Talk with Gabe Brown and you quickly discover he bubbles over with thoughts about sustainable soil management. “Healthy soil is so amazing. It’s truly alive, and there are a lot of things going on down there that we still don’t understand,” he says.
The agricultural soil management techniques Brown uses on 2,000 acres just outside Bismarck, N.D., put him at the forefront of a rehabilitation movement gaining notice around the nation. This winter, Brown’s crowded speaking schedule across the Midwest and in Europe and Canada indicates the escalating interest in the subject.
On much of his land, Brown now plants a “cocktail” of as many as 14 different cover crops designed to replenish once-depleted soil. It allows him to use no commercial fertilizer and reduce herbicide purchases while improving crop yields, he says. Monitoring by the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows Brown’s soil organic matter now stands at 3.7 to 4.3%-up from 1.7 to 2% in 1993.
Brown develops plans with Jay Fuhrer, NRCS district conservationist, who leads soil improvement efforts in the area.
“The goal on Brown’s Ranch is to provide crop diversity, improve soil quality, promote biological soil amendment diversity, adjust the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and integrate livestock into the system. Native rangeland is the template. It’s what we look to as an example of diversity. There are hundreds of species in native rangeland,” Fuhrer says. Brown’s Ranch is one of four Burleigh County, N.D., soil improvement case studies Fuhrer began investigating in 2006. Each operation has its own goals requiring different cover crops, but all use the “cocktail” technique.
Tune in next week for part II: Rebuilding Damaged Soils Through Crop Diversity