Alejandro Carrillo.

This year’s theme, Soil for Water, expands on NCAT’s nationwide effort of the same name to connect a growing network of regenerative farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

In addition, since one of the best parts of any conference is the chance to greet old friends and make new acquaintances, the conference will have virtual networking tables that allow participants to get together with each other, speakers, and NCAT staff.

There also will be virtual halls where participants can connect with exhibitors and conference sponsors.

Don’t miss this chance to examine current practices as well as the concepts, techniques, and practical applications that may be available in the future. Register to attend the conference, exhibit or sponsor the event at SOILINNOVATIONS.NCAT.ORG.

Keynote Speaker: March 15

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington and Dig2Grow.com
Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

“Soil may be the least sexy resource upon which civilization depends, yet soil erosion and degradation have plagued societies in the past and pose challenges for feeding the future. Growing a Revolution relates visits to farmers around the world at the heart of a brewing soil health revolution that cuts through standard debates about conventional and organic farming.”

See David Montgomery’s biography.

 

Keynote Speaker: March 16

Alejandro Raul CarrilloAlejandro Raul Carrillo, Las Damas Cattle Ranch
Regenerative Grazing to Reverse Desertification


Using regenerative grazing techniques over the past several years, Alejandro dramatically increased the water filtration of his ranch in the Chihuahuan Desert 250 miles south of El Paso, Texas.

See Alejandro Carrillo’s biography