Applying the Soil Health Principles

by Dallas Mount

grassland

Recently I had the opportunity to co-teach a Soil Health Academy in North Carolina alongside Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz, Gabe Brown and Allen Williams. While attending the 3-day academy the participants and I got to see practical application of the soil health principles on Dark Branch Farm operated by Adam Grady. The results are undeniable. Adam has been implementing the soil health principles on Dark Branch Farm for a few years now. When we dug holes in Adam’s fields the soil was aggregated, smelled like soil and full of life. When we stepped across to a conventionally managed field the soil was compact, loose fine sand with no aggregates and devoid of life. We conducted an infiltration test and Adam’s soil infiltrated 1 inch, in about 1.5 minutes. In comparison it took the other property 10 minutes to infiltrate the same inch of water. I visited Gabe Brown’s farm near Bismarck, ND several years ago, the results his management has had on his soil are mind-blowing. Gabe’s soil was like chocolate cake. We dug it with our hands and earthworms hung from our fingers. At the academy Gabe shared economic data comparing the margins of raising crops using traditional inputs and his margins raising crops on the healthy soil he has built, which does not require many inputs. The trajectory of input prices makes this even more attractive in today’s economic realities.

Dallas on Gabe Brown’s ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota

Building soil health is like making deposits in the bank account of your farm or ranch. Healthy soils facilitate the exchange of nutrients between plants and microbes, allow water to infiltrate and store moisture. Which makes your land more drought resistant and able to capture moisture when it comes.

 

The Soil Health Academy teaches Six Soil Health Principles.

  1. Know your context
  2. Minimize mechanical and chemical disturbance
  3. Maintain cover and build surface armor
  4. Biodiversity
  5. Keep living roots in the soil
  6. Integrate livestock

They report that the principles work in every environment where vegetation is present. The soil health principles overlap nicely with the grazing principles we teach at Ranching for Profit.  A well-managed grazing operation of perennial pastures is the ultimate soil building machine. I enjoyed a particular statement by Gabe Brown, “There is no better cover crop than a diverse perennial system.” However, for those of you with farm acres, or for those of you wanting to convert farmed acres back to perennial pasture, application of the soil health principles can allow you to build soil health in ways many (including myself) never thought possible.

 

A healthy ag business is built on a healthy ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is built on healthy soil. You need to get to know your soil. At RMC we suggest grabbing a shovel and digging some holes. When you are out in the pasture instead of looking across the landscape, look down, take note of your ground cover and count how many different species of plants you have growing. When you dig a hole see what’s going on underground, how does your soil feel, what does it smell like, do you have signs of life in the soil like earthworms, insects and biology forming aggregations? Making a realistic observation of where you are, will help you figure out how to get to where you want to be.

6 Responses to “Applying the Soil Health Principles”

April 13, 2022 at 4:03 am, Marty Lawrence said:

Awesome
Keep the good stuff coming.

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April 13, 2022 at 12:23 pm, Monte+lerwick said:

So you were able to play in the same sand box? This is powerful stuff in my experience, lots of synergy mentioned: livestock and crops, grass and legume perennials mixes, perennials and annuals. I would add one more that would be offensive to some; tillage and no tillage. Like extremely high stock density, tillage can be a portal for powerful short term change.

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April 13, 2022 at 2:37 pm, Tom A Krawiec said:

You are speaking to the choir Dallas. I doubt if there is a single person reading this blog who would disagree with you. What I find disappointing is that the popularized methods to improve soil health involve farming. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap in our knowledge on how to use ranching methods to improve soil health at the level farmers like Gabe are achieving.

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April 16, 2022 at 9:29 am, Bruce Troester said:

I share your frustrations Tom. I hear of all kinds of dramatic improvement in soil health in a farming, cover crops scenario; I hear how we should mimic native range with its biodiversity in our farming methods and see the evidence in increased organic matter and overall soil health, but I never see the same benefits demonstrated in a perennial pasture setting. I love what Gabe Brown does, but I question if his pastures have seen the same meteoric rise I organic matter.

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April 14, 2022 at 3:32 am, Kelley O’Neill said:

“We have been able to create on our gravel loam subsoils from 7-8” of truck garden topsoil within as many years and brought back into production hundreds of acres most of which had been abandoned as ‘worn out’ useless land.” – Louis Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 1948.

Same year the USDA’s secretary wrote in their yearbook of Ag: “many of the people with whom I have talked look upon grassland as the foundation of security in agriculture. They believe in grass, and do do I, in the way we believe in the practice of conservation, or in good farming, or prosperity, or cooperation. For grass is all those things; it is not just a crop. Grassland agriculture is a good way to farm and to live, the best way I know of to use and improve soil, the very thing on which our life and civilization rest.”

Most of us have forgotten how to “farm.” And what in the devil is the difference, really, between “farm,” “ranch” and “garden” other than semantics in our heads?

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April 20, 2022 at 6:08 am, Lealand Schoon said:

Rangeland Ecosystems: Consider listening to Soil Health Labs Podcast Episode 24 Boosting Soil Biology or GrowingResilienceSD.com or no-tillfarmer.com/articles/11362 (the last part) or Dickinson Research Extension Center NDSU Biologically Effective Grazing

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