This week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, we discuss soil health and resilience with Matt Hubers, who shares his personal experience from his own grazing operation, as well as his professional experience working alongside cropland producers as an agronomist for Ducks Unlimited.
Matt Hubers began his career as a district conservationist for South Dakota’s NRCS and is now one of two agronomists at Ducks Unlimited, where he is currently focused on implementing the tenets of soil health on croplands that were originally wetland habitats for waterfowl. In addition to managing his own quarter of land and livestock, Matt has been working with Ducks Unlimited and their partner organizations to encourage diverse crop rotations and cover crops, alongside implementation of grasses and utilization of livestock to balance the salinity of the prairie pothole soils.
1) What is the one thing you've done that has been the most important thing to the success of your operation?
Two things that I've done on my operation that's really changed things up is cross fencing and water development.
2) Can you recall a moment when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?
Well, the light bulb that came on for me to change the way that I was grazing was that I had been watching conventional grazing outside of my window for 15 years before we bought the quarter that we're on. I saw that the grazing distribution was horrible. I saw that the species composition was horrible and at that moment I knew there had to be a better way, there should be a better way. Now that I have the infrastructure in place, I see how happy and excited my cows are whenever I move them.
3) What surprised you the most when you changed the way you were grazing?
What surprised me the most is that you can read all the books, you can go to school– but the one thing that you're going to realize is that not all the answers are there. You’ve got to work through it on your property for yourself, with your animals, with your amount of measurement you want to put into it and make it work for you. And you can't do that from a distance. You've got to walk across your land and you’ve got to see it. And the more you walk and the more you look and see, the more you'll realize that there's so much more to learn.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing for soil health and resiliency?
The biggest misconception I’ve observed when it comes to land management is that people think you can't have soil health and livestock, that you can't have your cake and eat it too. But one operation complements the other and they work together to make it all work better. This entire land that we're sitting on, the land that we drive across, the soil that we walk on, it is a descendant of the natural processes that we've interrupted. The goal is to integrate the processes that are naturally here instead of fighting them artificially. We want to work with them.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet done to improve soil health on your own operation?
I’d like to be much more dynamic with grazing, varying livestock numbers as conditions vary. That means when we have a nice wet spring with a lot of forage that you want to jump in and you want to increase your numbers. And then when we have a dry spring, you want to decrease. So, you've can’t be too tied to your own herd and your own genetics, which we all are, and you’ve got to be much more dynamic with the livestock.
6) What advice would you have for someone who is considering changing their farming system to one that's better for building soil health?
The advice is that at the end of the day you've got to have a vision for what you want your land to look like. Hopefully that vision includes that you leave it better than when you got it. Have a vision for what you want and work towards it at your own pace and pull in whatever resources you need, take any advice, listen to any advice, and then use it. Discard what you don’t need. Make it work for you.
7) When you walk across cropland, what do you look for as indicators of soil health?
When I walk across it, I don't want to have a litter layer that's too thick. I also don't want to have any bare soil. I want to have diversity in my plants, I want to have diversity in my insects, And I want to have diversity in birds, whether it's pheasants or ducks, as well as other animals. I have wetlands and I have uplands and I want those to look vibrant and healthy. That's what I look for; diversity, no bare soil, no erosion, no monocultures, no invasive imbalance.
8) Is there a change you made that at first you thought would never work?
The change that I made is that I started burning, and it worked wonderfully. The reason I didn't think it would work is because the time window that we have for putting fire on the landscape is relatively small, and it's always a matter of drawing in enough resources so that you can do a safe prescribed burn. But gosh, getting fire back on that land is amazing, because if you have the stuff we're dealing with, and I've dealt with both professionally and personally, it can look like a desert of Kentucky bluegrass. You run fire across that, and you will see stuff that you never knew you had. And that's a thing of beauty.
9) What does resilience mean to you, and what signs are you seeing that crop- or rangelands are getting more resilient?
Resiliency? It's a synonym for sustainability. What resiliency does– it's the ability to bounce back from adversity. And when you have a variable climate like we have and you have plants that are adapted for a certain climate, diversity breeds resilience. You never want to put all your eggs in one basket and have a pasture that's totally cool season or totally warm season because it's never going to work for you.
10) We always talk about rotate, rest, and recover. That's one of the mantras of GrowingResilience. Are there any one of those three words that you favor and why would you fight for it?
Well, the thing is, it's a system. Rotate, rest, and recover; it's a system. And a lot of times when you take one cog out of that wheel, the rest of it stops turning. So when you say that, it’s as if I had to choose my favorite dog– I love them all equally. But I do think that if you're going to put me on the spot, my favorite is recovery. Give that grass plenty of time to recover. Because the one thing that's a very good indicator of which direction your grassland is going, is the amount of residual you are left with that next spring. If you overcorrect, that plant's going to try to find energy from somewhere and it's going to suck that energy out of its roots. In an overgrazing event, it's going to lose about 25% of its mass and then it has to make it through the winter and it has to bring up new shoots in the spring. Well, you know what? You don't give that grass enough time to rest and regrow and get enough plant material, you're going to lose it.
11) How do livestock relate to soil organisms in your systems?
The biomass below the ground feeds all the microorganisms. They have a world where they prey on each other, where you have others that go around and eat the dead garbage. That process keeps your nutrients cycling. So those microbes underneath the surface are the driver of your entire production. Without them, you're going to be walking on a desert. And whenever you spray, whenever you fertilize, whenever you disturb it, you’re really hitting those microorganisms in the soil and you're setting them back and not letting them do their job. So let them do their job that they’ve been doing for thousands of years alongside grazing animals. The less inputs you have to put on the land when you've got the microorganisms breaking down all the detritus and then closing that loop, the less you depend on inputs. The pounds of beef walking on your topsoil helps it to stay in place, and your hydrology stays intact because every drop of rain you get sinks in.
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