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Resilience Rodeo - Gabe Brown - Regenerative Practices

For this weeks “Resilience Rodeo”, Understanding Ag’s Gabe Brown explains how, if you pay attention and do things properly, you can reap the benefits of regenerative practices in a much shorter period of time than most believe they can.

Gabe Brown often references regenerative principles as being what brought his farm back from $1.5 million in debt. A major misconception he witnesses is that adaptive practices will initially place farms under financial strain: he believes that if you’re attentive, observing, and adopting of the principles, profitability will increase quickly. He has consulted with many farmers who witnessed positive returns in just their first year.

Gabe says that the most important thing he has done to heal his soil is to cover it: to allow that plant matter to stay on the soil surface as an armor, home, and habitat for biology to start building soil aggregates. His most important recommendations to farmers are to hone their education and observational skills; watch, listen, and adapt. Rather than seeing a weed and spraying it, ask the necessary questions. Why is that showing up? What does this indicate about my operation’s ecosystem as a whole?

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Gabe Brown

1) What is the one thing that you have done that's been the most important to the success of your operation?

Cover the soil. We have to keep that armor on the soil to provide the home and habitat for biology to start building soil aggregates.

2) Can you recall a moment or time when the light bulb went on for you that you realized soil health practices make sense or that you should change the way you were farming?

Yeah, I remember as if it was yesterday. I had just gone through a second hailstorm. I was looking at a crop that was devastated, wiped out. I was trying to figure out “how am I going to explain this to the banker?” I knelt in the soil and part of the remaining residue of that wheat crop, and just dug with my hands in the soil. I hadn't been able to do that before. It was just alive with earthworms. And you have to realize we had never seen an earthworm in a cropland field here. I knew right then and there that the soil was coming to life. And it was that life that was going to see me through those hailstorms.

3) What surprised you the most when you changed the way you farmed and included soil health practices?

You know, I'm so old that soil health wasn't even a buzzword back then. It wasn't that soil health wasn't talked about. We didn't talk about principles and rules and processes. It's not like I suddenly, “okay, I'm going to adopt and implement these six principles”*. It was over time that it occurred on my operation, you know; it was a much slower process. And I tell people now that there's young people today going down this path that accomplished more in five years than I did in 25 years. For me, it was more of a slower process.

*Gabe and many others consider the first principle of soil health to be “Context”, in addition to the other 5 more commonly known and accepted principles, which is why he mentions the six principles here.

4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their operations for resiliency and soil health?

The biggest misconception is that it's expensive and they've got to go through a period of time where they're going to make less money and not going to be profitable. Nothing could be further from the truth. You know, if you do this right and observe and adopt the principles and rules, your profitability will increase very quickly. We have people seeing positive returns in the very first year. That's the biggest misconception out there.

5) Is there something that you'd still like to do that you haven't yet to improve your soil health?

We want to try new things. Nothing poetic pops into my head of things we haven't tried, but I'm sure there's something. 60-inch corn on my place with covers in between. You know, I'm growing corn on 30 inches with covers in between. I want to try some 60-inch. Things like that. But the fact of the matter is, I just want to try new things every year because it just keeps it fun.

6) What advice do you have for someone who's considering changing their farming system to one that is better for building soil health?

Without a doubt the first thing I would recommend is education. Spend the time to educate yourself on the six principles of soil health, the three rules of adaptive stewardship, and the four ecosystem processes. Farmers and ranchers are very good at producing, but they're not the best at educating themselves as to exactly how and why things work and function.

Then I would add to that one; hone your observational skills. Most farmers see a weed and all they want to do is spray it and kill it. I see a weed and I'm like, okay, now why is that showing up? It's a symptom of something greater. Why? Why is it showing up? They need to ask why and to observe. And then to be educated and understand what they're observing.

7) When you walk across your land, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy soil?

You know, I love that in the question you mentioned when I walk across, that's one of the things. What does it feel like underneath my feet? Is it soft and spongy or is it hard as a rock? And then, I listen. What do I hear? Do I hear insects? Do I hear birds? Do I hear life? So, the first thing I look for is life, because a healthy ecosystem will abound in life. And that's a true joy, working with life and the diversity of life.

8) What change have you made that you first thought would never work?

Oh, I would have to say winter grazing in North Dakota. leaving the calves and the cows grazing through 30 inches of snow or whatever the case may be. Now, this year, with 100 inches of snow, that's not working. It's just physically impossible. For years I kept my cattle in a corral during the winter and had to start tractors to feed them every day. You know what, those animals are much happier when they're out grazing. I didn't think that that could be done in this environment. Boy was I wrong.

9) What are the signs that your cropland is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?

Can you infiltrate and capture every raindrop that falls? Okay, that may be more in tune to a brittle or semi brittle environment, you know, but it actually does play true to wet environments also, because can they infiltrate that amount of moisture they receive and then move it throughout their profile due to the aggregations that they have. I really look at that as an indicator. That, and are you capturing every ray of sunlight that falls on your farm or ranch? Are you leaking sun or are you capturing it with a living photosynthesizing plant? Those things are just critical to success.

10) What indicators do you have that healthy soil practices are also making sense economically to you?

My biggest indicator is my wife. She's not nagging me about a checkbook with no money in it [Gabe jokes]. But you know, people know my story. At the end of those four years of hail and drought, we were $1.5 million in debt with no idea how to dig ourselves out. And as I said, I didn't know the principles, the rules and processes then, but we were starting down that path. The healing occurred very quickly, and we went from a ranch that was deep in debt and not knowing how to get out of it to one that began to have cash flow.

One of my biggest challenges is, how do I not write such a big check to the IRS every year? I can't say I really enjoy writing that check, but it doesn't bother me as much as it used to because I know I'm making a profit and I write checks now that, quite frankly, are larger than what I used to. And it's a good feeling not having to worry about money.


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