Soil Health is People Health: Soil Degradation Is a Health Epidemic

Holistic Beef Starts with the Soil.

by: John Stigge

“Soil Health” is a buzzword these days. The first time I heard the term Soil Health was about 12 years ago. Dr. Duane Beck, research manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, said “Just because your soil is not sick does not mean it is healthy.” I did not really understand what that meant at the time.

I did notice my grain started to have higher test weights. Interesting I thought. Agronomists looking at my soil talked about all the earthworms in it. My soils did not have runoff, even during heavy rains, while my neighbors would have extensive runoff and erosion. I attributed it to my long time usage of cover crops. While listening to a soil expert at an Agriculture Innovative Minds Symposium realization struck me that these were all indicators of healthy soils. My soils had become healthy.

In 2012 I took the Holistic Management Institute Courses and that changed my whole way of looking at everything. These courses taught me to divorce my feelings and preconceived notions, and look at things the way they really are.

What I found was troubling.

I looked at what the consumer really wanted. To me it seemed that the consumer was grasping for something. There was a proliferation of different types of food products available, and all at much higher prices than conventional food. I asked myself “WHY?” I determined that some consumers subconsciously knew that something was not right about the food they were buying, something was missing. Something was detrimental about the food available. There were too many people wanting something different. Organic, Grass Fed, Natural, etc... These labels and methods are trying to denote production of a healthier food product.

But are these programs addressing the problem, or are they just trying to satisfy a market demand? Most people I meet who are involved in specialty food production believe in the program they are following. But I have not seen a program that truly addresses what I believe to be the cause of human, animal, and plant health.

Healthy soils give us healthy plants, healthy plants give us healthy animals, healthy animals give us healthy people.

I started looking for actual evidence. What I found was unsettling. A Texas A&M study at the Grazing Animal Nutrition Lab studied over 36,000 manure samples over a 20 year period showed digestible organic matter and crude protein quality were steadily declining. Adding nitrogen was discussed, but was deemed counterproductive. This comes at a time when some ranchers throughout the country are enriching their soils using different types of rotational grazing methods. 

A study by the Mayo Clinic compared blood titers of youth sampled between 1948 to 1954 and compared them with samples of today’s youth. The results showed that youth of today are more than 4.5 times to develop Celiac disease.

Dr. D.E. Thomas comprehensive analysis showed mineral declines of up to 76% in vegetables and up to 54% reductions in meats between 1940 and 1991. 

There seems to be a proliferation of autoimmune diseases that have manifested over the last 20 to 30 years. Is it because we are more aware of these diseases, or is it because the quality of our soils are not allowing sufficient nutrition to enter the food chain? I think it is important as farmers and ranchers to look at the facts so we can make the proper decision for both us and the consumers.

Healthy soil growing cover crops for sustainable beef

It all starts with the soil. The soils must be healthy to begin with. What do we mean by a healthy soil. It means the soil has the capability to function at its full potential. It means being able to transmit nutrients from the soil into nutrient dense plant life. In grazing it means the plants can relay the total nutrient package to the grazing animal. It means the grazing animal can turn the nutritious plants they are eating into equally nutritious meat.

It means treating the soil and its huge, complex biological community, with honor and respect. Acknowledging I can do great damage to this community, but knowing I can also be a protector of this soil and its biological community. I can also enhance this community with my agricultural practices.

Healthy soils give us healthy plants, healthy plants give us healthy animals, healthy animals give us healthy people.

We have 35 plus years of practicing No-till farming and 25 plus years of using cover crops. During that time we began to produce heavier grain, especially corn. Why? My guess is healthier soils allowed denser grain. Was it healthier? Some farmers are getting paid more for grain raised from healthy soils.

A “high carbon” soil content needs significantly less water or nitrogen than “normal soils.”

On our farm in NE Kansas, we purchased animals from sale barns from Wyoming to Missouri. Upon arrival, these animals were vaccinated, branded, and turned out in our fields. Not one animal became sick, ever. Can this become the norm? I don’t know but I hope and think it can be.

But think, if we can do this with cattle, why can’t we do the same for people?
What is a healthy soil? According to Dr. Kris Nichols, former research scientist at the NRCS Soil Test Lab in Mandan, North Dakota, the number one agricultural problem in the United States is insufficient carbon in the soil. A “high carbon” soil content needs significantly less water or nitrogen than “normal soils.” High carbon soils increased yields, increased nutrient density of grain, and reduce loss. It is also the greatest indicator of net profitability. The only way to add carbon to the soil is biological.

So how can we get healthy soils? Dr. Kris gives 5 principles to add carbon to the soil. They are:

  1. Maximize living roots (Planting deep rooting cover crops)
  2. Plant diversity (Planting cover crops blends)
  3. Insert livestock (Rotationally graze at least annually)
  4. Minimize soil disturbance (Practice No-Till farming)
  5. Keep the ground covered (Always have something planted when plants can grow)

 

For pastures the quickest and surest way is to use proper grazing techniques. This is pasture or paddock grazing rotation and/or plant rest. For farmed fields like ours it is inserting livestock grazing of specific cover crop blends during the off season. Rotational grazing has given documented increases in crop:

  1. Mineral content
  2. Crude protein
  3. Complete amino acids
  4. Beneficial carbohydrates
  5. Vitamins

How long does it take to rejuvenate depleted soils until they are healthy? Initially I thought 3 years (actually a hopeful guess). As I talk with soil scientists, I was advised that 10 years may be needed using the above mentioned practices, and no miracle additive will accelerate the biological process.

We treat our animals humanely, and we treat them with respect. 

We, and a growing number of farmers and ranchers are growing crops, fruits, vegetables, poultry, and livestock with more nutrients available to the consumer. After all, isn’t this what consumers want? Or do we feel so smug in our modern production methods, that we feel it is unnecessary to value what consumers want and need?

On our farm we are raising healthy, sustainable beef grazed and finished on our cover crop mixtures. These animals never enter feedlots, so they do not have to lay in mud or fight dust. We treat our animals humanely, and we treat them with respect. We observe our animals as they graze, drink, rest, and wander about, seeking clues on ways to increase or maintain their comfort. We now source our animals directly from a ranch that shares these same vision and goals.

Can we produce a healthier, more nutrient dense meat for consumers? Yes we can. For us, we are placing the consumer and their health and well-being first.

By viewing all parts as integral in the whole ecosystem, a holistic approach can truly improve the health of the entire ecosystem. We can have healthy humans, living in a healthy regenerated ecosystem, alongside healthy animals, plants, and  soil.  A vibrant and productive world for us and future generations.