The ground fairly shook with the rumble of 350 head of elk stampeding away as I made my approach to my sample area in our south meadow. To my chagrin, they had been dining on the rich green that still grew in fits and starts on this late October day in our high valley of the Pahsimeroi in the remote mountains of Central Idaho.
They were nighttime thieves of my stockpile, meant for 550 head of hungry beeves that were cell grazing through my fall grass. And I think the wild ungulates knew it.
Busted. Their cream-colored butts jostled up and down in cadence as they gracefully bounded away from me and Clyde, my border pup.
Stepping off the four-wheeler and grabbing a hand trowel, I knelt on the near-frozen sod and proceeded to find an opening in the thick and diverse sward of foot-tall pasture grass stockpile where I could sample the soil surface. I couldn’t find one, so I just tossed the trowel over my shoulder in a cowboy version of random plot generation for where I would dig a tennis-ball sized hole for a bulk density (BD) test.
I was following NRCS protocol for rocky soils, and my volcanic ash substrate was complete with fragments of volcanic bombs, both large and small that made the more common cylinder evaluation of BD difficult. After extricating the pebbles and rocks from my sample, I would return them to the hole, atop a layer of Saran wrap. Then, I would fill the hole with carefully measured out syringes of water to determine the volume in the grams/cubic-centimeter assessment that defined BD.
The clayey soil was very wet from the snowfall that cloaked the field just 2 days prior with 3 slushy inches. I struggled to remove the rocks from the clumpy ball of soil. I remember thinking that the soil was saturated. Literally hundreds of tiny roots and even the occasional unidentified arthropod sluggishly made his or her way through the cold material. The clumpy sample refused to work through my 2 mm makeshift sieve (a French bread baguette pan that I filched from my then France living daughter that had exactly the right pore size—I wrongly thought that she’d never know), and I had to carefully work it all by hand, breaking clods between my fingers.
But soon enough, I had my sample bagged, and like a cheap parlor magician pulling a tablecloth from under dishes, I handily yanked my Saran wrap from under the water in my hole in the field and started to load my sample gear on the waiting bike with border collie Clyde anxiously tensed and wagging for our journey to our next plot.
Less than a minute later, I came back for my trowel and pocketknife. And sank to my knees.
The water was gone.
I couldn’t believe it. That completely saturated, muddy, snow-soaked soil had room for more. In all my 27 years of ranching, I had never been interested in that dirt underfoot. And now, for the first time, this light bulb moment had my attention.
I just stared at the hole. Where did the water go? I felt that I could literally squeeze excess water from my sample. And then a phone conversation I had recently with soil expert Peter Donovan came to mind.
“Why do you want to measure soil carbon, anyway, Glenn?” Peter asked.
“It’s because I want to know where I stand—where my ranch stands. I’ve done soil tests. My organic matter has greatly improved over 10 years under our management. I want to be able to speak the language of carbon sequestration in soils.”
“Glenn—let me tell you about a farmer I met at a conference one day. He said ‘Peter! How can I increase carbon in my soils?’ I told him what he needed to do was to take a railroad car full of coal to his farm and disk it in. His soil carbon would certainly increase.” Long pause. He wanted me to get it.
I got it, but not fully. Peter then proceeded to tell me about the soil carbon sponge, a term coined by Dr. Walter Jehne, and Australian microbiologist and climate scientist (I’ve since listened to an interview by him, available as an episode on the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, hosted by John Kempf and highly recommend it).
It turns out that water, not carbon is the key functional element in the maintenance of climate, and if we don’t maintain a “sponge” of water holding capable soil, built of organic materials founded on carbon, the water cycle and even life, is severely broken. Water then isn’t available for plants, and rather than being able to capture and store high rainfall events in the soil, water is lost through runoff and soil surface evaporation. A vicious cycle is started, often commencing desertification.
And that living sponge will accommodate more moisture than I could imagine. It’s why I sank to my knees as the realization sunk in. And everything started to make sense. My wife, Caryl and I had been observing radical changes in how we were able to manage our ranch, with exponentially increasing benefits just in the last 3 years. What we didn’t know was that the answer was underfoot—the soil carbon sponge was multiplying like crazy, and we were riding the vaunting exponential upswing of an S-curve as soil life ran amuck (I like puns).
It’s why our water pumping on our pivots had been slowly reducing.
It’s why our fields no longer burned up in the summer sun while we hay and weren’t irrigating. We no longer played catchup on dry fields once we got the bales off, a time period that in the past had cost us two weeks or more of growing.
It’s why our grass productivity had doubled in two ways: our stocking rates of our cattle per acre has increased twofold and our average daily gain (ADG) is up from 1.8 lbs a day to nearly 3.
Overall ranch capacity has grown now to the point that for the first time, we had excess grass to sell as pasture. And penciling it, I can finally, for the very first time, conceptualize making the marketing of pasture to cash flow.
How did this happen? What was the mechanism of change? How did our soil OM move from a 2.5 average to a 6.5 (7.3% on our best field) in 10 years, even while maintaining a partial hay operation? And more importantly, what happened to make the changes above ground in productivity and water savings?
As October turned to November, and fall turned to winter, Caryl and I reflected on what transpired. And we came up with a list of 6 action items that we believe were game changers, the driving forces in creating a soil carbon sponge. But first, we found a common theme after we looked at the list.
They all mimicked nature. Some of them followed current processes that we see happening in the wild country around Alderspring Ranch (there’s plenty of examples as only 3% of our county, the size of Connecticut is privately owned; the rest is a mix of federal and state land and is essentially wilderness mountain country).
Others of our 6 mimic processes that are currently broken and hard to find in today’s world. Bison, for instance were an inhabitant of our rangelands. And their ecological position was important for us to reconstruct from historical record since nearly 400 head of Alderspring’s beef herd runs on 70 square miles of summer grass where the bison used to roam.
So here’s what we came up with:
Sure, we have some ranch workers on the place, but our very best employees are our animals. Obviously, they are good at harvesting, and for the first 15 years we were ranching, their role was pretty uni-dimensional in that regard. Now, we realize that they are the nutrient cyclers—the drivers of life above and below ground. When we remove them from that role, we remove the cycle of decay and decomposition from our landscapes. Animals bring it and facilitate it.
The other part of their work is tillage. When we incorporated pigs into our animal employment, we found that they could alter plant composition and we could use them to hack the fine tuning of desired species diversity. We encourage them to root some of our pastures to allow us to reduce competitive and chronic increasers such as quackgrass and reboot them through establishment of cover crops, that the pigs harvest as well.
Let animals do the work. They do it better than we do.
Take Sides on “Cides.”
Initially, when we started ranching full time in 1992, we learned what we could from things like Beef Magazine and county ag agents. Some of their information was germane and useful.
On the other hand, much of their chemical recommendations were highly flawed.
We tried some of their approaches, and were very cautious to do so, as Caryl and I were both trained ecologists (I was previously a Forest Ecologist and Caryl was a PhD plant ecologist). What we found was very disappointing. Fertilizers made our pastures like people on drugs; first a little seemed like enough and had great biomass results. Then, in subsequent years, more and more was needed to get the same effects.
Then, as we applied other “cides” on our animals and land—insecticides, herbicides, and aquatic herbicides, it appeared as though it made our systems more fragile. Our soils became more susceptible to weeds. Our cattle became fly-ridden if we failed to rotate ear tags.
In addition, there were effects on us: organophosphate headaches became common after tagging 200 mama cows in a day. I’d get “metal-mouth” after applying chemicals.
By the late 90s, we decided it was time to go with our hearts rather than the corporate mouth-speak of the likes of Monsanto and began the steps to organic certification. By 2003 we were certified, and even in the 3 years of transition we started to see natural systems once again become resilient and functional again. Purchased beef cows we brought into organic certification (their calves only) had chronic fly and worm problems that our own organic mama cows didn’t have. Native plants instead of cheatgrass and spotted knapweed began recolonizing former weed treatment areas on our drier ground.
I really believe that agricultural chemical use is holding back our potential in regenerating agricultural lands.
Consider quitting the ‘cides.
Certainly, when you think about it, diverse pastures are one of those ‘Chicken or the Egg’ things. Diversity can fast track you to soil health, and yet, soil health must be in place to fast track diversity. That said, achieving and striving for it is the thing that should keep you awake at night. All these other action items really revolve around increasing diversity, but there are certain things we did that were specifically aimed at adding species.
When we first arrived on the Pahsimeroi Valley Ranch in 2005, alfalfa monocultures dominated much of the pastures. Previous owners prioritized this single species and sacrificed all others at the altar of ‘god alfalfa.’ For us, it wasn’t like we were going to rip the plant out of the ground and start over—instead, we saw it as an opportunity. We liked it as a species component in our mix, but in quantities less dense than it was when we took over.
What if we engaged in practices that would simply reduce alfalfa dominance, and allow grasses to predominate? And so we did. We intentionally fed cattle on thick alfalfa stands in the winter with mature late cut hay crops comprised primarily of orchardgrass as well as other species we wanted in our permanent pastures. The cattle tromped in the seeds as we fed, and the impact of cattle on wintering alfalfa plants on moist ground is well known. In several years, it worked: the plants represented in our hay began to dominate our pastures.
I’m sure our neighbors were scratching their heads.
In addition, we introduced new seeds to the mix. Where we had quackgrass monocultures, we introduced sainfoin through tillage. We frost seeded hundreds of acres of red and white clover. And over time in just 10 years, we went from under ten species or less on much of our irrigated home ranch to over 50.
Added benefit of diversity: our beef improved. Flavor and tenderness went up. Even our weight gains improved. When you think about it, it is relatively simple. Providing cows, pigs, sheep and chickens with the ability to choose and fulfill their own dietary requirements always maximizes their wellness and their performance.
Cows have knowhow. Let them choose it and they will be healthier.
Soil diversity reflects above ground plant diversity.
Diversity is key.
There’s a saying on our ranch that we keep at least 4 sets of mechanic tools on the place. One set is in the shop on the workbench, and the other 3 are scattered all over the ranch, putting iron into the ground!
It’s partly due to hiring so many young people over 27 years—they simply lose tools. Even I lose some—I have at least 4 multitools out there, and several pocketknives. And cellphones!
Most of what we were doing out there on the land was wrenching on much bigger iron. Tractors, plows, discs, balers, and swathers. Now, we minimized those things, and even our tool loss.
What happened? What ended our dependence on iron? Did we have a religious awakening in a belief system that we embraced that ended our need for that kind of technology?
Nothing of the sort. We embrace technology, even metal, in certain areas. We have 5 center pivots. We still have a 1966 Case backhoe and 1972 Allis 170. Nothing to brag about in iron!
But we sold everything else. Why? We found it made neither economic nor personal sense. We were building and buying a ranch, and we had no inherited or outside equity. We never had available money to invest in state-of-the-art equipment, and economically the size of our place would not cash flow expensive equipment. That meant that our equipment was older, and prone to breakdowns. No one on my ranch likes equipment. Period. We all like animals.
We ran the numbers and found out that not only did we not like running equipment, we could contract hay or tilling work done far cheaper than doing it ourselves. And in most years, bought in hay would beat our home-grown hay in price by a significant amount (one year it was by 40%). Time, twine, fuel and the cost of iron never end, especially if you’re honest on your cost capturing spreadsheet. We have neighbors who are equipment rich (or is it poor?). And they like nothing more than a phone call from us asking them to cut some grass that was getting ahead of us on our grazing program to make hay. It was a win-win.
Another upside of that decision was a change in our own thinking, that I think is subconscious. If you have equipment, you will use it. If you have to pay someone out of pocket to hay, or if you pay out of pocket for bought in hay, I think your brain works harder to find an innovative way to avoid those costs, which are much more transparent than the costs of home grown hay.
We extended our grazing season and reduced the amount of hay needed overall. And the hay we did harvest from our home place varied in area and timing from year to year, reducing the impact of annual haying. Our worst pasture in our 10 year soil tests (still a respectable 5.5% organic matter) was a field where it is logistically harder to graze and we end up haying more often than our other fields.
I’ll leave you with this thought: nature has no similar enterprise to that of plowing or haying. None of the biota we work with has adapted to those kinds of disturbances. Every time we started up a tractor we left our soils naked and exposed, either by cutting hay or tillage.
Nature always works to keep her soils covered. Now we do too.
There are only a few natural systems were biomass is imported from outside the system, but we were in trouble when we bought the Pahsimeroi Ranch in 2005. In full restoration mode, with soil OM in the twos, we knew we needed help. Biomass to the rescue! For us, it was a very simple amendment.
I have a neighbor who spends over $180K on commercial fertilizer each year on his 400 acres of irrigated ground. He soil tests, and was desperately hoping for better numbers. He was asking me how we achieved a 7.3 OM on our largest meadows in just 10 years on our 400 acres, and what my input costs were to get there. I told him that my input costs were only about $40K per year.
“Are you kidding me? What are you using?”
“It’s called hay,” I said. That addition of biomass and the keeping of our own small amount of hay at home was one of the game changers in our soil restoration protocol. I believe it is why our Haney Soil Health Score this year was in the 50s. My brother, Jerry, in the next valley has found the same to be true on the ranch where he manages the grazing program. Haney tests in the 50s.
It’s the cheapest and most available amendment on the market today. Hay is available. Your neighbors appreciate you when you buy it. They have extra. If you don’t buy it someone else will.
Hay is easy to feed. We feed with a team of horses or a pickup truck pulling a gooseneck. Today we fed 8 tons to nearly 500 head from the back of a gooseneck, forked by hand (who needs crossfit anyway?). We spread the biomass impact, the hoof impact, manure and urine over our entire ranch intentionally every winter.
For rapid restoration on degraded land, there is no game changer like imported biomass.
Adaptive Planned Grazing.
Caryl and I started rotational grazing at the get go in the early 90s. My brother, Jerry, at that time was dairy farming, and was a Stockman Grass Farmer junkie. He fast tracked us to the benefits of this type of grazing, a la Andre Voisin, French author of Grass Productivity, and Jim Gerrish, author of Management Intensive Grazing, now living just up the Pahsimeroi Valley from us.
On the headquarters ranch, we had over 400 acres of irrigated ground. We quickly employed planned grazing cells, at first quite fixed and controlled. As our experience evolved around the practice, we took it to a new level of adaptive planned grazing, now holistically thinking not only of cattle and grass productivity, but adding in new attributes that tweaked our management in terms of size, location and timing of grazing cells such as:
- Maintaining and enhancing diversity
- Maximizing soil moisture through timing and residue
- Herd effect on plant selection
- Animal performance in both ADG and flavor by considering plant selection and offering diversity of species within and between days (we raise and market 400-500 organic grass-fed beeves a year)
- Timing of harvest during the day
- Maintaining wildlife cover and travel routes
- Buffers for water quality in ditches and streams
- Personnel abilities to effectively manage grass
- Undesired plant species management
- Upcoming or past weather
- Irrigation efficiency
- Stockwater availability
For the answer on many of these grazing adaptations, we could turn to nature to see how wild animals would have grazed in similar situations. Invariably, though, there are practical and logistical considerations involved in planned grazing. Both, nature and logistics, are what turned us to the holistic standpoint of adaptive planned grazing (APG) rather than simply rotational grazing.
We didn’t really think about adapting that paradigm to our extensive rangeland summer pastures until nature came in with a roar.
Or a howl, rather.
It was wolves. They recolonized our 70 square mile mountain grazing lands about 5 years after we started pasturing livestock up there. Before wolves, we simply let the cattle disperse on their own, following greenup as it gained elevation with the onset of spring. There’s 4000 feet of elevation relief in our grazeable area, and it supplied our cows with green grass until late July. After July, unfortunately, our cows found riparian areas to their liking. We responded by riding horseback and herding them out of the sensitive habitat of the creeks, all 50 miles of them. We couldn’t keep up.
Although compared to their previous condition, we had improved the riparian areas on our range during the first 5 years we managed the allotment, we couldn’t seem to get the further improvements we desired. We seemed stuck at “good enough.” It was good enough for our agency partners. They were happy. But we were not.
Then wolves entered the picture. From a handful of reintroduced Canadian imports, our wolf numbers in Central Idaho mountains skyrocketed to an estimated 1500 in a few short years. There were unlimited wild elk and deer populations to feast on…and thousands of range cattle like ours.
In 2014 we ended up losing 14 head to wolves.
Caryl and I brought the cattle home smarting from that rough summer on the range. We were ready to quit. But then inspiration came from a series of CM Russell paintings from the early 1900s, documenting cowboys living on the range with their cattle.
Herding them. Keeping them safe from predators. Taking them to the best grass.
And so, we brought adaptive planned grazing to the range. Now, ADP has us living with the cattle full time, controlling their progress across wild range landscapes. On horseback, we essentially are a moving grazing cell across the high country. Just like we consider a multitude of factors on the home ranch in designing location, timing, and size of cells, we now use horseback riders to create moving “virtual” grazing cells, planning our grazing to maximize our beeves’ productivity and that of the wild grasslands they walk on. We call it inherding, a coined word putting intentional and intensive together with herding. Wolves no longer bother us, and riparian areas are regenerating at a rate that surprises even my ecologist wife, who has worked on these rangelands for over 30 years.
Inherding posed a real challenge for us to rediscover the lost arts of herding on extensive ranges, but now, we know we can never go back. Even on dry ranges, our beeves have doubled in ADG. The beef we harvest directly from the range is our best tasting beef. Our carrying capacity has increased—all because we adopted a mimic—that of the small wild bison herds that ranged through our mountains.
Nature is complex. Our thinking must be multi layered to reflect the complexities of the systems we manage.
Our headquarters ranch is covered with snow now. It’s January, and the quiet of winter has settled in. I can look out my office window and see a windrow of hay as dusk creeps over our big valley. There is a long black line of Angus beeves grazing the green, spread out for them on a foot of fresh white.
The work of feeding is a pleasure for my 7 daughters and I. Occasionally, the west wind howls and we need to take them to shelter along the brush, but most days, we plan where they will eat and lay down for that day.
It seems like work to some folks when we hand fork off 8 tons of summer sunshine each day, but the real workers are there on the ground. The 500 busy black-hided employees of mine begin the process of decomposition and decay and insert it into the ground. Meanwhile they handily put on an average daily gain of 2 pounds a day, even in winter on hay.
But there is so much more. I just can’t see it.
Because under their feet, beneath the snow and ice, is a teeming plethora of soil biota still slowly moving, living, waiting for their potential to be unleashed when the sun crosses into the Northern Hemisphere and the harvest of sunlight will begin.
And the living soil sponge will once again imbibe all the nutrition our beeves provide for it, and a grassland will erupt in verdant green from a once dormant soil.
I never get tired of it.