Guest post: 10 points on land management by Dale Strickler

(Above photograph from the Kansas Farmers Union)
Just below is a post I read on Facebook by agronomist Dale Strickler, who I recently quoted in a couple recent blog entries. I’m sharing now so that hopefully this post will receive a larger audience.  Dale and I share one common passion: Soil health.  This passion is what currently motivates this column, since as a “regenetarian” what’s being regenerated IS soil health. Healthy soil is the key to human health as well as above and below ground ecosystem health and thus planetary health. This is why I recognize and accept the essential role of well managed livestock in regenerating both range land and arable crop land. Though let me clearly note, I do not nor have I ever received a single penny from any meat or any other food organization. My thoughts are 100% completely independent. 
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Dale Strickler: Okay, I just have to get something off my chest. Every time we get in discussions about how integral livestock are to the world’s carbon building process in soils, we STILL routinely hear from all the people saying that “we need to eat less meat, because we just can’t produce enough food for the world’s population from pastured livestock” and repeat the same old tired arguments about how plant based diets are the only way to feed humanity and how livestock production is eliminating wildlife habitat. So, in response to these arguments, let me point out the following ten facts:
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1. The world’s range lands comprise an area approximately 4 times that of the worlds cropland (18 billion acres versus 4.6 billion acres). These areas are in range land because they cannot grow crops. Believe me, if they could they would. with status quo management, crops make more money per acre than grazing, but only on highly productive soil. These areas can NOT be used to grow crops.
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2. Status quo methods of raising crops (using tillage, as roughly 70% of the worlds cropland is tilled) deplete soil carbon. In my area, which has been tilled for only 130 years, we have already depleted two thirds of our original soil carbon. The number one reason for soil degradation is soil erosion caused by tillage for annual crops.
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3. Perennial grasslands are the fastest way to build soil carbon.
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4. Perennial grasslands produce plant materials that are inedible to humans. They can however, be harvested by ruminants and converted into highly nutritious meat or milk. The grazing process also converts the above ground forage into manure, the decay of which produces more to soil carbon than the original plant material from which it came.
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5. Growing crops is relatively simple, and most farmers do a fairly good job of maximizing their yield potential for their climatic conditions. The average US corn yield, for example, is about one third of the record US corn yield. However, growing crops in the status quo method involves the application of large amounts of fertilizers and either tillage or herbicides for weed control. On very few crop farms can I walk onto a farm and tell them of one or two simple management changes that can double, triple, or quadruple their yield.
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6. Most grazing operations are operating at a mere fraction of what they could produce with better grazing management. Managing grazing for optimum livestock yield from pasture is mentally complex, but the fossil fuel inputs (fertilizer, fuel, etc) are quite minimal. I can walk onto almost every pastured livestock operation and make a few suggestions that IF ADOPTED will double, triple, or quadruple their per acre meat production. People who merely observe the per acre meat yields of status quo pasture and compare them to yields of food per acre from cropland are comparing the yield from poor land that cannot grow crops with a normal management that is poor, to crops grown on much better land (often with irrigation) under a system of management that is near optimum. We are barely scratching the production potential of most range lands to produce meat.
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7. Because both soil carbon sequestration and meat production are directly correlated to the same underlying process that fuels them both (photosynthesis) maximizing meat production also increases soil carbon sequestration.
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8. When pastured livestock are produced under optimum management (adaptive multi-paddock grazing of diverse pastures) and on good soil typically reserved for crops, the production can be quite astounding. On my own farm, which was seasonally irrigated cropland that was converted to pasture, I produced about 300 cow-calf grazing days per acre. Compare this to the status quo on un-plowed native range land (the rocky soil that could not be plowed, and with un-managed continuous season long grazing) of 25 cow-calf grazing days per acre. This is a twelve fold increase in production. It is easy to see what is; it can be difficult to see what could be.
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9. The carbon balance of cropland can be greatly improved by inserting cover crops in between cash crops. Many farmers do not do this because of the cost of the cover crop seed, and the negative effect on short term cash flow. Cover crops can quickly pay their way in the short term if they are grazed by livestock. Since most cover crops produce high quality pasture at times of the year when perennial pasture grasses are either low in quality or not productive, this is a win-win for both the livestock producer and the soil in the crop field. The livestock pay for the cover crop, and paying for the practice is crucial for adoption.
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10. Land used to grow crops displaces wildlife habitat; land used for grazing IS wildlife habitat.
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About the author:  Dale Strickler, a leader in the soil health movement, author of The Drought Resilient Farm and Managing Pasture, is an agronomist working for Green Cover Seed, the nation’s leading cover crop specific seed company. He previously taught agronomy at Cloud County Community College and worked for several companies, including Land O’Lakes, Star Seed, and Valent USA. He also runs his own ranching operation near Jamestown, Kansas.
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