The Crucial Connection: Human Wellbeing Can Only Happen With Healthy Soils

By Jessie Emerson

There is a direct relationship between minerals in the soil and minerals in the body. There is a direct connection between nutrition and optimal health. Nutrition is the foundation of a healthy body that resists disease. The mineral content of the soil determines the mineral content of food. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, premature births, birth defects and immune suppression are all related to nutrition and the nutrient content of the soil. There is an old saying among farmers: “The soil makes the animal.”

Intensive techno-agricultural practices of the last 70 years have taken their toll on American soil. The soil is depleted and poisoned. Fields are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides that were developed from nerve gas used in World War II. They are applied without thought of consequences. Crops grown in the soil contain the toxic chemicals sprayed on them. The nervous systems of insects, birds, fish, animals and human are affected. Small organisms die quickly. It may take humans up to 20 years of suffering before they die. If there are no nitrogen-fixing bacteria present; nitrogen is leached away. Extensive irrigation washes away minerals from stunted roots. Plants that have their water needs supplied by irrigation have no need to form long roots or symbiotic relationships with soil micro-organisms.

“The soil makes the animal.”

Soil is one of our most important resources. A healthy, well-balanced soil is alive and crawling with microbes, fungi, worms, nematodes, small insects and rodents. Like the organs in the body, each performs a vital function necessary for the whole to survive. Like the body, the soil and its inhabitants work best when conditions are neither too acid nor too alkaline. The solubility, and thus the availability of most nutrients, is highest at a slightly acid pH of 6.3 to 6.8. Most soil bacteria and fungi function within this pH range (the pH of blood ranges from 7.35 to 7.45 ). In acidic conditions, below 5.5, most major nutrients and some micronutrients assume insoluble forms. Under these conditions, there is reduced bacterial activity and slower release of nutrients in organic matter. Iron, manganese and aluminum have increased solubility and may rise to toxic levels in soils water and people. Alkaline soils also decrease the availability of many nutrients and micronutrients.

The relationship between plants and microbes is symbiotic. Plants make a nutritional food that attracts and sustains soil microbes. In return for this benefit, microbes produce chemical substances that stimulate plant growth and reproduction and help them resist extreme temperatures and drought. Some fungi even secrete antibiotics or chemicals that inhibit the growth of pathogenic species. Working together in balance, they thrive. A healthy soil food web can protect plants and humans from the toxins that are being dumped into our environment. If microbes are present in the soil, they do their best to ingest and digest toxic chemicals into less harmful compounds. The bacteria Bacillus laterosporus and the fungal species Phanerochete are known degraders of 2,4-D and DDT. Inoculations of these critters also build the soil. They assist the plants and capture nutrients and water. After Chernobyl, the land and water around the site was highly contaminated. Sunflowers were used to decontaminate it. They were planted on land and in floating gardens, their roots dangling in the water. The roots absorbed the radionuclides. After 3 to 4 weeks, the roots were disposed of as radioactive waste. It is said that just 50 to 60 plants are able to clean up a 75-square-meter pond.

With the death of BSOs, the system slips out of balance and pathogens proliferate. Plants become vulnerable to disease-producing organisms. Chemicals are applied. Organisms die or fight back and mutate. More chemicals are applied. The system is out of control. The techno-farmer applies fertilizers that contain only macronutrients. Water is supplied. A growth rush occurs. Like a drug user, the plant is now dependent on its supplier. The symbiotic relationship between plant and mycorrhizae and rhizobium is disrupted. Soil microbes die from lack of food.

Disruption of the equilibrium of the soil disrupts the equilibrium of the body. Adding fertilizers to the soil is like eating “enriched” white bread. Fertilizers and enriched white flour contain only a few of the nutrients required for optimal health and fertility. Inorganic fertilizers usually contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Plants and humans need more than that. In 1897, Gabriel Bertrand introduced the idea that trace minerals were essential to the functioning of living cells. Today we know that trace minerals are needed to activate enzymes, which are the catalysts for every chemical reaction in the body and in the soil. Trace minerals are required for the manufacture of all living matter. At least 16 elements in the proper amounts are needed to ensure healthy plants, animals and humans. Soil is the “modifier “of organic matter. When it is out of balance, life is out of balance. Soil fertility requires not only nutrients, but nutrients in proper quantities. Von Liebig in 1840 formulated the “law of the minimum,” which says that crop yield is limited by the minimum amount of any one of the essential minerals in the soil.

To illustrate this interconnectedness, consider the trace element boron. Boron is neither metal nor nonmetal ― sort of a Twilight Zone micronutrient. The desired amount of iron in the soil is 25,000 ppm, but only 50 ppm of boron is needed. It has been proven that boron is absolutely essential for plants. From its role in plant nutrition, we get clues to its function in people. The function of boron in plants includes:

  1. Plant reproduction and pollen viability
  2. Formation of sugars and starch
  3. Involvement with calcium in cell wall formation
  4. Regulation of carbohydrate metabolism
  5. DNA synthesis in meristem tissue
  6. Nodule formation in legumes
  7. Sugar transport throughout the plant

In plants, boron works with calcium in cell wall formation. It has been proposed that one of its biological functions in people is that it acts indirectly as a proton donor and exerts an influence on cell membrane structure and function. It impacts mineral metabolism, uptake and use. There is evidence that both composition and functional properties of bone are affected by boron. Both boron and magnesium are needed for optimal calcium metabolism (this may be very important in preventing osteoporosis in postmenopausal women and older men). In animal research, it has been shown to increase life span by 9.5 percent; a deficiency decreases life span by 69 percent. Studies by J. G. Penland show that boron plays a role in human brain function, alertness and cognitive performance (manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, attention, perception, short- and long-term memory).

In the study, “The Effect of Dietary Boron on Mineral, Estrogen and Testosterone Metabolism in Postmenopausal Women,” Nielsen suggests that boron might be required for the synthesis of steroid hormones and Vitamin D and may act to protect hormones from rapid inactivation. Boron may be essential to hormone balance and may be one of the factors in “peri-menopause” symptoms. Some of the major roles of boron in plants have to do with carbohydrates. Perhaps adequate amounts of boron are required in human carbohydrate metabolism, and this may be a factor in diabetes.

Boron-deficient plants contain little or no vitamin C in root tips, resulting in extremely slow growth rates. Other signs of deficiency in plants are:

  1. Death of growing leaf tips
  2. Leaves thickening and having a coppery texture, curling and becoming brittle
  3. Stunted root growth
  4. Lack of formation of flowers
  5. Soft or necrotic spots in fruit and tubers

Information on boron deficiency is limited in humans. Insufficient intake of boron becomes obvious when the body is stressed. In chicks, a boron-deficient diet produces high triglyceride levels. Could that be a factor in elevated triglyceride levels in people? Fertility, miscarriages, immune insufficiency and impotency in men may all be related to micronutrients in the soil.

Boron is low or deficient in acidic and sandy soils. Large amounts of precipitation, flooding and irrigation wash boron away. The best sources of boron in the natural diet are foods of plant origin, leafy vegetables, non-citrus fruit, nuts, legumes and sea vegetables. More than 25,000 ppm of iron in the soil may disrupt the balance (as when applied in inorganic fertilizers) and require more than 50 ppm of boron.

Balance is the key with nutrients in the soil and in the body. Nutrients are in competition with each other. One example is the phosphorus-to-calcium ratio. These elements compete for binding sites and uptake. Anyone consuming large quantities of sodas containing phosphorous, especially children, can induce an imbalance resulting in a calcium deficiency. The chlorine in our drinking water can out-populate iodine, binding with the thyroid. The thyroid doesn’t get the iodine it needs to function properly. A person begins to have symptoms of a hypoactive thyroid; the cell rate of metabolism decreases, the person has little energy for daily activities, and will eventually need thyroid supplementation. Plants need iron for chlorophyll synthesis and oxidation, and it is a constituent of various proteins and enzymes.

Humans need iron for the production of red blood cells, certain enzymes and proper metabolism of B vitamins. When the soil is deficient in iron, the plant will be deficient in iron. It will have yellowing of the leaves while the large veins on leaves remain green. The stems will be short, slender and weak. Iron deficiency in humans is called anemia. The person is pale, weak, easily fatigued, has brittle nails, breathing difficulties and constipation.

Balance is the key with nutrients in the soil and in the body.

Since the 1930s there has been a growing concern about the consequences of industrial agriculture ― chemical-based agriculture and factory farming of animals ― on human health. Lady Eve Balfour was a British farmer, educator, organic farming pioneer and the co-founder and first president of the Soil Association, an international organization that promotes sustainable agriculture and organic farming. She wrote about soil and human health in her book The Living Soil, published in 1948. In it she clearly describes the relationship between agricultural methods and human health. An example today would be factory dairy farming, where cows are crammed hock deep in manure with nowhere to go but their pens. A farm scene that brought tears to my eyes was one cow who broke away from the others and stood on top of a manure hill, maybe dreaming of green pastures. The large amounts of nitrogen that are produced in these operations go into the ground water and the soil. Nitrogen is essential for our bodies and for plants. Nitrogen is found in amino acids, the building blocks of our bodies. Nitrogen is also part of our DNA; it determines our genetics. Too little nitrogen and plants and people cannot thrive. Plants lose their color and become yellow, have small flowers and fruits, and just don’t grow well. Too much nitrogen and plants produce bulk but no fruit and have weak root structures.

Plants with high levels can poison farm animals. High levels in water decrease the amount of oxygen and kill aquatic life. In areas of intense farming, the nitrate-nitrogen concentration may exceed the EPA limit of 10 mg/L. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants and the elderly are the most vulnerable. The conditions most reported are birth defects and cancers.

A recent article in the European Journal of Soil Science discussed the concept of soil security and its link to human health. There is a global need for the production of plentiful and quality food, which means the soil must be able to pass nutrients up the food web and act as a filter or purifier to cleanse the soil of toxins. The presence of harmful chemicals or organisms disrupt this system. Society must value human health and value soil for its role in creating human health. The way these are valued is reflected in the way soil is managed or treated.

The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease. Optimum health and our resistance to disease is interconnected with the health of the soil, and the health of our planet. With soil and plants, we can co-create a sustainable and healthy environment that supports and nurtures all of life.

This article appears in the September 2020 issue of the Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Protecting Pollinators (And Profits)

Sponsored by PureCrop1

Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators in the U.S. and around the world —including honeybees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies. Beetles, wasps, and even small mammals also carry and transfer pollen from one plant to another. In an Oxford Academic study measuring how much agriculture depends on pollinators, researchers found the direct reduction in total agricultural production in the absence of animal pollination ranged from 3 to 8 %. They found that agriculture has become more pollinator-dependent over time and that pollination shortage will intensify agricultural land demand. 

Bees and other pollinator species are essential partners to the farmers and ranchers growing our food crops, but still often treated as an outside factor. We need to protect them, but how? And how will protecting them affect farmers’ bottom line? 

bee on flower

Practices that Protect 

We can start protecting pollinators by supporting native wildlife and creating a habitat for pollinators alongside us, remembering any toxins applied that are damaging to humans also affect pollinators. We can create a more abundant farm and become an ally to pollinators by using products that keep them working. Conventional and organic farms can benefit from the biological approach in their farming practices, which uses natural organisms to protect crops. Biologics can help create healthy soil with more nutrients while avoiding chemicals.  

Additionally, by decreasing the number of toxic chemicals you use on food crops, you reduce the number of toxins that run off into the soil and water. Pesticides are widespread in surface and groundwater across the United States. In a study on agricultural contaminants by the U.S. Geological Survey, at least one pesticide was found in about 94% of water samples and in more than 90% of fish samples taken from streams across the nation, and in nearly 60% of shallow wells. 

Farms are increasingly choosing the biodynamic route. Organic and biodynamic methods are similar in that both are grown without chemicals and GMOs. However, biodynamic farming goes one step further. Designed to promote nutrient and energy cycling in the soil and above ground, biodynamic farms give back to the environment by creating a self-sustaining agricultural ecosystem. Biodynamic methods create healthier plants and heal the earth by replenishing the soil while invigorating the plant, soil, and livestock. These practices generate superior soil quality, more fertile & stable compost piles, more robust crops, and decreased reliance on outside inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides.  

New Technologies in Organic Agriculture 

Biodynamic farms create, manage, and sustain a farm ecosystem that satisfies and regenerates its own needs. Many conventional agricultural products are unavailable to biodynamic farmers. However, with the demand for cleaner options, products are coming to the market that work in tandem with biologics, while remaining potent at tackling molds, mildews, and even pests. While the long-held assumption is that organics are not effective, studies prove otherwise: 

PureCrop1 graphs

This study shows that the organic formula increased yield and decreased offgrade significantly with improving results over time. PureCrop1 was not used in 2018, and was used in 2019 and 2020 seasons. For this study, PureCrop1 was used through the whole cycle, and was completely non-disruptive to pollinators. As an organic formula that is entirely biodegradable, PureCrop1 poses little to no risk to human health, the health of beneficial insects & bacteria, or the environment. 

Using nanotechnology, colloidal micelle target specific enzymes not found in beneficial insects. The micelle destroy the enzymes sap-sucking insects need to break glucose down in their gut — effectively killing the insects from inside. The particle size and stability provide this unique mode of action and are why, unlike traditional oils, it will not burn plants or clog stomata. It does not harm the membrane or enzymes of beneficial insects, and for this reason, is an excellent addition to organic and sustainable farming.  

Switching to cleaner practices and new biotechnologies will keep our pollinators working by our sides. Learn how farmers today are using these new technologies to protect our pollinators and, to protect and increase their profits.  



With quality and sustainability at the core of our company, we’re dedicated to creating sustainable farming practices and changing the way we grow our food by eliminating the toxic chemicals used. Made from 7 plant-based, organic ingredients, PureCrop1 is 100% safe for the environment, kids, pets, & even beneficial insects. The proprietary, science-driven formulation process delivering clean, sustainable, yet potent results is what distinguishes PureCrop1 from any other product on the market, making it a true trailblazer for the future of agriculture.  

Montana Ranchers Demonstrate Regenerative Agriculture in Action

Roger with the author during a Native Energy Soil Carbon gathering. Photo courtesy of Kayla Walker, Ranch Raised Media.

This article is excerpted from Nicole Masters’s book, For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems.

Fraggle Rock is an ’80s TV show featuring Jim Henson’s colorful puppets, covering topics like waste, the environment, spirituality and dealing with social conflict. It’s a silly show that resonates with me. The Fraggles family includes a character called Uncle Traveling Matt. Matt, who has a grey Doc Holliday mustache and a pack on his back, he leaves his safe underground community to record his observations about the human’s world (outer space). His backpack is full of measuring tools and notebooks to enthusiastically scribble his thoughts.

In a nutshell, I’ve just described to you one of my favorite ranchers — Roger Indreland. I think it may have been a shock to this well-spoken and educated rancher that he reminded me of a Muppet! It always brings a smile to my face when we don our backpacks and set out to check on our monitoring sites, under the blazing Montana sun. We’ve been doing this since May of 2014.

Roger and Betsy Indreland had doubts when we first met at the Ranching for Profit (RFP) Summer Conference. Roger’s mind has a carefree, child-like quality. The suspense of an unopened parcel, or working out how a toy is put together, can drive him to distraction. This need to understand things deeper left him intrigued enough to confront me to comment: “We couldn’t make that work.” I flippantly commented, “Well, why not?” They were both baffled that I could be so confident (“cocky” is the New Zealand term), so we set to work. Roger and Betsy have curious minds, but they’re not ones to take unnecessary risks. They’ve learned over the years to observe and record changes, before rolling actions out over their 7,000-acre operation. With their daughters Kate and Ann, they built a successful registered Angus stud, via trial and error — results they are happy to share with the neighbors. They’re a family that have earned the respect and admiration of their community, through their contribution to strengthening the Angus breed and their commitment to improving the resilience of ranching families. When Roger talks, people listen.

Betsy is his perfect counterbalance. “She speaks louder with her body,” jokes Roger. With Roger, the visionary, Betsy carries the details in the pockets of her keen mind. He’ll rattle off a sentence, which Betsy completes; “it was cow 5409 that got bit by a rattlesnake last year,” “no, it was 5475.” Roger knows she’s right. They are a powerful, collaborative team, who value their currency of communication.


To stand in the rolling pastures here, you get a sense of what gives Montana its “Big Sky” reputation. When the sun starts to rise, the light catches the Absaorkee Beartooth Mountains to the South and the Crazy Mountains to the West. Less than 2 hours to Yellowstone National Park, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d found Nirvana — until the Californian fires smoke out the mountains, and the skies turn Hades orange.

At the beginning of the 19th century, those in the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition were the first Europeans to cross the western part of the United States. They set to survey the geography, plants and animals, as well as to establish trade with the First Nation peoples. Their voyage took them within 12 miles of the Indreland Ranch where Clark noted “Buffaloe is getting much more plenty.” This area was once dominated by dense, short prairie grasses. Now the rangeland is dominated by sagebrush with bare ground, cryptogams and diverse native flowering species. With early overgrazing of sheep and cattle, estimates point to a decline in soil carbon between 30-60 percent since Lewis and Clark first sailed by.

Anyone who lives and works on the land appreciates the forces of nature and how small and powerless we really are. The climate here in Big Timber is not easy, with winter bringing whistling winds and dense snow, followed by scorching summer sun. The ranch sits around 4,500 feet in elevation, with 300 to 350 mm (12 to 14”) of annual precipitation. The frost-free window is only 90 to 100 days. The bulk of feed needs to be grown in a short and frantic 30-45 days, to supply enough grass for the coming year.


When Roger was growing up, his father was adamant that fertilizer was expensive and made the ground hard. Of course, after heading off to ag school to study economics, Roger came back with the inflated opinion — that his dad was backwards in his thinking, and that “bigger is better.” With risky spring rainfall, fertilizer numbers didn’t really stack up. Instead, they invested in equipment for farming and haying. A dry year hit early on and with repayments due and no harvest, the early years for the new couple were tough.

During college, Roger had the opportunity to work with one of the icons of the registered Angus business. In a private conversation, the breeder revealed a pivotal insight, his belief “the Angus breed was now beyond its optimum size.” With Betsy’s background in marketing and Roger’s keen observations, they knew going to bat against the big Angus players and wealthy landowners was a risky maneuver, given their promotional budget. The Indrelands were early pioneers in using the genetics from what has now become one of America’s most popular “bigger is better” bulls. In their windswept land and tough nutritional conditions, this decision cost the pair dearly, with 75% of the cows returning infertile. Roger and Betsy have always valued diversity and that year chose to use two different bull genetics. Fortunately, their second-choice bull had much better cow energy value ($EN) and his daughters thrived. Their ultimate realization? These bigger-framed, high-input breeds didn’t have the traits necessary to survive and thrive in an extreme low-input natural system.

These early incidents were catalysts for the duo to look at techniques to reduce inputs and produce a fit-for-purpose herd that can perform in low energy environments, requiring minimal handling or supplemental feeding. For instance, in the harsh 2017-18 winter, before the snows became too deep for them to dig through, their cows were only fed for a total of 3 weeks. “We have a herd of cattle that are low input, extremely durable and very sound,” Roger says. This trouble-free line of cattle that works in sync with nature has attracted a loyal and growing client base interested in resilient, cost-effective and profitable progeny.

Having an indicator for how much input an animal requires to grow and produce milk is a valuable decision-making tool for producers interested in profitability, rather than showy large frames. Cow energy values ($EN) are used by breeders to predict how much a cow’s energy requirements could save you in feed costs. $EN is expressed in dollar savings per cow, so a higher value is better. Not all cultivars or livestock selections are designed for low-input systems. Being able to calculate potential costs would be invaluable in any sector — for wheat, apples, vegetables (…but maybe not horses?). In Montana’s extreme environment, a low, negative $EN means high amounts of supplementary feeding will be required through winter. If you look in breeder catalogues, the average Angus breed has an $EN of minus $4.01. The average for Indreland bulls in a recent year was +$20.57. Now that’s Montana tough.

Until 2006, the ranch was running an approach typical to the area, removing every blade of grass, feeding hay for a large part of the year and then calving in winter to produce larger calves at weaning. Calving in winter is a stressful approach for anyone, with lots of sleepless nights and long days ensuring calf survival and cows are well fed. It’s a common practice, often in the most inhospitable environments, with warm wet calves hitting frozen surfaces at birth. Seeing cows with no ears and tails can be a clue as to the climatic conditions on their birthday.


After attending a Ranching For Profit (RFP) school, the pair had a bombshell moment; they had been calving at the exact opposite time for cow nutritional needs. They shifted calving from February to May, to match the spring growth and every man, woman and beast breathed a sigh of relief. This timing is a closer match for when wild antelope and deer are birthing on the range too. After my first visit with the Indrelands, we discussed the concept, that these lands may never have been grazed every year by large herds. Extending this recovery time has been a breakthrough and a return to what Roger believes used to happen before the invention of large round-bailing equipment. For drought resilience “successful old-timers knew they needed to have at least 18 months of feed in front of them,” he says. Drought in Montana is not a someday/one-day concept, yet memories can be truly short in every farming/ranching community.

Grazing is recorded in a notebook and a chart on the wall. They aim to graze different pastures, at different times of the year. Some of the larger pastures create management challenges; these areas are split up with electric fence. Plant species on the range provide diverse pickings. The irrigated grounds and lowland areas consist of smaller pastures where stock can be moved more regularly. The ranch practices the “Bud Williams Stockmanship” approach to low-stress animal handling, creating a relaxed environment for people and animals. Most cattle work is done on foot and with their stock dogs, Lily and Ace. Another consequence of the smaller framed livestock is the safer conditions in the yards. Betsy recalls how in the early days, they couldn’t see over the backs of cows, which made her feel vulnerable in small spaces. The cattle “are responsive to us,” says Roger, “and that is a source of great pride for us too, to be able to go out and maneuver cattle and do just about anything we want, without any huge problems.”

I fancy myself as pretty sensitive when moving stock. However, watching Roger on foot, silently pull a cow and calf from the herd and wind them up a hill through an open gate, all without breaking a sweat, has left me with a new appreciation for the art of moving cattle.

There was no crisis that led the Indrelands to shift their practices. Roger had a good early foundation with an observant, patient and skilled stockman father. He doesn’t worry about what the neighbors think; in fact, I think he enjoys making them scratch their heads. He’s unusual in that he’s not afraid to ask any question, of anyone. Their neighbor, Gretel Ehrlich, poet and author of the The Solace of Open Spaces, has an ethereal way of capturing the raw nature of the ranching community. She is astounded by Roger’s mind. “He stays contemporary in his thinking processes,” she says. “He’s stimulated by looking at the land.” Even when Roger is knowledgeable about a topic, he will still ask people deeper questions to expand or question his own knowing. Gretel and he both ask the big questions many are afraid to ask. This is a rare skill; indeed their fearlessness is inspiring. “What are you doing here? Because your father said you should be a rancher?” reflects Gretel. “Because you love it? To make money?” Or to leave a legacy? “Most people are terrified to stop. You could ask this about your marriage, children or life.”

Gretel is a close friend of Allan Savory and has traveled and visited with him on many ranching operations. She marvels at the same processes many discover when deepening their relationship to soil. “It’s the new thinking which makes it fun, which no one ever anticipates,” she says. The new learning and creative actions dissolves “the poison of tradition,” she says. She’s a lyrical genius. I’m in awe.


The Indrelands keep excellent records and have been tracking their soil and pasture changes, monitoring Brix, soil minerals, biology and plant tissue tests, to ensure they’re heading in the right direction. Their irrigated meadows are bacterially dominated, with ‘sleepy’ soils on the range, a fairly typical finding in Mid-Western rangelands. They have soils with 100% Base Saturation, high Ca and Mg. Early testing revealed trace element mobility issues (Mn and B), low sodium and low nitrogen. Their irrigated meadows contain a diverse mix of introduced grasses and alfalfa, with yields that had been struggling due to tight soils and poor infiltration. Field observations and leaf tissue tests showed the hay was of average quality, providing lots of feed for insect pests, like alfalfa weevil and flea.

Based on the testing, a bio-stimulant blend of trace elements, fish hydrolysate and humic acid was applied. These initial results were startling; this one-off treatment had effectively lifted feed quality by 43 percent! Livestock producers can see this result directly by observing animals; they will spend less time eating and more time lying down. If you’re in a feedlot, the improved quality will mess with your feed budgets. The cattle effectively are now getting the same amount of nutrition from two mouthfuls, as they once got from three. This improvement in nutrition is retained in stockpiled winter feed, increasing the valuable protein and energy levels. Brix levels doubled from 10 to 20o, all for only a $20/acre investment. These fields also increased 1 ton in yield. Working out the numbers, this additional ton yield pays for a further 5-10 acres of application for the following season, paying improvements forward. Quality hay like this will store better and, when markets become educated, will command extra at sale point. One hay producer in New Zealand, who produces a high Brix, solid stemmed Lucerne (alfalfa) for racehorses; found that once horses got a taste of his wares, they wouldn’t eat any other hay. He could then dictate the market prices. Excellent.


In 2015, Roger repeatedly struggled to use a conventional sprayer, which blocked with any coarse materials. In 2017, he set about designing and building a slurry sprayer, based on the advice from brilliant New Zealander and Utah native, Steve Erickson, at Chaos Springs. The sprayer cost less than $5,000, including labor, to build. It can pump huge volumes (300 gallons or 1200 liters/min) directly out of irrigation ditches or troughs.

A slurry sprayer, is a coarse-nozzled spray unit, driven by an open diaphragm or trash pump. These sprayers are designed to reticulate liquids and keep solids in suspension. One advantage of the unit is that there are few points for blockages, due to the simple interlocking systems and no complex mixers or compression points. I prefer round tanks, rather than oval or square tanks. These round tanks can create vortexes and reduces sloshing — an essential element on uneven country. The vortex offers another dimension of benefit for those interested in biodynamics or structured water. A single 5 mm nozzle (1/5 inch) can cover over 16 meters (52 feet), so cropping operations can put 2 nozzles onto a boom and cover 32 meters. They are great for spraying sieved compost, live biology and seed, with large droplet sizes at surprisingly low pressures.


The Indreland Ranch includes 400 acres of low-lying rolling country. These areas with their deeper topsoil, were traditionally used for oats and barley. What little organic matter remained, after historic grazing cycles, was rapidly oxidized or blown away. As a result, the farmground degraded into lifeless, structureless clays and silts, dominated by early succession Yellow alyssum (Alyssum alyssoides) and non-mycorrhizal-species, like field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) and lupines. It was an area Roger and Betsy initially left from the soils program since it was so degraded. This is a good strategy. By focusing on better-performing areas, or areas that do get moisture, subsequent lifts in quality and performance can help fund the cost of improving poorer areas. Through lifting the carrying capacity in their irrigated lands, they were able to lift livestock by 25 percent. Numbers they continue to build upon.

In fall, 2017, the farm ground received its first inputs in 30 years. Using a direct drill, Roger mixed 2 pounds of dry vermicast and 2 pounds of kelp meal with 12 pounds vetch and 50 pounds of winter rye. As an additional experiment, he also added sunflowers, because he could and that’s what experiments are all about, even when your “know-it-all” coach thinks you’re crazy. The 2017 summer had been a scorcher; over 300,000 Montana acres, had been on fire. Fortunately, fall did bring some germinating rains. The sunflowers grew to 3 inches, before they were knocked out by frosts. It may not seem like much, but even 3” of growth and a wee taproot would have some benefit to a land that had been growing nothing. Any cover is better than being caught out with a bare bottom.

Come spring melt and warm sunny days, the vetch and rye sprung to life. Excited daily updates were received on their growth status. The 2018/19 seasons were one of the best South-Central Montanans can remember, with some good regular rainfall keeping the covers growing. Even by late summer, the base stayed green. Quite frankly, with the mud, it feels more like New Zealand than the yellow dusty country I have come to love. It’s been a fantastic year to start on new ground. The cover crop grew to over a meter high in places and only 40 of the 400 acres were grazed. The rest was left to self-seed and give the soil some well-needed rest and recovery. Roger had never seen this kind of growth here and was encouraged to expand their seeding/vermicast acreage. Leaf tests showed that the treated plants were responding positively to nutrients, setting them up for better quality seed set, forage and carbon drawdown. After years of being treated like dirt, these lands were now flourishing.


One morning while Kate and I were moving cattle, we saw Roger, who was across a large pasture, double over. He didn’t stand up again and Kate began to worry. Was he having heart trouble? We called his phone. No answer. And no movement across the field. Suddenly, we saw him leap onto his ATV, arms flying as he zipped over to us. He had a broad grin and was full of contagious excitement. Beetles! He’d been trying to film a dung beetle he’d spotted rolling a ball of manure, something he’d never seen on the ranch before. The minute he’d stopped to watch; the dung beetle played dead. Roger remained motionless in the hope the beetle would set to work again, ignoring any phone calls in the process. He kept his camera primed, until the dung beetle slowly unfolded its legs and promptly flew off!

Since the management changes have been implemented and plant nutrient levels have been lifting, diversity has naturally returned. John Baxter, a young grassland ecologist in the making, has been out flipping cow pats. At last count, there were 6 different dung beetle species, including the escapee roller. With the taller pastures and winter cover, more biodiversity is flowing in. Sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Hungarian partridges (Perdix perdix) are now common sights, as they bob across the lawn with a trail of fluffy young. Both species look very tasty and with the voles and moles, the fox population is booming. One mum and dad fox set up camp on a knoll opposite Roger and Betsy’s bedroom window. This spring, we all watched in wonder as not 4 or 5 cubs, but 7 fuzzy balls tumbled out from their den. They provided entertainment for weeks. It’s always a pleasure to be around families who rejoice in the diversity of life and see the benefits predators bring to the land.


The principle: “Without measurement there is no management” is demonstrated by all the Regenerators I speak with. These measurements also include observations, which Roger and Betsy are naturals at. They have a comprehensive soil testing kit, which includes materials to photograph and monitor transects.

Through monitoring changes over time, Roger says, “We have gotten into the habit of tracking those things and observing results from a different perspective from which we had looked at them before.” The actions I’ve suggested with the family have “had a positive result, whether it is an increase in Brix, dung beetles or earthworms.” Infiltration improvements have been dramatic, with a 3-to-4-fold improvement in just a few years. When you ask Roger how much rainfall he got, you’ll get a sassy, “Why, all of it, of course!” At least that’s the goal. They were put to the test with a 6-inch storm event (2 inches were hail) in 2 hours, flash flooding causeways and the road to the north of the ranch. The next day, they had no issues driving across the ranch to survey the damage. Soil structure for the Indrelands has been one of the more notable differences. This structure differs across the fence. Driving a pick-up or side-by-side is easy going…until they open gates to drive across neighboring properties, often to haul out bogged down neighbors!

The Indrelands are part of a unique soil carbon scheme, the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative. Driven by Western Sustainability Exchange and Native Energy, a carbon credit provider, the program pays ranchers up front, for practice changes known to improve soil carbon, such as adaptive grazing management, range riding and avoiding tillage. These ranchers are using the funds to improve water systems and fencing. They submit their grazing plans to the project and attended workshops on methods to improve soil health. The initiative has received a lot of positive attention from the community and the voluntary market. I’m not a fan of carbon offset markets personally, as the benefits from building soil carbon rewards producers directly. However, hiring the producers, who are responsible for most of the land, to improve ecosystem services, is something I am happy to get behind. As the U.S. soil guru Abe Collins says, “we are building the largest infrastructure project in the world.” To achieve such lofty goals, the people on the ground need to be hired to build the system. Unfortunately, building soil health doesn’t catch the eye, like a CO2 scrubber, foodbank, dam or a bridge. The effect, however, is far more profound and effective than the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach.

Many producers tell me they don’t have time for monitoring; however, it’s the monitoring that is going to give you more time. Try to create a simple system that becomes a habit. The most successful producers I know carry a small notebook, a refractometer, garlic crush and a temperature probe by their truck’s gearstick. When driving through a gate, drive an extra 10m (32’), put the moisture meter in the ground (away from the track) and as you walk to shut the gate, grab a few handfuls of grass, put the sample into your garlic crusher, look at the sample, shut the gate, walk back to the truck, record the temperature and drive off. This would be the same for horticulturalists. When you’re walking down the rows, take around 20 leaves from different plants. Include pH sap readings in this sampling too. This will add all of a minute to your routine and a wealth of information as you build a picture of your place.

You will be sampling at different times of the day in different climatic conditions and different growth points. All this information is going to help you manage more decisively and build confidence that you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re not heading in the right direction, this information will point you in another direction. Plants are stressed? Take actions to support health, without losing production. Or when Brix is highest, cut for hay. For dairy and lamb fattening, if Brix is low, miss this field in the rotation. Brix lines are low and sharp? Consider potential nitrates, don’t graze and, if possible, apply a spray with humic or milk products to mop up the nitrates before weeds germinate. If your plant pH is low, try applying an alkaline spray like milk, liquid calcium, or seawater. Once crop and pasture health improve, you’ll have more time on your hands anyway, which I’m sure you’ll find ways to fill!

Nicole Masters is an agroecologist and educator based in New Zealand.

Learn Soil Health Management from Nicole Masters

Nicole Masters is one of four expert speakers who will be presenting full-day Eco-Ag U workshops at the 2021 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show! This annual conference will be held in person, Dec. 6-9, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Focused on eco-agriculture education, this event features two days of Eco-Ag U workshops plus three days of sessions on all kinds of eco-farming topics.

Learn more about Nicole’s Eco-Ag U workshop here.

Tractor Time Episode 47: Rodale CEO Jeff Moyer Talks No-Till

On this live episode of Tractor Time (recorded on November 12), we are joined by Jeff Moyer, CEO of the Rodale Institute. Jeff has a new book out from Acres U.S.A. It’s called Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture — Crops, Soil & Equipment.

For nearly 30 years, Jeff has worked at the Rodale Institute in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where he’s designed equipment and techniques for organic no-till farming systems. Just last year, he was named CEO of Rodale. In addition, he has served as the chairman of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and was a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic.

Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture

By Jeff Moyer

This article is an excerpt from Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing Organic Agriculture: Crops, Soils and Equipment (available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore) Copyright 2021.

As with any field operation on any farm, you need the right piece of equipment to accomplish the task effectively and efficiently.

This is especially true in a cover crop system where every operation has an impact on the success of crop yield and quality. These ramifications are particularly evident in organic systems where every part of the system is closely interconnected to every other part.

Organic farming needs to be considered as a holistic system.

Adopting organic no-till methods creates a dynamic change to this holistic system. It’s hard to make one change without affecting the whole farm management plan. As we discuss organic no-till, we need to be especially mindful of how it will impact every other part of the system. The impacts can be seen from an agronomic perspective through changes in weed species and location, from a soils perspective as you’ll see changes in the soil’s ability to retain water and support greater microbial diversity, and from an energetic perspective since there will be tremendous reductions in the amount of embodied energy in the production process.

Through some experimentation with organic no-till, it became obvious that we needed a specialized tool to do the job. The roller/crimper is the tool that makes organic no-till possible because it does just that.

Although there are other similar tools available, the roller/crimper is the one that is currently best suited for managing cover crops in organic no-till. Tools don’t have to be that different to be revolutionary. Small modifications can make the tool perform much better. Any tool that will save you time and energy will be a good investment and pay for itself.

Essentially, the roller/crimper is a drum or cylinder with curved blades, which when operating, lays the cover crop over in one direction and crimps or crushes its stems. The combination of these two actions kills the cover and turns it into a thick, weed suppressing mulch in a single pass. You won’t need herbicides to provide 90 to 100 percent knockdown. Farmers can use the roller/crimper as part of an organic operation, or as part of a conventional one to reduce the use of herbicides and improve the bottom line.

Design & Development

The design and development of the roller/ crimper at Rodale began with an examination and analysis of many another tools including rolling stalk choppers, rolling harrows, and even flail mowers. These tools were already in use on our farm. Although they were designed for other functions, they appeared to adapt well to managing cover crops. However, none of these tools were designed specifically to roll cover crops and each had drawbacks. So we sought to develop a specialized tool for the job of rolling and crimping cover crops, instead of using a modified implement intended for another purpose.

Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture
The Rodale Roller/Crimper

Let’s start with the example of the rolling stalk chopper. The rolling stalk chopper consists of eight rolling drums (in a 4 row unit) arranged in two parallel rows. The implement is rear mounted on a tractor. As with any farm tool, some things about the rolling stalk chopper worked well, and some things didn’t. The rolling stalk chopper has two big drawbacks. First, the machine is rear mounted on the tractor, which leads to some problems in completely killing the cover crop. As the tractor tires pass over the cover crop, they knock down the cover crop and make an indentation in the ground.

This is especially true if the soil is wet. This means that the implement can’t do its job effectively — the cover does not receive the full impact of the rolling stalk chopper. The stems of the cover crop remain uncut and often have a tendency to stand back up. This defeats the purpose of the operation and eliminates the mulching effect of the cover crop.

Also, since the rolling stalk chopper is rear mounted, the planting must be done in a separate pass. This two-pass operation increases the time and energy invested in establishing the cash crop.

With the thick mat of rolled cover crop covering the ground, it can be difficult to see where the planter has already been. Traditional row markers can’t make a good line in the thick residue and foam markers would be a necessary option.

Another issue with rolling stalk choppers or mowers, as well as some other tools that have been used for organic no-till, is their tendency to cut the cover crop into small pieces. The cutting creates several problems. First, the cover crop breaks down faster and is less effective for weed control.

Second, when the cover crop is cut, it is no longer anchored in place by its roots. Consequently, it ends up in all kinds of places it shouldn’t. For example, it can get dragged by the planter and clog the machinery. In addition to the problems with the machinery, it creates bare patches that can become weedy later on in the season. The mulch is not distributed evenly across the field, with some thick areas and some thinner ones.

Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture

There are several other key design points that we considered important when reviewing existing equipment and the creation of our own roller/ crimper. One of those was the number of moving parts — in other words, the number of points where the cover crop could get tangled in the machinery as the rolling operation takes place. By creating a roller with only two bearings we were able to minimize both wear points as well as reducing the areas where wrapping of the cover crop might take place. We also wanted to design the blades in a way that would prevent them from ripping or pulling at the cover crop. This pulling action would create bare patches in the cover thereby providing an opportunity for annual weeds to germinate. This was accomplished by mounting the blades onto the cylinder at an angle of 7 to 10 degrees off of perpendicular. We’ll discuss this in more detail later in this chapter.

Design Elements

The design flaws we saw in using existing equipment were the impetus for developing a completely new implement — the roller/crimper.

As the roller/crimper developed, the following elements were incorporated into the design.

These elements addressed some of the problems with other tools, which were never really meant to roll thick stands of cover crops. The end result is a specialized tool that provides a 90 percent to 100 percent knockdown for cover crops, even for tough combinations like rye and vetch.

The Rodale roller/crimper design features one large drum with blades that cover the width of the planter (in our case 10 feet 6 inches for a 4 x 30 inch row planter), instead of the eight rollers in the rolling stalk chopper. These rollers can be built in gangs mounted separately on the planter frame to create larger roller/crimpers to accommodate wide planters. To date I know of several 30 foot rollers in use with great success.

With fewer sets of bearings, the Rodale roller/ crimper is easier to maintain, and has fewer moving parts which could get clogged with heavy residue.

This is especially important for vining crops like vetches or peas. The roller/crimper’s bearings on each end are inset by three inches and fronted with a smooth shield. Shielding the bearings is crucial to successfully rolling thick dense cover crops. The shields prevent the plant material from wrapping around the bearing and quickly tearing large patches of cover from the field.

The roller/crimper was designed to perform a specific function. As such, it can be scaled up or down to suit the particular needs of many growers.

In its simplest form it doesn’t need to even be a roller. A handheld version using human foot pressure on a crimping blade can work in tight spaces like a greenhouse floor. On a larger-scale a roller can be built to run in front of the very largest planters or grain drills.

Jeff Moyer has been working in organic agriculture all his life. For over 30 years he was the farm manager/director for the Rodale Institute in Southeastern Pennsylvania where he managed the farm operations department and conducted his own research. For the past 5 years Moyer has been the Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer (CEO) overseeing strategic planning and growth of Rodale Institute.

A Toolkit to Measure Soil Quality and Biological Integrity

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

There are likely measurements and metrics you are using to assess soil health—but what data points are you using to interpret results? Are you looking at what you’re learning through a quality lens?

As an industry, agriculture has done a great job of providing plant available nutrients, and while that advantage is still exciting, the next frontier for agriculture lies in the soil microbiome. You don’t have to look hard to find a video or article about the importance of the soil microbiome and how putting that bacteria and fungi to work can help support your crop goals, and every video and article emphasizes the same message: To achieve high performance soils, you must focus on more than nutrients.

Innovative producers, those who are always thinking outside the box, already know this. They know that a holistic approach is required to reach their soils’ full potential.

Plant shoots growing in black soil

A Holistic Approach

Soil has three major components that must be managed for optimum performance: chemical, physical and biological, and each of these properties offer a grower the opportunity to collect data points that can and should translate to management opportunities. For decades, production agriculture and soil scientists have had a good working concept of the physical and chemical properties of the soil; we have known how to amend, add and manipulate nutrients to boost yields, reduce compaction and improve conservation. We know that the chemical and physical properties of our soil determine plant-available nutrients; that pH also controls parameters that can tie up crop nutrient availability and that texture impacts a field’s ability to store and release nutrients.

What we haven’t had a good handle on is the biological properties of soil. Soil biology has, in large part, been represented by an unqualified percentage of soil organic matter (SOM) on a soil test. However, we are beginning to learn that the soil biological properties: the interactions, exudates, and population diversity represented, hold the greatest potential for both soil health and soil quality advancement.

Often used interchangeably, the differences between soil health and soil quality are marked, and as the mystery of SOM and the soil microbiome lessens, biological management through the interpretation of collected data points is providing greater in-field management opportunities.

So, what is the difference between soil health and soil quality, and should one garner more discussion and attention? The answer is a resounding, “Yes”.

Soil health is the interaction between organisms and their environment as well as the properties provided by such interactions. Soil health is a collaborative effort of all three properties working in unison, and, thus, management is a holistic endeavor that looks at the relationship and improvement of all three properties equally. Soil health hinges on the knowledge that soil is partly alive and all management strategy must first consider what can be done to promote and protect soil life. This concept is known as biological integrity—when you have improved biological integrity, you have better soil health that can be measured and quantified.

Soil quality, on the other hand, lends a more antiquated utilitarian approach to focus on the success of the soil in completing its “job” of supporting a growing crop.

An Appetite for Biological Integrity

Biological integrity is enhanced through the population size and diversity of soil organisms: bacteria, fungi, arthropods…the list goes on, and their common denominator for attraction is food source. The food source matters for attraction, growth and added population diversity within the microbiome food web.

What is that food source?

If you want to feed your microbiome you have to have active carbon. That’s the carbon in the soil that is doing all the work: helping to promote aggregation, holding onto different nutrients cations and anions—it’s the key ingredient in the recipe. And if you think of a diet, what you feed bacteria and fungi matters, much like balancing our own diet, micro and macronutrients matter. A well-balanced diet will promote both diversity and abundance below the soil’s surface because there are different food stuffs and different macromolecules for those bacteria and fungi to eat.

A nutritionally balanced food source option is microalgae. And while feeding a growing and diverse soil microbiome population of bacteria and fungi, microalgae also confers both crop production and soil health benefits when used in a crop production program.

Adding a nutritionally balanced food source to increase biological integrity also increases the amount of EPS or “glue” holding soil particles together. These glues are produced by different microbes and as diverse populations increase, more “glue” is produced. And it stands to reason that when you increase aggregation, i.e., structure, you also increase water holding capacity. This allows more water into the soil profile from irrigation and rainfall events, and at a microscopic level, you can also store more water around and between aggregates.

This is just the tip of the soil microbiome “iceberg”.  As agriculturalists, we continue to learn more everyday through research discoveries an in-field management application. And we share what we learn, even in a new, socially distanced paradigm of communication. To learn more about:

  • The Rhizophagy Cycle- what it is and why it matters with Dr. James White
  • Soil Health Qualitative and Quantitative Assessment
  • Feeding the Microbiome

and how to apply what you have learned in your cropping system, register for the upcoming 2-day webinar series, “Rethinking Soil Health”. Every live session will offer CCA continuing education credits and provide a live Q&A session. Registration is free and space is filling fast! Join the soil health conversation at:

Soil Organic Matter and the Carbon Solution

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

Is your soil capable of high productivity: nutrient cycling, water holding capacity and devoid of the compaction that impedes plant root performance? Does your soil host a living, thriving and diverse microbial community? Is it sticky…can it withstand rainfall events while holding the water and air your crop needs to flourish?

If not, what is missing and where can you begin making changes to put the “pieces” back into your soil productivity puzzle? Often, the answer to balancing your soil productivity puzzle starts with knowing how much of your soil’s carbon is working for you.

Hand holding soil

Soil organic matter (SOM) is the foundation of both plant and soil health and is thought to be one of the most valuable tools in capturing and storing atmospheric carbon. Made up of three distinct components, SOM can be grouped into the categories of: Living, Active and Stable, with subcategories more clearly defining the role of each within the soil biome.

We will start at the bottom, to discuss what we cannot change, first. Stable and resistant organic matter represents 60-90% of your soil test SOM%; it is the oldest, and hence most stable, organic matter in your soil’s composition. It has been chemically modified by microbes and is the result of microbial metabolization. Stable organic matter, also known as humus, is where soils derive their deep black color and can be an indicator of overall soil health and stability. Building stable organic matter is not a fast process and can take decades, sometimes centuries, a sobering thought for agriculturalists working to increase SOM.

Fortunately, labile carbon, the category of SOM that turns over the fastest and contributes the most to readily available plant nutrition, is something that we can influence. Also known as active organic matter, this SOM is made up of plant root exudates, currently decaying plant material, animal and insect excrement and other decaying organisms. Because this soil carbon is actively breaking-down, it is releasing materials that will cycle through the soil.

All soil organic matter continually cycles between living, active and stable, and around 90% of the organic carbon that enters the soil as residue will be digested by microorganisms—this sentence is the actionable take-away from this article.

You can change and manage the residue available to the microbial population in your soil, and you can influence the microbial population in your soil by adding the super food microorganisms need to populate, grow, and flourish.

Active carbon is very sensitive to changes in soil carbon inputs and farm management practices; so management practices that add active organic material to the soil can incorporate deliberate additions of labile microbial food sources. Among these food sources, microalgae incorporation has proven to be an important facilitator in the establishment and health of microbial populations and organic matter building programs. 

To better understand the productivity potential of your soil, choosing the right soil test is important. Today, there are soil tests available that focus on microbial available organic carbon and nitrogen. If you are incorporating and managing residue, these numbers and—more importantly—ratios are imperative for the breakdown of residue and the subsequent nutrient cycling that occurs. In other words, C:N ratios keep your soils covered and protected and influence the release of nutrients when you need them for a growing crop. Keep in mind that a relative constant in soil biology is a C:N ratio of 10:1, that is 10 parts carbon to one-part nitrogen, and when that balance is disrupted, either by addition or deletion, residue breakdown and nutrient cycling will be affected.

Testing that provides “right-now” as well as more static measurements, such as the Haney Soil Health Test and Cornell Soil Health Assessment, are becoming more popular as agriculture, as a whole, learns more about the soil microbiome and how the biological interactions that occur within it affect soil productivity. Both tests help producers to pinpoint and cultivate soil microbial activity—the cornerstone of healthy and productive soils.

To help producers understand microbial-enhanced soil performance, companies, and thought-leaders, alike, have invested time and resources in developing producer-focused educational opportunities. While these events vary in scope and delivery, they provide producers with the robust regenerative agriculture “tool-kit” they need to understand the productivity potential of their soils. To learn more about and register for free upcoming soil health education opportunities, with a focus on the incorporation of microalgae, visit: