Healthy soil contributes so much more to our lives than just providing a medium to grow plants.
“The rancher benefits, animals’ health benefits, the soil benefits and society benefits because now you have clean water coming out of the waterways and better quality food,” agro-ecologist Nicole Masters said Saturday.
Masters, a soil specialist in New Zealand, goes as far as saying that boosting soil health can be a major factor in taking harmful carbon out of the atmosphere.
It will take a commitment on the part of agriculture and a political will, but it can be done, she said.
Masters works with ranchers and farmers around the world, teaching innovative practices to boost the quality of soil. She spent the afternoon Saturday with about 60 people on the Charter ranch north of Billings discussing methods to help individual enterprises and the world at large.
Her talk was hosted by the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils. This is the third year Masters has included Montana in her consulting travels.
At the start of the four-hour outdoor seminar, Masters asked audience members about their relationship to the soil. Many raised their hands when she asked for the gardeners in the group.
Others included farmers, ranchers and an orchard owner. When asked about goals they’d like to attain, they had a number of responses: good soil, making a profit, zero erosion, fewer weeds, a focus on nutrients and healthy food, and more grass.
Soil in this region has degraded from what it once was, Masters said in an interview before the start of the seminar. Soil that contained 20 percent organic matter in 1950 now only has 2 percent.
Not only does that rob plants of their nutrients, Masters said, it also affects the soil’s ability to retain water. Using a formula, she suggested that the decrease in organic matter meant there has been a 288,000-gallon-per-acre loss in water storage ability.
“We’re not getting less rainfall,” she said. “We’re not holding on to it. And then when water takes the soil with it, we’re losing nutrients.”
When a farmer cultivates land and the dust flies away, “it’s your water-holding capacity and nutrient-holding capacity that’s blowing away,” Masters said.
The ground in this region tends to be compacted, preventing air and water from freely flowing in the soil. A trio of “m’s” — minerals, microbes and management” can combine to either cause the quality of soil to decline or improve, she said.
A fourth “m” stands for “mindset,” she said, and a willingness to change. The traditional “cowboy way” of grazing livestock — using large pastures for a low density of animals over a long time destroys the native grasses and prevents regeneration of the soil.
Instead, Masters suggests placing a larger number of animals in a smaller pasture for a shorter time, and then allowing the pasture to regenerate.
“The pasture can carry more animals, and the ranchers make more money,” she said. “It’s got to be profitable, or why do it?”
Higher-quality soil, which produces better grass, can mean improved food. Research in New Zealand is showing how better soil can produce higher quality grass that cuts the saturated fat in beef, making it a healthier meat.
Masters also believes that understanding and working with soil microbes will not only build soil, it will sequester carbon in the soil at a rate that was recently thought impossible.
She sees the value in other strategies for humans to cut the carbon footprint in the world. But the willingness of the agricultural community to tackle the problem could make all the difference.
“Carbon that was in the soil now is in the atmosphere,” Masters said. “Two hundred gigatons of carbon has been lost from the soil in the last 200 years.”
By using best practices in grazing and growing crops or gardens, that can help keep the carbon in the soil where it will do the most good, she said.
Steve Charter, who owns the family ranch where the seminar took place, has been working on intensive range management, called holistic resource management, since the 1980s. Understanding the need for healthy soil benefits ranchers and farmers in many ways, he said.
“Ninety-five percent of all species on the earth are underground,” said Charter, who is also chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council. “One teaspoon of soil contains 5,000 species. It’s incredible.”
When all of the nutrients the soil holds are washed away, it depletes nutrition in the plants that are grown, in the cattle that are raised, and it requires fertilizer to supplement what’s been lost.
It makes economic sense to focus on the soil, he said.
“People always assume that soil building is a slow process,” Charter said. “But some of these people doing this are building soil at rates nobody thought possible, so it’s totally exciting.”
Dena Hoff, an irrigated farmer and livestock producer from Glendive, came to the seminar because of her interest in sustainability.
“I want us to have soils that are going to make healthy food, that are going to grow healthy livestock and that are going to be able to sequester carbon,” she said.
Hoff went to a climate march in New York City last September. She heard a lot there about taking care of the soil as a way to “bail us out.”
That doesn’t mean environmentalists shouldn’t continue to work to reduce carbon emissions in other ways, she said. But more attention needs to be paid to the soil.
Hoff said years ago that soil conservation groups used the slogan, “stop treating soil like dirt.” It’s time to resurrect that idea, she said.
“We have to think of soil as a living organism that needs to be cared for and needs to be nurtured and nourished,” Hoff said.