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It’s Not Just Dirt

Written by Dennis Sun

     I learned some things about dirt last week, but the biggest item I learned was how important it is, even on rangelands. I, like many others, have been taking dirt for granted.

I never thought much about dirt, I just knew it was there. It was what you ate when you were around the branding corral or fell off your horse when you were a little kid. As you grew older, you realized with a little water, you had mud, and a good garden needed good soil. For the last year or so, I have heard the people from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) talk about soil health. They even have some soil scientists on board and plan to have more. I always wondered what soil scientists did, more than working with the ecological sites, but last week Wyoming was honored to host about 25 soil scientists and range conservationists from NRCS.

With the NRCS, soil health is a big deal these days. Most think soil health is associated with farming, but somewhere along the line, someone in range asked about the importance of soil health on rangelands. I understand that most people in soil health didn’t understand rangelands and how the range pertains to soil health. Luckily for us in Wyoming, the top soil health people met up with the top range people, mostly NRCS employees but also some from Wyoming and UW, last week for a whirlwind tour of the southeastern quarter of Wyoming. The group visited parts of six ranches in that area.

As a number of the soil scientists held doctorates in their field, the I.Q. level on the ranch that morning has never been higher, but it was these scientists who wanted to learn from Wyoming ranchers. Most of them had been West, but they hadn’t spent a lot of time on the range. They didn’t understand the checkerboard or intermingled land ownership of private, state and federal lands and how we graze them. They learned about how we deal with water issues, Endangered Species Act issues and generally what our goals and objectives are as businesses that use the range to grow grass for our livestock.

As with most who visit the West for the first time, they were in awe over the vastness and the beauty of our state. I understand a number of other states were somewhat dismayed that Wyoming was selected for the tour, but we were selected. Hopefully they had a great learning experience. I know I did.

Those of us ranching in the West are always cautious of new government programs, asking, will it be an opportunity or is it just another threat that we don’t need? In the past we have seen soil scientists from federal land management agencies turn soil health into a threat, though I can’t imagine NRCS doing this. I found out that if you have a good grazing plan, you should have good soil health. Unlike a farmer’s tilled fields, there is not a lot we can do to the rangeland but manage the grazing, which is something almost everyone is doing these days. For ranchers in the West, it looks to be an opportunity and certainly a learning experience.

We met some really nice people who were interested in our lives and in making our lives better. They learned that each ranch is run differently based on the landscape and people involved, and for us to be a part of any program, we need flexibility. But most of all, we all made new friends.