REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — During a three-day Soil Health Academy hosted by Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz, 48 ‘students’ from across America and three other countries certainly stayed in touch with the basics. Dr. Allen Williams, chief ranching officer of Joyce Farms in Starkville, Miss., gave the Academy this purpose: “The main thing we are learning is the basics of soil health. We need to understand that soil health is the basis of everything we do in agriculture.”
And that’s a whole lot of learning. Williams said that means the biology of soil, the physical characteristics, the chemical characteristics and much more.
“I’m basically a scientist, but also a farmer and a rancher,” Williams said. “What we have done the last seven decades is paying almost 100 percent attention to soil chemistry while ignoring soil biology. But we have learned both function together. And if we want to restore our mineral cycles, our water cycles and our carbon cycles to full function, we need to recognize that biology is an absolute necessity.”
With our continual emphasis on more production per acre, are we destroying soil health in the process?
“Yes, if we do it the wrong way,” Williams agreed. “Unfortunately, that has been our emphasis. I’m a farmer and rancher myself, so I live in that world too. But we are seeing farm net margins steadily declining the last 40 years — despite the fact that we have higher yields virtually year after year. So we are leaning yield alone is not the key to farm profitability. And it is certainly not the key to building and regenerating soils and eco systems.
“If we change the emphasis to optimum productivity rather than maximum, we quickly learn that optimum can come about by working with the soil and emphasizing biology as well. That’s how we find the sweet spot for net margin profitability.”
Describing Mississippi soils, Williams said they vary widely from the very rich delta soils built by a millennia of flooding, “including some of your Minnesota top soils transported by the Mississippi River. Along the southern coastal plain we have very sandy soils, and the ‘black belt’ prairie of the northeastern quadrant.
“We run the gamut on soils; and contrary to public opinion which suggests with these various soil types impact agriculture in many different ways. But we have found that is not the case. Once you involve biology, soil type becomes much less of an issue.
“We didn’t start typing soils until 100 years ago, so all of our soil types were based on soils that had already been heavily degraded. Your agriculture is younger, but that same degradation continues up here too. We have now observed that farmers that have been practicing regenerative agriculture for several years are changing their soils. We have had University soil scientists come out and reclassify soil type. So we’re learning that biology works across any soil type because biology mitigates those soil types.”
And biology can impact rather quickly — even with just a one year no-till and cover crop implementation. “But the more soil health practices we can implement, the more rapid that progress will be,” Williams said. “One thing we know is no-till alone is not the key. It’s just a temporary fix and then you stagnate. But if we plant complex cover crop mixes, that speeds the process. If we add livestock to graze those complex mixes, then we are adding another biological impact component that further speeds the process.
“Yet we have many farms simply going to no-till and diverse cover crop have seen significant improvement in carbon organic matter and water infiltration rates.”
Why do grazing livestock speed the process?
“We call it the principal of compounding,” Williams explained. “There are no singular effects, but because of soil chemistry we get a series of compounding and cascading effects because we’re dealing with nature and biology. But what we find is that if we are able to combine impacts such as adding livestock to graze these diverse cover crops, the hoof action of these livestock simulates the hoof action of wildlife such as bison used to do, creates a stimulatory affect on the soil microbes. The microbes remember the wild ruminants impacted this land. Every cell — even in our bodies — has cellular memory. It’s called biomimicry and ecomimicry.
“And no, grazing beef cattle do not compress the soil. High density, short duration grazing does just the opposite. It de-compacts the soil. Compare it to a deep tissue massage. If we leave this cattle too long on this grazing field, it would reverse the process, however, and start compacting the soil. So timing is critical as well.”
Williams shares a bit more about this fascinating topic of soil health. “Microbes communicate. It’s called quorum sensing. Livestock shed microbes in their saliva, from their hair coat and in their manure. So every step they take across your pastures they are shedding microbes which than communicate with the microbes in the soil. This stimulates them … it hyper-activates them and start replicating. And that’s what enriches soils. It takes a critical mass of fertilizer to work on more crops. It’s the same thing with microbes in the soil. So building the critical mass of microbes in our soils is what livestock grazing accomplishes.”
Williams apparently practices what he teaches. He is 100 percent no-till — selling all tillage equipment a few years back “…so we’re not even tempted anymore. We don’t grow any commodity products anymore. We grow heritage and specialty small grains and corns that we direct market. We’re selling to bakeries, to restaurants, to micro-breweries and distilleries. We have organic market gardens which produce about 50 different produce and herb items that we market to restaurants. We built a CSA to market direct to consumers. Plus we do grass-fed beef, pastured lamb, pasture eggs, pastured poultry and pastured pork. Plus lots of honey production from our more than 400 bee hives, plus timber production.
“We’ve gotten into this mind set on agriculture that any given acre can only produce one revenue stream annually. But because of our weather patterns, we’ve discovered that every acre can produce multiple revenue streams every year. On some acres we have as many as six to eight revenue streams annually. That has permitted multiple revenue sources which simply adds to the profitability of Joyce Farms.”
Yes, this Mississippi outfit does some market research too. Williams summed up, “We don’t put a seed in the ground, hatch an egg, or breed an animal without knowing where our market is at the other end!”
In his work with Soil Health Academy, Williams literally travels the globe. And he has observed weather challenges this season. “There is not an area anywhere in North America that has not experience significant weather issue in 2019. In Mississippi we were extremely wet and cooler than normal through late spring. In mid-May the spigot got turned off; it got extremely dry and extremely hot. Now we’re running heat index values of 110 to 120 every day.”
Williams said soil health is not just a U.S. issue and the future is even more challenging. He said the areas decertification keep increasing every year. The areas of desert are continuing to expand.
Williams is a member of a consulting company called Understanding Ag — a private business which gets hired for soil health training sessions around the world. He grew up on his family farm in South Carolina which dates back to 1840. He earned his PhD at LSU and has been a tenured professor at Mississippi State for 15 years.
But the past 20 years traveling and teaching is his proudest accomplishment. “This is putting my boot on the ground. Farmers around the world are learning soil health. And they do some teaching for me too.”
Williams can be reached via email at email@example.com; or by phone at (662) 312-6826.