WHITESVILLE, NY — While many farmers in Allegany and Steuben counties were out mowing hay after a week of severe thunderstorms, dairyman Chris Reinbold was hosting a workshop focused on learning more about soil health practices, biology and monitoring tools to improve his rotationally grazed pastures.
According to Steuben County’s Soil and Water Conservation District grazing specialist and co-organizer, Jonathan Barter, “Soil is a vibrant, living organism and not just a sterile medium for growing things. The way we have treated this life-giving resource is tragic.” Inspired by the way longtime graziers had sequestered the deluges of rain from Hurricane Sandy, he and Scott Alsworth from the Allegany County Soil and Water Conservation District set out to change the conversation about soil after taking a soil health training regime at USDA-NRCS Big Flats Plant Material Center in Corning, NY.
Armed with knowledge and testing tools, it was time to get into the practical side of building a better solar panel, rain collector and microbe builder. Out in the pasture the group threw darts (safely) and biologically scored around a 6 inch circumference of the point for soil cover, worm castings, litter, plant species and animal impact. They measured the brix of the forage with a refractometer to compare how much energy was in the sward and used a penetrometer to find the compacted soil levels along with plenty of shale layers. The group also strategized how to manage their grazing paddocks with portable fence to better the soil dynamics.
The Ah-ha moments came when they demonstrated the soil characteristics with the tabletop rainfall simulator and slake test. Three local soil plugs were taken: one taken from a seven year old no-till corn and soybean field; one from a heavily, over-grazed, compacted pasture and Chris’s five year old rotationally grazed pasture. As the beakers of water were poured demonstrating how an inch of rain infiltrates down through the soil, a powerful result ensued.
Chris’s pasture soil and the no-till field both had 50 percent percolation with 50 percent of the water running off. The over-grazed soil had 100 percent of the water run-off. The simulation showed how much opportunity there is to capture and hold water or get through a drought better by managing your soil cover, soil structure and feeding the microbes to create organic matter and the “soil glues”.
The slake test indicates the stability of soil aggregates, resistance to erosion and suggests how well soil can maintain its structure to provide water and air for plants and soil biota when it is rapidly wetted. Here again, a heavily tilled or highly impacted soil performed poorly when immersed in water because it didn’t have enough organic matter and glomalin produced by a beneficial fungus that grows on plant roots.
The farmers easily related to this visual bonanza with a lunch and ice-cream break brainstorming session on how to create the best pasture soil conditions which capped off an enjoyable event.
This eye-opening workshop was supported by the Finger Lakes RC&D Council, The NY Grazing Lands Coalition, The Upper Susquehanna Coalition and the Allegany, Madison & Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation Districts in partnership with Reinbold Family Farm.