by Patti Armbrister, AERO Board Member
The soil health workshop that was held in Missoula was exciting and packed full of alternative sustainable practices for farmers and ranchers. 130 people of all ages were gathered to hear how to improve their soils.
Soil is everything. To create a healthy human future, we must start building soil and stop fighting with nature. Soil carbon is the KEY driver for the nutritional status of plants, and therefore the mineral density in animals and people. Soil carbon is the driver for farm profit, and soil carbon is the key driver for soil moisture holding capacity (frequently the most limiting factor for production). At the workshop hosted by NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) and SWCDM (Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana), rancher Gabe Brown demonstrated that we had better start letting mother nature lead if we are going to survive.
Gabe Brown has 20 years of experience practicing holistic regeneration of his land. The North Dakota farmer opened the session with the statement, “Degraded soil is dirt.” Then he asked the producers in the room, “Why is the only plant growing across the Montana plains winter wheat?” The question was greeted with silence.
Gabe believes that we must have diverse, living plants growing on the soil, because we need to harvest the energy from the sun with photosynthesis in order to take care of the soil: human health is directly related to the soil’s health. Gabe’s says we must, “be conservative when it comes to deploying capital and spending resource but be innovative when it comes to learning and practicing ideas to achieve land regeneration and insure sustainability.”
Gabe established that the current production model is not working, showing that the US spends more on healthcare than any other country, yet has fallen to the rank of 42nd healthiest country in the world. The US is 1st in ADD & ADHD, chronic degenerative diseases, all auto- immune diseases, all cancers, and obesity.
After selling all of his tilling equipment in 1993, Gabe started no-tilling practices because he was spending more money in synthetic inputs in order to achieve the same level of production. The rangeland in the west historically had 4.0- 6.5 organic matter in the soil before we started farming it, and in 1993 his organic matter had dropped to 1.7- 1.9 and had a filtration rate of only 1⁄2” of rain per hour, which calculated to 190,000,000 gallons over year on 5,000 acres of land. In 2013, that same land is holding 700,000,000 gallons of rainfall with 7.0% organic matter. 1% organic matter in the top 6” of soil can hold between 20,000 and 27,000 gallons of water. At the current levels of organic matter, his land is filtering 13.2” of rain in 6 hours. Just think for a minute about the heavy 7’ rain Valley County received that lead to
massive region wide flooding in 2014: we could have held all of that rain if everyone was using Brown’s practices!
Gabe educated himself with advice from people like Don Campbell, who said, “If you want to make major changes, you have to change how you look at things.” He started studying nature, and nature never leaves the soil un-covered. In 2006 Brown started following Dr. Ademir Calegari’s approach of planting cover crops in multi-species cocktail mixes.
Gabe’s 5 Keys to Success:
- Least amount of mechanical disturbance as possible
- Aromor the soil (add or leave leaf or plant litter on the soil surface)
- Diversity: there are 140 different species of plants on the native range (use multi species combinations)
- Leave roots as long as possible. This adds carbon to the soil and the roots store the carbon. It all begins with photosynthesis. For example, tilling radishes and turnips takes up nitrogen and then lets it stay in the soil; the cover crop ties up the nutrients and hold them in the soils.
- Animal impact, have diversity in animals that are using the land. Animals should be used to eat the plant growth and not the regrowth.
It takes time to rebuild your soils: the microorganisms are dead and it takes time to rebuild them and bring them back to life. You should plan on 3-4 years to really start to see improvements. It has taken over 40-50 years to destroy the soil and it will take time to bring it back to life. You need to think long term, be patient, and not expect results in the first year or two.
The Brown Ranch has a 250 head cow and calf operation, hogs, sheep, poultry & egg production, bees, grain, vegetables, fruit, and dogs. All of the animals are grazing on the regrowth of multi species cover crops. All phases of the operation have been trying to follow what mother nature does. For example, the cows calve May-June with no assistance, and wean in April. The calves and cows grace mob-grace on bales placed all over the farm, limiting labor in winter feeding. The cattle are finished on the grass and cover crops, and marketed locally through the Brown’s family mobile restaurant operation. The operation is considered all natural, and they are allow beneficial insects, breaking pest life cycles by rotating grazing practices, eliminating the need for vaccines or any drugs. There are 1,700 beneficial species for every 1 pest species, and Brown stopped using all chemicals in 1993, with the exception of some mild herbicides on very limited bases. He is letting mother nature do the work.
The Brown Ranch sells vegetable produce, pork, eggs, lamb, pet food, beef, honey, all while regenerating landscape. The operation is also did a joint venture, and built a processing meat plant. They encourage ecotourism, and added value to each product they market. In the future,
they are planning a food coop to market even more of their products. The operation is located right on the edge of Bismarck, making marketing retail products easier than if they were in a more remote location.
In closing, Brown stated, “We’re running out of time to make the adjustments to the soil that are required to continue to be productive on the land.” From the depleted state that the agriculture soils of America are in, Gabe has been able to improve soil organic matter to 11.1%. Rather than using synthetic fertilizer and chemical herbicides that are fighting nature, Gabe believes you must get in sync with nature and let her lead.
Gabe is using a warm season cover crop mix of eleven different species of plants to mimic nature and to bring microorganism & earth worms to life in his soils. Both speakers are using mob grazing and winter bale grazing to add armor (plant litter) to improve & enhance soil health.
It looks like diversity drives soil health, and Gabe says if you have 45 days that a plant could grow, then he plants it. For such a short growing season, he plants buckwheat and cowpeas. He also adds 2# of tilling radishes (soil improvement) to every mix and always uses brown ribbed sudan, kale and turnips for grazing. He plants multi-species cover crop (include several clovers in the mix) at the same time he plants winter wheat.
Let’s get started, diversify, plant multi-species cover crops, improve soil, soil life, hold water, and improve human healthy. What are you waiting for?