Soil Building Heritage

Long time Paradise Valley land owner Jim Melin has been working on his hay fields all his life.  His parents purchased the land in 1948 in Paradise Valley, MT, but his family has been in the valley since the 1870s.  He is the father of eleven children and thinks a lot about heritage.  

In Jim’s words, “you need an outside job” to make his place work.  His dream is to pass the land on to his children, even though selling the land to a wealthy outsider and investing it conventionally would probably produce more profit.  If he did that, he could have more money, but if you know an authentic Montana rancher, you know taking care of the land is more important than money. 

With all this in mind, Jim is working hard to make his operation viable for the next generation.  With agricultural land wildly disconnected from its agricultural value in Paradise Valley, MT, he needs to make his land more profitable by building soil.  Water is a critically important aspect of this equation. He is increasing his water efficacy by investing in pivots to prevent ditch loss due to light, sandy/rocky soils.  Jim knows getting the water to his far off fields is just step one. Step two is making it stay and putting it to productive use. He does that by building his soils. He has been using Earthfort’s Provide and Revive, which is a set of regenerative tools for introducing and stimulating beneficial soil biology, and cutting back on his chemical fertilizers.  Both of these management practices increase SOM and water holding capacity, improve soil structure, conserve water, reduce erosion and prevent nutrients from leaching.

He is in year two of this program with Regenerative Land Solutions on one of his home fields.  Granted, this was an unusual year, but his first cutting grew from 120 round bales in 2017 to 140 round bales this growing season.  He is the first to point out that there are a myriad of variables that make it difficult to isolate the precise effects of one management change, but he firmly believes that managing for soil life has increased his production at a low cost.  He received a good financial return on his soil life investment in year one and has many years of dividends on the way.

Here you can see the line where Jim emptied his sprayer on an otherwise untreated field.  One gallon and one pound of Provide and Revive on the greener section to the right.

Here you can see the line where Jim emptied his sprayer on an otherwise untreated field. One gallon and one pound of Provide and Revive on the greener section to the right.

Jim’s particular field hasn’t had any chemical inputs in the past 15 years or more, but he has used them on leased fields more recently. His plan for the next growing season is to skip the chemicals on his grass/alfalfa fields and use Earthfort’s Provide and Revive instead. This regenerative soil building approach is one tool he hopes can help him preserve his heritage and keep working lands in the Melin family.

Digging Deep with Doug

Doug Lair has worn a lot of hats in his life - executive, entrepreneur, small business owner. His most recent is a ranch hat. Though he has been at it for over 20 years, he humbly refers to himself as “just a greenhorn”. It’s a tough business, but he loves it. Indeed, it’s in his blood. He still has the bill of sale that his great-great grandpa gave to his great grandpa when he passed down a team of mules and the family brand. The Lair family operation is east of Big Timber on irrigated land surrounded by the Crazy Mountains, the Yellowstone River and the Beartooth Plateau. Their mission is to provide healthy and nutritious grass fed beef and lamb raised only on clean grasses, forbs and hay for their entire grazing lifetime.

Doug and the better half of the Lair Clan - his wife, Mary, and his daughter, Abby

Doug and the better half of the Lair Clan - his wife, Mary, and his daughter, Abby

Doug has been working with Regenerative Land Solutions and Earthfort’s biology approach for the past two years.  We were able to catch up with him this summer in between cuttings.

 

What was your AHA! moment that made you realize you wanted to do something outside of the conventional chemical NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) approach to growing alfalfa?  

 For the five years prior to taking my first soil biology test with Earthfort, I was leasing our hayfields out to a contractor.  He took care of and made the fertility input decisions. We would get a chemistry soil test done and use the recommended amounts of NPK.  

 Agriculture is fluid, conditions are constantly changing, and after addressing some health issues by changing my diet and making the connection between my gut microbiology and personal health, I realized I couldn’t ignore the soil life piece of this holistic web. There is really very little difference between my gut, a cow and sheep gut, and soil as nutrient transfer system.  I realized I want to manage my land and body to ensure that each is operating in a healthy and well balanced environment.

 The summer of 2018 we took our first soil biology test.  We overlaid Provide and Revive (a probiotic and prebiotic for the soil) over our traditional fertility program.  The spring of 2019, I worked with Stu Schilling of Stu’s chemical to find the most biologically compatible, i.e. less salty, chemical fertilizer.  We cut the recommended amount of chemical in half and mixed it in with Provide and Revive and Stu put it down in one pass.

 We had a gorgeous first cutting this season! A portion of the field has been troublesome for years and this year it appears to be as productive as the rest of the field with the biological additions.

First cutting from a section that has historically struggled

First cutting from a section that has historically struggled

Pepper the herding dog poses for scale

Pepper the herding dog poses for scale

Are there any other regenerative tools you have been recently trying?

 Yes. We used a type of Vibra-Shank this year to control weeds and weevils and extend the life of the alfalfa stand.  Weeds are one of our biggest struggles, Canada Thistle in particular. We try to keep our place as clean as possible, so have been refraining from using pesticides for control of them.

 

What do you see as the greatest challenges to ranchers and farmers in the future?  What do you think are the greatest opportunities?

I see three big challenges.  The first and greatest challenge is going to be dealing with the unknown and long term effects of chronic chemical use.  Number two is educating consumers on why we need safe food production that doesn’t destroy ourselves and our soils, grasslands, and water. Third, it is very hard and expensive for young people to get into production agriculture if they are not born into farming/ranching. The average age of farmers and ranchers is getting up there.  We need more young farmers.  

The greatest opportunity is being able to supply a well educated consumer with a healthy product that was grown with a net benefit to our environment.

 

You mention young farmers and ranchers.  Do you have any advice for them?

 Don’t quit your day job, stay out of debt, focus on quality, not quantity, and grow your own food. Study soil biology and when the light bulb comes on, figure what nutrient(s) you want to produce and how you are going to market them.

Better Corn with Bio Ag Management

To excel in any field requires creativity, ingenuity and the gumption to change the status quo.  The good folks at Bio Ag Management deep in Illinois corn and soybean country are humbly doing an excellent job at changing the input paradigm.  They manage for soil life and in doing so have cut back on chemical inputs while improving their soil health and maintaining high yields. They implement on the ground farm research so they can be sure to get the most out of their input dollars.  Earthfort Labs and Regenerative Land Solutions have been blessed by our collaborations.

Left to right, Clint Frese, Luke Holst, Vern Smith, not pictured, Clayton Frese, Matt Slaughter and Ford Smith

Left to right, Clint Frese, Luke Holst, Vern Smith, not pictured, Clayton Frese, Matt Slaughter and Ford Smith

Healthy soil biology is the key to successful regenerative farming.  It increases efficient nutrient cycling, helps residue decompose, allows for more nutrient retention, improves water cycling and effectiveness, suppresses disease, stores more carbon in soil organic matter, and builds soil structure.  Bio Ag Management’s approach to improving soil biology focuses on many soil health principles. Those include reducing tillage by using minimum till/strip till and only using deep tillage as a last resort. They introduce a balanced biology extract, key here being their ability to get good fungal counts in their extracts by calibrating their microscope work with professional testing, and put it down with Revive, a complex food source.  They also use small amounts of minerals when needed, employ cover crops when possible, and are very strategic about when they use fertilizer and what types, i.e. they prefer to use high quality protein based nitrogen. 

In 2018, they saw good results and samples from 2019 are looking promising despite the historically poor weather conditions.  These conditions, which they can’t control, were mitigated by their soil’s resiliency, which they can control through management.  They averaged 13 more bushels per acre across 40 trials while spending less money on inputs per acre.

Corn plants managed for biology were healthier, more resilient and higher yielding.

Corn plants managed for biology were healthier, more resilient and higher yielding.

One of my favorite trials they did in 2018 was to layer varying amounts of chemical nitrogen on top of their biological program. The amount of applied nitrogen ranged from what would be considered a normal full application to zero extra units of nitrogen.  Here is a picture with their yield data:

This is a great example of how managing for better biology can improve a producer’s bottom line.

This is a great example of how managing for better biology can improve a producer’s bottom line.

We are all looking forward to 2019’s data and moving forward into the 2020 growing season with improvements from what they have learned.  Regenerative farming can and should be exciting! It is worth putting in the extra thought and planning to achieve their kind of excellence in the field.

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.

SHI meeting 2019.jpg

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:

tom Miner Cover crop seed bed.png

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:

tom Miner Cover crop side by side.png

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:

oyts 2016.PNG

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:

oyts 2018 no nemo.PNG

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:

Big Timber .png

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

Vern Porch.PNG

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

Texas Rescue Grass Pic.PNG

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.

David Johnson Succession.PNG