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 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.
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.