Learning to Be Regenerative
When I moved back home and started gardening on the farm, I was shocked by how depleted the soil was. I had been gardening in our yard in Georgia for several years by this point. Over the years I had improved the quality of the soil in our yard significantly. Even though I knew this, it still surprised me because I was not thinking about it. I began making compost, raised chickens in the areas that would later become the garden, and salvaged tons and tons of leaves from town. However, the thought of doing this on 20 acres was overwhelming, much less 200 acres.
Most pastures receive a lot of synthetic fertilizers, especially nitrogen. Some studies estimate that over 25% of the nitrogen applied to fields runs off into the watersheds. I have witnessed some of this on the farm. These sources of nitrogen are also expensive. The synthetic forms of fertilizers provide abundant growth immediately. Long term, however, they can build toxic amounts of nitrates in the soil and worse, they destroy soil life. Soil life - the bacteria, earthworms, and other microscopic critters – feeds on the organic matter available and helps provide natural nutrients to the plants. The plants give off root exudates which these creatures eat. They work in a symbiotic relationship. Synthetic fertilizers disrupt this cycle. If plants receive readily available synthetic nitrogen, they don’t need to work as much with soil life. If there is enough organic matter in the soil through dead plant litter, animal manures, and root exudates, synthetic fertilizers can be reduced and even eliminated.
One of the ways to accomplish increase organic matter in our soils is to produce high yielding cover crops for cattle to graze. In our area one of the best of those forage crops is sorghum-Sudan grass. Sorghum-Sudan grass is a nature hybrid resulting in a cross between forage sorghum and Sudan grass. It is not genetically modified. It Is capable of producing 8-10 tons of dry matter per acre per growing season. Normal grass pastures may only produce 1-4 tons of dry matter per acre. Additionally, it is a high protein and high energy forage that helps cattle fatten more quickly. When managed properly, its roots can form a dense mat the help break up hard soils.
In the summer of 2019 I planted about an acre of sorghum-Sudan grass with some cow peas and sunflowers. Initially, I put about 10 units of nitrogen per acre, a very low amount. It was a small test plot but the two cows that I was fattening performed really well on the cover crop. It was a learning process and I waited longer than I should have to graze it, but I saw amazing benefits for the quality of the cattle and the soil. It produced tons of organic matter to sequester carbon in the soil. In the summer of 2020 I planted three acres of a similar cover crop that included sorghum-Sudan grass. I used only five units of nitrogen per acre, reducing my nitrogen usage by half. I managed to get three good grazing periods on the cover crop before drought struck. The cows grazed each paddock to the ground in 3 days. In 3-4 weeks the sorghum-Sudan grass was ready to graze again. Next year, I do not plan on supplying any more nitrogen to the cover crop.
A wonderful, but labor intensive way to improve the soil, is to dump leaves in the pasture. In the Fall of 2019, I put our pigs in a ¼ acre paddock in the pasture. I brought 6000-7000 bags of leaves into that paddock. The pigs rooted around in the leaves and ate the acorns, pecans, and other nuts out of the leaves. Then, in the spring I planted a forage brassica and a legume into the paddock after I moved the pigs. A year later, the soil is phenomenal. This is the most effective way I have discovered to improve soil quality quickly. However, it is labor and time consuming on a large scale.
Three years ago we planted more clovers in our pastures which help convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen that other plants can use. In the Fall of 2020 we ‘no till’ drilled a diverse cover crop of wheat, rye, a forage brassica, and legumes into even more of our pastures. These cover crops will sequester carbon in the soil, add organic matter, fix nitrogen, and offer a high quality forage for our livestock. In the Spring of 2021 we plan to plant sorghum Sudan grass on even more of our pastures to help improve the quality of the soils and regenerate the farm.
Many practices that create healthier animals also regenerate the soils. Rotating cows through different paddocks on the farm helps build soil, while improving animal health. Pastures tend to grow in three stages. In stage one their roots are forming and their growth is relatively slow while they are getting established. In stage two their above ground mass takes off and grows much faster. At the end of the second stage the growth slows down or plateaus to prepare for the final stage. In stage three the pasture plants begin to go to seed and they become less nutritious. The ideal time to graze a pasture or paddock is when the grass is in the final part of stage two, just before they go to seed. If the cows are moved to a new paddock before they graze it back to stage one, the grass grows back much more quickly. The pastures are more nutritious for the livestock and they can grow fast by putting more sequestering carbon into the soil, thus improving soil health.
It is amazing to see how the farm is slowly regenerating on a small scale. Land that has been worn out and barely productive, even with costly inputs is slowly becoming more productive with fewer inputs. For me, this is the heart of farming. Discovering ways to work with nature, restore her to productivity and abundance is redemptive. It functions as a symbol of humanity at our best. We take the broken, the worn out, the hurting, and coax them back to life and abundance. It takes work, but that is who we are and what we do at our best.
If you are interested in seeing the difference in the soil quality in our pastures, you can see our farm tour of our pastures here.