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Can We Really Regenerate Our Soils?

This grazing and cover crop system is producing some impressive numbers

Phone calls, emails and even a few old-fashioned letters — all say the same thing. As I travel presenting at conferences and workshops, the statement comes up repeatedly.

If only I had a dollar for the number of times I had people tell me, “Gabe, you just don’t understand that our soils are not like yours.” I have learned to listen patiently (OK, sometimes not so patiently) as these people tell me all the reasons my soils are productive, and theirs are not.

When they finish, I ask them what they imagine their land looked like pre-European settlement. To this I usually receive a puzzled look.

My point is this: How is it that these lands were once healthy, functioning ecosystems? What changed between then and now? Could it be that we are the reason our land is no longer as productive as it once was? Could it be we are the reason that our soils do not function properly?

We get a lot of visitors to our ranch, more than 2,100 last summer alone. I think most come wanting a “silver bullet.” What we show them is simply how to use the principles of nature to their advantage.

I make it a point to show the difference between soils on our ranch and those of nearby operations. All have the same soil types.

The accompanying table shows soil testing results for four operations in my neighborhood. The one titled “Organic” is just that — an organic operation that is very diverse in its cropping system. The operator grows spring wheat, barley, oats, corn, sunflowers, peas, soybeans, dry edible beans and alfalfa. Natural, organic fertilizers are used. No livestock are integrated onto this cropland.


In the “No-till, low diversity” operation, the operator plants only flax and spring wheat in a cropping rotation. Anhydrous ammonia is used, and no livestock are on the land. Crop yields are about average for the area.

The third column is “No-till, medium diversity, high synthetic” fertilizer use. This farm grows corn, barley, sunflowers, spring wheat and soybeans. It has not been tilled in nearly 20 years. Yields are high, but high rates of synthetic fertilizers are used to get those yields, and fungicides, pesticides and amendments are also applied. No livestock are allowed to graze this farm.

Brown’s Ranch is the fourth operation listed. We have not tilled since 1993. We grow corn, spring wheat, barley, oats, peas, cereal rye, winter triticale and hairy vetch as our cash crops. All fields also have a cover crop each year — either before, alongside or after the cash crop.

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