Talking about the importance of feeding soil microbes is fine. Speaking with your feet is even better.
“Take a closer look—anything you tramp down is just
carbon in the soil,” quips soil conservationist Jay Fuhrer on a Thursday
afternoon in early September. As he says this, he’s beckoning some 120 farmers
and others to follow him into an impressively diverse, chest-high stand of warm
season plants: cowpea, soybean, sorghum sudan, pearl millet, graza radish, rape
This was the first stop on the Soil Health Tour, an event that brings
farmers, scientists, students and conservationists from across the Midwest to
south-central North Dakota’s Burleigh County at the end of each summer. As the
name of the tour implies, they come to see thriving soil, and the land does not
disappoint on this particular day.
Spadefuls of fragrant humus are unearthed the results impressive biological and chemical tests shared, crop fields pastures thriving on that soil put display. at one stop a cornfield, large jar water sits next to six-foot deep profile trench. suspended top in wire cage is fist-sized clump came from cornfield. even though it’s been immersed as part this “slaking” test for
several hours, the clump is intact and the water remains free of dissolved
sediment—a sign that the soil’s quality is so high that it’s able to engineer
its own stability. All of this points to a clear-cut conclusion: the farms on
this tour are home to some mighty healthy soil.
What makes this tour special is how this soil got
this way. A combination of cover crops, livestock grazing and no-till planting
techniques has created soil that not only cooks up its own fertility, but
naturally resists erosion and makes better use of available moisture. This
means healthy crops and grasses even in an area with a short growing season and
an average annual precipitation level of just 16 inches.
What this tour showcases is a farming system that
puts soil health at the center. Such a system works with the soil’s natural
ability to maintain a healthy balance, rather than just treating the symptoms
of degraded quality with an ever-revolving array of petroleum-based fertilizers
And by the last stop of the day, it’s clear that
putting soil at the center of farming is about more than which combination of
methods will create the healthiest humus—it’s also about blending the ideas and
goals of farmers, natural resource professionals and scientists who are
breaking new ground in sustainable agriculture. The farming innovations being
generated by this group are noteworthy, but just as exciting is the team effort
that’s arisen in Burleigh County. New farming techniques come and go, but
Burleigh County’s Soil Health Team is a model for creating the kind of
environment needed to ensure the roots for creating innovations in the future
will always be deep and thriving.
A team effort
To understand why this team effort is so important, one needs to
consider Gabe Brown, a Burleigh
County farmer whose success with building soil health has been so significant
that one would be forgiven for thinking he’s an anomaly.
During the past decade or so on his 5,400 acres,
Brown has put in place an innovative system for building soil health utilizing
extremely diverse mixes of cover crops—as many as 20 species at times—no-till
cropping, and a type of rotational grazing, called mob grazing, where cattle
are put in pasture paddocks for short bursts of intense feeding.
Brown has more than doubled the organic matter in
some of his fields, raising it from less than 2 percent to nearly 5 percent. He
has also improved the health of his water cycle, meaning water infiltrates the
soil profile instead of running off the surface.
And it’s paying off financially. Brown’s use of
commercial fertilizer has dropped by over 90 percent, and herbicide use by 75
percent. At today’s fertilizer prices, each 1 percent of organic matter
contains $751 worth of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur and carbon,
Brown estimates. That’s the main reason his 2011 return to labor, management
and land was an impressive $5.38 per bushel of corn.
Brown has arrived at his current system through a
combination of trial and error and consulting with scientists and experts like
Fuhrer. He’s not afraid to get ideas from people far from Burleigh County who
are working on soil health. Brown recalls with excitement when he and Fuhrer
were both at a conference and saw a presentation about intense cover cropping
systems given by a Brazilian scientist.
“I turned to Jay and said, ‘That’s the next step,’
” Brown says.
Walking Gabe Brown’s farm or viewing one of his
PowerPoint presentations on soil health and profitability can generate a lot of
excitement about the potential for linking long-term financial sustainability
and soil health. But Brown knows it means little in the bigger picture if farms
like his are seen as isolated examples.
“There are people all over doing this. They just
don’t have the mouth I have,” he says with a laugh while giving a tour of his
crop fields and pastures. “Now most of my cover crops are close to 20 mixes. I
wouldn’t recommend a real diverse mix right off the bat—it can be overwhelming.
The longer I’m in this, the more questions I have.”
That’s why Burleigh County is focusing on helping
show soil-minded farmers they are not alone in questioning agriculture’s
conventional wisdom that the land is just a plant stand for the next crop.
“Soil biology is like us—it has to eat,” says
Fuhrer as he churns up a spadeful of North Dakota earth and holds it up for the
participants in the September tour to see. And one way to feed it is to allow
cover crops to be stamped into the soil while cattle are browsing them, or
while participants in a field tour are taking a closer look.
That plants can serve an important role as food for microbes and aren’t
only useful if they can be harvested by machines or animals is just one of the
counter-intuitive messages emphasized by the Burleigh
County Soil Health Team. There are other head-scratchers: planting
corn may not always be the best bet financially and agronomically; cattle don’t
need to spend a long time in grazing paddocks; you don’t need as much moisture
as you once thought to raise a decent crop; no-till cropping systems alone
don’t save soil; fields with more varieties of plants, not less, are more
resilient in the face of drought.
Fuhrer says he identifies with farmers and others
who may have to change their worldview to comprehend a farming system that puts
soil health at the center. Fuhrer is the district conservationist for the
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Burleigh County, and by the
1990s it was becoming clear to him and some farmers that conventional
conservation “fixes” weren’t the ultimate answer to saving soil.
The Burleigh County Soil Conservation District’s supervisors
eventually formed a team that consisted of farmers and conservationists. Over
the years, this team has promoted no-till, crop diversification and simple
cover crop mixtures. It has also worked to get farmers to replace the
traditional technique of turning cattle out into large pastures all season long
with rotational grazing systems. These farming techniques have been a vast
improvement over intense tillage, monocropping and overgrazing. And thanks in
part to the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District’s soil health work, 70
percent of the county’s farmers are now using no-till cropping systems. But
Fuhrer and others were finding that even with these conservation improvements,
soil was still lost, precious water ran off of increasingly compacted fields,
and the quality of crops and grasses being grown kept deteriorating.
What was needed was a way to test out new
approaches to building soil health while spreading that information among
farmers as quickly and effectively as possible.
One way the District does that is through experiments at Menoken
Farm, a 150-acre educational site started in 2009. Replicated trials
on cropping and grazing practices that build soil health are done at Menoken
and the District shares the results through field days, workshops and a website. It was this kind of research, for example, that helped show that
diverse cover-cropping mixes were more drought tolerant than monocrops because
of all the biological diversity created below ground.
But Fuhrer and others know that farmers need to see
these practices put into action on real working farms, ones that share the same
soil type, geography, weather and even economic conditions. So a few years ago
the District promoted “25-acre grants” for seed. The farmers used the grants to
establish cover crops, which are generally plantings of low-value species such
as small grains. In general, these plantings protect the soil between the
growing seasons for more high-value crops like corn. In return for receiving
the free seed, the farmers would serve as one of the stops on the annual Soil
Health Tour. Those 25-acre test plots were popular, with the District
overseeing 30 to 40 a year from 2006 to 2008. With the price of cover crop seed
being between $30 to $35 an acre, it was a bargain in terms of the harvest of
real-world results it produced.
“So part of the bargain was a willingness to speak
at the tour stop—what worked, maybe what didn’t work, their observations,” says
Fuhrer while going over test plot results in his Bismarck office. “And then at
the same time it gave people like myself the opportunity to take a look at
those soils, maybe do a slake and infiltration test on them. It allowed us to
kind of ride along and monitor that and really kind of look at the benefits.”
That created a whole lot of on-the-ground results
with a relatively small financial risk on the part of the farmer. It also
developed an environment where farmers were comfortable sharing their
experiences—both good and bad.
A combination of results from the Menoken Farm and
the fields planted using the 25-acre grants showed that cover cropping could
build soil health year-round, not just during the spring and fall. The Soil
Conservation District and the farmers also learned that diverse seed mixes that
went beyond the traditional cover crop plantings of small grains such as rye
built up an impressive amount of carbon while feeding microbes.
This makes soil naturally fertile and less reliant
on chemical inputs. It is also increasingly erosion and drought proof. In other
words, the soil is more resilient. And this resiliency can be attained
relatively cheaply by seeding cover crops—plants that, by the way, can serve
double duty as livestock forage.
“This isn’t a situation where someone is trying to
sell a concept,” says Fuhrer. “It’s based on information and education. And as
we share that with each other, we’ve learned how to build that soil back. You
can’t help but become excited.”
That excitement was on display during the recent
Soil Health Tour. The first stop was a field owned by Sanford Williams, who,
along with his son Seth, operates a crop and livestock operation.
The 68-acre field grew alfalfa from 2006 to 2012. One cutting was taken
earlier this year and then on June 22 it was seeded to an eight-species mix of
warm season plants. Timely rains before drought set in during the summer helped
produce a good stand, which has resulted in a huge amount of biomass and a
build-up of fertility. The Williamses plan on letting their cows calve in the
small pasture next to the field, and then turning the animals out to graze—and
The farmers on the tour seem to be aware that this
is a long-term investment in their land’s, and farm’s, overall health—a tough
sell at a time when a quick applications of fertilizers and chemicals can
produce an extremely profitable crop in short order.
“I want to plant corn—you can probably guess why,”
says Sanford while standing in the mix of cover crops. “Seth wanted to plant
cover crops. With crop commodity prices where they are, I’m probably the hard
one to convince to do that.”
But even the elder Williams concedes that this
investment is paying off in ways high corn prices never could—tests show
organic matter and fertility are being built up to impressive levels in the
field, all without adding extra fertilizer. Later in the tour the father and
son show off pastures that have been mob grazed. Sanford explains that a lot of
his pastures had been full of unpalatable gumweed before.
“Now I can’t believe the grass that’s growing
there,” he says. “I’m not a guy who knows his grasses, but I’m seeing species
that are producing more feed. But it didn’t turn around right away.”
Fuhrer backs up that last point by talking about
how although diverse cover cropping and mob grazing can rev up the biology of
the soil considerably, farmers must take the long view.
“We didn’t get poor soils in one year and we won’t
solve this in one year,” he tells the tour participants.
Out of the lab
To Kristine Nichols, the fact that farmers are having a positive impact on such things as
organic matter at all is a major triumph, given that when she was a grad
student studying soil science such changes were talked about in terms of
geological time—not something that could be impacted in a matter of years.
Nichols is a soil microbiologist at the USDA’s Northern Plains Research Station in Mandan, just across the Missouri River from Bismarck. For a
scientist in a specialized field, Nichols has a refreshing attitude that
appeals to practical-minded farmers
“I’m less concerned about what soil organisms are,
and more about what they do,” she says. “We could really learn a lot more about
functionality of these organisms.”
Sitting in her basement office, Nichols is
noticeably energized by the fact that farmers in Burleigh County are, for
example, creating soil aggregates that engineer their own stability. This kind
of self-perpetuating health maintenance is an exciting field of study in
microbiology—and now it’s being used in the real world.
What these farmers are doing is also causing
Nichols to “go back to the textbooks” when questions come up on the land that
she’s never confronted before. For example, farmers like Brown seem to be able
to raise a good crop of corn with less rainfall than one would expect. Why?
Nichols has been poring over plant physiology texts looking for clues.
Situations like this make it difficult to determine who is pushing who in terms
of cutting-edge innovations in building soil health.
“Just like they challenge me to ask questions, I
challenge them,” says Nichols. “These guys are so innovative, and they so have
the desire for challenge that I don’t want them to stop, and I don’t want them
to allow me to stop. Innovations on the part of farmers are forcing us to come
at this from a systems approach and ask deeper questions.”
Something for everybody
And that’s another key to success here—everybody
gets something out of this team effort. People involved in the Burleigh County
Soil Health Team like to say that if you put soil at the middle, then
everything else will follow. It’s like giving control over to a powerful,
somewhat mysterious force. And ideally, under the general umbrella of improving
the life in our land’s basement, everyone gets a takeaway.
In simple terms, Fuhrer and his colleagues can say
they are reducing erosion and Nichols gets to see scientific theory and
research put into practice while she is given new questions to ponder. But just
as importantly, farmers who are involved in improving soil health also benefit
in some very significant ways. In a sense, it’s a very community-based approach
to an issue that touches on everything from environmental protection and
economic viability to the future of rural communities and quality of life.
A lot of the impetus for this team approach comes from the popularity
of Holistic Management in the region. Developed by Allan Savory over three decades ago,
this is a decision-making framework that has helped farmers, ranchers,
entrepreneurs and natural resource managers from around the world achieve a
“triple bottom line” of sustainable economic, environmental and social
benefits. This framework is built upon the idea that all human goals are
fundamentally dependent upon the proper functioning of the ecosystem processes
that support life on this planet—water cycling, energy flow (conversion of
solar energy) and community dynamics (biological diversity).
Holistic Management’s emphasis on “community
dynamics” plays a big part in how the Soil Health Team operates.
“The Holistic model has helped get family members and business team
members on the same page, helping them all pull in the same direction,” says
Joshua Dukart, a Holistic Management certified educator who also works as a
technician for the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District. He is also a
field representative for the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition.
Another important fringe benefit to Holistic
Management is that it puts producers in the driver’s seat, providing more, for
want of a better phrase, creative control, over what they do out on the land.
“When you look at it from the approach of restoring
the soil, it’s a whole different thing for the farmer,” says Fuhrer. “It’s a
much more positive approach.”
What’s striking about the farmers who are working
on soil health in Burleigh County is that in a way doing things in service of
microbes has given them a type of flexibility not present on conventional
farms. At each tour stop, host farmers were invariably asked about future plans
for this crop field or that pasture. The majority were not set on one concrete
choice. They were open-minded—willing to see what nature throws their way
For example, Seth and Sanford Williams talked about
the future of their cover-cropped field. After the cattle mob graze it, then
“We don’t have a definite plan,” says Sanford,
adding that it depends on how much moisture the area receives in the next
several months—adequate precipitation may mean corn will be a good fit for the
field next spring, while droughty conditions could call for a small grain like
wheat. Either way they’ve gotten cheap cattle (and microbe) feed out of the
current stand of cover crops at a time when dry weather has made forage dear.
A version of that think-on-your-feet attitude about
the next planting season is heard more than once on the tour.
“It gives you flexibility when dealing with
drought,” says cattle producer Ron Hein while standing next to a 37-acre field
that used to be all one pasture—in recent years he’s broken it up into 20
grazing paddocks. He points out that while one paddock is being grazed, 19
others are resting and rejuvenating, which is particularly important when
moisture is short. “It keeps me from having to sell cows.”
Fuhrer says farmers who are actively building soil
health don’t so much look at specific crops as much as they do at the four
major crop types—warm season broadleaf, warm season grass, cool season grass
and cool season broadleaf—needed in a given year to keep the soil covered and
biologically active as much as possible. Within those types there can be dozens
Such flexibility cannot only pay off agronomically
and economically, it can make farming more interesting.
The last stop of the Soil Health Tour is the Darrell and Jody Oswald
farm near the tiny town of Wing. Using a combination of cover crops, no-till
and mob grazing, the organic matter on the Oswald operation has been raised to
a respectable 4 percent. Darrell, a long-time cattleman, talks about how
working on soil health has made something he never really
enjoyed—cropping—interesting for his family.
“Pretty much everything we do and the decisions we
make are based on improving the resource,” he says while standing near one of
his cornfields, just across the fence from the farm’s pastures. “Raising annual
crops is exciting for us now.”
The next generation
Farmers are results-oriented, and during the tour
many mention it’s exciting, and even fun, to see positive changes on the land
and in the bank account as a result of focusing more on “the resource,” as they
refer to soil.
That positive energy is infectious and can help
attract and keep a younger generation in farming. Gabe and his wife Shelly are
thrilled that their son Paul recently joined the farming operation after
finishing college. He’s helping perfect their integration of crops and
livestock while experimenting with enterprises of his own, such as a pastured
Seth Williams likes machinery and raising crops,
skills integral to his family’s goal of improving soil health through
diversity. After attending a grazing conference, he became convinced animals
play a key role in building healthy soil, and he talked his dad into sharing
their cattle enterprise with Ron Hein, who is a cousin
Dukart, the Holistic Management educator, says this
kind of teamwork has allowed the Williams and Hein families to concentrate on
individual strengths and interests, while contributing to the overall goal of
improving the base resource: soil.
“Any given acre, Seth would like to crop it,
Sanford would like to hay it, and Ron would like to graze it,” says Dukart.
“But they are able to concentrate on their interests and talents and abilities
in certain areas and they’re able to complement each other with those. They
don’t segregate themselves from any other parts of the operation and still stay
very involved with the decision making as a whole, but basically take the
leadership in one area or another.”
Burleigh County is far from having the ultimate
soil-friendly farming system finalized. Nichols, the soil microbiologist, is
constantly challenging farmers to push things even further and shoot for
organic matter levels that rival native grasslands in the area.
Brown thinks a lot of these practices will stay
limited in scope until farmers learn to observe the land closely and not rely
on cookie-cutter solutions such as chemicals.
“One of the problems I see is a lot of the farmers
and ranchers today —and I’ll just be blunt—they’re disconnected from the land.
They oftentimes hire crop consultants, and the farms are so large and the
equipment so big they don’t get off the tractor and feel the soil and see
what’s happening,” he says while holding a handful of his own soil.
Fuhrer says a lot of progress has been made—he
estimates the NRCS field office in Bismarck works with 200 to 300 farmers on
various conservation projects that support soil health one way or the other.
But more needs to be done to provide as many options as possible for farmers.
The day after the tour, which is one of dozens of soil health-related events
put on in the county each year, Fuhrer was back in his office going over the
results of Menoken Farm trials involving 98 varieties of cowpea, a warm-season,
drought-tolerant legume. Six varieties were chosen for further planting.
Fuhrer is also seeking ways to get the “soil health
is important” message out to the non-farming public. After all, non-farmers
also benefit from healthy soil in terms of a more resilient food system and a
cleaner environment. Getting the average citizen to talk about dirt in a
positive way may sound far-fetched, but Fuhrer points out that a number of
farmers “spoke for the resource” in a passionate way during the September field
tour, something they may not have been so comfortable doing just few years ago.
“It was a good day for the resource,” says the
conservationist as he and other participants enjoy barbecued sandwiches at a
park after the tour.
He was referring to the soil, but he could just
have easily been talking about the people who work it.