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Ray Archuleta talks about three basic concepts for soil health during an Illinois Conservation Cropping Seminar.
One: The soil is alive.
A living plant is one of the most powerful tools on the farm. Plants and microbes feed the soil ecosystem and improve the quality of life.
Two: Everything is connected.
If it isn’t understood how the soil, inputs, crops, and management practices are connected, then harm can come from using tools incorrectly.
Three: The goal is to emulate nature (or “biomimicry”).
While efficiency has been a No. 1 priority, now it is known that the best approach is to mimic the natural system.
Archuleta says while these seem simple, the most challenging obstacle to overcome when adopting these three concepts is your mind-set.
“Thanks to the years of information we gained from our schools, our grandparents, and from our local community, our mind-set is the most difficult thing to change on the farm. The soil is easy to fix. Our mind-set is not,” he says.
Regenerative Ag on the Farm
Ted Krauskopf is a farmer near Highland, Illinois, who follows the three concepts from Archuleta through regenerative grazing.
“At one time, the farm was badly rundown with highly erodible slopes and light hickory soils. A lot of topsoil was lost and the soil organic matter was low. Rain didn’t have a chance to soak in before it ran off. The farm wasn’t sustainable economically,” Krauskopf explains.
Krauskopf’s farm has been minimally tilled and cover cropped since 1996.
After seeing the improvements on portions of the farm that had been enrolled in CRP, he decided to integrate pasture and grazing as a way to bring the farm back to profitability.
When the CRP contract ended, he built fences and set up a small rotational grazing operation on part of the acres. Adding the cattle and controlling their grazing improved the forage on those old CRP acres. In 2010, he submitted an EQIP application to convert 90 acres of mostly highly erodible cropland to rotational pasture.
With the cost-share money, Krauskopf was able to seed the pasture, put in new fencing (including perimeter and division fences), add water lines to the paddocks, and create a winter feeding station.
“The biggest single expense for my beef operation was feeding the cattle when they weren’t grazing and so I was anxious to try stockpiling forage by setting aside some pasture acres in the late summer to allow the forage to fully regrow during the fall,” he says.
The most efficient way for Krauskopf to graze the stockpile is by limiting the cattle to an area or a strip with enough forage dry matter to supply what they need for a specific period of time. He moves portable fencing daily.
Each season Krauskopf could see that the soil was gaining structure with more pore space for water and oxygen. There was less runoff from heavy rains and when runoff did occur, it ran clear. Even through the drought in the heat in 2012, he was able to graze the cows straight through summer into fall without feeding hay.
In 2014, the Pasture Project in Illinois took baseline soil samples on his farm and conducted a forage plant inventory among other tests.
“I began to understand why soil health played such an important role in regenerative grazing. Regenerating soil health is the source of all the gains that follow,” he says.
Krauskopf continues to create the best working environment for the soil microbes by limiting application of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides.
He gives credit to regenerative grazing for the increase in forage and more:
More residual above ground keeps energy flowing to the plant root system.
Some of that residual is trampled to the soil surface. That residue can help provide food for earthworms, which are important for soil health.
Residual forage protects the soil surface from direct sunlight so the soil stays cooler. Microbes work better in the summer when the soil stays cooler. The soil also stays moist longer since a cooler temperature means less evaporation.
Less evaporation leaves more soil moisture for plant growth, which results in faster regrowth and leads to more feed for the cattle.
Increased residual forage helps feed the microbiome at the root zone. The bacteria and fungi use the products of photosynthesis as energy for life and convert minerals in the soil to an organic form the plants can use.
The manure cattle leave behind while grazing the strips puts nutrients back into the soil.
There are more insects, bird species, and game in the ecosystem on the farm.
“It’s not complicated or difficult,” Krauskopf says. “Many farms have some acres best suited for pasture, and regenerative grazing can be a way to profit from those acres and improve the environment at the same time. If cover crops can be grazed too, then the benefits are further multiplied.”
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