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Can the soil save us?

Laura Nelson Published on 26 September 2015
farmers and ranchers gather to learn about soil

The money may already be in the bank, just waiting to be cashed out.

“Often, we’re sitting on a great big bank account we have no idea is there,” Nicole Masters says.

Masters, an agro-ecologist with Integrity Soils, looks at a range of production goals on most ranches, starting with profitability, in order to accomplish a range of other objectives: growing healthy food, a quality lifestyle, eliminating erosion, eradicating weeds, sustaining multiple generations, having more grass, having clean water and more.

Nicole Masters

“The answer is in the soil – the soil is the only thing that is going to fix all these things.”

And soil isn’t just money in the bank; healthy soil is the bank, holding on to life’s most precious asset, agronomist Kate Vogel says. “As you improve your soil health, you’re able to store more water,” the Ballantine, Montana, farmer and co-owner of North 40 Ag Consulting says.

That means in a drought situation, the soil holds on to moisture longer. Conversely, in the event of a flash flood, water absorbs more quickly and reduces the dramatic runoff that can cause damage aboveground.

Steve Charter

At the 2 Lazy 2 Ranch in Shepherd, Montana, owner Steve Charter stands in a 5-foot trench dug in one of his cattle pastures, examining the layers of soil with Masters. This is the side of their ranch many livestock owners rarely examine.

“The soil building is going on underground. We can’t build it from the top down,” Charter says. “As ranchers, we tend to look at what’s happening aboveground to judge the range condition, but really, it’s all going on underground.”

Under there, they’re looking at crumb structure, root diversity, biodiversity, compaction and taking note of the sights and smells of the bank account that holds the most potential for growth.

“You have more livestock under the ground eating than above the ground,” Masters says, breaking an aggregate of soil in her hands, rolling the bare roots through her fingers. “Those are the ones you really need to be concerned with.”

The biologic bank account

Soil carbon – organic matter – is the big bank account.

“Soil carbon is the stable stuff. It’s what gives soil its lovely chocolate brown color, it’s what holds on to the moisture,” Masters says. Each carbon molecule has the potential to hold 20 molecules of water, so small increases in soil carbon go a long way in carrying capacity. An increase in carbon by 1 percent creates an increased holding capacity of up to 15,000 gallons of water per acre down 12 inches, Masters says.

“It is feasible to affect these things with management,” Charter says. “Anything you can do to make the grass healthy is making the soil healthy, and you’re increasing carbon in the soil.”

More carbon fuels the carbon cycle, which fuels photosynthesis. It’s simple biology – and certainly terms agriculturalists are intimately familiar with. But it’s the slight mental shift of focusing on the bank account below rather than the immediate priorities above that can make the bank pay.

“Your whole ranching system, and the success of it, depends solely on how well you capture solar energy,” Masters says. “If we can get in the mindset of being solar farmers above all else, we’re on the right track.”

Increasing the soil’s spending limit

“The key organism in holding soils together is fungi,” Masters says. “And the most important of those is mycorrhizae.” Those are the fungi that provide a major pathway for phosphate, zinc and nitrogen to crops and sequester carbon deep in the soil.

“It’s the currency of life – the spending. The plants make the sugars, and then they send the sugars out through the roots with the mycorrhizae with an order of what nutrients it needs in exchange.”

Clean roots are not a good thingEssentially, they’re swiping the bank card for cash.

This fungus has a relationship with more than 90 percent of all plant species. Those that do not require mycorrhizae – plants typically viewed as noxious weeds in the brassicas, amaranthus and chenopodium families – have a competitive relationship and will hit the ground running if mycorrhizae aren’t plentiful.

“Understanding the role of mycorrhizae fungi and how all these micro-organisms live in symbiosis with the grass is a lot. But the good news is: When we start to understand the role of all these soil microbes, we can do things to one, stop killing them, and then two, jump-start them,” Charter says.

Grazing for greenbacks

At Charter’s place, they’ve been focused on varying systems of intensive grazing since the 1980s. In that time, high-stock grazing practices have allowed them to nearly double their stocking rates.

“The biggest part of our holistic management is high-stock grazing. We graze an area until the grass is either eaten or knocked down, and then we don’t come back until it’s restored,” Charter says. “My idea of what ‘recovery’ looks like is different than it used to be,” he says.

Most pastures are grazed intensely for a short period of time, then given a full year to recover. That’s promoted diversity in the native range, reduced some of the sagebrush and promoted ground cover over the years, all indicators proven by continued range monitoring.

Damage from overgrazing is often more the result of too much time on the land rather than too many animal units, Vogel points out. As the grasses work to regenerate after grazing, they pull more of their energy (sugars) out of the root systems to promote aboveground growth. If they’re bitten off again in that intense period of re-growth, the roots are what really suffer.

“Over time, it reduces that root mass and it disappears,” Vogel says. “That’s when weeds get a stronghold underground, and eventually less desirable plants overcome the landscape.”

Reversing that negative process with the same tools which created it – livestock, but now with strategic grazing – will slowly but surely begin to allow the “good stuff” to reclaim ground and utilize the death of the “bad stuff” to aid its cause.

“As you long-term change that system with strategic grazing, the sagebrush dies off and those root channels stay open,” Vogel says. “As long as you’re not removing them mechanically, those big, deep taproots, over time, leave nice channels where water can flow into your system.”

Feeding the fungi

The good fungi feed on complex sugars and proteins – so applying complex biological stimulants can also open up the mycorrhizae to do their jobs.

Fish oil, sea water and compost and protozoa teas can help increase the “spending limit” of nutrient-locked soils. A protozoa tea can be made by soaking a bale of alfalfa in water for three days, then spraying the resulting water on pastures.

Protozoa have a lower carbon ration, and they eat bacteria for energy, “So the more of these things you can have in the system, the more that cycling is taking place to build soil structure. You give it a big kick to flush the system,” Vogel says.

They can be applied with a traditional sprayer, ensuring the sprayer is thoroughly cleaned before use.

Both Vogel and Masters agree that finding the right applications and management techniques are highly ranch-specific, depending on the landscape, livestock, climate and production goals. Beginning steps must include the process of asking questions, monitoring soil health and seeking underground improvements.

“If we can identify the anchor that drags the ship, we can lift that and take off,” Masters says. “Often, it could be a trace element that’s holding everything back. So we look for something to tickle the system, get those bugs underground working and moving for us.”

As the livestock underground flourish, those aboveground can too.

“We see better animal health, better weight gains, better feed efficiency, higher stock rates,” Masters says, over time as biology and health builds. “They’re all dollar signs.”  FG

Laura Nelson is a freelance writer based in Montana.

PHOTO 1: Farmers, ranchers and gardeners from south-central Montana gathered at the 2 Lazy 2 Ranch near Shepherd, Montana, for a day-long workshop on soil health with agro-ecologist Nicole Masters. Masters’ company, Integrity Soils, is based in New Zealand, where she provides consulting and education on regenerative agriculture throughout North America, New Zealand and Australia.

PHOTO 2: Agro-ecologist Nicole Masters says the first step to understanding soil health is simply getting your hands dirty and spending time studying it.

PHOTO 3: Steve Charter, owner of the 2 Lazy 2 Ranch, hosted “Could the Soil Save Us?” a workshop focused on soil health and holistic ranch management. “It’s a very slow process, but studies have proven that when you start doing some of these things, you can build the soil up at a more rapid rate than we ever thought possible,” Charter says.

PHOTO 4: Clean roots are not a good thing,” agro-ecologist Nicole Masters reminds agrarians. “It’s the crumbs attached to the roots that are providing the nutrients to the plants, so we want dirty, dirty roots. We’re looking for ‘Rastafarian’ roots.” Photos courtesy of Laura Nelson.