Welcome to Brown’s Ranch! We are a diversified family operation spanning over 5,400 acres located on the northern Great Plains near Bismarck, North Dakota. For over 15 years, we have said NO to unsustainable ranching and farming practices by implementing non-conventional approaches that allow us to farm in nature’s image, and farm more successfully than we ever have. We use a very diverse mix of crops, called polycultures, along with animal impact to improve soil health, which directly improves the quality of the food we eat.
Let’s start by taking a look at the root of the problem. Production agriculture today is one of man imposing his will on nature. Corn, soybeans, wheat and a myriad of other crops are all grown as monocultures lacking agronomic diversity with the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. In most cases the soil is “prepared” for planting by mechanically altering it, also known as tillage. Cattle, hogs and poultry are raised in unnatural environments and consume feed that often contains non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics. All of these practices not only deplete the health of and the life in the soil but they also make the soil unsustainable. This has led to a sharp decrease in the nutrient density of the food we consume.
Prior to Shelly and I purchasing the ranch in 1991, the native rangeland on our ranch was in poor health. It had minimal plant diversity due to many years of season long grazing, which allows the livestock the opportunity to bite the plants they prefer as soon as they regrow, thus weakening the plant and eventually killing it. For decades, the cropland had been conventionally farmed with tillage and the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Tillage had lowered organic matter levels to less than 2% which decreases the water holding capacity of the soil making it more susceptible to drought. These common and unsustainable farming practices not only limit crop diversity but have a detrimental effect on soil quality. And it is soil quality that sustains life. We found we had to increase the use of fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides just to maintain production on the cropland.
In 1993 we purchased a no-till drill and converted 100% of our cropland to no-till. Although this helped to conserve moisture and fuel, our inputs continued to rise. We came to the conclusion that what we were really seeing was symptoms of a greater problem and that problem was poor soil health. Our soils had become nothing more than a median to hold the plants upright, and not only lacked structure and organic matter, it lacked LIFE!
So, we had to ask ourselves, how do we improve soil health? We found the answer in native rangeland. Healthy native range is not only sustainable, it is regenerative. That is what we needed to do to our soils; regenerate them. Well managed native range has a tremendous amount of diversity, warm and cool season, broadleaves and grasses. Healthy native range is also developed with and is maintained by grazing species. This meant we needed to integrate our cropping and livestock enterprises and manage synergistically so that no part of our ranch works in isolation. Strategic animal impact became an important tool in developing healthy soil.
We started by cross fencing our pastures so we could rotate our cattle and give the rangeland time to recover. Next, we began to diversify the cropping enterprise. We did this by adding peas and alfalfa to the crop rotation. In 1995 we started growing corn. The night before we were to begin harvesting our spring wheat, a hailstorm came and we lost 100% of our crop. With no crop insurance the losses were devastating. In 1996 we diversified even more by adding winter triticale and hairy vetch, along with barley and red clover. We started growing these crops in combination with each other so the legume would fix the nitrogen needed by the grass and the grass would help supply the legume with phosphorus thus allowing us to reduce our fertilizer needs. This strategy was working. However, another hailstorm destroyed our crops once again. Financially we were struggling so we had to look at further ways to reduce input costs. After the hailstorm, we seeded a cover crop of sudan grass and millet as forage to feed our cattle. This kept us from purchasing extra feed and it got the cattle out of the corrals and onto the cropland thus benefiting both.
Extreme weather hit yet again and a 1997 drought prevented us from harvesting any of our crops. Yet, something was happening through the regenerative nurturing of the soil. Residue now protected the soil surface, and visible improvements of soil structure and organic matter levels were increasing, thus allowing our soils to hold more water. Even in a drought our land produced enough feed for our livestock. However, the following year was not much better as we lost 80% of our crop to hail. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain at that point. Simply enough, the answer was the soil beneath us. Although those four years were extremely difficult financially, Shelly and I say they were the best thing that could have happened to us because they proved to us that we had to focus on regenerating the resource -- the richness of the earth.
Since those four years of hardship we have continued to grow our strategies to regenerate and diversify our landscapes, by practicing Holistic Management and focusing on solving problems, not treating symptoms. Cover crops have become an integral tool in this regeneration. Cover crops are plants that are grown for the purpose of feeding soil life. There are more organisms in a teaspoon full of healthy soil than there are people on earth. These organisms live off of secretions from plant roots know as root exudates. In turn, these organisms make nutrients available to the plant. They cannot live without each other. We now plant cover crops throughout the growing season. Some are planted before a cash crop, some after, and others are grown in companion with a cash crop. All of the cover crops are grown as poly cultures, never as a monoculture. You do not find monocultures in nature with the exception of where man put them. Growing species together is the way they have naturally evolved.
In 2011 we grew over 25 different crops. This plant diversity improves soil health in a number of ways. The first is by sequestering carbon. There is no better way to sequester carbon than a healthy, diverse ecosystem. Secondly, root exudates are the building blocks for soil particles and structure. Third, root exudates feed soil biology and it is this biology that provides all living things (plants, animals, and people) the nutrients they need. Finally, species diversity increases organic matter which allows more water holding capacity in the soil and feeds macro-organisms.
We have continued to integrate the livestock and cropping enterprises. We now graze livestock on the cover crops at various times of the year. For example, some of our spring seeded cover crops are grazed with high stock densities for a short period of time. This is vastly beneficial to soil health because the act of grazing stimulates the plants to release root exudates thus feeding soil biology. We have worked with microbiologist Dr. Jill Clapperton to document large increases in soil biology following this scenario. The grazing animals also return nutrients to the soil, increasing the lands fertility. We also graze summer and fall seeded cover crops during the late fall and winter. This is not only beneficial to the soil but it also works to keep livestock healthy and out of confinement.
The prairies of the northern plains were developed by large herds of bison and other ruminants, grazing an area for a brief time and then moving on. This allowed the rangeland to fully recover before the animals returned. Grazing our rangeland is an integral component to the health of our ecosystem. We are mimicking nature on our grazing lands, only we use cattle and poultry. We allow our cattle to mob graze a pasture for a brief time, usually less than two days, and then we move them to another pasture. This is usually the only time that pasture will be grazed the entire year. This allows all of the plants time to fully recover. It has also greatly enriched species diversity (not to mention the huge amount of carbon that is being sequestered during this timeframe). It is important to note that if we did not graze our rangeland the health of this ecosystem would actually deteriorate as grazing ruminants are an integral component of it.
The ecosystem transformation has brought about an exponential increase in the wildlife that now abounds in these rangelands. Large populations of white-tailed deer, coyotes, fox, weasels, mink, raccoons, sharptail grouse, hungarian partridge, many species of raptors, duck geese and too many songbirds to count. Even the population of insects has substantially increased as well. The recovered pastures provide cover and protection. The growth following grazing provides a high quality food source. Native species have proliferated and they all play an important role in the ecosystem.
So, what has been our results of focusing on regenerating our resources and managing for the whole? We have increased our organic matter levels from less that 2% to over 5% on some fields. This has been a tremendous benefit. It means that on one acre we now have over 100,000 pounds of organic carbon in the top foot alone! That same foot of soil is now capable of holding over 108,000 gallons of water per acre! If all agricultural land could hold this abundance of water, just imagine the range of implications for the health of our water quality and supplies, from alleviating potential flooding impacts to keeping harmful fertilizers and pesticides out of our rivers, lakes and oceans.
The living biology in our soil has increased to the point that we no longer use synthetic fertilizer. This soil biology provides the plants with the nutrients they need. We do not use any fungicides or pesticides. A healthy ecosystem thrives on its own. Skeptics say we cannot feed the world with this return to natural based farming and ranching on large scales. That is simply not true. Our average corn yield is over 20% higher than the county average and we’ve seen strong net profits consistently for many years.
Too often people tend to categorize things as good or bad without understanding how they function for the health of the entire system. For instance, some people presume meat is unhealthy and that cattle destroy the environment. But if cattle are integrated into the productive work of the farm, raised on healthy soil and sustainably without antibiotics, we can achieve incredible environmental and food outcomes. Our cattle play an integral role in regenerating our resources by grazing. Our grass finished beef is nutrient dense and healthy with proteins, CLA, Omega 3’s, Vitamin E, Iron and many other essential nutrients. Our pastured poultry and eggs are just as healthy. We believe that the grains we grow are also more nutrient dense because of our healthy soils. When these functions work in harmony with one another, it’s a win-win.
It is our family’s passion to show others just how vital, practical and possible it is to regenerate our landscapes through innovative farming and ranching practices. We have an open door policy on our ranch. If anyone wants to visit our operation we are going to try and take the time to show it to them. We host thousands of visitors each year and I am proud to say that we have had visitors from all 50 states and 15 foreign countries tour our ranch.
Winning a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council is instrumental in helping us elevate the importance of regenerating our landscapes to make our food systems stronger and more resilient. We need to holistically manage our resources and move towards a balance of biodiversity in our food producing systems. And we need to do it now. As Charles Kome once said, “We need to understand that the quality of our lives depends on the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. All of those things depend on the quality of our SOIL!”
This guest post is one of four by the winners of NRDC's fourth annual Growing Green Awards, which celebrate the farmers, business owners, and bold thinkers who are making America’s food system healthier and more sustainable.