Bluebirds frolicked overhead on a bright and sunny December 2007 day scoping out possible nesting sites for 2008 before heading south. Whether it was global warming or not, it was a beautiful day last year to stick an auger in the ground and take soil samples of the entire farm. Being questioned by experts many times at the podium for not knowing my in-depth soil fertility, precipitated a move after 17 years, to get a soil analysis and have a nutrient management plan developed. This plan, cost shared by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) will ultimately land me on the Environmental Working Group’s website after a 130 year farm history of not being in any government programs.

To be a better advocate, teacher and steward for this concept of managed grazing, I figured it was worthwhile to get baseline scientific figures and also prove my practical theories, observations and management. I say “my” ideas, in reality I learned from two gentlemen I never met, although it seems like we are best friends. Newman Turner and Louis Bromfield, authors of Fertility Pastures and Cover Crops, and Malabar Farm respectively, have shaped the very essence of my old world farming style. Both books I treasure as bibles for grass farming without the technological jargon, just intuition, trial and error, and keen observation by two great men willing to share their experiences.

By the end of the first field, the bucket held 10 soil cores that needed to be mixed and put in sample bags. As I plunged my hand into my children’s future and worked the brown gold between my fingers, it became very apparent with every turn, that the texture and color was a tribute to my ancestors for covering up the land with sod. I guess it was one of those “AH HAH” moments that made me really appreciate the next 20 buckets. My mind wandered with every field as I thought about the technicians that would analyze this precious resource. Could they or would they notice the earthworm castings, the fungi and microscopic bacteria, or the tiny seeds in my “bank”, in addition to the usual NPK, PH stuff? I thought, we can send a man to the moon, but do we really know all the true knowledge that can be gained from a 6 ounce soil sample. Our existence is truly measured by the way we all treat our topsoil.

The results of the 300-dollar investment yielded some interesting conclusions. My farm’s soil organic matter levels averaged nearly 5%, but hillside pastures that have never seen a plow where only 3.5%. Why? I think its because they are mostly southern facing slopes that tend to dry out and don’t receive the concentration of nutrients. Also surfacing was my challenge to better regulate the animals on these hills to stop overgrazing those areas and leave more residual behind. It was obvious from the results that I don’t feed very much grain as the phosphorus levels in all samples were low. Having Honeoye soils on the same latitude as our local limestone quarry, keeps my Calcium and PH numbers in good shape. I sent a few samples to the grazing doctor, Jerry Brunetti, who advised I could use some rock phosphate and various micronutrients, including sulfur and boron.

It was also obvious that I need to do a better job of winter feeding on areas farthest from the barn, which here in snow country can be a challenge but not insurmountable with some pre-planning. The spreading of composted nutrients also needs to be focused in those fields and not in the easiest, most convenient areas right before you need to get to an athletic event or family gathering.

Intangibles that factor into our positive results without purchased outside fertilizers and chemicals are really nothing more than common sense, observation and gleaning information from those farmers that lived through an era without such things. Some of the most important attributes learned from our ancestors, affecting our farm’s soil/pasture resources and profitability are; maintaining a high percentage of clover fixing atmospheric nitrogen for the grasses, harvesting biomass through grazing animals and depositing fertility pies, having vibrant soil life recycling those nutrients above and below the surface, perpetuating a diverse plant community whereby taproots and micro-flora bring up minerals for the herbivores to remain healthy and most importantly, and hardest to achieve, is a holistic balance between all ecosystems, both natural and human.

It is quite evident to me looking out my kitchen window at grasses significantly taller than that of my neighbors, that something good is happening out there in the sea of green.

Last week’s planting of over 500 trees for shelterbreaks, bird food and erosion control substantiated all that I need to know about nutrient management and real science, when a shovelful of gold was teaming with earthworms and the soil was as soft as hand lotion. How could this be? A Neanderthal grazier mocking the world of superior technology, research and intellect, with simple knowledge gained from stories and of all things, “reading”. I am convinced our food system future and the subject of regenerative agriculture is as close as your local library system. As for my mindset in working with Mother Nature, she is the boss and I am just a mere disciple of her world. What I like most about the Lord’s work is the mystery and not actually knowing everything. Just having fun observing and telling stories about natural systems is good enough for me.

Reprinted from Lancaster Farming