Brown shares principles of healthy soils at eventWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Casper – “If we have healthy soil, we will have clean air, clean water, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy people,” stated Gabe Brown of Brown’s Ranch in Bismarck, N.D. “It all starts with the soil, and we need to focus on the soil resource.”
Brown spoke in Casper on March 27, addressing farming practices that promote healthy soils.
“What we have developed over time are five keys to regenerating a healthy soil. These are the same on any operation, anywhere in the world,” he explained.
Brown’s five keys are minimal mechanical disturbance, surface armor, diversity, live roots in the soil and animal impact.
“If we mechanically disturb the soil, we are going to destroy roots and lose organic matter, and we are going to lose the ability of that ecosystem to cycle nutrients,” he noted.
In a native ecosystem, there is no tillage, and plant roots stay in place.
“They cycle nutrients and take in sunlight, converting it into carbon in the soil to feed life,” he added.
By using no-till practices, Brown explained that important soil structure is left intact.
“When I started farming, our soil could infiltrate one-quarter inch of rain per hour,” commented Brown.
After leaving conventional farming practices behind and moving to a no-till system, those same soils can now infiltrate up to eight inches of water per hour, according to the most recent Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) testing.
“It is not how much rainfall we get. It is how much we can infiltrate into our soil,” he said.
Armor on the soil, the second principle that Brown discussed, is the concept of keeping residue or plant matter on the surface, instead of leaving bare ground.
“If there is no armor, the soil is not protected,” he stated.
Armor reduces wind erosion, soil erosion and evaporation.
“Bare ground is also a place for weeds to germinate,” he added.
Residue left in the field also helps to regulate surface temperature, keeping the soil warmer on cold days and cooler on hot days.
“Seventy degrees is about optimal for plant growth. At 70 degrees, a plant is using all of its moisture for growth,” he explained.
Leaving residue also feeds soil life, such as earthworms.
“Native rangeland always has armor on it. We need to mimic that on our cropland if we want to improve our soil health,” noted Brown.
Diversity was the third principle Brown discussed, saying that the majority of production agriculture uses monoculture practices.
“Where in nature do we find monoculture?” he asked.
Cover crops especially, he continued, should be seeded in multiseed combinations.
“A cover crop is a diverse mix that enhances the life and function of the soil,” he explained.
In a natural system, there is a large amount of diversity where multiple species work together within the system.
“There is always nutrient cycling via biology,” Brown noted.
Maintaining roots in the soil was the fourth principle that Brown addressed, again comparing modern agriculture to natural ecosystems.
“How did our soils survive for hundreds of thousands of years without man applying synthetics?” he questioned.
Approximately two-thirds of soil organic matter comes from plant roots.
“We have to have as many roots as we can in the ground to build up our soils,” Brown said.
Cover crops can be designed to fill production gaps, so desired plants grow instead of weeds.
“I look at when I have a window of time that there is not a root in the ground, and I put one in,” commented Brown.
Next, he discussed the principle of animal impact, referencing the wild herds of bison and elk that impacted the Great Plains but also left long periods of rest and recovery for the plants.
“On our operation, we have a diverse number and species of livestock. Each one of those species harvests a different energy level,” Brown explained.
Using the livestock to graze cover crops is one way to turn those crops into dollars.
“We graze about a third of the above-ground biomass, and we leave about two-thirds as armor on the soil surface to feed the biology,” he adds.
When he began farming, Brown’s approach focused on which weeds and pests had to be removed.
“I used to farm by trying to kill something every day. Now I wake up and ask what else I can have living on my operation,” Brown stated.
He is working toward building a complete ecosystem by incorporating more living things.
When he began farming, NRCS tests showed 1.7 to 1.9 percent organic matter in the soils of the farm’s cropland.
“We had heavy tillage, high use of synthetics and primarily monocultures – spring wheat, oats and barley – all cool season small grains,” he noted.
Native rangeland in the area was near seven to eight percent organic matter.
“I came to the conclusion that I was suffering the affects of a degraded resource, and I had come to accept that degraded resource,” he commented.
In 1993, Brown’s operation became 100 percent no-till and began incorporating practices that mimic native rangeland and diverse ecosystems. The farm now has production in crops, lamb, pastured pork, broilers, eggs, guard dogs and more.
“Carbon drives farm profit,” noted Brown. “Farm profit is directly related to the amount of carbon in the soil.”
Gabe Brown is a widely recognized speaker who presented on March 27 in Casper. The event was free to the public, courtesy of the Plank Stewardship Initiative and Wyoming NRCS. Look for more information at plankstewardship.org.