Using Ancient and Perennial Grains to Build Soil Health

Larry Kandarian focuses on ancient grain and perennial wheats at his farm in Los Osos, California.


Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms in Los Osos, California has been a farmer for over forty years. Starting with a conventional model and then transitioning to a diversified organic farm, Kandarian’s career in agriculture has progressed by rewinding back to the beginning.

 “Farro is the very first thing mankind ever grew.” Kandarian says, “In Paleolithic times we were not only hunting, but also gathering einkorn.”

Kandarian Organic Farms boasts almost two hundred crop varieties, most of which are commonly known as ancient grains: old varieties of heritage or heirloom grains preserved from pre-industrial times and saved year-to-year. For Kandarian, growing ancient grains is personal: his ancestry hails from the exact region where grains were first cultivated by early civilizations in Ancient Mesopotamia.

“My dad was Armenian from right near Iran, so it just made sense to grow some of those grains. I love them,” he said.

Kandarian got his start in the flower seed business. “I’ve done flowers, herbs, vegetables and grasses. It was natural to move to [grains] in 2007 during the economic downturn because nobody was buying flower starts while the housing market was going to hell!”

With their high nutrient and fiber content, ancient grains not only offer an ideal nutritional staple for Kandarian’s customers, but also an opportunity for him to preserve unique varieties. The farm produces certified organic, quinoa, millet, flax, Teff, chia, emmer farro, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Farro, spelt, rye, Kamut, sorghum, einkorn, triticale, Hard Red Winter Wheat, Black Barley, Nude Oats and Sonora White Wheat.

“A lot of the seeds we started with came from the seed repository of the United States and then we get seeds from all over the world. With my background in the seed business I’m able to take a small sample and make more.“

Kandarian not only provides nutritious grains and grain blends as a health product, he grows them in a way in which grains and legumes working in tandem on a field to fix nitrogen and balance soil.

“The Teff gets to be twelve to eighteen inches tall while the khorasan gets to be around five feet. Then we cut them together, thrash and separate the seeds,” he said.

Kandarian even grows several trios grains on one field, such as einkorn, Teff and Sonora Wheat, and farro, fava and flax. The trick is to have enough contrast in seed sizes to allow easy separation at the end of processing. Multi-seeding is a simple process for Kandarian.

“We’ll either hand seed or use a spin spreader,” he said. “We’ll cover the larger grains first and then put the Teff on top and add the sprinklers.”

Ancient vs. Modern Grains

While grains are having a moment of derision in popular dieting literature, Kandarian believes the problems with grain lie not with grains themselves, but with agricultural practices and breeding for scale and efficiency rather than nutrition.

“The good thing about ancient grains is they are alkaline-based, while modern grains are acid-based, and acids can promote cancer,” he said.

Kandarian is also concerned about pesticide inputs. “When you spray grain with RoundUp, the seeds that are green finish maturing with the RoundUp absorbed inside.”

But abandoning grains altogether, like in popular iterations of the Paleo diet, would be a mistake in Kandarian’s view.

“If I was a Paleolithic person hunting and gathering and I came upon this big grain head of einkorn as opposed to other foxtails and weeds, there’s no way in hell I wouldn’t eat it.” Kandarian said. “The Paleo diet should include ancient grains.”

Kandarian points to Paleolithic remains found in West Asia as evidence.

“In our Paleo ancestors’ guts they did have grains: they also had einkorn in their teeth. We can handle grains, which is why we have molars in our teeth to grind those kinds of things,” he said.

Where modern grains have failed nutritionally, Kandarian believes ancient grains offer a solution. He subscribes to the Weston A. Price philosophy of pre-soaking grains with apple cider vinegar to help eliminate the bitter phytic acid in the bran layer as well as lectins.

While ancient grain varieties provide superior nutrition, Kandarian says that they have moved to the margin of the grain industry over the last 100 years as the growing process became more tailored towards the uniformity required by machines.

“Most grain farmers are looking at dollars: they’ve got a combine that cost them half a million dollars so they have to run a lot of stuff through it,” he said.

The pressure to produce more per acre lead farmers to prefer chemical fertilizers and shorter, sturdier varieties yielding thousands of pounds an acre — exponentially more than ancient grains. “We use a different process from the conventional combine harvesting. A combine is literally the combination of two processes — cutting and thrashing. Because we have such different height of grains, we use two machines, the wind rower and the thrasher. So we pick up the grain out of the wind rows laid out on the detritus of the field and then we pick that up just like picking up a carpet and thrash it.”

Growing Perennial Wheats

While maintaining his love of ancient grains, Kandarian has also been an early adopter for new perennial wheat varieties. He has grown these experimental grains for 20 years.

Kandarian Organic Farms currently grows 60 acres of a perennial wheat called Kernza developed by the Land Institute. Kandarian is drawn to the way perennial wheats come back every year without needing to be replanted.

“Annual crops require tilling and fertilizer inputs,” he said. “They have a shallow root system: typical wheat roots go down about two feet while a perennial wheat can have a root system as deep as thirty feet.”

The expanded surface area of these dramatically long root systems offers perennial plants better nutrition.

“Plus, the fact that you’re not tilling means you’re sequestering carbon as opposed to letting it escape,” he said. “As the soil gets more aggregated the water intake improves so that even if you have a slope the soil planted with perennial wheat has minimal runoff, which prevents the nitrogen from collecting in the waterways and causing dead zones in the ocean. It’s a win/win.”

While encouraged by these ecological effects, Kandarian is careful not to treat Kernza like a silver bullet.

“Kernza yields 600 lbs an acre, maybe eight or nine maximum, and then you have to take the husk off, so they’re working on de-hulled varieties where the seeds come out easily (like our Ethiopian Blue Tinge Farro) but the variety we currently grow holds the seed pretty tightly so we have to take that husk off mechanically.”

Kandarian is optimistic about future varieties and crosses with higher-yielding wheats, and is willing to move forward with Kernza because of the dramatic improvements in his soil. “Kiss the Ground [a regenerative agriculture nonprofit] came out and did some sampling and found that our Kernza field that has been in for twenty years has the highest infiltration rate of any soil in the United States. 30 inches of water an hour. The typical amount is about half an inch an hour.”

Always interested in staying at the cutting edge of perennial grain development, Kandarian looks forward to trialing new varieties.

“I’m working with Dr. Steven Jones of the Bread Lab at Washington State University to get one of his perennial wheats called Salish Blue, which is a cross between a wheatgrass and a wheat,” he said.

Kandarian works carefully with his grain varieties to select ones that will perform best in his region.

“People said I couldn’t grow Teff but it grows extremely well here,” he said. “They think it has to be 110 degrees like in Ethiopia, but that’s not the case — it just needs to stay above freezing.” Over the years of working with grain varieties on the farm Kandarian has saved his seeds and found that they adapt to perform better with time.

“You never want to discount a variety and just move on, I will always try something at least twice,” he said. “Like for example a tritium variety from the Indus Valley that didn’t seem to like it here. I want to keep alive as many grain varieties as I can, so I’ll try it again next year.”

Growing for Soil Health

On his own acreage, Kandarian is using every inch of land to work in tandem to produce food.

“I own 130 acres and we’re farming the bottom 65 on a sloped hill going up about 100 feet and the top will be used for grazing,” he said.

On the upper pasture, oak trees provide acorns for Kandarian to finish his market hogs and this frost-free zone will allow the farm to have avocado trees in the future.

“Any place you can grow avocados you can grow coffee and other sub-tropicals, so we entertain the idea of putting a lot of different things in,” he said.

Arriving at organic practices was an evolution for Kandarian. After farming conventionally for the first 30 years of his career, Kandarian’s first attempts at organic struggled.

“I really failed miserably when I first came to Los Osos in ’99, I just couldn’t keep up with the weeds,” he said.

By 2007, through close observation of his land and help from the Soil Health Academy and Conference, Kandarian arrived at successful practices.

“I learned how to grow soil first and then crops on the soil later, and once you get into that mindset it makes everything a lot simpler,” he said.

Kandarian uses cover crops and carefully-timed planting of taller species to manage through the weeds, always conscious to balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio and the bacteria/fungus ratio. “People ask, ‘how do you know if your soil is good’ and I answer, ‘put a shovel in it and if there’s worms it’s good!'”

Kandarian eschews heavy tilling and opts for lighter methods. “We just strip till where we’re going to put our crops in, so every 30 inches I run a ripper shank down a little bit just to get loose soil, then we drag it, plant in a low spot to retain moisture.” Relying on careful successions of annuals and cover crops, Kandarian’s soil structure is held together by root systems that communicate and share nutrients.

“There’s an awful lot of exchange that goes on under the soil: you can’t always tell what’s going on just based on what’s on top,” he said.

Kandarian’s latest project is incorporating animals onto the farm. “We’re getting a herd of sheep now. We’re not just regenerating the soil but we’re also preserving the blood lines of rare and endangered animals by running them behind rare and endangered grains.”

These ruminants will provide pastured meat and fiber for local use and will help process the stems and stalks of the grain fields.

“These animals provide not only their feces and urine but also their saliva when they bite on the perennial crops, which triggers the plants to grow even more: it encourages root branching and faster growth,” he said. “Some animals wrap their tongues around the plant so they grow even more; other animals like sheep have two sets of dentures that allow them to bite lower so you can’t leave them in one spot for too long.”

Kandarian uses mob grazing and rotational grazing with electric fencing systems to keep the animals on fresh forage and keep land impact at its prime efficacy.

“We’re getting a [guard] donkey and a herd of St. Croix, which are hair sheep so you don’t have to shear them, the hair just drops off; and because they don’t have wool they don’t produce lanolin which changes the taste of the meat.”

Kandarian chose St. Croix because of their threatened status as documented by the American Livestock Conservancy, and also plans to run large-growing hair sheep like Dorper and Barbados. The plan is to run these sheep on after-harvest fields of grain to clean up the stalks and stems left by the almost 200 different crops. “There’s a lot going on.” Kandarian says.

Along with his new foray into multi-species grazing, ever expanding palate of old and new grains, Kandarian Organic Farms is working towards cultivating more collaboration and education opportunities. Kandarian’s operation is in the process of rebranding to “Heart and Soil Farms,” which will encompass the many ventures this operation is taking on.

Kandarian is very optimistic about the future of agriculture when he sees more opportunities for young people to learn about ancient grains, organic farming methods and permaculture living. “The more kids we can teach to grow a seed rather than play on their iPad, the further we’re going to get. I have a lot of faith in the new generation.”

With strong ties to both ingenuity and antiquity, Kandarian seeds that future with every grain he plants.

Learn more about Larry Kandarian at or on Instagram @kandarianorganicfarms.

Rancher Puts Allan Savory Principles into Action

By Tracy Frisch
This article also appears in the 2019 September issue of Acres U.S.A.

Gene Goven is a dryland farmer in the center of North Dakota. He has owned and managed 1,500 acres of shortgrass prairie and cropland for the past 51 years. In 1986, the ideas of Allan Savory changed his life.

When I reached out to him about visiting, he informed me of his deceptively simple mission: “To manage diversity for soil health enhancement.” Toward that end, he promotes biodiversity at every level and aims to capture rainwater and to deepen roots. As we will see, he has succeeded by a variety of measures.

For Goven, the quest for a better way to farm has been a journey toward greater understanding. Learning occurs in steps rather than as a continual uphill climb. “All of a sudden another light comes on,” he said.

“No one big thing made the difference,” he said of the evolution of his farm “It was many different little things. Nothing stands alone. If you change one thing, you change everything.”

Bringing along fellow farmers and other people that interface with land management has been an important complement to Goven’s own learning. He has made presentations in 22 states and 3 foreign countries, and he continues to take pleasure in the positive changes he has witnessed among farmers in his immediate neighborhood and far beyond.

People have to be shaken up a bit in order to rethink their belief system, he’s learned.

“If the edges of someone’s paradigm aren’t ruffled, why would anyone want to change?” he asked. “Eighty percent of people are followers. Twenty percent are adapters. Less than a half of one percent are innovators.”

Goven falls into the latter category. He just thinks differently about creating agricultural systems. And he isn’t the only one.

Goven observed that more than half of the mentors in the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition are left-handed. He also has dyslexia. For many years, he considered it a disability, but over time he has come to see it as a gift.

“There’s a little contrarian in me,” he said.

western wheatgrass
Gene Goven holds western wheatgrass, grazed and ungrazed. Western wheatgrass is another important native cool-season rhizomatous grass.


Goven credits his decision to cross-fence his paddocks with putting him on his lifelong path. He installed his first cross-fencing in 1980. Within a few years of starting to cross-fence his land, he had increased the stocking rate by 20 percent. And that was just the beginning. Subdividing his rangeland allowed him to more intensively manage cattle grazing, which boosted forage production.

But cross-fencing wasn’t enough of a change to resolve his grazing issues. “I still couldn’t get the animals to eat uniformly,” he said. He continued to look for solutions.

Goven found what he was looking for in November 1986 when he took his first Holistic Management class. Taught by founder Allan Savory, the course cost $1,500 and took Goven away from the ranch for five-and-a-half days. He questioned whether it would be worth it.

“But I never looked back. I started thinking and not just acting,” he said.

The biggest revelation came from Savory’s Holistic Planned Grazing concept, through which Goven was able to steadily increase forage production on native prairie. It taught him the importance of giving land an adequate rest following grazing. He began to understand that “we need to feed the soil first” and that livestock come second.

Before 1980, with set stocking and no cross-fencing, an acre of Goven’s native prairie would only produce 450 pounds of dry matter in a good year. Now, even in a drought year, Goven says he counts on each acre yielding 2,000 pounds.

For years now, Goven has managed his cattle so that they only harvest a fraction of his increased forage production.

“I used to be puzzled by the concept of take half, leave half in rangeland management. Then it dawned on me that the severity of leaf removal means the plant has to start again,” Goven explained.

If cattle are left in a paddock for too much time, they will munch on the regrowth of plants that they’ve already taken bites from. “I’ve kept livestock in a paddock too long. I’ve thought there’s enough forage for another day,” he said. That mistake can devastate a paddock for the next two or three years.

Goven considers weather (moisture and temperature) and the rate of plant growth, as well as the quantity of standing forage, when determining how frequently to move the cattle. When plants are lush and growing fast, he doesn’t let the cattle stay in a given paddock for more than three consecutive days. But in dry weather, when plants are barely growing, he may leave cattle in the same paddock for 7 to 10 days, or even 14 days, depending upon the paddock size.

Gene Govern monitors soil health
Gene Goven monitors soil health. Although he’s semi-retired, Goven still never stops learning new things about his land in North Dakota.


Goven cautions graziers to be conservative when grazing forages in the fall, after they green up following summer brown. Taking off too much grass can effect the next year’s production by as much as 50 percent, he warns.

Around a decade ago, Goven added an interesting twist to his planned-grazing sequence. He fittingly named it “managing for chaos.” Every year he changes the approximate date of grazing in each paddock. If he grazed a particular paddock around June 1 one year, he won’t graze it again in early June for another 10 years.

This approach has enriched the species diversity of his native prairie. While 50 or 60 percent of the local farmers have native prairie on their ranches, continuous grazing and other non-optimal practices simplify the species composition of these grasslands.


Changes in his grazing management have boosted the carrying capacity of Goven’s land. “Prior to 1980, we’d be able to run 55 to 60 cow-calf pairs on a good year,” he said. Back then a drought would force him to drastically reduce the herd to 35 or 40 cow-calf pairs or “there’d be nothing to eat.” In the 1980s, after he started putting up cross-fencing, he increased his herd size to 72 cow-calf pairs. By 2000 he was up to about 105 pairs. These days he often grazes 150 to 180 pairs, though it varies by year.

Besides native prairie and hay, Goven’s farm provided other sources of feed for the herd. After cash crops were harvested, his cattle would graze the crop aftermath. Cover crops also provided forage for later grazing.


On rangeland, two opposite management scenarios produce equally negative outcomes. A study by the Agricultural Research Service at Mandan, North Dakota, found that under continuous grazing and in the absence of grazing, native prairie grasses have very shallow roots — just 3 to 5 inches in depth. Under a planned rotational grazing regime, the roots of these grasses extended 6 to 10 times deeper and were much fuller, with obvious implications for withstanding drought.

This research supports the notion that idle rest brings harmful consequences. The Conservation Reserve Program rested land for 20 years. However when standing grass or grain stubble is left alone over the winter, it loses up to 20 percent of its weight through oxidation.

The quality of standing vegetation and the health of the soil reach their peaks within five to eight years, before declining, Goven said.


Grazing converts forage into something that’s more readily marketed in the form of livestock. For Goven, the value of cattle also lies in its ability to enhance soil health. Grazing animals fertilize grasslands with urine and manure and feed the soil-food web.

Animal hooves also can produce a positive impact on soil. Animal impact, when managed appropriately, causes carbon to be slowly released into the soil. Trampling vegetation puts plant residues in contact with the soil, where the soil-food web can break them down and recycle them.

Soil microbes have a very low browse line,” Goven explained.


More than 20 years ago, Goven stopped keeping cattle as property. Instead he custom-grazes other people’s bovines. He likes using someone else’s equity to market forage. Like other custom graziers, he charges by the head per day, adjusted by the size and type of animal.

Taking in disparate groups of animals managed under different regimes can present serious handling challenges. That hasn’t been a problem for Goven. Rather than herding or chasing the cattle, he trains them to follow him.

In his slow process of retiring, Goven has been gradually cutting back on his farming obligations. He currently rents cropland to two brothers. In the lease, he put in some stipulations about stewardship. He cautioned the farmers not to use any fungicides because of their impact on microorganisms in the soil-food web, like mycorrhizal fungi. They use herbicides at a drastically reduced rate — in line with Goven’s practice — and they hire Goven to plant cover crops on his own land.


A Natural Resources Conservation Service study site in South Dakota compared soil properties of pasture under two management regimes: continuous, season-long grazing versus rotational grazing. With rotational grazing, the top 12 inches of soil gained an additional 1 percent organic matter. One percent of soil organic matter equates to about 20,000 pounds per acre.

The soil in the rotationally grazed pasture infiltrated water almost 10 times faster than continuously grazed pasture. It took 12 minutes for an inch to infiltrate under the rotational grazing treatment instead of 109 minutes on the continuously grazed land.

Goven’s farm also reveals this contrast, though in time rather than space. Decades ago, monitoring by agencies such as NRCS (then known as the Soil Conservation Service), North Dakota State University Extension and the Agricultural Research Service showed that his farm infiltrated water slowly, at the rate of around 0.8 to 1.2 inches per hour. Over time, as a result of dramatic changes in grazing and cropping practices, water infiltration improved greatly. “Now my poorest rate is 6.5 inches per hour. The best is 12 inches per hour,” he said.

He referred to the example offered by his late friend Neil Denis of Saskatchewan, who converted his cropland to perennial forages. “The mob grazier king of the world” was also an early adopter of Holistic Management. His soils infiltrated at the rate of 15 inches an hour, while his neighbor’s cropland clocked in at a mere half inch per hour.


Goven grew up with his family growing cover crops and doing companion planting.

“In the middle 1930s my grandfather, Ed Goven, was paid to plant sweet clover in with his grain crops,” he said.

One year of his crop rotation had to include clover as a companion crop. But then overproduction emerged as a problem that threatened to destabilize the economy. The federal government responded by penalizing practices such as cover cropping. Farmers were directed to leave a certain amount of acreage fallow. By taking land out of production, the government hoped to prop up farm gate prices. After World War II, agrochemicals came along, further pushing cover crops and intercropping out of favor.

Goven remembers his dad and granddad using cereal rye “to clean up the fields,” making use of its allelopathic properties. They would harvest some of this rye for hay and turn under other fields of rye.


Long ago Goven started experimenting with bi-cultures and polycultures on his own farm. For example, he might interseed lentils with a cash crop of sunflowers. Planted at the rate of 10 to 12 pounds per acre, the lentils serve as “the fertility program” for the sunflowers. Field peas play that same role with oats. And instead of broadcasting commercial fertilizer, Goven became accustomed to interseeding lentils and turnips into winter wheat at spring green up.

Dr. Jill Clapperton of Hamilton, Montana, has studied the synergy between legumes and grasses and how it affects plant behavior. Legumes will share up to 70 percent of the nitrogen they fix with a grass-type crop. When lentils and/or field peas were planted together with a grass, they nodulated within 5 days of emergence. At just an inch tall, lentils already had pink nodules on their root to fix nitrogen. In monoculture plantings, it took up to 30 days for lentils to nodulate. Grown with ample nitrogen fertilizer or in the absence of a hungry grain crop, the legume has no need to fix nitrogen. “The legume is lazy” is how Goven put it.

Researchers at North Dakota State University and the Agricultural Research Service looked at the rooting depth of oats and inoculated field peas grown together and separately. They found that in intercropped plantings they rooted four times deeper than either species did when grown alone. That’s more good evidence for growing legumes and grains in combination.


Influencing fellow farmers to improve the environment has long been central to Goven’s mission. He quotes Allan Savory’s instructions to him: “Work with your neighbors. Don’t antagonize them.” Goven has taken this counsel to heart. He wants to help guide his immediate community and takes great pains not to insult or alienate any of his neighbors. Several times during our conversations, he reminded me, “You won’t catch me doing boundary line comparisons!”

His efforts have borne fruit. Most of his neighbors who work smaller farms practice no-till and use cover crops. Goven has been instrumental in bringing about this shift.

Goven encourages fellow farmers to not let the cost of seed get in the way of adopting cover crops. He tells them to start with whatever is at hand. “What do you have left over in your grain bin – corn, oats, sunflowers?” he asks. He recommends buying individual species separately and making your own cover crop seed mixes.

He also custom-seeds cover crops for other farmers. They contract with him to plant no-till cover crops following the combine. “I’ve even had requests to seed cover crops from 50 and 70 miles away,” he said.

He also has made it easier for his neighbors to adopt no-till practices. “I’m willing to lend out my no-till drill to neighbors. I lent it to one neighbor. A year ago they bought their own,” he said.


Goven is pleased to have been able to influence people outside of agriculture that are in a position to support better approaches to farming. Kent Linney first visited Goven’s farm as a high school student. He later became a plumber and a leader in Ducks Unlimited. Today he promotes livestock as a component of the organization’s program for habitat enhancement. “Seeing my farm must have really impressed him,” Goven quipped.

He went on to list other individuals who have come to recognize the value of regenerative agriculture for its ecosystem and public health benefits. A North Dakota big game biologist told him, “Because of you, I have the career I have, using livestock as a habitat management tool for wildlife enhancement.” And Greg Sandness, the state’s water-quality specialist in Bismarck, told Goven, “If everyone was doing what these guys are doing, I wouldn’t have a job!” That’s because farms like Goven’s so dramatically reduce runoff and leaching.


Goven rejects the notion that water quality starts at the edge of a lake or stream. He holds a more expansive view of what it takes to protect water resources.

“For me, riparian management starts at the top of the hill and extends over to the next hill,” he said.

As he sees it, protecting water quality must address water infiltration, through-flow and re-flow. Goven’s views are relevant because his farm is bisected by Crooked Lake, a beautiful water body that is used for recreation. The farm contains almost four miles of shoreline.

Some years ago, the presence of Goven’s cattle near the lakeshore sparked complaints from several “cabin people” on the lake. An extension water-quality specialist stopped by to investigate. When Goven took her around, she could not find any visible evidence of erosion. That evening, she called her husband and told him to start cross-fencing.


Goven composed a bold goal for rain on his land: “Every raindrop shall infiltrate where it falls, no matter steep the hill is.” After he intensified his grazing management, he noticed welcome changes in the behavior of water on his farm. Water infiltration kept improving, resulting in less risk of run-off, erosion, flooding and drought.

The ranch sits in the middle of the Prairie Pothole region, the waterfowl nesting and breeding capital of North America. The region stretches northwest from Iowa through large portions of the Dakotas and into three Canadian provinces.

Three decades ago, Goven began noticing an odd phenomenon. His potholes would stay empty while his neighbors’ potholes were brimming full of water. This confounded him.

A breakthrough in understanding came in 1990. Following two years of drought, four inches of rain fell in less than an hour on the evening of July 3. There was immediate flash flooding, and fences were torn out. But not on Goven’s farm. “All the slews and potholes filled with water on my neighbors’ land. I didn’t have any standing water and my potholes stayed empty,” he recalled.

Seven days later, water started showing up in the ranch’s potholes and wetlands. Goven had captured every raindrop.

“My wetlands and potholes hold water longer and better than they used to, but they also don’t fill up as much,” Goven said.

This periodic drying up of prairie potholes is beneficial. When potholes constantly hold water, they go anaerobic. As a result they smell like a sewer. But if their water levels go up and down, when they do dry up, they re-vegetate. And when it next rains and the potholes take up water, that vegetation provides food for invertebrates and they in turn feed migratory waterfowl.


Goven is proud of his work in helping U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recognize the use of livestock as a management tool for achieving its mission of habitat enhancement. The agency’s wildlife refuges in North Dakota aim to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

During the serious drought years of the mid and late 1980s Goven was looking for a way to avoid having to liquidate his cattle herd for lack of sufficient forage. He came up with the idea of grazing wildlife refuges, one of which is only 15 miles from his ranch. When he and a neighbor rancher went looking for duck nests on that refuge, they couldn’t find any. “Initially the only place we found nests was outside the refuge,” he said.

Goven proposed using cattle grazing as a land management tool to improve habitat on the refuge. The agency’s regional director flew to North Dakota from Denver and gave him the go-ahead to “prove” that his idea would work. Goven and his neighbor did the pilot project, sharing labor and resources. They ran their cattle together in the refuge using temporary electric fencing powered by battery-operated fence chargers.

Using livestock brought refuge lands back to health by enhancing nutrient cycling, energy cycling and water cycling, Goven said. “In three years we turned it from a biological desert into a preferred nesting area,” he reported. As a result of this success, “all refuge managers in North Dakota were required to attend sessions with me on prescribed grazing in the WPA Waterfowl Production Area,” he said. As a cooperator with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Goven received the extra grazing land he needed, thus solving his feed problem.

A national outcry (“Cattle-Free by 1993”) calling for the removal of all livestock from public lands had no effect on Fish & Wildlife practice in the U.S., as the benefits of the grazing program were so well-established. The program has had one big limiting factor however; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can’t find enough cooperators willing to bring livestock in.


For 25 years, Goven hasn’t used pesticides of any kind to control insects and parasites on his cattle or pasturelands, including insecticidal ear tags. He doesn’t worm his cattle or use products like Ivermectin. He stopped using these biocides to avoid collateral damage to non-target species. If he were to turn to insecticides, he estimated that 80 beneficial insect species would be destroyed for every cattle pest insect he killed.

He strives for rapid nutrient cycling on his farm, and giving up these biocides is consistent with this aim. At the Goven ranch, dung beetles, other insects and earthworms begin colonizing and breaking down cow patties within three days. In the absence of these small manure-loving animals, fresh cow paddies become dried up cow “Frisbees.” Nutrients remain tied up in them for months or years. Nitrogen in this desiccated manure is readily lost through volatization into the atmosphere, however.

“For fly control, I’ll skip a paddock so there’s a quarter mile gap,” he said. This “leapfrog” approach creates a big enough distance between cow patties to limit fly populations.

Similarly, moving cattle frequently to new paddocks can be an effective means of interrupting the life cycle of internal parasites. Cattle excrete internal parasite eggs in their manure. Newly hatched larvae climb up stems, waiting to be ingested by a host animal. Young calves are most vulnerable to the effects of parasites.

The key to managing these parasites with grazing involves not returning animals to a paddock when the worms are in their infective stage. New Zealand data show that graziers can attain up to 90 percent parasite control with planned rotational grazing, Goven said.


If you’re trying to enhance biodiversity, pesticides of any kind can pose a threat.

Over the course of his farming career, Goven said, “I got more and more disturbed by the increasing use of chemicals. It seemed like the landscape was going dead.”

He’s been particularly dismayed by the use of herbicides, most commonly glyphosate off-label, as desiccants to dry-down crops shortly before harvest.

Sixteen years ago, Goven’s ranch experienced herbicide spray drift damage. An aerial applicator, hired to kill weeds in a wheat crop on neighboring croplands, neglected to shut off his booms while circling out beyond to go back to the field he was spraying. The spray mixture contained Roundup and other herbicides used off-label.

“I’m still suffering from chemical residual,” he said.


Some ranchers attempt to improve the productivity of native prairie rangelands by no-tilling in purchased forage seed. Goven has never seen a need for such intervention. Rather, he works to retain and enhance the diversity of prairie species. “For every grass-type species, I want to have at least five forb species because they have deeper rooting systems, some down to 15 feet deep,” he said.

Goven has identified some 200 different native plants growing in his shortgrass prairie. Years ago, he created a slide show of these plants and their historic uses. He especially enjoyed taking this program to senior citizens, including Alzheimer’s groups, because many elderly people would come alive seeing the plants of their childhoods.

One June around 25 years ago, the National Audubon Fish and Wildlife Refuge held part of its annual field day on Goven’s ranch. That day, when bird watchers did a noon bird count on a quarter mile stretch at the ranch, they counted an astonishing 112 different bird species in one hour. The varied habitats on that site included brushy ground, lakeshore and prairie potholes.

“I was told that there are very few places in the world with that concentration of species,” Goven said.

How to Establish Dung Beetles in Pastures

By Spencer Smith

I only recently became interested in dung beetles, largely because it has only been recently that we have had any to become interested in. As a rancher, I must create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive, and they will come.

The first time I saw dung beetles completely bury a manure pat in a number of hours, I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about them: what they do, how to help them establish in pastures, how they work, etc. My continued observations and research has led our family to develop a deep appreciation of these hard-working creatures. So much so that we created our updated business logo in honor of them.

Our daughter art directed the logo and our neighbor, Brian Taylor, created it. We get a lot of stares when people see our logo on the side of our truck, but we hope it piques their curiosity enough to learn more about dung beetles and the vital role they can play on a healthy farm or ranch.

Mark Sturges, Meet the Beetles, from the 2007 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (51 minutes, 28 seconds.) Listen in as Mark Sturges, professional grower and input provider, talk about how and why beetles can help you grow your crops.

Dung beetles in pastures is a sign of a healthy and productive land base. However, to the alarm of entomologists and ranchers worldwide there has been a decline in the population of dung beetles on industrially farmed land.

Recent studies of nature’s “pooper scoopers” have indicated that these amazing creatures are important to the health of the soil and to the farmer and rancher’s bottom line.

Types of Dung Beetles

There are three main types of dung beetle, identified by brooding or nesting behavior. The three types include: tunnelers (paracoprids), dwellers (endocoprids) and rollers (telecoprids).


The tunnelers are the most common vartiety on our ranch in Northern California. These amazing workers zip around looking for manure and dive right in. Once the dung beetle finds a fresh pat of manure it begins to eat and tunnel underneath the manure pat. It does this so that it can move the fresh, tiniest pieces of manure down into the soil, where it lays its eggs. The eggs then hatch into larvae that eat the buried manure until they metamorphize into adult beetles.


The dwellers find their ideal homes and set up residence there. These beetles occupy a manure pat, consume massive amounts of manure and lay their eggs in the aboveground manure pat. Some varieties of these dwellers’ larvae are known to eat fly eggs and larvae as well. Establishing a healthy population of dwellers on your farm or ranch will help deter the presence of horn and heel flies, which are livestock pests.


The rollers are the most famous of all the dung beetle varieties with much fanfare surrounding how they work and how they use the stars to locate their home using celestial cues. This type of dung beetle only makes up about 10 percent of all dung beetles, but they do amazing work. Scientists and farmers alike have noticed for decades that when there are dung beetles present there is a dramatic decrease in the fly population.

Fly Control

A recent article in Progressive Rancher reveals that the cost of flies to U.S. producers is more than $1.5 billion. Given this staggering cost of managing the impact of flies on livestock, dung beetles could really help producers who are losing livestock production to horn, heel and face flies.

Will Winter: Pasture, the Profit Maker, from the 2006 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show (53 minutes, 51 seconds). Listen in as professional livestock consultant Will Winter discusses ways to manage pasture profitably.

Dung beetles affect the flies in a variety of ways. Dung beetles that roll their prized possessions, or “brood balls,” excrete a chemical on the ball of dung that will repel flies from trying to lay their own eggs on the piece of dung. Other varieties of the dweller beetle larva will prey on the larvae of the flies.

I think the main impact of dung beetles is the fact that they can consume and bury massive amounts of manure each day. In fact, it is estimated that a single dung beetle will bury 250 times its own weight in dung per day. Dung beetles move flies’ eggs and brooding sites below the soil, thus breaking the life cycle of the flies. Livestock producers in the United States could collectively save more than $1 billion, simply by putting dung beetles to work.

Improved Pasture Fertility

The next essential point in the conversation on these amazing creatures is their impact on pasture fertility. If you have ever taken the time to analyze the manure in your pastures you may notice a couple of different things, if you have dung beetles. The first thing you may see is that the manure in question looks like Swiss cheese, there are no big pieces of dry manure left, but only the high-fiber chaff that is broken into many small pieces.

What is happening here? The answer is quite impactful to pasture health. Dung beetles search for the best, most nutritious manure in the pile. This is what they ball up and roll away, or bury directly under the manure pat.

The manure that falls from behind your cattle (or other livestock) typically has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 24:1. The dung beetle’s ideal diet, and best material for their brooding sites, is around 5 or 7:1 carbon to nitrogen. The implications of this are significant because dung beetles search out and bury the highest nitrogen portions of the dung and move that manure to the rhizosphere (root zone) in the soil. This means less nitrogen is leaching back into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the beetle larvae only consume about 40 to 50 percent of the buried nitrogen-filled dung, leaving the rest to feed the roots of the plants in the pasture.

Soil Aeration & Water Management

What is the effect of dung beetles on the water cycle in fields? We refer to the dung beetles on our ranch in Northern California as the hardest workers on our team. Not only are they working non-stop to add fertility and break fly and parasite cycles, they are also tunneling loads of holes into the rhizosphere (root zone of the soil). This tunneling aerates the soil, which increases how quickly water can infiltrate the soil. A healthy water cycle means healthier plants and more photosynthesis, which means more feed for livestock.

One of the biggest issues facing agriculture today is water. Water-related issues dominate the news (at least in California): chemical runoff from farms, droughts, floods. Luckily for farmers and ranchers everywhere, the mighty dung beetles can help out (for free!), when it comes to dealing with symptoms of a broken water cycle.

As farmers, our primary objective must be to ensure effective rainfall and irrigation management. Whether we live in the foothills of California where it is common to get up to 60 inches of rain per year, or if we live in the Great Basin and only receive 6 inches, farmers typically have the same complaints. Either it is too dry or too wet, oftentimes this happens in the same year!

Flood and drought cycles are a part of business for farmers everywhere. We must get better at dealing with them if we are going to stay competitive in the face of future erratic weather patterns, spurred on by climate change.

Effective water cycle refers to not how much rain or irrigation is added to a given acre, but how much of that water will actually enter the soil for plant use. Dung beetles are keenly equipped to assist in improving our water cycle as the brooding burrows that they create, either under the dung pat or rolled to the root zone, improve water infiltration. Not only can the water infiltrate better, but as it mixes with residual manure left over from the larvae, the water will lock into the rhizosphere like a sponge. This gives plants perfect access to water right where they need it most — at their roots.

With this aeration, the soil can clean the water and improve water quality for downstream users. Healthy soil means clean water, and a big part of healthy soil is a robust dung beetle population.

Managing for Dung Beetles

Our family’s ranch, Springs Ranch, became certified organic about seven years ago. With this transition to becoming certified, we no longer dewormed our own cattle or any of the pasture cattle we graze on the ranch.

After a few years of being certified organic, we noticed that we did not have the fly or parasite issues in our livestock that we once did.

After careful observation of many piles of poop, we observed that the dung piles where decomposing quite quickly. We noticed that we had some dung beetles moving in to assist in our pasture cleanup. Over the last few years our population has increased dramatically. We are at a point now that a dung pile can be completely dismantled in as little as a couple of hours.

dung beetles in field
A pair of beetles roll away a squirrel pellet at Springs Ranch in Fort Bidwell, California.

If you are interested in these amazing critters moving into your fields all you have to do is stop killing them with livestock wormers.

It has been shown that if you worm your livestock you will negatively impact dung beetle populations for up to a month. This is a function of some residue of the medication in the manure where the dung beetles lay their eggs. As the eggs hatch and the larvae eat the poisoned manure, the larvae are killed and never make it to adulthood. Thus, they are not around to do the job you need them to do.

This does not mean that you have to stop worming your livestock altogether if you want to increase beetle populations. Dung beetles become active in the late spring and hot summer. If you are in a situation where you need to worm your livestock, research the beetle life cycle in your environment, and then worm your cattle when the beetles are dormant. For us in California, this would be in the late fall or winter.

Recent research examines which grazing techniques are best for luring dung beetles into your pastures. It turns out that utilizing a higher stock density, short duration grazing strategy works best.

This leaves ample food for the beetles in a relatively small area; making food, as well as members of the opposite sex, easy to find. This means that food and reproduction opportunity are abundant, and thus the conditions are right for significant population growth.

Financial Impact

With face, horn and heel flies costing ranchers between $30 and $50 dollars per head of cattle, the impact of parasites on livestock is clearly significant. In a paper by Adam Byk and Jacek Pietka, “Dung Beetles and Their Role in the Nature,” it was discovered that dung beetles have the potential to reduce fly populations by 95 percent.

Dung beetles reduce flies and parasites, increase fertility in pastures and allow for more effective water cycling. Managing for these hard little workers is a no-brainer (at least for our family).

Ask yourself: What would your farm financials look like if you could increase production through better fertility and water management with less pressure from flies and parasites?

I believe every farmer is seeking increased soil fertility, effective use of rainfall and fewer parasites. This is true wealth! Dung beetles will do the work to create this for you. The job of the farmer or rancher is simply to create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive

About Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional and a huge fan of dung beetles. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. Learn more and contact the Smiths with your grazing and dung beetle-related questions. This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.magazine. 

Healthy Soil, Defined

By Gary Zimmer

What is healthy soil? Most farmers strive for a healthy, fer­tile soil that has good tilth. But do these terms — soil health, soil fertility and good tilth — all mean the same thing to all of us? I bet you have an image in your mind of what the soil and the crop grow­ing in it should look like.

But in today’s world, with all the available technology, plant protective fungicides, insecticides, etc. along with plenty of soluble nutri­ents, looking at a “good” crop can be deceiving. It may in fact be wearing a lot of ‘make-up,’ covering up its true state of health. In recent years, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has started to focus more on soil health and what constitutes a “healthy” soil.

If we define soil health using the NRCS’ definition, it is “the capacity to function.” I thought about this definition for quite some time and decided I need­ed to add to it, clarifying the thought as “the capacity to function without inter­vention.” I define intervention as plant alterations, fungicides, insecticides, etc. Healthy soil should produce healthy crops without intervention.

Water infiltration and nutrient cy­cling are also part of the NRCS’ defini­tion of healthy soil. I believe that water infiltration is an aspect of soil tilth (wa­ter soaks in quicker in a loose, crumbly tilth soil). Soil fertility is defined as “the productivity of the land,” which would have a nutrient recycling component. Minerals are involved, too, not only in regards to volume but also balance. An exchange of nutrients throughout the growing season is what we are after. Adding nutrients can help supply and provide additional minerals to what the soil can supply to your crop, but are only a small part of what happens in total.

Earthworm in healthy soil
A worm comes up from the earth.

The chemical test (soil nutrients), although of great value, cannot tell you what the land will produce, only what minerals it contains. So the question is how do we achieve “soil health?” Is it just getting the soil test looking perfect, then all will be perfect? Is it using the perfect compost or compost tea or biological additives and all else then works? How about just doing a diverse mix of green manure crops? What if we just quit till­age — then will it all fall into place?

Gary Zimmer, Minerals for Healthy Soil, from the 2017 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (18 minutes, 56 seconds.) Listen in as agronomist Gary Zimmer, author of The Biological Farmer and Advanced Biological Farming, teaches why he puts these four minerals at the top of his priority list.

Managing for soil health (improved soil function), says the NRCS, is mostly a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the myriad of creatures that comprise the soil-food web. As I’ve always said, it’s like making yogurt or baking a cake: get the ingredients, create the ideal space, and it will happen — but it does take time.

on-farm info

Learn about soil health in person with Gary Zimmer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – starting in summer 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. 

Learn more here!

The NRCS publication on soil health further states that managing for soil health can be accomplished by disturb­ing the soil as little as possible, growing as many different species as is practical, keeping living plants in the soil as much as possible, and keeping the soil covered over all the time. That’s certainly all good advice, but it’s not everything. I’ve been at this a long time, and I do know that min­erals are essential. Start with a good soil and, at minimum, supply plant-available calcium, sulfur and boron. That’s assum­ing a lot of P and K has been supplied over the years and there are sufficient levels in the soil to grow a crop. Of course, there are more elements, but we do have to start somewhere. It can be really simple: soil test to find out what’s short or in excess and deal with it. Know that it takes time to make changes. How much to add has to do with getting a good crop. Be realistic with inputs and expectations.

Healthy Soil Questions

Along with soil correction, apply a balanced fertilizer that supplies many nutrients, in balance and in proportion for the crop you are growing. Again, where are you starting? What are your expectations?

Do choose soil-and-plant root-friendly materials and add some carbon to buffer them. One method of adding nutrients that seems to be growing in popularity, makes sense and can save dollars while speeding up the process, is to add these nutrients for correction to the compost pile. Cook and brew them, then apply to the soil. Rock phosphates, gypsum, sulfur sources, and natural minerals all seem to fit well here.

Next, do your soil health program and crop fertilizer, and things should get bet­ter. “Earning the right” is a concept we teach: once soils are healthy, they need fewer chemicals and less commercial fer­tilizer, especially nitrogen. You can’t start right out on year one reducing these inputs, you have not earned the right to make that change. Adding the soil correc­tives with compost or growing a season of green manure crops — these are ways to start. In our part of the world, start with oats and peas in the spring, in June work them into the soil and plant buckwheat, then work that crop into the ground in fall and plant more oats with clover and rye grass. Next spring, when the clover and rye are a foot tall, work them in to the soil. (When I talk about working them in, I’m thinking shallow incorporation. If soil is tight and water won’t soak in, do an aggressive, deep, open-up tillage. The soil is alive and needs to breathe; it can’t be waterlogged or the aerobic soil life will certainly suffer. Opening up the soil will improve things.)

South Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, author of Dirt to Soil, speaks in 2016 at the Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show. (1 hour, 18 minutes.) Listen in as Gabe Brown talks about how he uses cover crops to build soil health.

Now that’s a fast path to fixing soils. For organic farmers, there is a two crop-year land-transition time — do your soil fixing and remineralization during those two years and you will no longer recognize the soils you started with! And you have now earned the right to reap the benefits of healthy soils with good tilth and high fertility. You’re off to a good start and the soils will keep get­ting better. And as this soil system keeps getting better and better, all that is left is to sustain it.

We can regenerate the soils, then sustain them so that the inputs and tech­nology needed by so many today will become obsolete. Remember, as you farm you are re­moving things from the soil. What needs to be replaced? What’s your objective? What are you managing for?

Editor’s Note: Gary Zimmer is the author of The Biological Farmer, 2nd Edition. This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn more here!