Tag Archive for: Healthy Soil

The Seeds of Vandana Shiva

Meet Precious Phiri who spends her days teaching farmers in Zimbabwe how to mitigate climate change.
Specifically, she instructs them in holistic land management, a method that rejuvenates depleted water and degraded soil while drawing climate-changing C02 out of the atmosphere.
Originally trained by the Savory Institute, the enthusiastic Ms. Phiri explains that a cornerstone of holistic management is that eco-systems without animals create ecological imbalance. Grasslands, for example, deteriorate when the food chain that keeps them alive is disturbed. Deprived of a symbiotic relationship with ruminants, grass dies and then soil dies. And, in the process, climate-disrupting carbon discharges into the atmosphere.
It’s simple but not obvious: Ecosystems need both fauna and flora to thrive. Think of the oceans without whales or Yellowstone National Park without wolves. It’s the great web of life.
The phenomenon, sometimes described as a “trophic cascade,” is a biological process that flows between every part of the food chain.
Here Precious explains it:
Here’s another obvious but often-overlooked fact: Healthy humans come from healthy food that originates in healthy soil. And there is no way to support this synergy between our health and the biosphere in an industrial food system: Big Ag and Big Food disrupts precious water cycles, destroys biodiversity, pummels the biosphere with toxic pesticides, and imprisons innocent animals that should be on the land. This isn’t mere sentiment; it’s actually climate science.
In a regenerative world, it’s OK to eat meat, but if you’re going to do so, it’s imperative to transition to organic, grass-fed and free-range–and not in the quantities Big Ag and Big Food would have you do. Any other way and we are contributing to global warming, impacting our health and, by the way, engaging significantly in animal cruelty. Of course it’s more than OK to be vegan or vegetarian but, ecologically speaking, there is also an argument for conscious meat eating.
Vandana Shiva is vegetarian and also a founding member of Regeneration International, an organization that promotes and researches this stuff. Here’s a clip of her talking about the animals at her Navdanya farm.
And here are some books to read if you’d like to know more:
It’s a whole new world of hope for the environment, the climate and our own health. Perhaps the most hopeful story ever that too few people have heard.
P.S: About progress on our film about Dr. Shiva’s life story: We’ve just completed laying in additional dialogue, now we’re working on music and B-Roll. Onwards we go!
Please contribute to this next phase of our film about Dr. Shiva’s life story here: Every bit helps to get the film completed (and into your hands) sooner rather than later!

‘Four for 1000’: A Global Initiative to Reverse Global Warming Through Regenerative Agriculture and Land Use

“Four for 1000”: Burning Questions

Question One: What is the “Four for 1000: Soils for Food Security and Climate” Initiative launched by the French government at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015?

Answer: “Four for 1000: Soils for Food Security and Climate” is a global plan and agreement to reverse global warming, soil degradation, deteriorating public health and rural poverty by scaling up regenerative food, farming and land use practices.

Under this Initiative, over the next 25 years, regenerative agriculture and large-scale ecosystem restoration can qualitatively preserve and improve soils, pastures, forests and wetlands while simultaneously drawing down (through enhanced plant photosynthesis) billions of tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere, turning it into biomass and sequestering it in our soils.

In simplest terms, 4/1000 calls for the global community to draw down as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we’re currently emitting, and at the same time stop emitting other greenhouse gases.

Question Two: How many countries and regions of the world have signed on to the 4/1000 Initiative?

Answer: Approximately 40 countries and regions of the world have already signed on to the 4/1000 Initiative. Hundreds of grassroots civil society organizations also have signed on.

Proponents of 4/1000 expect most nations, regions and cities will sign on to the Initiative before the end of this decade, to meet their INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Commitments) obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Countries already signed on include: France, Germany, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Morocco, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, and Uruguay.

Question Three: Does the 4/1000 Initiative propose that we can reverse global warming and feed the world without drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions?

Answer: No. The proponents of the 4/1000 Initiative believe that we need to achieve both zero fossil fuel emissions and maximum drawdown of excess CO2 from the atmosphere over the next 25 years.

Question Four: Why is this global Initiative called the “Four for 1000 Initiative?”

Answer: 4/1000 refers to the average percentage of soil carbon increase that we need to achieve every year for the next 25 years in order to stabilize the climate and reverse global warming.

A 4/1000 increase in the amount of carbon stored in global soils (currently 1.5-2.5 trillion tons, depending on how deep you measure the carbon) over the next 25 years, combined with zero fossil fuel emissions, will enable us to sequester enough additional carbon (150-250 billion tons, or 6-10 billion tons per year) in our soils and forests to bring the atmosphere back to the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm of CO2 required to stabilize the climate, increase soil fertility, improve public health, secure food sovereignty, reduce global strife, and reverse global warming.

Question Five: Is it really possible to achieve the 4/1000 carbon drawdown goal of sequestering 6-10 billion tons of carbon per year, and continuing this for the next 25 years?

Answer: Yes, it is possible for global regenerative food, farming and land use (including forestry) practices to sequester 6-10 billion tons of carbon per year. How do we know this? Because the earth’s 22 billion acres of farmland, pasture and forests—even in their currently degraded condition—are already sequestering a net 1.5 billion tons of carbon annually. And because millions of organic or transition-to-regenerative farmers and ranchers and—“best practitioners”—are already sequestering far more than 4/1000 percent in additional soil carbon every year. Some report sequestering as much as 600 times this amount.

Question Six: What are the respective roles of consumers, farmers and other sectors in moving to a regenerative system of food, farming and land use?

Answer: Regenerative food, farming and land use will require a radical transformation in consciousness and in purchasing habits among a critical mass of 3-4 billion food and fiber consumers in the global North and the South.

On a global scale, consumers will need to move away from purchasing trillions of dollars of chemical, GMO and energy-intensive industrial agriculture foods, including meat, dairy and poultry from factory farms, and highly processed and packaged foods. Consumers also will need to eliminate food waste.

Reversing climate change and feeding the world will also require a transformation in production practices by a critical mass of the world’s 500 million small farmers, 200 million herders and 50 million large farmers. Regenerative farming methods include: holistic management and planned rotational grazing of livestock; cover-cropping; no-till practices; agro-forestry; diverse crop rotations, including integrating livestock grazing; use of compost, manure and biochar; and use of deeper-rooting plants and perennials. Synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and GMO monocultures are not included in regenerative farming methods.

Forest and fishing communities, homeowners and the approximately one billion urban food producers, gardeners and landscape managers also have a major role to play in the transition to regenerative agriculture and land-management system.

Question Seven: Is regenerative food and farming the same as organic, agro-ecological farming or rotational grazing?

Answer: No. Most practitioners of organic, agro-ecological and rotational grazing methods, certified or not, can be described as “potentially regenerative” or in “transition to regenerative.”

There are a number of terms used to describe ecological farming and ranching practices across the world, including agro-ecology, agro-forestry, permaculture, biodynamic, holistic management or grazing, conservation agriculture, organic, and others. All these agricultural systems support soil conservation practices to a certain degree. However, only regenerative food and farming has as its central focus the maximization of soil health, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

Question Eight: What are the main driving forces of global warming and climate instability? What roles do industrial agriculture, factory farming, GMO seeds, food processing, packaging, food waste, and mindless consumerism play in emitting greenhouse gases and degrading the soil and forests’ ability to sequester carbon and enhance biodiversity?

Answer: If you look closely at the entire process (often called the “carbon footprint”) of global food, farming and land use, our current chemical- and GMO-intensive, industrial, globalized, wasteful and highly processed system of food and fiber produces an alarming 44%-57% of all greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide.

Of this 44%-57% figure, the majority of emissions come from the world’s 50 million large industrial, chemical and GMO-intensive farmers and factory farms, who control 75% of all farm and, and produce 30% of the world’s food. (These figures contrast sharply with the role played by the 500 million smallholder farms and 200 million small herders who cultivate crops and graze animals on 25% of the land, while producing 70% of the world’s food).

In terms of the categories of food and farming greenhouse gas emissions this 44%-57% figure breaks down as follows:

• direct use of oil and gas in farming: 11%-15%

• deforestation 10%-15%

• transport 5%-6%

• processing and packaging 8%-10%

• freezing and retail 2%-4%

• waste 3%-4%.

We’ll never reach zero fossil fuel/greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, much less sequester a critical mass of excess atmospheric CO2, without a fundamental transformation of our entire food, farming, and land use system.

Question Nine: What is the current market share of Regenerative food and farming versus degenerative?

Answer: Global consumers living beyond the bare subsistence level (approximately 50% of the world’s population), as opposed to those three billion or more living at subsistence level, now spend $7.55 trillion on food. Much of that food is produced by the world’s 50 million large farmers and ranchers, who use degenerative, rather than regenerative practices.

Of course many of the world’s 700 million small subsistence farmers and herders are also using chemicals, grazing animals improperly, undermining soil fertility, and destroying wetlands and forests under the pressures of poverty and because they lack of access to good land, technical assistance, financing, markets and other resources.

About 75% of all food sold today in the Global North and among the middle classes of the developing world is low-nutrient processed food. And almost half of total food produced is either wasted or overconsumed.

The hidden costs of our degenerative food and farming system are staggering: $4.8 trillion in annual expenditures for social, health and environmental damages. (ETC Group, “Who Will Feed the World?” 2017)

There is very little food and fiber produced today that can genuinely be described as 100% regenerative. In terms of less degenerative or potentially “transition to regenerative,” the global certified (or non-certified) organic food, grass-fed and sustainably produced food market is considerably less than $1 trillion.

Question Ten: What is most important in terms of driving food, farming and land use in a regenerative direction: public policy or marketplace demand?

Answer: Both are essential. So far marketplace demand and the survival of traditional farming and animal husbandry practices are driving regenerative and potentially regenerative food, farming and land use, although support for organic and grass- fed production is increasing in some regions, especially the U.S. and Europe. In some countries most of the beef production is currently 100% grass-fed (Australia and Uruguay for example), and therefore at least semi-regenerative.

Unfortunately, governments of the world provide $600 billion a year or more in subsidies to industrial agriculture, GMOs, globalized exports and factory farms. Only a fraction of government subsidies go to organic, grass-fed, or what can be called “transition-to-regenerative” practices.

In the long run we will need both marketplace pressure and billions of dollars in annual public policy/public financing to move the majority of the world’s 750 million farms and ranches in a regenerative direction, as well as to carry out large-scale ecosystem restoration, reforestation and wetlands preservation.

Question Eleven: How can conscious consumers and the current minority of regenerative farmers, ranchers and land managers get more of their counterparts on board?

Mass public education for consumers, farmers and land managers on the health, environmental, social, economic, and climate benefits of regenerative food, farming and land use, combined with free technical assistance, training and financial incentives for farmers will be necessary to move from degenerative consumption and production practices to regenerative.

In each local area, region and nation best practices and practitioners will need to be identified and publicized. We also will need to establish regenerative pilot projects, provide farmer-to-farmer education, and scale up of public policy reform and financing.

Question Twelve: How many farmers, herders, ranchers and land managers are currently carrying out regenerative, or potentially regenerative, as opposed to degenerative, practices?

Answer: There are 2.5 million certified organic farms in 120 nations that can be characterized as potentially regenerative or transition-to-regenerative. There are probably 10-20 times more who are farming organically (but are not certified) and are supplying their families and local markets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 25-50 million of the world’s 750 million farms are utilizing traditional, sustainable practices, and could potentially make the transition to regenerative practices with sufficient technical and financial assistance.

Question Thirteen: What percentage of consumers and farmers will have to adopt regenerative production and consumption practices if we are to meet the goals of the Four for 1000 Initiative?

Answer: Focusing on the world’s current 25-50 million “potentially regenerative” farmers, herders and ranchers, we need to move these sustainable producers into full or near-full regenerative mode over the next five years (2017-2022). At the same time, we need to move another 50 million from chemical or degenerative practices into transition-to-regenerative practices (organic, whether certified or not, grass-fed, permaculture, agro-ecological). Then we need to double this pace between 2022-2027, so that we end up in 10 years with 100 million regenerative producers and another 100 million “transition-to-regenerative” producers.

By 2032 we need to accelerate this process so as to have the majority of the world’s farmers, herders and land managers (400 million or so farms and ranches) involved in regenerative or near regenerative practices. During this same time periode, 2017-2032, we will have to make a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, and convert the majority of the world’s consumers to regenerative thinking and purchasing.

All of this presupposes strong marketplace pressure on food and fiber corporations to transfer from degenerative to regenerative supply chains, and fundamental changes in government policy by cities, counties, nation states and international agencies and funding institutions.

Question Fourteen: What are the major obstacles to achieving the goals of the 4 for 1000 Initiative?

Answer: The main obstacles to achieving the goals of  the 4/1000 Initiative are:

• lack of public knowledge, not only of the 4/1000 Initiative, but of the drawdown/regeneration agriculture, consumption, and land use perspectives in general

• massive taxpayer subsidies in most of the countries of the world of corporate-controlled degenerative food, farming and land use practices

• lack of unity and cooperation between food, farming, climate, environmental, peace, democracy, natural health, and justice movements, both within national borders and across borders internationally

• lack of public policy initiatives and financing for regenerative initiatives such as 4/1000.

All these degeneration drivers are related to corporate control of the national and international economy and corporate corruption of the political process.

Question Fifteen: How can I persuade my organization, city, county, state or nation to sign on to the Four for 1000 Initiative?

Answer: We need to carefully build strategic core groups and coalitions at our organizational, local, county, state and national levels, with participation from food, farming, climate, environmental, peace, democracy, natural health, and justice movements. Additionally, we need to use public education and grassroots lobbying to get our local, county, state and national governments to sign on to the 4/1000 Initiative and to generate and support significate change in marketplace dynamics and public policy.

Question Sixteen: Where can I find out more about regenerative food, farming and land use, so that I can become an effective citizen lobbyist and activist?

Answer: Visit the Regeneration International website.

And check out the resources at Bio4climate.org.

Question Seventeen: Where can I find out more about the Four for 1000 Initiative?

Answer: Visit the 4/1000 website.

Read this policy brief.


Natural Intelligence Farming: Ian and Dianne Haggerty

Author: Christopher Johns | Published: August 3, 2017 

Key Point

  • Natural Intelligence farming uses natural processes combined with modern agricultural technology to produce food and fibre of optimum nutrition and quality while enhancing positive ecosystem development.
  • Natural Intelligence farming has the potential to sustainably regenerate the agricultural landscape, restore biodiversity and to sequester greenhouse gasses in the soil as beneficial soil carbon.
  • There is a direct link between soil health and human health and there is a growing body of research into this relationship between soil and plant/animal, human and environmental health.
  •  Natural intelligence farming can be applied to broad-acre agricultural production with only small changes to capital equipment and a reduction in operating costs and increased productivity.
  • Once the appropriate logistic infrastructure is available, the produce from Natural Intelligence farming can be market differentiated and priced accordingly for its nutrient diversity and absence of chemicals and other toxins.


Natural Intelligence Farming is the term Ian and Dianne Haggerty use to describe the harnessing of the dynamic, natural relationships that exists between all the organisms in the ecosystem and the environment itself, particularly the soil. These relationships are highly complex and versatile. They involve mutually beneficial interactions between the soil, plant seeds and roots, microorganisms, and the ruminants that feed on the plants and cycle dung and microbes back to the soil. Understanding these relationships requires a holistic engagement with the agricultural ecosystem and the body of scientific knowledge supporting this understanding is still incomplete. The key to natural intelligence farming is not to hinder or obstruct the interactions that support and inform these relationships.  The Haggerty’s aim is to facilitate natural intelligence with modern farming methods to create regenerative agricultural ecosystems that produce optimal food and fibre products.

Ian and Dianne farm approximately 13,000 hectares of land in Western Australia’s central wheatbelt, around 190 kilometres north east of Perth. After years of conventional farming, the Haggerty’s realised that their system was vulnerable to dry seasons. Input costs were steadily increasing without corresponding increases in productivity. Soil tests showed adequate nutrient levels, but tissue tests revealed nutrients were not getting to plants in appropriate balance, despite a comprehensive mineral fertiliser program. To top it off, rainfall in recent years had been less than half the annual average often falling in 3 to 5 mm events followed by windy weather, meaning much was lost to evaporation. Maximising crop production in dry years had become a real struggle and hard pans in their soils were severely restricting root growth. So, the Haggerty’s started to research biologically-based farming systems with the aim of increasing their soil’s microbial population, nutrient availability and moisture holding capacity.  What followed was a massive learning curve combining and adapting some of the world’s best ecological knowledge with much ground truthing and extension in harsh Western Australian semi-arid agricultural zone conditions.

Ian and Dianne have a life mission to facilitate positive global change by rebuilding soils in semi-arid regions, producing premium food and fibre and supporting the nutritional needs of humanity to optimise health. In this Feature Interview, FDI takes the opportunity to interview Ian and Dianne and investigate what it is that they are doing differently from other farmers and the benefits of their methods for productivity, ecological regeneration and plant, animal and human health.


FDI: As an introduction to this Interview could you give us a short history to your association with agriculture and the land?

I&DH:  While coming from long family backgrounds of farmers, neither of us was fortunate enough to inherit a farm so we purchased our own 660ha property in 1994 next door to Di’s parents. It was in the years immediately prior to purchasing our farm, while owning and operating a roadhouse in the Kimberley that we were exposed to some interesting ideas on land management through our contact and friendship with Robyn Tredwell of Birdwood Downs Station (Robyn was the 1995 ABC Rural woman of the year). Her views on using livestock as tools to “Feed, Seed and Weed” the land, penetrated deeply into our psyche even though we were not involved with a rural enterprise at the time.

Purchasing a farm took all our capital reserves so for the first few years we share-farmed our land with Di’s father and worked in return for use of his machinery to grow our crops.

While successfully farming conventionally in the 1990s, and slowly beginning to piece together a working range of plant machinery, it didn’t take long for us to realise that moisture in the soil was key to profitability and that hanging onto that moisture was critical to make a viable crop out of a poor spring. This fact, along with a questioning mind and noticing that there were discrepancies between soil test and tissue test results, sparked a drive for real answers. Reducing risk and increasing profitability year in year out were key goals for the business to progress.

In 2001, we embarked on learning how to improve soil health and productivity in the cropping program. Dr Elaine Ingham’s message of the miracle work of soil microbiological communities in providing optimum balanced nutrition to plants and prevention of disease and insect attack through soil health resonated with us.  At the same time, we consulted with Jane Slattery of South Australia to develop an understanding of ruminant nutrition, intuition and interconnectedness with landscape health.  Working on both the soil and animal health aspects concurrently enabled some wonderful synergies to express and assist with fast tracking the ecological progress of the farm.

 Dr Arden Andersen’s message of the direct link between soil health and human health outcomes rang alarm bells for me [Dianne] as an Occupational Therapist, practising Early Intervention Paediatric and Aged Care occupational therapy as the preventative model for health care which was firmly entrenched. A keen awareness of responsibility as food producers ensued. This was the beginning of an intense learning curve where we pursued the knowledge of many other international and national scientists, leaders in the field of soil health and its relationship to animal, human and environmental and global health.

In 2009 and 2010 we were privileged to be introduced to Dr Christine Jones, Dr Maarten Stapper and Walter Jehne who had considerable knowledge on working soil health principles in Australian agricultural environments. Dr Jones’ “liquid carbon pathway” answered many questions of what was happening within the soil to improve its friability and moisture holding capacity. This was confirmed with deep soil carbon testing in 2012 that confirmed observations with sound figures.  On similar soil types to neighbouring properties, soil carbon was improved by 10t/ha on our cropping land, an increase of 41.46% in the top 30cm of soil.

 It was this knowledge, along with an interest in using livestock to better “feed, seed and weed,” that first motivated us to embark on what has become a life-long passion to farm, together with natural processes, while maintaining a profitable farm business and improving natural capital.

FDI: What are the benefits of your agricultural practices?

I&DH: Our agricultural methods can make a significant contribution to improving global trends in environmental management and human health. There is an existing and growing body of scientific research supporting a wide range of benefits associated with our farming methods. We believe that natural intelligence farming can make a positive contribution in the following areas:

  • Carbon sequestration while producing optimal food and fibre production.
  • Increased biodiversity, particularly microbiological biodiversity in soil.
  • Nil chemical residues tested in grains grown.
  • Nutritional balance in foods grown
  • Decreased or elimination use of synthetic fertilisers.
  • Increased microbiome, the number and diversity of microorganisms in an ecosystem such as the digestive system.
  • Production of fully pasture fed meat that is high in omega-3, conjugated linoleic acid, vitamin E and has greater mineral diversity.
  • Greater reliability in grain crop yields.
  • Crop disease resistance resulting in decreased or eliminated use of fungicides and pesticides.
  • Lower energy requirement for agricultural production.
  • Improved equity.

Mastering Soil Health Elevates Farm Productivity, Sustainability

Author: Dennis Pollock | Published: June 19, 2017

Soil health best achieved by minimal soil disturbance, maximizing plant diversity, living roots yearlong, covered soil at all times with plants-residue

It seems in recent years it has become all the rage to make sure that the dirt under our feet – and plants or trees – is healthy in order to sustain farming.

Soil health was the chief topic at a University of California soil health field day held at Five Points, attended by about 200 people including boots-on-the-ground farmers and researchers.

Jeff Mitchell, University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist at Fresno County, has been toiling in the trenches – literally – for some 20 years, seeking to illustrate the value of cover crops, and no or low-till agriculture.

At the workshop held at the UC West Side Field Station, Mitchell had trenches to showcase, pits that showed differences between conventional and no-till farming. Speakers on hand discussed some of those differences.

Improved soil health

Mitchell, the growers, and others emphasized that managing for better soil health was best achieved by minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing the diversity of plants in rotation or used as cover crops, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and keeping the soil covered with plants and plant residue at all times.

“I have something growing in the ground 365 days a year,” said Scott Park with Park Farming in Meridian in the Sacramento Valley. “Having roots in the ground is 10,000 times better than adding biomass.”


Land Losses and Lessons on the Great Plains

Author: Peter Carrels | Published: July 7, 2017

Gabe Brown’s 5,200-acre farm and ranch in central North Dakota practically straddles the 100th meridian, the line that historically divided Eastern lands that were farmed from the drier Western lands that were grazed by livestock.

That geographic boundary, of course, has always been somewhat blurry. But in recent years, row-crop agriculture on an industrial scale has pushed the dry line westward. Modern sod-busting has gobbled up vast expanses of native grasslands, markedly enlarging the nation’s corn and soybean acres.

Critics watched this happen but weren’t able to quantify the ecological alteration. Now, an analysis issued by the World Wildlife Fund, Plowprint Report, confirms just how extensively the American Great Plains has been transformed. The Great Plains region, the short and mixed-grass portion of the North American prairie, includes lands from the Canadian border east of the Rocky Mountains, between Great Falls, Montana, and Fargo, North Dakota, and stretching south to Texas — some 800 million acres in total.

Destruction of the Eastern portion of the continent’s prairie region — the tallgrass part — was caused by conversion to corn and soybean fields and is nearly complete. Less than 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie ecosystem survives. The Plowprint study reveals that since 2009, more than 53 million acres of prairie on the Great Plains has been plowed and converted to corn, soybeans and wheat. That figure — an area that equals the size of Kansas — represents about 13 percent of the estimated 419 million acres of Great Plains grasslands that had survived in its native condition.

Fortunately, stewardship models show how farming can be less damaging and more sustainable. For example, Gabe Brown changed the way he managed his land after suffering four years —1995 to 1998 — of hail and drought. Nearly broke and lacking access to capital to buy seeds and chemicals, Brown re-examined his approach to farming. Finding that his soils had dramatically deteriorated through conventional farming practices, he started avoiding tillage and now relies on cover crops, perennial grasses and a diversity of income streams. When many of his neighbors plowed pastures to plant corn, Brown did the opposite, reducing row crops from 2,000 acres to 800 acres and re-vegetating 1,200 acres back into prairie. His operation also emphasized grazing and grasses instead of growing annual grains.

“It’s not easy to admit that I farmed the wrong way for many years,” Brown said. “But we’ve completely weaned ourselves from government programs, stopped using synthetic fertilizers, minimized herbicide use, and in the process enriched and even built our soils.”


Great Grazing Beats Most Droughts

Author: Alan Newport | Published: August 2, 2017 

I had the opportunity to visit with a man today about the benefits of managed grazing in a drought, and I think my list of advantages might be useful to others.

These are things I’ve observed and things I’ve gleaned from others as they have managed their way through droughts. In some cases there is science to bear witness to these truths, and in others they are anecdotal but widely accepted among top grazing managers.

The ugly

The bad news is that at some point, drought can get bad enough you may need to destock completely. The good news is, as part of your grazing plans, grazing records, and your records of rainfall and resulting forage production, you should have done so in a controlled method that garnered you the highest price for part of your stock because you sold earlier than everyone else. The other piece of good news is good grazing management will set you up for a faster recovery, and likely a much more successful recovery than continuous graziers.

Beef Producer columnist and long-time holistic grazier Walt Davis says many years ago he studied the rainfall records and stocking rate records from the research station at San Angelo, Texas, and found all the major declines in stocking rate occurred after droughts. These were new, lower plateaus of production from which the forage never recovered. Of course, the research station was continuously grazed.

The good

Just how much drought resistance you have depends foremost on how much progress you’ve made increasing soil organic matter through good grazing. The key is full recovery of plants and the deep roots that puts down. There are many ways to do this, as we’ve covered over the years. R.P. Cooke uses full recovery all the time, all year around, as do many others. Some graze part of the property on a schedule that uses two or three grazings during the growing season while recovering part of the ranch fully. Then they graze in the winter on the fully recovered and heavily stockpiled forage.

One thing I know is people who use faster rotations and less recovery time, concentrating on keeping forage vegetative and at the highest quality, have much less drought resistance. Their advantage is typically they know about how many days of forage they have left.

Better timing

Great graziers keep good records on rainfall and forage production (usually animal days per acre) or similar, so they understand when they are getting in trouble before others. Selling a portion of your animals early in a drought cycle when prices are good is an inconvenience, but not a disaster. Selling a large proportion of your animals, or all of them, well into a drought and after prices are down significantly is absolutely a disaster.

Great graziers also know how many days of forage they have ahead of their cattle and when they will run out. They also can monitor regrowth in grazed paddocks to see if that supply will expand.

Better soil

Those who practice complete recovery of forages as part of their grazing management will have soil that’s healthier and has higher organic matter and more life. The plant roots will be deeper, fuller and higher functioning. The arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi will be healthier and will provide more water and more nutrients to the plants so they can thrive. Higher organic matter and more shade on the soil surface can catch and hold much more water — each 1% soil organic matter can hold about 25,000 gallons of water per inch of soil. That alone can fight back a lot of drought.

More grass

The records kept by great graziers show they increase the animal days per acre and therefore increase their stocking rates over time. We have reported many, many times over the years that graziers who do a good job nearly always double their stocking rates, and that many triple or quadruple their stocking rates. This proves they are growing more grass.

Incidentally, animal days per acre or animal unit days are just measurements of how many grazing days you get per unit of livestock.


Bison Returned From the Brink Just in Time for Climate Change

Author: Deena Shanker | Published: July 31, 2017 

Ted Turner owns more than 100,000 acres of pristine land in southwest Montana, complete with lush grassland and forested hills rolling with Douglas firs. There are populations of wolves, black and grizzly bears, deer, elk and pronghorn antelope ranging freely, some crossing from nearby Yellowstone Park. But the real stars of the Flying D Ranch are his thousands of bison, the American beast once hunted to the edge of extinction.

Turner’s bison don’t need much human intervention to thrive. They breed naturally in the early summer, when the grass is at its most nutritious, and they birth their calves in the fields. The bison can withstand temperature fluctuations and snowfall. The animals are vaccinated for common diseases, but routine antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones aren’t used. When one of the animals dies—on the Flying D Ranch, about 2 percent to 3 percent of the herd perishes each year—the carcass is simply left for scavengers. 

The enormous, shaggy animals are making a comeback as a chic, healthy and environmentally friendly source of meat. But to those in the industry, the animals are just the final piece in a larger ecological puzzle. “The grass business is the business we’re in,” said Mark Kossler, vice president of ranch operations at Turner Enterprises Inc. Keep the grass growing, the philosophy goes, and the rest of the ecosystem will follow. In other words: If you grow the grass, your bison will thrive.

And the bison business is thriving. The meat is healthier than beef, with more protein and less fat than salmon, and it is also more lucrative for ranchers. Nearly 60 percent of bison marketers reported an increase in demand, and 67 percent said they were planning to expand their businesses, according to a survey in May by the National Bison Association, an industry group.

Perhaps what makes this growth most surprising is that it coincides with challenging prices for bison meat. A pound of ground beef retails for $4.99 per pound at the moment, according to USDA data. Ground bison currently sells for more than twice that price, at $10.99 per pound. The past three years have seen a 25 percent growth in sales in the retail and food service sectors, according to the trade group, bringing in about $350 million in 2016.

The bison industry is a bit uncomfortable with a price climb that has no end in sight. There is general concern that if it continues, consumers will eventually stop buying. Ranchers are still scared by a market crash in the early 2000s. Nobody wants the bison bubble to burst again. “We don’t want to price ourselves out of the market,” Kossler said.

Bison keeps flying off store shelves—and not just at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods Market IncWal-Mart Stores Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. are also sellers, and many ranchers offer direct sales online. In 2016, General Mills Inc.acquired EPIC Provisions, whose Bison Bacon Cranberry Bar, made with 100 percent grass-fed bison, is its bestseller. To keep up, bison backers just announceda new commitment for bison herd restoration: One million bison in North America by 2027, more than doubling the current estimated 391,000.

For now, at least, nature is taking care of bison and the people who raise it, including those in the more than 60 Native American tribes across 19 states working with the NBA. But the bison industry, unlike some of its peers in meat production, is keenly aware that climate change is a looming threat to the health of the herds.

Most farmers and ranchers speak of climate change in hushed tones, if at all, probably because they’re considered part of the problem (PDF). At the July International Bison Conference in Big Sky, Montana, however, climate change was the central theme.

Conference attendees included babies, 6-year-olds, teenagers, millennials, mid-life career changers and grandparents. (“My grandkids call me ‘Buffalo,’” one attendee said.) Amongst the crowds, there seemed to be a consensus that the climate was changing and the bison industry would need to adapt.

In a giant conference room at the Big Sky Resort, about 600 ranchers assembled to listen to James Hurrell, the director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, deliver the keynote presentation on the impacts—past, present and future—of a changing climate. An audible gasp was heard in response to a slide about the warmer temperatures expected by the end of the century, and someone in the audience let out a “whoa” in response to predictions of 100-degree-plus days to come.

In a different presentation, ecologist Joseph Craine presented research showing that the warming temperatures were reducing the protein in grass, leading to smaller bison. He urged the ranchers to pay close attention to (and share) what their animals are eating as they naturally seek out protein. “Everyone has a story on strange things their bison eat,” he said. That information could help everyone.

“Ag is risky and it’s getting riskier from a climate perspective,” Dannele Peck, director of the USDA’s Northern Plains Climate Hub told conference attendees. The agency is working to gather information from, and distribute information to, farmers and ranchers about short-term extreme weather events, as well as long-term climate-related changes. While the websites’ tools, such as climate projections and soil data, are not specifically built for bison, Peck urged the ranchers to use them. After the presentation, she said she was “really hopeful” that the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will fare well in the final Trump administration budgets.

For many bison ranchers, the need for a symbiotic relationship with the environment is clear. “This organization is fundamentally different, a conservation organization that works very closely with sustainable farming organizations,” said Tom Barthel, the owner of Snake River Farm in Minnesota. He raises bison, cattle, hogs and, according to his business card, “damn fine horses.” Not only do his bison live well on his ranch, they die well, too. The bison are pasture harvested—slaughtered in the field without ever knowing what hit them. He sells his meat directly, and—because bison cooks a little differently than typical beef—includes cooking instructions with his invoices. “These are the cowboys’ cowboys,” he said of the people that become bison ranchers. They care not just about money, but about their land and animals as well.


Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People

Authors: Mike Amaranthus and Bruce Allyn | Published: June 11, 2013

We have been hearing a lot recently about a revolution in the way we think about human health — how it is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other “habitats” in and on us. With the release last summer of the results of the five-year National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, we are told we should think of ourselves as a “superorganism,” a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one. For the first time, thanks to our ability to conduct highly efficient and low cost genetic sequencing, we now have a map of the normal microbial make-up of a healthy human, a collection of bacteria, fungi, one-celled archaea, and viruses. Collectively they weigh about three pounds — the same as our brain.


Now that we have this map of what microorganisms are vital to our health, many believe that the future of healthcare will focus less on traditional illnesses and more on treating disorders of the human microbiome by introducing targeted microbial species (a “probiotic”) and therapeutic foods (a “prebiotic” — food for microbes) into the gut “community.” Scientists in the Human Microbiome Project set as a core outcome the development of “a twenty-first century pharmacopoeia that includes members of the human microbiota and the chemical messengers they produce.” In short, the drugs of the future that we ingest will be full of friendly germs and the food they like to eat.


The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people on the planet is arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food. But there is another major revolution in human health also just beginning based on an understanding of tiny organisms. It is driven by the same technological advances and allows us to understand and restore our collaborative relationship with microbiota not in the human gut but in another dark place: the soil.

Just as we have unwittingly destroyed vital microbes in the human gut through overuse of antibiotics and highly processed foods, we have recklessly devastated soil microbiota essential to plant health through overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, failure to add sufficient organic matter (upon which they feed), and heavy tillage. These soil microorganisms — particularly bacteria and fungi — cycle nutrients and water to plants, to our crops, the source of our food, and ultimately our health. Soil bacteria and fungi serve as the “stomachs” of plants. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and “digest” nutrients, providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate. Reintroducing the right bacteria and fungi to facilitate the dark fermentation process in depleted and sterile soils is analogous to eating yogurt (or taking those targeted probiotic “drugs of the future”) to restore the right microbiota deep in your digestive tract.

The good news is that the same technological advances that allow us to map the human microbiome now enable us to understand, isolate, and reintroduce microbial species into the soil to repair the damage and restore healthy microbial communities that sustain our crops and provide nutritious food. It is now much easier for us to map genetic sequences of soil microorganisms, understand what they actually do and how to grow them, and reintroduce them back to the soil.

Since the 1970s, there have been soil microbes for sale in garden shops, but most products were hit-or-miss in terms of actual effectiveness, were expensive, and were largely limited to horticulture and hydroponics. Due to new genetic sequencing and production technologies, we have now come to a point where we can effectively and at low cost identify and grow key bacteria and the right species of fungi and apply them in large-scale agriculture. We can produce these “bio fertilizers” and add them to soybean, corn, vegetables, or other crop seeds to grow with and nourish the plant. We can sow the “seeds” of microorganisms with our crop seeds and, as hundreds of independent studies confirm, increase our crop yields and reduce the need for irrigation and chemical fertilizers.

These soil microorganisms do much more than nourish plants. Just as the microbes in the human body both aid digestion and maintain our immune system, soil microorganisms both digest nutrients and protect plants against pathogens and other threats. For over four hundred million years, plants have been forming a symbiotic association with fungi that colonize their roots, creating mycorrhizae (my-cor-rhi-zee), literally “fungus roots,” which extend the reach of plant roots a hundred-fold. These fungal filaments not only channel nutrients and water back to the plant cells, they connect plants and actually enable them to communicate with one another and set up defense systems. A recent experiment in the U.K. showed that mycorrhizal filaments act as a conduit for signaling between plants, strengthening their natural defenses against pests. When attacked by aphids, a broad bean plant transmitted a signal through the mycorrhizal filaments to other bean plants nearby, acting as an early warning system, enabling those plants to begin to produce their defensive chemical that repels aphids and attracts wasps, a natural aphid predator. Another study showed that diseased tomato plants also use the underground network of mycorrhizal filaments to warn healthy tomato plants, which then activate their defenses before being attacked themselves.

Thus the microbial community in the soil, like in the human biome, provides “invasion resistance” services to its symbiotic partner. We disturb this association at our peril. As Michael Pollan recently noted, “Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their ‘old friends’ — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved.”


New State Program to Recognize Outstanding Farmers

 Published: July 13, 2017 

You can tell a lot about a farm by looking closely at the soil. That’s why the new, statewide program to recognize Vermont’s most environmentally friendly farmers will be based on soil-sampling and monitoring. Today, Governor Phil Scott announced the pilot launch of the new Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP), which will use soil-based analysis to identify farmers who are going above and beyond to protect our natural resources.

Surrounded by state and federal officials at the North Williston Cattle Company, owned by the Whitcomb family, Governor Scott emphasized the important role farmers play in Vermont communities.

“Vermont farmers are contributing to our economy and keeping our landscape beautiful and productive,” said Governor Phil Scott. “This new, science-based program will use soil health data to help us identify and honor farmers who are going above and beyond the regulations to protect our natural resources.”

The program is a partner effort by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Extension.

“We are still accepting VESP applications, and encourage farms of all types and sizes to apply,” added Vermont’s Ag Secretary, Anson Tebbetts. “We want farmers who are going the extra mile to be recognized and celebrated for their efforts.”

Tebbetts noted that many partners across the state and federal government came together to create this innovative program.

Following Governor Scott’s remarks, farmers Lorenzo and Onan Whitcomb gave a tour of their farm, including their robotic milker, and discussed some of the conservation practices they employ. To see aerial footage, captured by drone, of some of the Whitcomb’s conservation practices, including no-til corn, cover-cropping, and buffer strips, click here: [link](link is external)

To apply for the VESP Pilot, farmers must be in compliance with all State and Federal environmental regulations, and be actively farming their land.

Applicants for the VESP Pilot will be selected for participation through a competitive application ranking process on a rolling basis; there is no fee to participate. Five to 10 farms will be accepted into the pilot program, which will inform the final parameters of the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program, launching in 2019. For more information, please visit: https://agriculture.vermont.gov/vesp(link is external)

About the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program:

Conceptualized in 2016 in response to statewide water-quality and environmental challenges, the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is a voluntary program that encourages and supports local agricultural producers to achieve environmental and agricultural excellence. VESP’s goal is to accelerate water-quality improvements through additional voluntary implementation efforts, and to honor farmers who have already embraced a high level of land stewardship.


Finding Common Ground on Carbon

Author: Chelsea Chandler | Published: June 9, 2017 

Even though global warming is a politically polarizing topic, it’s worth considering some areas of common ground—both figuratively and literally—when it comes to how we manage the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we’re releasing into the atmosphere. Natural carbon storage, for instance, is a win-win for Wisconsin’s citizens, our land, and the global climate, and the type of common sense solution we can all get behind.

To understand natural carbon storage, it’s important to recognize that carbon naturally cycles between different reservoirs on the planet: the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and geosphere. We can think of it like a budget: the carbon stored in one place generally offsets carbon naturally emitted in another place, creating a sort of carbon equilibrium. However, too much carbon moving into any one of these reservoirs—especially the atmosphere and oceans—can wreak havoc on this delicate balance.

Carbon overload happens when we have too much input from sources, and not enough capacity in sinks in which to store the carbon. Since the Industrial Revolution, scientists have measured more and more CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere through the burning of hydrocarbons long-stored as fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Meanwhile, by removing and degrading important ecosystems that act as carbon sinks, such as forests cleared for lumber and prairies converted to farmland or urban use, we diminish our capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Just as humans can manage the sources of COwe add to the atmosphere, we can also play a big role in managing carbon sinks that can take up and store CO2. Forests, for instance, are important biological sinks in which carbon is stored long-term in wood and soil. Sustainably managing forestlands and working to preserve large tracts of forests are two ways in which we can help to decrease levels of atmospheric carbon.

Prairies, where the majority of carbon storage is in the soil, were once massive biological carbon sinks. However, the USGS reports that since 1830, tallgrass prairie in Wisconsin has decreased over 99%, greatly diminishing our capacity for capturing carbon. In addition to preventing further agricultural or urban land conversion, landowners can help increase our natural carbon storage capacity by working to restore prairies, forests, and wetlands.

Farmers are active land stewards. It is in their best interest to sustain the soil because it in turn sustains them. More than many other professions, farmers are intimately linked to long-term changes in the weather. When someone makes a living off the land—and provides food and resources essential to others—long-term thinking is about sustainability in every sense of the word. Many farmers are already implementing common sense land management practices for storing more carbon, though there are many other opportunities. We’re only currently tapping about 10% of the soil carbon storage potential in U.S. cropland, and there’s a lot more we can do to maintain health of our environment, locally and globally.