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.