Beef Producer: We can rebuild healthy soils

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was just one clarion call to reverse soil degredation. The job has never been done.

by Walt Davis 1 | Oct 03, 2018

Evidence says use planned grazing, no-till farming with cover cropping, and promote life to skim the excess off the top.

The earth and the people who live on it are in for a world of hurt. Bear with me a moment before shutting me down with “Oh, just another disaster theory!”

In our society, we have become a little blasé about doom-and-gloom predictions, and with good cause. We made it through the long-running “Cold War.” The “coming ice age” somehow morphed into “global warming” and then “climate change.” And the “AIDS” epidemic of epic proportions fizzled out with a little applied common sense.

We survived these things and others, but there is a human-caused disaster in the making that is at least as serious as anything mankind has ever faced. We are destroying the thin veneer of the earth that makes life as we know it possible. All the data shows us this is an age-old problem, but these days we are destroying our soil at an increasingly rapid rate. Sadly, much of this destruction is aggravated and speeded up by modern technology.

After a long period of often-destructive farming practices, due partly to the vast amounts of “new ground” that came available in this nation during the nineteenth century, the Dust Bowl days served as a wakeup call for the need for farming practices that preserved natural resources.

Real progress was made from the 1920’s well into the 1940’s on developing methods and practices that both increased production and promoted soil health. This occurred even though economic conditions were very poor during much of this time period. Agricultural colleges and good farmers applied both science and common sense to come up with, not only techniques but also a philosophy of land ethics that made sense financially and ecologically. These were the glory days of American agriculture when the values of diversified farming and soil conservation were demonstrated nationwide.

This happened in spite of policies and programs applied by politicians with no understanding of either agriculture or economics. There were still poor farmers with poor ways around but they were not the norm in most areas.

World War II brought change to rural areas in several ways: young men in uniform meant labor shortages; materials of all sorts were in short supply; and demand for agricultural products went sky high.

These were significant changes but the real changes to agriculture came after the war ended. Mechanization of agriculture exploded due to labor shortages and newly available farm equipment. Chemical fertilizers and powerful pesticides completed the transition of much of agriculture from a biological process to an industrial process in a very short time. This conversion was actively promoted by government policies designed to increase production of grain for export.

The results were to take decision-making power away from individual farmers acting in their own interest and give it to bureaucrats. This pretty much ended any active role by government in sustainable agriculture. Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) was a last-ditch program by some diehards in the USDA in the 1980s, and it seems to have died quickly when “big ag” brought pressure on congress.

It appears today that industrial agriculture is firmly in control of the USDA and the EPA. Farmers are regularly advised that all of the trappings of industrial agriculture are all necessary to “feed the world:” The acid salt fertilizers, the many kinds of poisons, the genetically modified organisms, and getting animals off the land and into confinement housing.

It looks to me like the people pushing further industrialization pay scant attention to the results of their recommended practices on the health of the land, but the record is clearly not a good one. Neither, evidently, do they pay attention to the effects of these practices on people: These are many and hotly debated. This would be a sad situation if we had no choices. It is far worse since we actually do have alternatives.

Individual producers are devising methods and practices that allow them to do away with some or all of the destructive practices and to replace those inputs with well-thought-out management. Good producers are bringing back “old-fashioned” practices such as crop rotations, cover crops, animals back on the land, good grazing management, and a philosophy that promotes life rather than one that is based in death.

Humans have the ability to reason; we can develop management techniques to replace, or at least greatly reduce, the need for what the late author Charles Waters called “toxic chemistry.” The starting point should be building soil health, which has never been achieved by industrial agriculture.

Plants growing in truly healthy, biologically robust soil are amazingly resistant to pest organisms, from insects to root-eating nematodes to all manner of pathogens. It follows that animals, including people, who consume healthy plants gain health because those plants are more nutrient dense.

Healthy soils effectively capture and store both water and air, therefore plants growing in these soil suffer much less from too much or too little water.

The needed changes will take time but the result is now and in the future will be farms and ranches that are productive, stable and profitable.