Using multi-species cover crops to improve soil health

This is an excellent presentation by Jay Fuhrer, who works for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in North Dakota, USA. He uses case studies to explain how innovative use of cover crops can boost soil health and productivity, and dramatically reduce the use of artificial fertilizers.

Sea WIFS biosphere animation

Watch the global carbon cycle! The link below takes you to a NASA page that loads a 90 megabyte animated GIF file showing chlorophyll concentration (in the oceans) and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, on land) as the seasons change. Note: this page requires a fair bit of computer memory and good internet connection to load the image. It may step around slowly until the image is fully loaded.

Carbon cycle video

The first two segments of a video presentation/animation of the carbon cycle.

Two Catchment Management Authorities in Australia begin soil carbon programs

In eastern Australia, two Catchment Management Authorities have begun programs to encourage farmers and graziers to manage for increased soil organic matter. Both programs involve measuring on-farm results with before and after soil testing. Both programs are aimed at enhancing soil health and the sustainability of farming, rather than at "offsets" to fossil fuel emissions.

These locally initiated programs are funded by grants from Caring for Our Country, a $2.25 billion, five-year Australian federal grant program that supports communities by funding projects for biodiversity, coastal and aquatic habitats, and sustainable farm practices. Farmers and graziers manage around 70% of the Australian landscape.

According to the Caring for Our Country website, it focuses on achieving an environment that is healthy, better protected, well-managed, resilient, and that provides essential ecosystem services in a changing climate. The program sets a target of 12,000 farmers and 30,000 graziers in priority regions [see map for soil carbon priority regions in eastern Australia] who "have improved their management to reduce the risk of soil acidification and soil loss through wind erosion, water erosion and improve carbon content of soils, or have adopted other improved soil management methods."

#1 entry to the Soil Carbon Challenge

  The Soil Carbon Challenge

Today we understand as never before the crucial role that carbon-rich soil organic matter plays in the quantity and quality of the food we grow, in moderating flooding and drought, in the quantity and quality of runoff and groundwater, in biodiversity, and in the composition of the atmosphere, especially its carbon content.

However, our institutions and political systems have been largely unable to take advantage of the great opportunity this understanding offers, because like most of us they focus on problem-solving, on managing against threats. For example, since 1900 the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been managing against food contamination, low prices for agricultural commodities, soil erosion, hunger and malnutrition, fire in the forests, nitrate pollution, and on and on. The #1 recommendation to land managers of its small Soil Quality Team is to enhance soil organic matter, yet the overall effect of USDA policies, by fostering tillage, fire, and chemical use, is to oxidize large tonnages of soil carbon into the atmosphere, and limit its replenishment.

Climate policy proposals are even more tightly focused on problem-solving, on threats and risks. Because of the great size of the soil carbon pool compared to atmosphere and vegetation, and the magnitude of its responses to human decisions, the soil carbon factor threatens to reframe the climate debate, discomfiting both climate activists and agribusiness, and increasing the uncertainties all around. Proposals to commodify soil carbon as a potential "offset" to fossil fuel emissions have raised resistance from every sector and stripe, yet such proposals have framed almost all of the recent research on soil carbon.

If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction?

No, you run a race. Or many of them.

There’s been tons of talk about soil carbon, but it’s time for motion: to show with good data what’s possible, and recognize those land managers who know how to increase soil carbon.

Where things are stuck or the way forward is unclear, a competition can supply creative and unconventional solutions. A competition can leapfrog the decades-long cycle of research, pilot projects, legislation, and incentives, and can showcase leadership based on knowhow and performance rather than on promises and predictions. A competition can tell the stories of soil carbon to citizens, governments, and farmers better than anything else. Competitions change the question from Can it be done? to How well, and how fast?

The Soil Carbon Challenge measures soil carbon change with permanent plots, field sampling, and dry combustion tests. Three baseline plots make an entry, resampled at years 3, 6, and 10.

It’s not an offset scheme. It’s the next agricultural revolution, and you can bring it to your district, sector, or community.

We're proud to report that Tony and Andrea Malmberg, of Union, Oregon, experienced ranchers and holistic planned graziers, are the first entrants in the Soil Carbon Challenge.

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an international as well as local competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter, and recognize those who do (see sidebar).

When. The first two carbon plots were established and sampled on August 16, 2010, and the third was established and sampled on September 24, 2010.

Where. North and east of Elgin, Oregon, the Malmbergs' property consists of gently sloping grasslands with some patches of timber. Elevation is about 3600 feet (1100 meters) above sea level and average precipitation is about 15-20 inches (380-500 mm) annually. The predominant soil is a mollisol, Lookingglass silt loam.

Tony Malmberg during soil sampling on CRP ground.

Why. "We have an unlimited source of energy that's totally free," says Tony. "The sun. To maximize that free source of energy, our ecosystem process needs to be hitting on all four cylinders, that is the water cycle, mineral cycle (including carbon), energy flow, and community dynamics. Monitoring data provides me with measurable indications to confirm we are moving in the direction we want with our resource base."

For these experienced ranchers and graziers, establishing baseline monitoring was a natural first step with their recently purchased property. For the function of the ecosystem processes at the soil surface, they chose the Land EKG method developed by Charley Orchard ( "Land EKG provides the diagnostic test to know where we best focus our tune-up to get the ecosystem engine humming," says Tony.

"The carbon data tells us how much horsepower we’ve got under the hood, or under the soil surface in this case."

Soil carbon is a basic indicator of ecosystem function, water retention, and productivity. We used the Soil Carbon Coalition's plot specifications to co-locate permanent plots with the Land EKG transects that Charley Orchard set up and read.

"Acknowledging diverse social values, and meeting increasing demands for enhancing water cycling and carbon cycling can be important in marketing our grass fed beef," notes Tony. He regards both Land EKG and the monitoring of soil carbon change provided by the Soil Carbon Challenge to be important to his success.

John Cheever and Tony Malmberg consult the grazing plan prior to turning in cattle 23 years after the property was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program

The monitoring, both above and below ground, may also provide education and policy guidance. "After setting up a Land EKG transect and reading it, you will never look at your landscape the same again. We learn to see the signs of our land health, or lack of it. This gives us a language to communicate, and a way of engaging with the public, with agencies, and with our main street community around ecosystem health."

One of the ways Tony hopes to engage with policy is by creating an example of a successful transition away from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in terms of land health, community health, and economics. The property, which the Malmbergs recently purchased, has long been used for grazing, and for wheat farming. In 1987, several hundred acres of the farm ground were enrolled in the new CRP, and seeded to perennial grasses.

Water and soil demonstration

Soil scientist Ray Archuleta shows a remarkable contrast in the responses of tilled and no-tilled soil to water. Note that the biological glue he speaks of during the second half, substances such as glomalin, are one of the important large compounds that contain soil carbon. The takeaway from this demonstration is also that soil organic carbon has huge leverage on the effectiveness of the water cycle. See also

Soil and society

Charles E. Kellogg wrote an essay published in the United States Department of Agriculture's 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture (Soils and Men). Thanks to Abe Collins for the tip.

Kellogg shares profound insights on how the thinking that prevails in a society can affect its soils, its resource base.

"Do civilizations fall because the soil fails to produce -- or does a soil fail only when the people living on it no longer know how to manage their civilization?"

"It was not the soil of Rome that failed, but the men."

John Todd on soil and the carbon cycle

John Todd, of Living Machines fame and the New Alchemy Institute, has an interesting essay on about the need for our urban and industrial society to understand the foundational role of soil, and the carbon cycle.

1955 Keyline film

We are indebted to Darren Doherty's website for the following information and video:

Living from livestock: Sam Bingham's 1984 classic available for download

In 1984 Sam Bingham wrote a short book for Navajo country called Living from Livestock. Though one or two items are outdated (such as the recommendation to build radial grazing cells) it is a wonderfully illustrated and trenchant introduction to the relationship of grazing to ecosystem function in an arid environment. Thanks to Sam we are able to offer it as downloadable pdfs. (Right click, Save As, to download.)


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