On the ground
July 5, 2018
From June 20-22, more than 500 agriculture producers met in Rapid City, S.D., for the tenth annual Grassfed Exchange Conference.
Grassfed Exchange is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization dedicated to educating and connecting regenerative producers in the grass-fed industry.
This year, people from 41 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces, Australia, New Zealand, England and Denmark enjoyed tours to area farms/ranches, networking, a trade show, panel discussions and presentations by leaders in the grass-fed movement.
This was South Dakota rancher Dan Rasmussen's third Grassfed Exchange conference.
Rasmussen serves on the board of directors for the South Dakota Grasslands Collation who invited Grassfed Exchange to be in South Dakota this year.
His ranch, The 33 Ranch located 45 miles south of Kadoka, was one of the operations that conference attendees had the opportunity to tour as a part of the field day.
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Overall Rasmussen said he enjoyed the conference and learned a lot.
He appreciated the fact that "over 500 people from across the ag industry came together with a common goal and understanding of how important functional grasslands are."
Many of the speakers and panel discussion centered around soil health, Rasmussen observed.
One of the presenters who is actively engaged in improving soil quality was Dr. Christine Jones.
Dr. Jones is a soil ecologist dedicated to restoring top soil by working with farmers and ranchers to improve land management techniques.
Her Thursday talk was entitled "Nitrogen: The Double-Edged Sword."
In her research Dr. Jones emphasizes the need for biodiversity, or a high variety of plants, bugs, and microorganisms within soil. This results in increased nutrient exchange, cleaner water, improved environment health, and ultimately biodiversity enhances the productivity of the land.
Dr. Jones explained that through photosynthesis plants naturally transfer large amounts of nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere into the ground to store it there.
In her essay, "Nitrogen: The Double-Edged Sword," that correlates with her talk at The Grassfed Exchange she writes, "Biological nitrogen fixation is the key driver of the nitrogen and carbon cycles in all natural ecosystems, both on land and in water. When managed appropriately, biological nitrogen fixation can also be the major determinant of the productivity of agricultural land."
She explains that the problem is that some farming and land management practices, such as leaving the ground bare, are causing the soil's carbon and nitrogen reserves to escape into the atmosphere.
Dr. Jones writes, "When soil is bare there is no photosynthesis and very little biological activity. Bare soils lose carbon and nitrogen, nutrient cycles become dysfunctional, aggregates deteriorate, structure declines and water-holding capacity is reduced. Bare fallows, designed to store moisture and retain nutrients, become self-defeating."
In order to replace the lost nitrogen, farmers often apply fertilizers high in nitrogen content. While this practice helps the plants in their growing season, it doesn't fix the root of the problem.
In order for nitrogen and carbon to make their way back into the soil, Dr. Jones offers four ways to improve land management practices.
First she advocates for year round living cover plants to improve the complex soil systems. Secondly, she suggests weaning plants of supplemental nitrogen and phosphate so that the soil system returns to its natural flow of carbon and nitrogen from the air to the soil through photosynthesis. Her third piece of advice is to "promote plant and microbial diversity" in ground cover plant selection. Lastly she encourages "the presence of animals—provided management is appropriate."
Following the basis of Dr. Jones's four principles ultimately would lead to the land being restored to its natural state and productivity increasing.
Rancher Rasmussen also recognizes the importance of land operating in its natural state.
"One of the advantages of having grasslands is how it's the way nature intended that it would be. You don't have to add anything—you just have to manage it," he said.
Johnathan Lundgren, owner of Blue Dash Farm and speaker at the conference, echoed Dr. Jones's call for more regenerative systems.
His farm is a two-fold agricultural business producing, non-traditional annual crops, fruit, nuts, honey, eggs, and pastured livestock along with being a place of research.
Lundgren, who spoke at the Grassfed Conference for the last two years, has been studying the overall health of systems that use pesticides and chemical applications versus those that instead implement other management practices.
What he is finding is that the fields without chemicals and the cattle without ivermectin have considerably fewer issues than the operations that rely on chemical applications. In his words, "If you have a healthy system, then pests are not a problem anymore."
He paid high compliments to all of the presenters at the conference and said "what was featured at the Grassfed Exchange was the future of agriculture, and people need to be paying attention."
Another individual dedicated to healthy land systems is Glenn Elzinga of Alderspring Ranch in Idaho. Elzinga was a part of a producer panel at Grassfed Exchange.
His family-owned grass finishing ranch specifically manages native range land in the mountains of Idaho and runs on forest service land. Their operation employs full time cowhands that stay with the cattle full time and move them daily.
Rasmussen, who knows Elzinga personally, said that Alderspring Ranch and their land management practices are visibly improving the land that they run on.
One important part of their rotational grazing is that they take the cattle to water, but then move them away from the stream beds to graze. This improves the plant health of the banks and reduces river bed erosion.
Jones, Lundgren, Elzinga, and Rasmussen are just a few of the many people from the conference who are dedicated to learning more about regenerative land management.
As Rasmussen explained "Good management is key to a healthy lifestyle."
Spreading good management practices is one of the core goals of Grassfed Exchange.
The next conference will be held April 3-5th at the Sonoma County fairgrounds in California.
For more information about the conference and their mission visit https://grassfedexchange.com/ F