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Rancher Shares Principles for Improving Soil Health

by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, March 20, 2020

Gabe Brown, soil health and regenerative agriculture expert, was the featured speaker during Van Buren Conservation District's annual Farming for the Future Conference. Brown, a rancher from Bismarck, N.D., spoke to a sold-out crowd of over 200 people in Lawrence last week.

Brown and his wife purchased their ranch from her parents in 1991. Conventional farming practices had depleted the ranch's soil organic matter by 75 percent. Rain infiltration rate was down to one-half inch per hour. To ad insult to injury, natural disasters wiped out crops for the first three years of Brown's ownership.

It was a conference speaker's advice that changed the trajectory for Brown and the ranch.

"If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. If you want to make big changes, change the way you see things," Brown said. "I knew then and there that was the answer. I had to figure out how to make this work."

Scraping together what he could, he planted a legume as forage to feed the cattle herd. But with literally no money to bale it, he was forced to just let the cattle graze the crop. It proved to be the beginning of winter grazing on the ranch.

It was the beginning of what he calls the six principles of soil health that put theory into profitable reality on their farm. The six principles include:

• Nature acts in context. Plant or animal species don't thrive in the wrong environment (context).

• Minimal mechanical

and chemical disturbances builds soils.

• The soil will always try to build an armor or shield overexposed soil.

• Healthy soil cycles water efficiently.

• Healthy soil has a network of living plant roots.

• It takes living soil organisms (soil biology) for nutrients to cycle, for organic matter to be broken down to inorganic matter, for soil microorganisms to use and build healthy plants.

A common misconception is that steps such as cover cropping and grazing are costly, and the transition time into improved soil health is a drain on net farm profit. Brown disagrees with that argument and can show immediate profits to clients he helps through his soil health consulting company.

"The No. 1 thing we do to increase profitability is determine exactly where we are with the soil, determine if the nutrients are working and at what level they are available, and look at water cycling and infiltration capacities," Brown said.

A Haney nutrient test places value on the soil's organic and inorganic matter content and provides a reading on working soil biology.

"We look at the soil's biology and how active it is through a phospholipid fatty acid test, and from there, it gives the amount of nutrients we need to apply."

"The vast majority of farmers are over-applying nutrients by a lot."

Brown has clients run test strips using their current practices alongside strips under his recommendations and compare the profitability between the two side by side. In most cases, Brown says that while yield may be lower at first until soil health begins to recover, profitability is generated in terms of lesser cost of production. The side by side comparisons on a landowner's field generally is proves the point.

"There is a misconception that there is a drop in profitability during a transition from high tillage/high synthetics system to a regenerative system focused on soil health, and that is just not true," Brown said. "The fastest way to building soil health is by adding cover crops and livestock, and the livestock can make up the yield loss profitability factor."

By focusing on profitability rather than yield through systems that build soil health, soils heal, foods contain more nutrients and humans become healthier.

Brown requires clients to look at the full picture of the farm, forcing them to think about profitability and capital leverage.

"If you are too highly leveraged, ok. You are going to have to shed some debt," he said. "Maybe you will have to custom hire some work, or possibly even sell some land, but you have to get the debt in line."

He also argues that farmers are often price takers and says they must become price makers in order to be profitable. Direct marketing is essential to successful price making.

"Too many people don't want to do it and I am not going to feel sorry for them if they don't make money. Too often, we bring it upon ourselves."

He says that regenerative agriculture practices are up to 78 percent more profitable than conventional farming practices.

Finally, Brown encourages to look at the big picture. It is becoming more widespread for major companies to require crops grown for use in their products to be grown under regenerative agriculture practices. General Mills cereals are already working toward that goal. He says that all major buyers will share similar expectations before long.

With improved soil health will come increased food nutrient densities. A phone application which can measure nutrient density on food items at a market is not far into the future. The app will have the ability to show a food item's nutrient density with a simple scan and based on the results, will indicate to the customer the health of the soil in which the product was grown.

"Regenerative agriculture has the ability to bring people together," Brown said. "The consumer who sees things like algal blooms on Lake Erie will more and more direct their purchases toward products that use regenerative practices."

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