In the October 2022 edition of Organic Vision (a bi-monthly newsletter of Global Organic Alliance, an organic certifier), Charles Eisenstein wrote an article titled “The Heartland.” With such a title, the subject of Kansas served as a logical starting point. He discussed sustainable farming in that state, writing that the results of regenerative agriculture, which include intensive rotational grazing and no-till cropping, are almost miraculous. He said that soil builds up quickly, commonly absorbing five to 10 tons of carbon/acre/year. Water infiltration increases dramatically also. He gave an example of one old farmstead in Kansas where, after a few years of holistic grazing, the soil achieved an infiltration rate of 15 seconds for the first inch of water, and 45 seconds for the second inch of rainfall.
He pointed out that at the start of this experiment at the old farm mentioned, the rate of water infiltration was 45 minutes/inch. When water infiltrates this poorly, most of it runs off during thunderstorms, carrying topsoil with it. Obviously, such runaway precipitation never reaches the dwindling aquifers needing recharging – in this case, the Ogallala Aquifer that extends from north Texas to South Dakota. Over time, springs, streams and wells go dry. The resulting parched soil provides no water for trans-evaporation, worsening droughts and dehydrating the landscape. The result is a flood/drought seesaw cycle instead of reliable year-round rain.
One definition of “desertification” is the following: land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, collectively known as drylands, resulting from many factors, including human activities and climatic variations. Eisenstein next led his readers southwest, to the ranch of a friend in a desertifying region of New Mexico. That friend had been photographed standing in grass up to his head – a species of grass that normally grows three feet tall. A previously dry stream on this rancher’s property now flows year-round, even in drought years. One mile past his property, the stream runs dry again, past the spread of another cattleman, who said his upstream neighbor must be lucky enough to get more, very localized rain. Without going into detail, Eisenstein mentioned that there are other stories in which dead springs come back to life, streams start flowing again and plant and animal species not seen in the area for decades have reappeared.
Also in New Mexico, near the Texas panhandle, is Allan Savory’s Center for Holistic Management (CHM). He showed how much of the land near the CHM was becoming even more desolate than it was originally. This land, once thriving with cow/calf operations – and during earlier times with buffalo and antelope – isn’t suffering from over-grazing but rather from under-grazing. He stressed that the critical linkage, from soils to crops to animals, had weakened, rapidly approaching the breaking point. The whole ecosystem had suffered, including creatures at the top of the food chain: humans.
During the 1960s, Savory, originally a citizen of Rhodesia (now modern Zimbabwe), worked as a research biologist and game ranger. In that role Savory studied the interrelated problems of poverty, wildlife and grassland resources that were gradually becoming desert. During the 1970s his land management ideas alienated that country’s political powers, resulting in his exile and emigration to the U.S.
In that part of the American Southwest, cow/calf grazing operations were (and continue to be) increasingly uncommon, as steers are moved off grass and onto paved confinement feedlots at much younger ages. Savory stressed that this fragile land suffered from reduced animal numbers – it needed to be grazed. Wastes from grazing animals provide organic matter and other soil nutrient benefits that sustain grassy-type, mostly perennial crops, maintain soil’s water retention capacity and enhance biodiversity. He stressed that in history 20 major civilizations have collapsed due to loss of biodiversity. Moreover, that ongoing loss of this trait in the U.S. could at some point qualify our own country to become the 21st member of that dubious “Hall of Shame.”
At the CHM, Savory has conducted experiments which successfully demonstrated that classic cattle grazing practices can successfully reverse these discouraging trends in which soil, crops, livestock and people suffer. He’s shown that cattle fenced in an area greatly improves sward health, compared to unpastured land on the other side of the fence. Certainly, the grazed paddock and the adjacent ungrazed parcel received the same meager 10 to 12 inches of rain, proving that the grazed portion clearly puts its limited precipitation to better use. Savory summed up the technical aspects of these benefits: “Large quantities of urine and feces voided by huge [grazing] herds catalyzed the microbial activity necessary for healthy soil. Trampling broke the surface up, permitting more water to flow into topsoil, not off of it.”
Let’s put numbers on reduced soil health, as shown by lost soil organic matter (OM), as I attempt to answer a frequently asked question: How does losing soil carbon intensify climate change? The increasingly common soybean/corn “non-rotation,” with its non-fibrous root systems, does not build soil. In this scenario, fibrous-rooted small grain cover crops are conspicuous by their absence; their presence would help retain nutrients, soil and snow during winter. Such mismanagement is accompanied by degraded OM.
Soil’s OM is approximately 58% carbon by weight and a six-inch deep acre of topsoil is presumed to weigh 1,000 tons (2 million pounds). A little math indicates that for each percent of OM lost on an acre of cropland, 11,600 pounds of carbon are liberated into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Losing that 1% OM also reduces the water-holding capacity of that acre by 16,000 gallons (about 1.5 quarts/square foot). More and more, these climate change developments are forging weather patterns that are in the flood/drought seesaw category, instead of reliable year-round rainfall patterns, as mentioned earlier.
Cases in point: weather extremes like Hurricane Ian and drought-based shrunken river transportation arteries are peppering much of the planet.