Soil Health Institute Poster

For the past two years we have been working with Point Blue Conservation Science, TomKat Ranch and Earthfort on their soil health trials. In July, Dr. Chelsea Carey presented some of our data at the Soil Health Institute’s annual meeting.

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Here is a link to the poster.

RLS is excited to continue working on this project. We will keep you posted as we get our fungi DNA sequencing data and expand our direct microscopy testing to include protozoa. So much still to learn and we are lucky to have great partners for the journey!

Reclaiming Highly Degraded Soils with Life

Curious about the best way to degrade soil life? Here’s an idea: dig up a county road that has been in use for over a century, haul the dirt around, leave it in piles for a while, eventually spread it out, and then compact the heck out of it by repeatedly driving over it with heavy equipment.  Construction projects have perfected this process! When the Tom Miner Creek bridge was replaced in the summer of 2018, there were several soil sites that need to be reclaimed. Here is one:

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Our goal was an ambitious one: to establish a perennial pasture on the seedbed pictured above in the span of one season, and to do so without hauling in “better” soil.  We decided to use a couple different tools from the regenerative toolbelt. We mixed a twelve species annual cover crop mix from Green Cover Seeds, purchased locally through North 40 Ag, with a mix of local native dryland perennials from Circle S Seeds.  We applied them - without disruptive harrowing or raking - with a light coat of hydromulch to stop the seed from blowing away (for those of you have never been, Tom Miner Basin might as well be a wind tunnel).  We also added one pound and one gallon of Provide and Revive per acre by way of the hydromulch.

Vern measured out the entire requested amount of  Provide and Revive into the hydromulch tank. He was surprised when the hydromulch operator came back and asked for more product for the next tank.  It turns out the area needed not one, but four tanks of hydromulch. A miscommunication set the stage for a surprise soil biology experiment. As it turns out, Vern had put 4x the planned amount of Provide and Revive into one tank of hydromulch, meaning the soil had been treated at four gallons and four pounds per acre rather than the intended one gallon and pound per acre. Vern gave the operator addition product to cover the rest of the seed bed with the original plan of one gallon and one pound per acre. The mishap had created two trial areas: one treated with a single gallon and pound per acre of Provide and Revive, the other treated with four gallons and four pounds per acre. 

Two months later, this is what we saw:

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We left a control and will be taking several soil tests at the end of the season to see what the biology has done for the summer.  That said, the ground was so hard and gravely that we couldn’t even push flags in the ground, much less obtain a soil core. This accidental experiment makes us wonder what the potential is for soil biology.  The cover crops and perennial grasses germinated on the terribly compacted and biologically poor soils with a little bit of help (the left-hand side of the image above), but they thrived when given more help (the right-hand side).  We are optimistic the same can be done for highly degraded agricultural soils that want to transition rapidly to a more regenerative model.

Waking up Sleepy Soils

Pictures were taken at the start of the growing season, May 14th 2019.

Pictures were taken at the start of the growing season, May 14th 2019.

Vern Smith started experimenting with Earthfort products the spring of 2017, beginning with small doses of Earthfort’s Revive. His fields – a blend of regar brome, orchard grass, timothy and alfalfa – hadn’t been treated with chemical fertilizers since 2004, and the plant community hadn’t changed since it was first seeded in 1997. It is sandy, gravelly soil and gets minimal irrigation due to water constraints. It is grazed holistically, but used fairly hard by horses, sheep, and cattle. His fields had good levels of biology but were lacking in fungal activity. In short, Vern was doing a lot of things right, but there was still room for improvement. Let’s start with the results from a direct microscopy test conducted in November 2016:

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Overall, these levels are not bad, but they show that Vern’s soils were “sleepy”. Two key ratios – active fungi to total fungi (AF:TF) and active fungi to active bacteria (AF:AB) – were low, evidence that his soil’s overall function could be improved. 

Vern did two applications of Earthfort’s products on his stubborn hillside (pictured above), which normally produces far less than the rest of his field. The goal was to jumpstart the soil’s fungal activity. He retested in June of 2018 after two applications – the first only Revive and the second both Revive and Provide. Here are those results:

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At first glance, these test results seem only subtly different. When you dive deeper, you can see that after the two applications, active fungi to active bacteria ratio greatly increased and his flagellate numbers went up by 500%. His active fungi to total fungi and total fungi to total bacteria (TF:TB) ratios also increased. These below-ground changes to his soil ecosystem are responsible for his above-ground biomass and nutrient density changes (see the treated and non-treated images above). His soils have better water infiltration, hold more water, sequester more soil carbon, and have better structure. 

Provide and Revive are just one tool in the Regenerative producer’s tool kit.  Vern also has been employing holistic grazing and changed his worming program. He reintroduced dung beetles and greatly reduced pesticide use, and now he is experimenting with fish hydrolysate.  The direct microscopy test from Earthfort helped give him a “look under the hood” at his soil life, enabling him to identify where he could improve and equipping him with the tools to do so. 

There are a plethora of benefits to healthier soil biology.  Vern has seen production go up while using less water, and has noticed significant reductions in grasshopper pressure.  Grasshoppers, like all pests, prey on weak and unhealthy plants. The improved biology raised his brix levels, so now the grasshoppers prefer his neighbors’ fields.  The one downside: more elk and deer.  They know better feed when they taste it!

Vern would be happy to talk to you about his experience. Feel free to send him a note.

Many Bales with More Biology

Longtime local rancher Dave has been making hay in Montana’s Paradise Valley for decades. Chemical fertility inputs were his go-to, and the summer of 2018 was his best year using such products – he pulled 88 round bales off his front field. But Dave ranches with an eye towards the future and was always wary of the chemical fertility program. He wanted to get away from the negative cycle of more and more chemical inputs. At the time, he wouldn’t have guessed that transitioning to regenerative practices would also improve his production.

Aside from the fact that most of the chemicals in traditional fertilizers wind up washing into the pristine Yellowstone River to be swept downstream to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, their use doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. More and more nitrogen is needed every season to attain desired yields, driving up costs alongside harmful side effects. When Regenerative Land Solutions Co-Founder Vern Smith explained to Dave how his salt heavy chemical program was negatively affecting his free soil microbial nutrient miners, he decided to take an Earthfort Advanced Biology Package test. This is what we found:

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Dave had low activity levels in his soil microbiology. They were sleepy soils. The fungi, for example, were firing at a fifth of the level you would like to see for this time of year. His natural nitrogen cycling potential was only 100 to 150 pounds per acre range, a number we like to see at over 300. He was leaving a lot on the table from a biology standpoint and making up for it by forking over too much money on chemical nitrogen.

In the spring of 2019, he put down one gallon and one pound of Provide and Revive, probiotic and prebiotic for the soil, and cut out his entire chemical fertility program. He wanted to focus on improving his soil health and increasing the amount of natural nutrient cycling in his field. Vern talked him into cutting six inches higher than he did in 2018 to leave more cover, yet he still saw a dramatic increase in production. He went from 88 round bales in 2018 with full chemical fertility to 115 round bales in 2019 with our regenerative biology program.

A 31% increase in production is just the beginning of the benefits of healthy soil. Working towards improving the soil life will greatly improve overall soil health on Dave’s land. Higher functioning soil biology improves water infiltration and water storage capacity. In arid Paradise Valley, we only get about 16 inches of rain a year. Increasing the effectiveness of this rainfall is critical. It also improves Dave’s feed quality and nutrient density, reduces pest pressure, decreases weed pressure, slows erosion, and remediates physical properties of soil.

Dave put on another application of Provide and Revive after his first cutting and we will continue to monitor his soil biology and adjust his program as we go. Unlike the chemical system of increasing inputs for decreasing returns, biology builds on itself. Over the long term, he will need fewer inputs and be more profitable. Better biology will continue to improve his operation’s bottom line and help our valley live up to its name.

Healthy Soil Healthy Planet

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Florian Reber has been traversing mountain ranges, currently in the Rockies, documenting climate change. He dropped by Regenerative Land Solutions home ranch in Paradise Valley. Here is a tale he wrote about some of the folks he met. Blessed to call this place home and have so many friends working to make regenerative agriculture possible. Keep up the good journey my friend!

Biological Control of Non-native Invasive Annual Grass Species

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Here is an experiment from RLS on Texas Rescue Grass, Bromus Cartharticus, which is an annual non-native invasive grass. It behaves similar to Cheat Grass, Bromus Tectorum. They both love bacterially dominated soil systems and are early successional plants that thrive in damaged or disturbed areas.

With the use of Provide and Revive, tools for increasing microbial balance, we were able to shift the fungal bacterial ratio and increase fungal activity to selectively discourage the invasive annual Bromus grass and encourage desirable perennial grasses. This is one test of many and we are excited to help others!

Professor David Johnson has been working on this same idea. Here is a slide from his presentation that illustrates how the fungal to bacterial ratio affects the plant community. If you want your desired plants to thrive, you will need to make sure you have the ideal soil microbial community.

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Camp Fire Biological Cleanup

In November of 2018, the town of Paradise, CA was devastated by the Camp Fire. It was the deadliest and most costly fire in California’s history. It created the largest hazardous material cleanup effort in the state’s history. Regenerative Land Solutions and Earthfort Labs partnered with some local groups to help set up some cleanup strategies that thought outside of the box of scraping topsoil and piling in landfills. Here is a link to a webinar hosted by Matt Slaughter and links to more information on using biology to clean up toxic pollutants.