August 17: three of us, standing over a six-inch diameter pipe sticking out of the ground, in the middle of the broad field, staring at the 1 inch of water in the bottom of it in a windstorm. Boiling, threatening clouds of green, brown and gray rise up in the west. We all cast furtive glances to the dull nearly indistinguishable horizon. Linnaea holds up a camera, and hands me a lapel microphone with a foam ball around it.
She wants to record it; she knows this may be significant. Jeremiah sees her turn on the camera, and looks at his clothing: ball cap, flannel shirt, wrangler jeans. knee high irrigation gum boots. He acts horrified. “Wait! I look like a farmer! You can’t film me now!”
We all laugh–because he’s right. His trademark dust-crusted black and a little ragged around the edges Stetson with a buckaroo brim, complete with silver toothpick, is not aboard his head. Instead, he wears a dirty “King Ropes” hat from Sheridan, Wyoming.
“Ain’t no farmer that wears a King Ropes hat, pardner.”
He laughs, because he knows it’s true. King Ropes makes cowboying gear ropes. Lariats. With hondas, the unique and simple knot that forms the centerpiece of the lariat loop. For rodeo and range work with cattle.
It’s me, 24-year-old Linnaea, my 3rd daughter, and Jeremiah, 29, and 7-year veteran ranch hand of Alderspring. I look at them, standing there impervious in the blast of the wind, waves of grass coursing like ocean swells behind them.
They’ve both been nearly brought up in this valley, and are a sort of fruit of the land. And now, I think, they are part of the next generation. The gray hair I sport that ripples from beneath my cowboy hat (a Jaxonbilt, handcrafted by a friend of mine, Roy Jackson, in Salmon, Idaho), betrays my stature in the future of the operation. At 60, I’m racing against the clock. I need to think about passing over the baton.
These, two, on the other hand, along with other daughters and crew members at Alderspring, are on the way to graduating to manager status, and I believe they know it.
Linnaea has traveled the world, lived in Europe, worked for various business entities, and is now back on the ranch. Jeremiah is a journeyman welder, and former house-flipper. Both of them have business degrees. They’ve both been out there, far flung out in the world, and boomeranged back to Alderspring.
Both of them are moving into what I call stakeholder status. I asked each of them earlier this summer: “Hey! Do you want to be an employee all your life? Or do want to be a stakeholder?”
They both stared at me and nodded. Their answer was just that one word: “Stakeholder.”
And that is why they are here. In order to hold stake–they need to understand the whole kahuna. The picture of not only the cattle, the sheep or the hogs. It’s more than that, you say–“of course! It’s the grass!”–it’s true…but I’m talking about going deeper.
Underground. Along with the sun, that which we stand on is the driver of the entire enterprise.
I look across our broad Pahsimeroi Valley, and I wonder if the neighbors can see us. I know at least one ranching local watches us with binoculars from his place across the valley. I’m pretty sure he thinks we’re crazy with some of the comments he’s made to the Alderspring team. He probably just witnessed me relentlessly pounding that 6-inch piece of well casing pipe into the ground with my hammer.
It took awhile in that hardpan volcanic clay. But we had to find answers underground. And this would tell us.
One of our local ranching neighbor torchbearers (who we all get along with quite well, I should say) made this comment to me a few weeks ago: “It seems like what you guys do on that ranch before you make a decision is to look at what everyone else is doing first and then do the opposite.” It sure feels that way, I thought, more often than not.
Then, Linnaea got an interesting take from a neighbor, Julie, who has lived her whole 65 plus years in the valley on various ranches. She’s cowboyed with the best of them. Linnaea had to get 430 head of yearlings moved to the next pasture. They needed to travel across about 200 yards of dry wasted ground, now covered with only one plant, Halogeton, to get to their next break of fresh green.
Halogeton, a noxious introduced weed from Asia, is an increaser on the dry ground in these parts that have been exposed to continuous grazing for decades. Everything else is dead in many continuously grazed ranges except plants that cows and sheep don’t eat. No grazer likes it, but will eat it if there is nothing else. And that’s not good, because it is toxic if they eat too much. It can kill cattle. Last year, 3 of our steers lost their way on the high ranges, and ended up getting stuck 30 miles from the herd at the bottom of a canyon on a Halogeton flat, trapped against rising waters of the Salmon River. We didn’t know about it until a neighbor spotted them behind some dense cottonwood forest, about 25 miles from the ranch.
Two died right when we were about to bring them home. It was literally minutes before we were going to load them to bring them to the green pastures of Alderspring. So close…yet so far. As one of my neighbors likes to say, “If yer gonna have livestock, yer gonna have deadstock.” It sure took the wind our of our sails for a few weeks.
So the trick is to get them across such parts without eating much. She could have just put up a hotwire corridor, or grabbed some horses. But she took the easy way.
She called them.
“Come-on kids! Cows! Let’s go! Come-on!” Immediately, the cattle looked up and many called right back. Not in English, but in bovinease (see? We’re not that crazy. Our cows haven’t started speaking English yet). The herd of over 400 beeves knew her and started moving. After all, they lived with her all summer on the range in cow camp in wild mountain country. They recognized her voice and trusted that if she calls, there’s good stuff ahead.
I have always told the crew this one principle when using your voice: “Never call them into a trap. Always call them when good awaits them. Good grass. Clean water.” What this means is that we never call cattle when trying to get them into a corral to sort. They don’t like close quarters. They like to be free. So we’ll herd them into those situations.
Turns out that our neighbor, Julie, heard Linnaea’s voice too. She quit working in her flower beds in her manicured yard that day, walked over to the fence, and watched.
Anyway, a stampede ensued for Linnaea. They rushed towards her voice, off the Halogeton, an through the gate to safety and a full belly. Linnaea closed the gate calmly behind the last ones, and went on down to work on the electric fence charging system at Julie’s house (she let us use her household power to run our fencer).
Julie met Linnaea at the fence. “Linnaea. Did I just see you call those range cattle? And they came to you?”
“Yes. We do that all the time.”
“We’ll. You guys do a lot of things differently. I got a feeling that you all might have something to show some of us who’ve ranched here all our lives.”
We are newcomers, after all. We’ve only been here 16 years. That may seem like a while, but it isn’t. Most ranchers in this valley have 2 to 4 generations under their belts. And thank God, we’ve sure learned a lot from them. Figuring everything out on our own would be a nightmare. They have given us advice when we asked for it, and even when we didn’t. They put our cattle in, on occasion, when they got out, as we have theirs. They are good people and they have an incredible amount of cowboy wisdom handed down to them.
And we are still learning and hungry for it, so we look at the water in the pipe on the ground out in the middle of the broad field in a windstorm. We don’t care that I figure most of our neighbors think we’ve got a screw loose. Maybe we do, I’m thinking, because watching water soak into the ground is a little like watching paint dry. And that’s for crazy people.
For you, dear reader, I’ll paint the picture a little better. The setting helps, as it creates context for the gravity of what we are seeing: the gusting winds are blowing in a near choking dose of unprecedented drought-induced wildfire smoke. I smell burnt trees on the wind. We’re on a high irrigated bar, an ancient alluvial fan, in the Lower Pahsimeroi Valley—about 3 miles as the magpie flies from headquarters. Despite the smoke, we can see the land stretch unbroken along the valley floor for 6 miles along the strait uplift of the Lemhi Range escarpment; the peaks rise from that point 6000 feet to their craggy and rocky-bare summits, lost in smoke.
It’s lease ground that Jeremiah and I just got certified organic, after the State Department of Agriculture sent an inspection agent up from Boise to analyze our records and our on-the-ground practices last month. Jeremiah, as veteran of Alderspring, is now running the lease ranch for us, and as such, has a vested interest: he is now a manager, rather than an employee. A stakeholder.
And now, we have 430 beeves on it. They watch us intently from just a few yards away, wind lapping the hair of long tails between their back legs as they face us. Their bellies are full of lush organic grass. It’s as if they are curious as well about our soil test results. The smoke and darkening and ominous weather doesn’t seem to bother them. They’re just happy to hang out with us; “Our closest friends,” Jeremiah calls them.
Jeremiah’s name for them is more appropriate than you would think. Because they will be the agents of change. They will provide us hope, despite the extreme nature of the drought and the long term extractive grazing legacy that this ranch had gone through.
Then we have the tumultuous trio of two border collie 4-month-old pups and a yellow lab, for now named “little red riding hood” because of her “hood of shame” she wears. She’s Jeremiah’s sweetheart from birth pup, and now in her older age (63 in dog years—not so old, my 60-year-old cranium considers, but to Linnaea and Jeremiah, she’s ancient). She had an abscess in one ear and has to run red-canvas-hooded so she can’t scratch. It’s definitely an upgrade from the cone of shame a dog usually has to wear, we agree.
But we still laugh at her anyway. She looks ridiculous. The pups ignore her self-pitying shame. They singlehandedly try to uproot 430 head of beef cattle from their observation posts. We laugh and yell at the dogs, trying to get a handle on their tiny, developing cow dog brains. They don’t offer much to work with in that regard, so we go and get them.
And we run back to our hole. As we arrive, one pup thinks of trying to get a drink out of it; we pull him away before he ruins our analysis. A not so close inspection reveals that there is still a little bit of water in the bottom of it. What was a precisely measured 444 milliliters of water (the equivalent of 1 inch of water in a six-inch pipe) is now a little less, because it is soaking into the ground. This is the second inch of water placed in the steel pipe segment, pounded into the soil a few inches.
The first one took 3.5 minutes to soak in. As soon as the water left, we recorded data, and placed another 444 cc in. And this one takes 14 minutes to soak in the ground. “Got time for the next one?,” I ask Linnaea and Jeremiah. Up until now, they have been fairly captivated by watching the water column disappear, although two rattlesnakes in the tall grass created a brief diversion, particularly for Linnaea, as she was wearing flip-flops. The “shaker-tails,” as they are known, let us know before we spotted them communicating irritation about our putting soil test here of all places. We tried to keep the dogs away from the last sighting of the venomous reptilians.
“I don’t think I want to stand here all night,” Jeremiah says. He figures it out; he is guessing what is going to happen on test number 3; “We could be here all night.”
“It’s gonna get dark,” says Linnaea.
They know it could very well take hours, because the clay soil will be very reluctant to hold any more water. I yanked the steel ring from the ground, and looked underneath; the soil was an unbroken smooth cannonball of clay. There was no spongy structure in the soil beneath.
It’s been about 6 days since this piece of ground has seen irrigation or rainwater. What’s fascinating for all three of us is that we had just finished the identical test—called an infiltration test–on Alderspring’s headquarters ground. Same waterless period: six days. Both in green grass pasture, with maturing grasses and legumes, some going to seed. Even the mineral matrix part of the soil was identical: volcanic ash clay mixed with random rock cobbles.
First test on Alderspring’s headquarters: 9.2 seconds. Water gone. Second test, performed immediately: 17.5 seconds. Third test: 45 seconds. The soil under the column, even after 3 inches of water, was full of pore space like a sponge and alive with bugs, crawling beasts we couldn’t identify, plant roots, and white fungal hyphae. We were more than a little astounded as our minds considered the implications to the soil, the plants, the cattle, the beef, and even the planet.
“The planet?,” you might say. Hold on; we will definitely get to that, but we’ll start with the soil: this simple test meant that the headquarters, or home test area could take 3 inches of rain and have it soak completely into the ground in just over a minute. This, despite the fact that I was still able to make clay objects out of the still moist clay of the soil extracted from another dry hole 3 feet away from my test.
In other words, the soil still acted and felt wet, despite the fact that it had been watered just 6 days ago. It was moist clay. And it still had room for another 3 inches of water.
A minute. That means no runoff. That means that every drop of water that hits that ground goes in. And that is a total game changer in a drought year. Or even in a flood event; even if we had a torrential downpour bringing say, an unheard of 3 inches on our home ranch, the Pahsimeroi River would receive no sediment, manure, or anything brought by overland sheet water flow from Alderspring Ranch.
That pristine Chinook salmon spawning habitat in the Pahsimeroi River below would stay the same with its brightly colored clean gravels.
Now, let’s look at the new lease ground. What if just 3 inches of rain hit that ranch in, say, 10 mintues? Only about half of that rain would potentially soak in. The rest would run-off. Erode, potentially, creating gullies. Create more muck. End up in the Pahsimeroi. Cloud and clog cobbles, gravels in the river bottom. Salmon eggs suffocate in the gravels. Trout run for cover, muck clogging their gills. Oxygen is hard to come by.
I’ve seen this. Time and time again. It happened just two weeks ago in Malm Gulch, about 30 miles up the Salmon River. Soil runs off. Ends up in river. Ends up in the Columbia River, silting up dam pools (they will fill eventually; then what?). If it is turbid enough, it ends up in the Pacific Ocean.
Like my Midwestern farmer father-in-law used to say, “God ain’t making any new land.” And that goes for soil, too. When it is lost down the river, it is really lost, at least in our lifetimes.
And then, there is the issue about the bank. I mean, like the money in the bank. Every inch of water that goes in the soil and stays there is literally money in the bank. It’s money for soil biota, first. Every inch of rainfall that goes in sustains life, whether it be a single cell organism like bacteria or a protozoa, all the way up to higher forms of soil life like dung beetles or earthworms. And then the macro-animals: the furry ones; columbian ground squirrels and voles. This entire subterranean food chain creates a thriving web for plants, and they them. It’s a classic chicken vs the egg thing to consider; they both need each other, and I have no idea who was first.
Granted, organic matter composition (the combination between living organisms like roots or bacteria and dead organisms) gets limited by things like oxygen availability, the existence of soil mineral material (no life in rocks or even pebbles), the soil having too much water (again, oxygen), so on most soils, it peaks out at around 10 or 12%. We are hoping to get there, but the low hanging organic matter fruit is gotten. Now the real work begins. Most agricultural soil in our part of Idaho (southeast) registers around 1.5%. On Alderspring, we average 6.3% with some areas approaching 7.5% (as of 5 years ago; we’re going to test again this fall).
I still have to test the soils on our new lease prospect. It has a long way to go, to be sure. I’m guessing by the way it looks that it’s around that 1.5% mark. Average, for this part of Idaho.
You might be wondering “why are the two pasture samples so different?” I showed it to Linnaea and Jeremiah, and they got it, as I’m sure you would too: on the home place, where we took our infiltration sample, the grass was hard to walk through. It had been grazed 4 times this year by our beeves (remember, our closest friends and agents of change), and on this, the 5th rotation in one season, it was up to my knees, and starting to “nod” downward under it’s own weight. The soil surface was hard to find under the tangle of vegetation. The surface, when your hand finally reached it, was cool to the touch on a 95 degree day. It felt moist, even after 6 days without water.
The lease ground was dramatically different: The soil surface was visible everywhere—through the grass. There were places where only a monoculture of quackgrass or bluegrass survived. The soil temperature was hot after six days without water, and it was crusted over and cracking.
It felt like it was the precursor to desert. We all took what we saw and contrasted it to the home ranch: it was production gone wild, with no inputs from us of any kind, except water. With grazing, sunlight, and soil, this diverse sward of grass had gone crazy; it was a 1/100 scale model of an Amazonian rainforest in grass.
Diverse is key; when you have diverse soil organisms, you have diverse plants on top of the ground. And that makes our beeves better (a more diverse salad bar means more nutrition) and the beef better for us. At last count, we had 55 plants on our home ranch pastures.
Now, to the lease ground. First, production. The ground on that ranch is being grazed for the first time this year, now, in August. The grass height on lease is one third of that on the home place with 4 grazings under it’s belt this year. I’m guessing production is less than a tenth of that on the organic rich soils on our home place.
Second, diversity is easy to enumerate on the lease ground: four plants for nearly all of it. And these just happen to be the plants most tolerant of continuous grazing. In fact, looking at the history of that ranch, continuous is the only thing I could take from it. It was either of hay or grazing down to the dirt surface. Most plants in a diverse sward of grass died, as they could not survive the prospect of continous grazing year after year, especially combined with haying.
And when they die, the bugs die underground. The first go are the ones that are species specific, as there are fungi that have ties to only one plant. Then, the food web collapses, and the soil loses more fungi, insects, protozoa, bacteria, and worms. They fold and volatilize in the dry heat from an uncovered soil surface. Soil organic matter plummets. And water runs off, rather than in the ground. Or, it simply evaporates in the hot sun because it has nowhere to go on the dead hardpan clay that the land has become with continuous cows.
Nature does the opposite. With all the grazers on the planet, if you look at their natural rhythms in ancient and vast ranges, they randomly and occasionally grazed in herds, moved by weather, fire or predators. The land always rested. Grazing was short term. Plants are adapted for non-continuous, intermittent clipping by cow or critter.
But if we look at the desert regions of the globe, they find anchors in the cradles of civilization. Ethiopia. Somalia. Sudan. Libya. Mesopotamia. In these cradles were ancient grazing cultures of peoples. They domesticated cows, goats and sheep.
And they grazed them continuously. And unintentionally built deserts. We like to think that the deserts of the world are created by rainshadows and sea ocean temperature regimes. Granted, these create or restrict rainfall patterns. But it is the vegetation that holds water and covers the soil, and the lack of it defines desert.
And then, our ancient ancestors removed it the green cover with continuous grazing use. And the climate changed.
And we find ourselves in the same process today, throughout many of our “advanced” western societies. In the Western US, most animals graze unmanaged. Continuously. Plants get visited weekly, or even several times a day, especially the ones the cows and sheep like. And then, the plants die. Extirpated. Diversity suffers. Soil is exposed, bare and bleeding.
I’m not trying to discourage you here, because solutions are not hard. It really is a quick study to change this pattern of continuous grazing. For instance, I tell ranchers and farmers that for less than $200 in capital outlay, we can control cattle with easy to install temporary electric fence. We use it every day. It’s easy.
Or you could do the ancient way with a twist: we still use horses on the range to herd cows; moving them all the time, and keep them from ever regrazing the same spots. The wolves actually got us going on this idea, because we started riding and herding to protect cows. Now we use the cows to protect grass.
We know precisely where we’ve grazed, because our GPS, paired to our phone, tells us where we’ve been with excellent real time maps. This is important to prevent regrazing to promote regeneration; now, in the low and dry non-irrigated and potentially brittle country, a square meter of ground on Alderspring’s range gets grazed for about 1 to 2 minutes every 2.5 years. This fits in an area with 7 inches of rainfall a year.
Before, it was cow continuous and desertifying.
With our herding, even in these dry environments, we see plant communities changing. The ground is getting covered. Soil moisture increases. Organic matter increases. Life increases.
The opposite extreme in timing of grazing management for regeneration is this: on the home ranch, where we measure 45 inches of irrigation and rainfall a year, we can graze land every 35 days on average for as much as a day, using hotwire, or temporary electric fencing twine to control the cattle.
Long rest periods with high intensity, short duration. Like nature. That’s where we learned it. It’s adaptable dependent on rainfall. All you have to do is mimic the patterns nature did before we came along.
If nature can do it, I think we humans can restore it all. And create resilience to drought, which has no disastrous effects on us. Sure, in a year like this one, hay costs more (we purchase nearly half each year), and we had to manage our ranges more closely with more horseback riders as native plant grazing was less productive, but our herd is intact, and still gaining weight. We haven’t had to destock—the ranching term for getting rid of any of our beeves, sheep or hogs because we are out of grass. In fact, we are raising more than we ever have, in this, the worst drought year in 127 years in our counties in Idaho.
So what about the planet? Little sidenote with huge implications: organic matter is 58% percent elemental carbon. When we capture that water, and build organic matter, in the end, we capture carbon. It’s how we can be climate positive and carbon negative on Alderspring. Ever wonder why so much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? Could it be that when we desertify soil in the process of changing it to dirt, that the carbon ends up in the atmosphere?
Indeed, it does. Many climate experts believe that most or our atmospheric carbon woes do not originate from automobile and industrial emissions, but actually arise from volatilized loss from ag and grassland soils (now desert).
The cool thing is that process is reversible through regenerative ag and grazing practices.
We can control our grazers. But are they better than just categorical rest from grazing? That’s a great question. Usually, we have found that rest is the very first thing that needs to happen, but then, after 2 to 10 years, depending on the ecosystem, a pulse of grazing use stimulates nutrient, water and carbon cycles far better than continued rest, and the ecosystem flourishes. Cows and sheep are nutrient cyclers, and speed the decomposition of plant material, and inject that wellness into the soil.
So this is a message of hope, not desperation. Here’s an example as to why, and the rest of the story: that home place of Alderspring that I write of? It was in similar condition as the ranch we just rented. In just 16 short years, we’ve been able to double our production and make a profitable operation out of a monocultural plant base and low organic matter and water holding soil.
Example: in the earlier years on this ranch, we used to have a mud season, where we would get hopelessly stuck with tractor, pickup or wagon during the wet spring rains while feeding beeves over melting snow, because the water couldn’t be held and captured by the soil. Cattle would wreck the ground through trampling where we’d feed them in mud season.
It was muck. Plants would die. The ground would get compacted. Manure would run off. It was depressing.
But suddenly as our soils improved, and their biotic potential began to be realized, mud season ended. We’d reached the tipping point. We haven’t gotten stuck during spring rains for 4 years. Our soils capture the water, even when frozen, because the life underground receives moisture happily.
Jeremiah, Linnaea and I had a unique opportunity today. We actually got to witness the value in that bank account. Most people in ag never get that. Instead, they drive over it, rip it, tear it up, and graze it into oblivion without even knowing it’s there. It’s like setting your bank on fire.
But our land had become a soil savings bank account. For our generation and the next–of which there are many, with several of those seven daughters aspiring to work the land as we have. From what we’ve learned together from watching nature, their savings account will continue to grow.
With even global implications.