Teaming With Soil Microbes (part 2)

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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 Friday 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 and sunflower.

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 of impressive biological and chemical tests are shared, and crop fields and pastures thriving on that soil are put on display. At one stop at a cornfield, a large jar of water sits next to a six-foot deep soil profile trench. Suspended at the top of the jar in a wire cage is a fist-sized clump of soil that came from the cornfield. Even though it’s been immersed in the water as part of 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 chemicals.

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.

New thinking

“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 stamp biomass.

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.”

Flex farming

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 before deciding.

For example, Seth and Sanford Williams talked about the future of their cover-cropped field. After the cattle mob graze it, then what?

“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 of choices.

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 poultry business.

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.”

A word for the resource

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.

Read part 1 of “Teaming With Soil Microbes” here.

To listen to an LSP podcast featuring members of the Burleigh County Soil Health Team click here.

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