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Beefs and Beliefs

Soil health is an utterly new idea

Soil health is an utterly new idea
History and paleontology says soil health cannot improve under human management, but at last we can reverse the record.


I am invigorated by the soil health movement.

That's because throughout the entire history of agriculture -- even the prehistory of agriculture, including the study of fossil records and of pollen deposits in lakebed and ocean sediment -- mankind has amassed a very poor record of stewardship. In fact, over my years of study I have come to call it a record of environmental failure. And yes, cities and industrialized things like construction sites are clearly worse!

Most recently, I've been reading the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David Montgomery. I'm a little late getting to it, but after multiple queries from friends about whether I have read the thing, I'm finally doing it.

Soil erosion and the death of soil life have been the standards of societies for millenia, but we can reverse all that with the right management for grazing and farming.

I have only read the first 120 pages so far, but mostly it recalls a portion of the data I have studied over the past 25 years, all of which convinced me what a sorry job of caretaking we have done since God gave us Biblical "dominion" way back there.

The long and short of it is the basic method of agriculture, whether grazing or farming, has always been to simplify the complex life in the soil, thereby setting up a cycle of decline in an environment that requires multiple symbioses.

Where farming/tillage is concerned, massive soil loss over decades has been the norm in nearly all locations, but even in the few small places where farmers have worked very hard to save the soil, the organic matter and therefore the soil life has been slowly destroyed anyway.

This means that soil life, soil health, and the building of soil organic matter are the measuring sticks of farming and ranching success.

That's why 25 years ago, as I began to see the positive changes from grazing management, meaning the improvements that come from short-term grazing followed by partial or complete recovery, I began to get excited about the prospects for grassland management. We didn't have any data then, and most people were only taking baby steps, but things were getting better and easier, they were growing more forage, and the cattle appeared to be healthier and happier.

I remember one Oklahoma rancher telling me, "It's amazing how much grass you can grow when you stop being mean to it."

By now I have been on scores of ranches where managers were and are practicing grazing management. All of them were innovative and adaptive managers, and all of them have sworn they would never go back to the old ways because their lives were better and they were and are happier doing things they way they do them now. I have seen minor improvements and massive ones.

Walt Davis, the Oklahoma ranching consultant who writes now for Beef Producer, understood the basics even back in the early 1990s when I first met him. I remember him telling me this whol management thing was really about soil health, but that people weren't ready for that kind of information. He was right. But times are changing.

In 2008 I met Gabe Brown in North Dakota. Up to that time I knew the long-term potential for grazing had changed and the tiny bit of honest research done on grazing management was showing that to be true. But farming ... there was another issue.

Gabe showed me he could increase soil organic matter, which can only happen when you increase soil life, at the same time he was making more money and producing better crops with lower inputs.

Thanks to help from his local NRCS conservationist, Jay Fuhrer, they even had the basic data to show the changes and the values.

Now farmers are flocking to soil health meetings all over the country. But don't be fooled. These are only the leaders, the early adopters. The vast majority of farmers and grazing managers are still stuck in those 10,000-year-old ruts, doing the same thing their ancestors did and wreaking that long, slow decline.

The truth is, it's probably largely up to the next generation to adopt these principles. Sadly, the higher profits generated by the change, in addition to the better stewardship and easier life, are apparently not reward enough for most folks. I can only guess the learning curve must appear to the masses much more daunting than any perceived rewards.

But people will change. If nothing else, the old will literally pass away and the new will take over. Generational change is like soil erosion -- slow and very slow.

Below I'll share a few top books that have helped me understand ecology of farming, ranching and nature, but I clearly can't list the hundreds of research papers and magazine articles and public presentations and interviews and telephone conversations.

Conquest of the Land through 7,000 years, W.C. Lowdermilk
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Mongomery
Holistic Management, Allan Savory
The Holistic Management Workbook, Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield
The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery
A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting
Man, Cattle and Veld, Johann Zietsman
Farmers of Forty Centuries, F.H. King
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Wallace Stegner
Altars of Unhewn Stone, Wes Jackson
Becoming Native to This Place, Wes Jackson
The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry
The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry
If You Want to be a Cowboy Get a Job, Stan Parsons
For the Love of Land, Jim Howell
Cattle in the Cold Desert, James A. Young and B. Abbott Sparks
Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History, H. E. Jacob
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann
After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America, E.C. Pielou
Livestock Production: Man Must Measure, Jan Bonsma
The Buffalo Book, David A. Dary
Plowman's Folly, Edward H. Faulkner
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