Yes, Everything is Connected

By Jim Gerrish, American Grazing Lands Services LLC

I grew up in a time when we all believed we were smarter than Mother Nature. We all subscribed to the notion of ‘Better living through Chemistry’. We could isolate any question and address it through the scientific method. We had firmly established that we as human beings were separate from nature and that we were above nature. We ruled the Earth. We could control weeds in our fields with a simple, safe chemical. Our scientists assured us these chemicals affected nothing else besides the target weeds. I watched my weed science professor drink Atrazine to assure us of its safety. He long since died of lymphoma. We could eliminate parasites from our livestock with a simple pour-on chemical.

There was only one problem.

We were mistaken.

We found we could also eliminate over 800 soil organisms with that same pour-on. We have found hundreds of manufactured chemicals touted as being safe are far from it. We have found out we do not rule the earth.

As the years have gone by we have been brought back to the reality that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. We cannot isolate our actions from the eternal ripple effect. The reality of Mother Nature has come home to roost. Thermodynamics says for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. That is a law of physics and is generally related to concepts of energy and force. Biology is infinitely more complicated than physics, the reaction is not always opposite and sometimes it is not remotely equal.

Everything is connected at the physical, chemical, and biological levels. The response to our actions in the ecosystem are not simple and linear. They are multidimensional and may either gather additional energies through synergy or they may rapidly fizzle to nothing as all energy is rapidly expended.

I went to college and then graduate school and became well indoctrinated in the methods of reductionist science. Even though I worked at a place called the University of Missouri – Forage Systems Research Center, the longer I was there the more I realized I knew and understood less and less about the soil-plant-animal interface. We designed and executed research projects geared towards development of ‘forage-livestock systems’. After 22 years 3 months on the MU faculty, I came to the realization of the validity of a certain piece of Eastern philosophy that I have carried with me ever since that time.

Do not speak an answer until you understand the question.’

What I learned in two and a half decades of academic agricultural research was that I didn’t understand the question. Sadly, I don’t think many of my colleagues understood the question either.

So what is the question? Unfortunately, it is not so simple as Douglas Adams presented it in ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ and the answer is not so simple as ‘42′.

The question as I see it today is where do we as a species fit into the linkages of the total ecosystem. That is a large question beyond the scope of my time here today. That is the cop-out way of saying it is really beyond my scope of knowledge and understanding, but I keep working on trying to figure it out.

Today, I want to look at a small piece of that overall linkage. That is, where do we as land managers have opportunity to control, manipulate, or tweak the linkages among the soil-plant-animal interface to benefit ourselves as individual farmers or ranchers but also to leave an intact planet for our descendants.

I have spent most of the last 35 years working in the realm of grazing and my favorite genre is perennial pastures whether that be as seeded pastures or native rangeland. Even though I grew up a crop farmer, not a livestock farmer, I have moved farther and farther away from any agriculture that involved disturbing the soil. Coming back into the crop circles (no pun intended!) via the no-till farming movement has brought me back to the notion that crop farming and soil health can occur simultaneously. That is a real positive in my view.

Because of the destructive nature of tillage on soil structure, biological life, and the propensity to create soil erosion, the removal of all conventional tillage from farming systems is one of the first steps towards creating a more sustainable food system for our species. Elimination of tillage is the first step towards restoring biological life to the soil. Permanent grasslands are the most sustainable form of food production in my view largely because of the elimination of tillage. Fortunately, we could exist entirely on an animal-based diet, so we could get everything we need from these grasslands.

The second critical step towards restoring overall ecosystem health, humans included, is the elimination of the use of all the x-cides in our operations. With all the products that are designed to kill something – herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, parasiticides – how could that possibly be good for us or the world around us? Remember, for every action there is a multidimensional response and, for the most part, we really have had very little idea of the degree or direction of those responses.

There are certain aspects of the soil-plant-animal relationships of which we do have a decent understanding. Those are the areas where we need to focus our management attention as that is where we can make the greatest progress. These are all relatively simple concepts, but often overlooked because they are so simple.

Most cropland soils in the US have undergone severe organic matter depletion in the last century. Both graziers and no-till farmers share the goal of restoring organic matter to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. There are few key concepts to keep in focus.

1) The more above-ground growth you can create, the more below-ground growth there will be. Soil organic matter is build from the bottom up, not the top down. I am not discounting the critical importance of plant litter or crop residue on the soil surface. For purposes of soil protection and enhancing the water cycle, surface litter is of utmost importance. But most stable organic matter is created from the decay of root material, not surface litter.

2) We always say that what goes on below ground is a reflection of what is going on above ground and vice versa, but it is rarely a 50:50 correlation. Perennials in general put more CHO flow below ground than do annuals. Why? Because long term survival is dependent more on roots and crowns than on elongated shoot growth. Annual crops have no need to plan for long term survival, so annuals can put more energy into top growth. The drier the environment, the greater the percentage of CHO flow from ongoing photosynthesis to root growth and storage organs.

Relatively speaking, perennials will build more deep profile organic matter for you while annuals proportionally can contribute more to the litter layer development. The historic problem with conventional tillage is we destroy more organic matter than we can develop annually even with high crop yields. Take tillage out of the equation and building organic matter becomes a much more realistic proposition.

3) The combination of annual cover-crops seeded into perennial pastures can provide both deep root development and rapid accumulation of surface litter. Timing of seeding of the annual crops to be least competitive with the perennial forage base and vice versa is a key component for this strategy. With improper timing, both the perennial and annual can suffer and no added value is gained with the annual crop interseeding.

4) Livestock grazing of no-till cover crops and crop residues has several benefits including creating an additional revenue stream, accelerating the rate of nutrient cycling, and inoculation of additional microbes to the soil via salivation and manure excretion. Annual cover-crops offer the grazier opportunities to provide high quality forage for high performing livestock classes at a time in the year when they might not typically have it if using only perennial pastures.

High stock density grazing can be used to terminate the growth of a cover crop prior to seeding the next row or small grain crop. This is the time when we may want to indulge in grazing part of the crop and trampling the reminder to create a mulch layer to trap water for the newly seeded crop. There may be rare instances when we actually graze the cover crop so severely there is little to no residue remaining. If the seeded crop is susceptible to particular soil insects or slugs, we might need to minimize the protective cover. When these issues may arise is when using longer crop rotations with more years of perennial pasture may be particularly valuable.

5) The most effective way to keep the pasture solar panel functioning at top efficiency is to allow it to grow to the high Phase 2 level, which generally corresponds with 4 to 5 1⁄2 leaf stage, and then grazing it at about 50% utilization. Sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less, but a 50% utilization rate generally leaves the pasture in a low Phase 2 state. This degree of grazing will cause a certain amount of root sloughing, but active root growth returns fairly quickly.

This is what is generally referred to as pulsing the pasture and is a technique to stimulate photosynthetic activity. While generally done several times a year with perennial pastures in high rainfall or irrigated situation, pulsing can also be used with annual pastures to extend the productive season on the annual pasture crop. The greater the diversity of your cover-crop mix, the more beneficial pulsing the solar panel is more likely to be.

6) Crop farmers frequently have concern about potential soil compaction from grazing livestock on their fields. Many have the idea that if they spread the livestock out over a larger area, there will be less compaction occur. That is exactly opposite of what actually happens. Grazing livestock at a low stock density allows them to travel over greater distances every day resulting in more hooves hitting the ground. As this force is delivered over a longer period of time, the soil has less opportunity to recover from the pressure and compaction builds.

One of the classic studies of soil compaction relative to grazing methodology was conducted by Michael O’Sullivan at the Johnstowne Castle Research Center in Ireland in the late 1970s. This study compared the daily travel distance in either set-stocked or rotationally grazed paddocks. What they found was cattle in set-stocked pasture consistently traveled a greater distance than did cattle concentrated in smaller paddocks. The shocking part of it was once feed supply became limiting in the set-stocked pasture, the daily travel distance was 4X greater than in the rotational paddocks.

Since degree of compaction s determined by the combination of soil type, soil moisture, and physical force applied to the soil, increased travel distance means more total hooves hitting the ground every day. In the grazing world, the potentially compacting physical force applied to the soil is hoof beats.

Recovery from soil compaction is through biological activity and the soil and freeze-thaw process. The more biologically active the soil, the more rapidly the soil will recover.

The deeper we delve into the soil-plant-animal interface, the more we begin to understand that we are all inextricably linked in the web of life. We need to think in terms of multidimensional response to our management decisions rather than the overly simplistic ‘If I do this, I will get this.’

Going back to that Kung Fu wisdom, seek to understand the question before you speak the answer.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Grazing cell design: Fixed vs flexible design

When it comes to making fence and water developments, we have two basic approaches to setting up a grazing cell. I like to refer to them as fixed or flexible designs. A fixed design is built using permanent fence and water installations to create the grazing cell while a flexible design relies on movable fence and water for paddock subdivisions within a framework of permanent fence and water installation. Then, there is a wide range of combinations of the two.

Cows graze in a green pasture behind a barbed-wire fence.

Deciding which approach is right for your operation depends on a number of factors. Flexible designs allow much more fine tuning of the pasture-animal balance so if you need tight management control, a flexible design might be right up your alley. Fixed designs require less daily labor so, if you’re short on time, a fixed design might suit you better. Any kind of fence or water development costs money. Fixed designs are better suited for large operations where paddocks are large enough that development costs can be spread over many acres. If you’re short on capital, starting out with a flexible design might be more affordable. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

In a fixed design, all subdivisions are made with permanent fence. My definition of a permanent fence for any class of cattle is a single strand of electrified 12.5 ga hi tensile wire on solid corners with line posts the wildlife don’t knock the wire off. In very dry conditions, a two-wire fence may be necessary with one strand hot and one strand grounded. For sheep or goats, three strand fences are most commonly used, although some people do alright with just two wires.

Watering points in fixed designs are commonly either the water source itself, such as stream, spring development or pond, or has water delivered to a tank via buried pipelines. Tanks are typically large, often containing a full day’s water supply or more. Pipe flow can be pretty slow and the water supply will still be adequate. The negative effect is watering activities always occur at the same locations in fixed designs.

Fixed designs have a number of advantages, particularly on large operations. Because the expensive part of fencing is in energizers, ends and corners, and gates, the more acres you can spread those costs over, the lower the cost per acre. Ultimately it is animal product sold per acre that pays the bills, so lower cost per acre yields higher gross margin per acre. Picture this. It takes the same number of end assemblies and gates to create ten paddocks on 20 acres as it does to make ten paddocks on 200 acres. However, cost per acre is going to be much lower on the 200 acres compared to the 20.

On most days, the labor requirement on a fixed design consists of opening the gate and letting the stock to the next paddock. Use good quality material for the fence and water designs in the first place, install it properly, and maintenance on the grazing design is pretty minimal. The initial investment may be higher up front, but operating costs on a fixed design can be quite low.

The main disadvantage to fixed designs is that management flexibility is limited. As growth rate changes through the season, you can adjust the length of the grazing period but you cannot change the size of the pasture allocation without resorting to temporary fencing. If paddocks are less than

ten acres, efficiency of any mechanical operation is also diminished. On smaller operations, the cost per acre can be substantial because of limited number of acres over which to spread costs.

Flexible designs require more management and more daily labor to use effectively, but offer several important advantages. The primary advantage is increased management flexibility from both grazing and mechanical harvest perspective. The ability to flex paddock size and forage allocation as conditions change offers greater management control.

Labor requirements in a well-designed flexible design can be fairly minimal. Getting an easy working design requires setting up the permanent framework to enhance your time efficiency. Laying out the grazing design as a series of near-parallel grazing corridors is the starting point. I generally recommend keeping corridor width to less than 1000 feet to accommodate easy use of fence reels and step-in posts.

My personal preference is to space permanent fences at 660 feet with a water line along alternating fence lines. Why 660 feet? Because each 66-ft allocation equals one acre. Install your permanent line posts at 66-ft spacing and you have a built in paddock measuring device. It makes it very easy to keep track of what you are allocating and give instructions to kids and hired help doing chores for you. Most layouts do not lend themselves to such an ideal layout. Generally we try to keep the grazing corridors in the 500 to 1000 ft range. This is a reasonable amount of movable fence to work with each day. It would typically take me 15 to 25 minutes to take up one fence and set up another with these distances.

Even though the daily labor requirement for operating a flexible design is greater than labor in a fixed design, the time needed to move fence and water is pretty minimal if you are using the right equipment and have set the design up as described above. Over the last 20 years I have timed myself and other people working with portable fence and water designs. Day in and day out, it takes me less than 15 minutes to take down a 660-foot section of polywire on step-in posts and reset it for the next grazing strip. Using a 50-gal plastic tank and quick coupler valves requires about five minutes to move. In most situations it takes longer to get from the house to the paddock than to make the paddock shift.

During one five-year research project at FSRC, we had eight herds rotating in flexible designs. I could typically go out and move all eight herds in about two hours including walking from pasture to pasture. The lengths of fence ranged from 330 to 600 feet and the water tanks were 25 gallon plastic tubs. Set it up right, use the right equipment, and it doesn’t take much time at all.

A water line along each alternating fence allows two corridors to be watered from each line. The spacing of the water outlets depends on expected herd size and the needed allocation area. The key factor to making portable water tanks work is high recharge rate in the delivery design. Whereas water tanks in fixed designs can be large and rely on slower refill rates, flexible designs must be installed with high flow capacity to get rapid refill so that stock can never drain the tank. Some people think this means high pump pressure but it is actually much more related to pipe size. Just increasing pipe size from 1″ to 1.25″ increases water flow by more than 50%.

Even if you install appropriate sized pipe for the main line, water flow can be restricted by using a small diameter delivery hose or a tank valve that restricts water flow excessively. Hydrants and quick coupler valves are the first point of restriction from the pipeline. Use larger diameter hydrants and valves wherever possible. If you put in a one inch hydrant, don’t lose that advantage by running a half-inch hose to the tank, particularly if using hose lengths greater the 20 to 30 feet. Larger diameter hoses cost more but deliver a lot more water. A one inch hose delivers four times as much water as a half-inch hose.

So how do you decide whether to use a fixed or flexible approach? As a general guideline, I suggest flexible if your operation is less than 160 acres. If you are managing over 1000 acres in a single grazing design, fixed may be a better option. In between those two benchmarks, a combination design is likely to work best. Having said that, I know operations in excess of 1000 acres that are almost entirely flexible and I know 40 acre farms set up with fixed facilities.

Dennis McDonald, an early pioneer of controlled grazing in north Missouri, originally set up all of his farms as fixed designs. Dennis runs several hundred head of cattle on over a thousand acres. After 10 to 12 years of grazing successfully in those fixed designs, he converted all of his farms to flexible designs because he saw even more benefit to tighter control and found the flexible design easier to manage. Dennis is a full-time farmer who markets his labor through cattle production. The additional time he spends managing in the flexible mode has increased his output per acre so it is time well spent.

Jim Twesten is a custom stocker grazier in who works off the farm and has very limited daylight hours on his home place. Jim typically runs around 300 head of yearlings on his 320-acre home unit in a fixed design consisting of about 20 paddocks with permanent water tanks. Because time is his most precious commodity, Jim prefers to minimize his daily labor at home and uses a well designed fixed design.

Eric Bright operates a 60-cow pasture-based dairy and runs a very intensive flexible design to maximize grazing intake of his dairy cows. Moving fence and water every 12 hours requires using the right tools to do it efficiently. Eric uses some annual crops such as ryegrass and brown midrib sorghum so the flexible setup allows him to no-till drill the annual crops in long corridors rather than in small blocks.

Three graziers with three different sets of goals and you get three different designs. Your design needs to be a reflection of your goals.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Grassroots of Grazing: Flexible grazing cells work almost anywhere

by Jim Gerrish

We use two basic grazing cell designs in our grazing management efforts all around the globe. The fixed design is the one most people are familiar with. This is where individual paddocks are created with permanent fences and water troughs or drinkers are installed in permanent locations. The paddock size is ‘fixed’ as are the fence and water locations. The alternative approach is the ‘flexible’ design which uses movable fences and water tanks within a framework of permanent fences. We are increasingly using flexible designs in much larger applications and on much more diverse landscapes.

Cattle graze behind a 4-strand electric fence.

When I use the term ‘permanent fence’, I am still referring to electrified hi-tensile fencing. With all classes of cattle, either a single wire or two-wire permanent fence is all we typically use. With sheep or goats, the fence may be three or more wires. Rarely do we ever use a barb-wire fence in any application. Perimeter fences for sheep and goats may still be woven-wire to keep those wily rascals on the property.

Flexible grazing cells generally consist of a series of long narrow pastures that we describe as ‘grazing corridors’. The grazing corridors are further subdivided using movable electric fences. The fences can be placed anywhere within the corridor to create paddocks of varying sizes. We are using ‘flexible’ fences to create ‘flexible’ sized paddocks so that we have ‘flexible’ management.

We like to place the permanent corridor fences as near to parallel as possible to make distance of portable fences used fairly similar and keep those distances to comfortable working lengths. A common example would be a quarter-section of land which is a square 160 acres divided into four 40-acre strips. Each strip is 660 ft wide and a half-mile long. In this case the corridors are obviously rectangular. Another example is a standard quarter-section center pivot set up with a near-circular fence located half way between the pivot center and the outer reach of the sprinklers. In this case we have two corridors, also 660 ft wide. They just happen to be round rather than rectangular.

For corridors less than 66o ft wide, we can either use full-size geared reels or the so-called ‘mini- reels’ that comfortably hold up to 660-ft of polywire. For corridors in the 660 to 1320 ft width, we generally use a standard geared reel holding up to 1320 ft of good quality braided polywire. These are the type of flexible grazing cells we have worked with for many years.

As the interest in high stock density grazing on rangeland has increased, so has the use of flexible grazing cells on much larger scale landscapes. In some parts of the US and Canada, ranchers speak of how many sections or how many quarters they are grazing. It wasn’t very many years ago that the idea of using polywire to manage a 10-section ranch (6400 acres) was almost unthinkable.

Thanks to grazier innovation and expanding opportunities with mechanized retrieval and dispersal systems, we see larger and larger landscapes being managed with movable polywire fencing. I recently saw an ATV-towable cart for dispensing and retrieving polywire fencing on a large ranch in Alberta. This unit allows a rancher to put up one mile of portable fence in as little as an hour. The

fence can be reeled up and posts retrieved in an hour also. Suddenly the idea of going out and splitting a one-section pasture into four paddocks for more effective grazing is no longer a daunting task. Ten sections can easily become 40 or more paddocks.

For sheep and goats, many graziers still prefer using electric netting rather than multi-strand polywire or tape fences. To accommodate flexible use of netting in flexible grazing cells, we generally use three-strand fences for the corridor boundaries and place them a distances that are incremental to the netting rolls. For example, if you were using the 164 ft (50 meters) rolls, we would set our corridor fences at 160, 320, or 480 ft. Generally we limit a corridor to no more than three rolls wide. If corridors need to be any wider than that, maybe you should reconsider using multi-reels of polywire.

I might also report I am meeting more and more graziers who are using just a single strand of polywire to control sheep or goats. Train the critters well in a corral, keep the power level high, and don’t let them get hungry. Those are the keys to successfully working small ruminants with just one wire.

The grazing cell also needs to accommodate portable stock water as well as portable fence. Our most common stock water strategy is placing a pipeline along every other fence line to allow access from the corridor on either side of the fence. We try, as much as possible, to design systems with pairs of corridors rather than having an odd number. Odd number of corridors leads to a higher investment cost per acre served.

Pipelines may be installed either above or below ground depending on climate, season of use, and water source. In the North pipelines are buried to prevent freezing while in the South they may be buried to keep water cooler. We install various types of quick-attach water access vales all along the pipelines to accommodate movable water troughs. Usually we also put in a few strategically located year-around drinking points.

In a strictly seasonal grazing operation, burying lines isn’t really necessary even in extremely cold climates. Using burst-resistant HDPE (high-density polyethylene) pipe instead of PVC almost eliminates the threat of broken pipelines, other than at weak fittings. Draining the pipe at the end of the grazing season protects fittings as well. Many outfits in the North use this policy to avoid the costly burial of pipelines to 6-8 ft necessary to get it below the frost line.

If abundant spring or lake water is available, running a continuous flow of water through the pipeline will prevent freezing even at very cold winter temperatures. You just need to make sure the system doesn’t get plugged up.

If you have wondered how large of a property you can manage with a flexible grazing cell, the answer is probably much larger than you ever thought. Proper layout of the permanent fence and stock water infrastructure and using the right portable tools allows more effective management of ranches measured in tens of thousands of acres.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Dirt clods, mud pies and other insights in soil sustainability

By Tom Parker

Like most farmers, Doug Peterson’s concepts about farming and soil management were founded on the experiences and teachings of his father and grandfather. The knowledge they imparted was taken as gospel truth, inviolable and immutable. A college degree reinforced those ideas, and a career as an NRCS field specialist let him put those ideas to work. By his 20th year on the job, he felt he knew about everything there was to know about soil—how to use it, how to take care of it, how to improve it.

Doug Peterson and Candy Arnold pour water over soil samples demonstrating how tilling practices affect infiltration and stability of soils. Photo by Tom Parker
Doug Peterson and Candy Arnold pour water over soil samples demonstrating how tilling practices affect infiltration and stability of soils. Photo by Tom Parker


He was on top of his game. Which was why, when he was asked to evaluate a workshop on soil health for possible inclusion in Missouri NRCS programs 10 years ago, he attended with some skepticism. “What else could it teach me?” he wondered, and sat there in utter disbelief as the instructor, using dirt clods and mud pies to illustrate complex biological processes, methodically and systematically dismantled his understanding of soil.

Everything Peterson thought he knew about soil was based on a world that no longer existed. Since the first farmer broke the soil in Mesopotamia 20,000 years ago, an unimaginable transformation had altered not only societies and cultures but the very fabric of existence of life on earth. Nothing was spared, not the air, not the water, not the soil.

So revelatory was that simple demonstration that Peterson, an NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Missouri and Iowa, now uses it as an opening act for his Soil Health Sustainability in Cropland workshops. Joining him for five such workshops across Kansas in mid-July was Candy Thomas, NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Kansas and Nebraska. The workshops were sponsored in part by the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams through funding by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Locations included Iola, Parsons, Clay Center, Stull and Lansing.

Peterson, like most farmers and soil specialists, wasn’t blind. Most of his work dealt with mitigating changes in the soil, in the water, in the climate, but the changes were both resistant and resilient. They could also be oddly contradictory, such as when the Missouri River flooded while two-thirds of the river’s watershed were in drought. Farmers were losing ground, literally and figuratively, and conventional farming practices only seemed to make matters worse.

Whatever underlying causes were wrecking such havoc had to be related to the water cycle, he thought. “If you have flood warnings and drought conditions in the watershed at the same time, how much infiltration is occurring? Not much,” he said. “And we’re not talking 15-inch rains, but three-inch rains that cause flooding like we’ve never seen before. We have to understand water.”

More specifically, we have to understand how water interacts with soil. Peterson took two virtually identical dirt clods, or aggregates as he preferred, and placed them in a matching pair of glass beakers. As he poured water over them to replicate a heavy rainfall, one clod, taken from a field where no-till was practiced, retained its shape while allowing most of the water to filter through; the other, taken from a field under long-term tillage, disintegrated within seconds.


“The most limiting natural resource in crop production is water,” he said, “and the most important part of the water cycle is infiltration. It’s critical to understand how the ability of soil to hold together impacts infiltration.”

The no-till aggregate was held together by organic matter and soil organisms such as fungi, arthropods, worms, millipedes, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa, he said, while the other had little more than sand, silt and clay to bind it.

For infiltration purposes, the most important part of the soil is the nothingness, the cracks, the voids, he said. Water cannot pass through solids. In no-till fields, rain slowly percolates through root channels, cracks, wormholes and other minute openings, while in tilled fields the upper layer of topsoil has little organic matter to glue it together. The entire structure can collapse during even moderate rain events.

“Erosion doesn’t start with a big chunk washing away,” he said. “It starts when individual particles break loose from the aggregate.”

In healthy soil, the combined biomass of soil organisms is staggering. An acre of soil contains more than five tons of organisms such as fungi, arthropods, worms, millipedes, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa, many of them microscopic. Earthworms mix and move residues in the soil, creating large pores that are nutrient rich and filled with microbes. These pores create air and water flow and allow roots to grow and take advantage of resources.

“Pore spaces are the lungs and circulatory system of soils,” Thomas said. “They allow the soil to breathe.”

Not so with soil that’s been tilled. Studies show that long-term tillage drastically reduces soil organic matter. One study conducted in a soybean field showed a 63 percent loss of soil organic matter after 17 years of tillage.

Much of that loss can be attributed to disturbance. Tillage adds oxygen to the soil, which in turn induces bacteria to consume carbon. Half to two-thirds of our soil’s carbon has been lost through tillage, Peterson said. Surface temperatures play a critical role in soil organisms, too, especially in grass systems.

“When we mow hay off on the sunniest days, we jack up soil temperatures 40 degrees or more,” he said. “What happens to soil moisture? We eliminate it. Earthworms go deep, but most of bacteria and the fungi will grow dormant or die.”

Add fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to the mix and even more damage occurs.

Why then, Peterson asked, if we know that tillage degrades the soil, why is it so ingrained in our society?

Because it was efficient. Whether the first farmers broke the soil in Mesopotamia or, 4,000 years later, in the Midwest, the underlying soil teemed with life. “It had crazy high organic matter, high biological activity, high aggregate stability,” Peterson said. “But after years of tillage, what happened to organic matter? It declined. What happened to aggregate stability? It went down. What happened to production? It went down.”

For early farmers, their only recourse was to break new ground and allow the old ground revegetate. A similar pattern took place in the United States, he said. Settlers tilled areas for crops and left grassland for their livestock. Once the soil became less fertile, they rotated to other sections while the land healed. Then came the 1940s and mechanized equipment. Suddenly, farmers didn’t need extra land to regenerate. They added nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the soil and called it good—but they didn’t put back organic matter.

“The reason we’ve been taught that tillage is beneficial is because historically, except for the last 50 or 60 years, it was based on soils with high organic matter, biological activity and aggregate stability,” Peterson said. “Is that the kind of soil we have these days? No. Tillage doesn’t get you the kind of soil that we once had.”

Add overgrazing, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, haying and other sources of soil disturbance, and it seems as if we’re actively trying to get rid of water, he said.

It’s not too late to restore the ecological balance, Peterson said, but it won’t happen overnight and it won’t be easy.

“Change is hard,” he said. People make changes when their backs are against the wall. If you think it’s hard for a farmer to change from tilling to no-till, how much harder is it for the government to change everything its practices are based on?”

Achieving soil health requires utilizing a number of practices that include the use of diverse and strategic cover crops, crop rotations, adapted nutrient management, integrated weed and pest management, and no-till. “Soil health is not a destination, it’s a journey,” he said. “Managing for a living ecosystem is the key to optimum production.”

From a resource concern standpoint, producers should design for what they don’t have. “What does your soil need? Get your shovel out and start digging,” he said. Crop diversity cannot be ignored or overstated. Plants were created to grow in diverse ecosystems. Nature doesn’t have a monoculture.

“If we put these principles to work, we can make huge changes in our fields,” Peterson said. “The last 100 years have been a mining operation. We mined organic matter just like they mined oil and minerals. It was an extraction operation, and all of us are left with something less productive than it was. But we can change it. We have the answer right here. We can improve production and profitability and solve all the issues. We can’t hit the easy button as Candy said, but we can push the start button.”

Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

KAWS Hires Watershed Coordinators and Assistant Director

Cheney, KS – February 7, 2019 – Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS) is pleased to announce it has hired Watershed Coordinators for the Middle Kansas River Watershed, the Lower Kansas River Watershed, and the Milford Lake Watershed, as well as an Assistant Director for the organization.  These full time positions are full-time employees of KAWS, an operational change made as part of the KAWS 2018 Strategic Plan.

“Over the last year, we’ve focused our efforts on redefining and clarifying the direction of our organization. We’re growing, and we’re adapting – to further develop our programs, sustain a culture of quality service, and better serve our partners. I’m looking forward to supporting conservation efforts in Kansas with our growing team,” says Jessica Mounts, Executive Director for KAWS.

Libby Albers

Libby Albers
Assistant Director

As the Assistant Director for KAWS, Libby Albers brings her broad experience in project management, grant writing, and developing collaborative partnerships.  Prior to joining KAWS, Libby has two decades of experience, certifications, and advanced education in natural resources and communication-related fields. Libby holds Masters degrees from both Emporia State University and Stephen F. Austin State University.

Libby calls Newton, KS home and is actively engaged in her community. She has served on several non profit and community organization boards, and is excited to bring her experience to the mission of KAWS.

Megan Rush

Megan Rush
Watershed Coordinator
Middle & Lower Kansas River

Megan Rush joins KAWS as the coordinator for both the Lower Kansas and the Middle Kansas Watersheds. “My awareness of water protection started when I was volunteering for the Baker Wetlands and educating the community of the importance of Kansas wetlands. Soon after, I volunteered for a summer with Friends of the KAW to do water sampling for tributaries along the Kansas River,” says Ms. Rush.

Megan has a degree in Environmental Science from KU and is currently pursuing a Masters in Environmental Assessment at KU as well.  Prior to working in water and the environment, Megan spent 15 years in animal sciences as a Certified Veterinary Technician.

Adam Bauer

Adam Bauer
Watershed Coordinator
Milford Reservoir

Adam Bauer, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has been hired as the Watershed Coordinator for the Milford Lake Watershed. Most recently, Adam worked for Pheasants Forever in partnership with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism assisting tenant farmers on the wildlife area and help to promote sustainable farming practices by using cover crops in crop rotations.

Adam brings his expertise in private land management, ArcGIS and Google Earth to the KAWS team.

Natural Resource Societies Recognize Kansas Conservation Champion

Joseph Kramer, life-long conservationist wins 2019 award

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Joseph Kramer, retired Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism (KDWPT) employee, has been recognized by seven professional Kansas natural resource societies as the winner of the 2019 Kansas Conservation Champion Award.

The award honors outstanding long-term dedication, innovation, and leadership for the conservation, protection, enhancement and stewardship of Kansas’ natural heritage and resources.

Joseph (Joe) Kramer (center) with his wife, Sandy and their son, Lucas.

Kramer received the award at the Kansas Natural Resource Conference in Manhattan on February 1st. The award recognizes 38 years of contributions Kramer has made to the state of Kansas while serving in a variety of positions. During his 35 years with the KDWPT, he served as Chief of the Wildlife and Fisheries Division for 26 years, working with federal agencies through numerous farm bills and conservation programs and recruiting and hiring many of the KDWPT employees still serving today.

Upon his retirement, he began working as a wetland coordinator for the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS) and Ducks Unlimited (DU) as a special projects manager. His tremendous network of partners from his KDWPT career expanded and strengthened stakeholder relationships in western Kansas. His efforts facilitated record breaking Wetlands Reserve Easement (WRE) signups, enhanced the playa wetland CRP SAFE program, and expanded KDWPT’s Walk in Hunting Access (WIHA). Outside of playas, Joe has helped the state make tremendous strides in private and public land conservation. His passion for Kansas wetlands and wildlife is truly evident and contagious to those that work with him.

Additional information about the award and the Kansas Natural Resource Conference may be found at http://www.kansasnrc.org.

Coffee, Cookies & Conversation in Shawnee County

You are invited to these FREE events to hear from the experts and enjoy a cup of coffee and cookies (while supplies last.)

This series is hosted by the Shawnee County Conservation District and K-State Research and Extension office in Shawnee County with assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Each program is a Free event open to interested landowners, crop and livestock producers. Thank you to our sponsors: Premier Farm and Home, Frontier Farm Credit, Kansas Insurance, Landmark National Bank, and Shawnee County Farm Bureau.

Please RSVP by the day before the event to ensure that we have plenty of handouts, coffee, cookies, and chairs. To make a reservation call 785-338-9946 or e-mail Judy Boltman at judy@sccdistrict.com.

 

3rd Annual Playa Lake Tour & Workshop

Join us on January 8 and 9, 2019, for the 3rd Annual Playa Lake Tour and Workshop, hosted by Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS), in Dodge City, Kansas. This event is designed for landowners and tenants who have playas on their land, but is also open to individuals who are interested in learning more about this unique natural resource. Participants will learn about playas, the benefits they provide including groundwater recharge and wildlife habitat, and the conservation programs available for restoring and conserving playas.

The two-day event will begin with a playa tour on Tuesday, January 8, which will include visits to a few different playas that are enrolled in various conservation programs. Attendees will see what playa lakes may look like before, during, and after being accepted into a conservation program and using different management strategies to restore the health of a playa. There will also be opportunities to have open discussions about the pros and cons of each conservation program.

During the workshop, which will be held on Wednesday, participants will learn about the latest playa research, why playas are so important to the high plains ecosystem, and available playa conservation programs. There will also be an open discussion session where attendees can ask questions of technical staff and landowners who are participating in conservation programs and meet local staff who can give expert advice about playa lakes and playa restoration programs.

The Playa Lake Tour and Workshop is FREE for landowners and tenants with playa lakes on their land and includes lunch both days and tour transportation. For others who would like to attend, there is a $50 fee which covers lunch and transportation. Registration is required. To learn more, visit the KAWS website or contact your local USDA staff.

Register now!

January 8, 2019 – Ford & Gray County Playa Tour

Dodge City Learning Center, 308 W. Frontview, Dodge City KS 67801 

9:00 am Depart: Dodge City Learning Center, 308 W. Frontview, Dodge City KS 67801

Tour: Ford & Gray County Playa Sites

11:30 am Arrive: Gray County Extension Office, 17002 US-50, Cimarron, KS 67835
12:00 pm Lunch: Provided by Star Seed
1:30 pm Continue Tour: Gray and Ford County Playa Sites
4:00 pm Travel to: KDWPT Wild Turkey Playa Lake
5:00 pm Arrive: Dodge City Learning Center, 308 W. Frontview, Dodge City KS 67801

 January 9, 2019 – Playa Lake Workshop

Dodge City Learning Center, 308 W. Frontview, Dodge City KS 67801 

8:00 am Registration Opens
9:00 am Welcome – Joe Kramer
9:05-9:35 am Dr. David Haukos, Ecological Services and Playa Lakes, KSU Cooperative F&W Research Unit Leader
9:35-10:05 am Mike Carter, Playa Lake Benefits on Private Lands, Playa Lakes Joint Venture Coordinator
10:05-10:20 am Break
10:20-10:50 am Steve Donovan, Wetlands and Soil Health, Ducks Unlimited Manager of Conservation Programs, South Dakota
10:50-11:20 am Matt Bain, Wetlands and Wetland Conservation Easements, Smokey Valley Ranch Manager, The Nature Conservancy
11:20- 11:50 pm Mark Goudy, Playa Lake Landowner Program Delivery Perspectives, FSA
12:00-1:00 pm Lunch Provided by Star Seed
1:00 pm-1:30pm NRCS/ACEP/WRE Program, Lynn Thurlow, NRCS
1:30-2:00 pm FSA, CP38B and other CP Wetland Program Success, Rod Winkler, FSA
2:00 – 2:30 pm DOC, Aquifer Conservation Programs, Steve Frost, DOC
2:30 – 3:00 pm KDWPT, WIHA and Playa Lake Programs, Wes Sowards, KDWPT
3:00 – 3:15 pm Break
3:15 – 3:45 pm

 

3:45 – 4:15 pm

 

 

4:15 – 4:30 pm

Ducks Unlimited KS Playa Lake Programs, Abe Lollar, DU KS

 

Pheasants Forever, Conservation and Playa Lake Programs, Chris McClelland, PF/QF

 

Workshop Wrap Up/Prize Drawing, Joe Kramer

 

KAWS Announces New Strategic Plan

Wichita, KS – Following nearly two years of reflection, input from more than 200 stakeholders, and many hours spent on a vision for the future, the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS) Board of Directors announces its updated mission, vision, and strategic plan.  This new statement of our Mission, Vision, Goals and Objectives reflects not only where KAWS has been and is today, but provides a matrix for key priorities for the next five years.

“As an organization, KAWS has a rich history of partnerships that have made our work possible,” said KAWS Executive Director Jessica Mounts. “Working through the process for our Strategic Plan has allowed us to capitalize on those partnerships to identify our key values and direction into our future.”

In the updated mission, KAWS reaffirmed its commitment to “Connecting the waters, lands, and people of Kansas.” In addition to clarifying this mission, KAWS also recognized these core values, essential to the vision of the organization:

  • Waters that are clean, plentiful, and protected.
  • Lands that are prosperous for people and wildlife.
  • People who are knowledgeable in sustaining natural resources.

“We are proud that this strategic plan has helped redefine and clarify our mission and vision – the direction of our organization, based on what we believe are Kansas’ pressing needs,” said Brad Loveless, chair of KAWS’s Board of Directors. “This plan acknowledges the challenges we’re facing in both the short and long term, and prepares KAWS to respond by working to be a vital partner for conservation in Kansas.”

To implement this project, KAWS will be evaluating and growing existing programs, expanding upon external communications and marketing, diversifying funding opportunities and evaluating organizational structure and processes. “Evaluation and fine-tuning our work will be the key to moving this plan forward, said Mounts.  “We’ve identified our priorities, and will be assigning those priorities to specific team members to move them forward.” Since 1996, KAWS has served as a key resource in the conservation of wetlands and streams in Kansas. “KAWS is at a pivotal time to move ahead in a thoughtful, strategic manner,” Loveless said. “We’re looking forward to working with our partners in this exciting new phase of KAWS’s history.”  The Strategic Plan can be viewed at www.kaws.org.

Dirt clods, mud pies and other insights in soil sustainability

Doug Peterson and Candy Arnold pour water over soil samples demonstrating how tilling practices affect infiltration and stability of soils. Photo by Tom Parker

By Tom Parker
Like most farmers, Doug Peterson’s concepts about farming and soil management were founded on the experiences and teachings of his father and grandfather. The knowledge they imparted was taken as gospel truth, inviolable and immutable. A college degree reinforced those ideas, and a career as an NRCS field specialist let him put those ideas to work. By his 20th year on the job, he felt he knew about everything there was to know about soil—how to use it, how to take care of it, how to improve it.

He was on top of his game. Which was why, when he was asked to evaluate a workshop on soil health for possible inclusion in Missouri NRCS programs 10 years ago, he attended with some skepticism. “What else could it teach me?” he wondered, and sat there in utter disbelief as the instructor, using dirt clods and mud pies to illustrate complex biological processes, methodically and systematically dismantled his understanding of soil.
Everything Peterson thought he knew about soil was based on a world that no longer existed. Since the first farmer broke the soil in Mesopotamia 20,000 years ago, an unimaginable transformation had altered not only societies and cultures but the very fabric of existence of life on earth. Nothing was spared, not the air, not the water, not the soil.

Farmers and ranchers attend the soil health workshop hosted by KAWS in Clay Center in July, 2018.

So revelatory was that simple demonstration that Peterson, an NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Missouri and Iowa, now uses it as an opening act for his Soil Health Sustainability in Cropland workshops. Joining him for five such workshops across Kansas in mid-July was Candy Thomas, NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Kansas and Nebraska. The workshops were sponsored in part by the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams through funding by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Locations included Iola, Parsons, Clay Center, Stull and Lansing.
Peterson, like most farmers and soil specialists, wasn’t blind. Most of his work dealt with mitigating changes in the soil, in the water, in the climate, but the changes were both resistant and resilient. They could also be oddly contradictory, such as when the Missouri River flooded while two-thirds of the river’s watershed were in drought. Farmers were losing ground, literally and figuratively, and conventional farming practices only seemed to make matters worse.
Whatever underlying causes were wrecking such havoc had to be related to the water cycle, he thought. “If you have flood warnings and drought conditions in the watershed at the same time, how much infiltration is occurring? Not much,” he said. “And we’re not talking 15-inch rains, but three-inch rains that cause flooding like we’ve never seen before. We have to understand water.”
More specifically, we have to understand how water interacts with soil. Peterson took two virtually identical dirt clods, or aggregates as he preferred, and placed them in a matching pair of glass beakers. As he poured water over them to replicate a heavy rainfall, one clod, taken from a field where no-till was practiced, retained its shape while allowing most of the water to filter through; the other, taken from a field under long-term tillage, disintegrated within seconds.
“The most limiting natural resource in crop production is water,” he said, “and the most important part of the water cycle is infiltration. It’s critical to understand how the ability of soil to hold together impacts infiltration.”
The no-till aggregate was held together by organic matter and soil organisms such as fungi, arthropods, worms, millipedes, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa, he said, while the other had little more than sand, silt and clay to bind it.
For infiltration purposes, the most important part of the soil is the nothingness, the cracks, the voids, he said. Water cannot pass through solids. In no-till fields, rain slowly percolates through root channels, cracks, wormholes and other minute openings, while in tilled fields the upper layer of topsoil has little organic matter to glue it together. The entire structure can collapse during even moderate rain events.
“Erosion doesn’t start with a big chunk washing away,” he said. “It starts when individual particles break loose from the aggregate.”
In healthy soil, the combined biomass of soil organisms is staggering. An acre of soil contains more than five tons of organisms such as fungi, arthropods, worms, millipedes, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa, many of them microscopic. Earthworms mix and move residues in the soil, creating large pores that are nutrient rich and filled with microbes. These pores create air and water flow and allow roots to grow and take advantage of resources.
“Pore spaces are the lungs and circulatory system of soils,” Thomas said. “They allow the soil to breathe.”
Not so with soil that’s been tilled. Studies show that long-term tillage drastically reduces soil organic matter. One study conducted in a soybean field showed a 63 percent loss of soil organic matter after 17 years of tillage.
Much of that loss can be attributed to disturbance. Tillage adds oxygen to the soil, which in turn induces bacteria to consume carbon. Half to two-thirds of our soil’s carbon has been lost through tillage, Peterson said. Surface temperatures play a critical role in soil organisms, too, especially in grass systems.
“When we mow hay off on the sunniest days, we jack up soil temperatures 40 degrees or more,” he said. “What happens to soil moisture? We eliminate it. Earthworms go deep, but most of bacteria and the fungi will grow dormant or die.”
Add fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to the mix and even more damage occurs.
Why then, Peterson asked, if we know that tillage degrades the soil, why is it so ingrained in our society?
Because it was efficient. Whether the first farmers broke the soil in Mesopotamia or, 4,000 years later, in the Midwest, the underlying soil teemed with life. “It had crazy high organic matter, high biological activity, high aggregate stability,” Peterson said. “But after years of tillage, what happened to organic matter? It declined. What happened to aggregate stability? It went down. What happened to production? It went down.”
For early farmers, their only recourse was to break new ground and allow the old ground revegetate. A similar pattern took place in the United States, he said. Settlers tilled areas for crops and left grassland for their livestock. Once the soil became less fertile, they rotated to other sections while the land healed. Then came the 1940s and mechanized equipment. Suddenly, farmers didn’t need extra land to regenerate. They added nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the soil and called it good—but they didn’t put back organic matter.
“The reason we’ve been taught that tillage is beneficial is because historically, except for the last 50 or 60 years, it was based on soils with high organic matter, biological activity and aggregate stability,” Peterson said. “Is that the kind of soil we have these days? No. Tillage doesn’t get you the kind of soil that we once had.”
Add overgrazing, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, haying and other sources of soil disturbance, and it seems as if we’re actively trying to get rid of water, he said.
It’s not too late to restore the ecological balance, Peterson said, but it won’t happen overnight and it won’t be easy.
“Change is hard,” he said. People make changes when their backs are against the wall. If you think it’s hard for a farmer to change from tilling to no-till, how much harder is it for the government to change everything its practices are based on?”
Achieving soil health requires utilizing a number of practices that include the use of diverse and strategic cover crops, crop rotations, adapted nutrient management, integrated weed and pest management, and no-till. “Soil health is not a destination, it’s a journey,” he said. “Managing for a living ecosystem is the key to optimum production.”
From a resource concern standpoint, producers should design for what they don’t have. “What does your soil need? Get your shovel out and start digging,” he said. Crop diversity cannot be ignored or overstated. Plants were created to grow in diverse ecosystems. Nature doesn’t have a monoculture.
“If we put these principles to work, we can make huge changes in our fields,” Peterson said. “The last 100 years have been a mining operation. We mined organic matter just like they mined oil and minerals. It was an extraction operation, and all of us are left with something less productive than it was. But we can change it. We have the answer right here. We can improve production and profitability and solve all the issues. We can’t hit the easy button as Candy said, but we can push the start button.”

Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

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The Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams is a non-profit organization working to connect the waters, lands, and people of Kansas. KAWS believes in an inclusive, non-partisan and science-based approach to support sustainability of the natural ecosystems and working lands of Kansas. For more information about our work, visit www.kaws.org