Update: Soil Health Trials at TomKat Ranch

By: Hayley Strohm

Hayley StrohmDespite a late start to the growing season and limited rainfall, the grass on the ranch has finally started to jump. For some ranchers, winter is a time to hunker down, but the land and livestock team at TomKat Ranch has been busy this season applying biostimulants and mineral amendments, planting no-till drilling cover crops, and sampling soils for our ongoing soil health trials. With rain in limited supply, timing is everything. We wanted to make sure we planted in time to benefit from any upcoming precipitation in order to germinate drilled seeds in the applications that we put down. However, if we waited too long, we risked working on saturated soils where a tractor or even an ATV might cause soil compaction.

Here is a brief update on our soil health trials:

  • We have 10 sets of experiment and control sites across the ranch. At these sites we are running trials using Provide (a microbial inoculant) and Revive (a humic acid based microbe feed) from Earthfort Labs.  At the beginning of the fall rainy season, we took soil samples to test for chemical or mineral changes in the soils as well as changes in the microbial community’s composition and activity.  We will sample the soil again at the peak of the growing season (typically in the Spring) to test plant tissues, measuring changes in biomass and forage quality. 
  • So far, monitoring has shown an increase in both biomass and forage quality.  A more in-depth explanation of trials and results can be found in this previous newsletter post from Ford Smith, consultant at Regenerative Land Solutions.  

Other paired experiments include:

  • Second year of no-till drilling a multi-species annual cover crop into a cover crop trial. This time we inoculated the cover crop seeds with a vermicast (worm casting) extract hoping to stimulate microbial activity in the root zone, This extract forms a rhizosheath which adheres to the root with the help of root hairs and biological glues which in turn help the plant with nutrient uptake and root growth. Dr. Christine Jones has some great information on biostimulants and the importance of the rhizosheath if anyone is interested in researching further. 
  • Third growing season of applying a mineral and biological application that we formulated with Nicole Masters of Integrity Soils. We have completed all of our applications and are patiently waiting for spring results. 

It’s the middle of a second winter of low rainfall. We are hopeful that our trial applications, coupled with our holistic grazing practices, will boost soil health and make our landscapes more resilient. Healthy soils hold more water, stimulate root growth, and enable plants to photosynthesize longer into the year to feed our cows and microbes. We look forward to reporting our results after the 2021 spring sampling and will continue to share observations as they emerge.