Perhaps the best way to improve the land is to stop assaulting it with man-made chemicals. At Wolf Creek Farm we do not use herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides on our pastures. In the absence of chemical assault, careful grass farmers can manage the slow and sustainable process of rebuilding soil health through the careful application of natural substances, with the ultimate objective of returning the land to a balance where it produces everything it needs.
This balancing of soil nutrients is known as The Albrecht Method, named after soil scientist William A. Albrecht (1888-1974), who was Chairman of the Department of Soils at University of Missouri College of Agriculture where he worked, studied, and taught for 43 years (1916-1959). The first step is to determine the current mineral balance (or imbalance) by taking soil samples and having them tested by a reputable lab. We use Kinsey Agricultural Services, operated by Neal Kinsey, and acolyte of Albrecht's. Based upon the soil test results and the soil amendment recommendations, you next need to work with a local provider of natural soil amendments. We use New Country Organics in Waynesboro Virginia, who are able to custom blend whatever minerals we need to spread on our pastures to bring the soils into balance. As the soil is recovering, the application of animal manures, particularly poultry litter, is helpful when done properly. Spreading of crushed rock lime and phosphates emulates the years of "fertilizing" from the weathering of rock outcroppings.
Livestock provide a critical element of restoring the land as their manures contain many of the minerals and nutrients necessary to support diverse flora, particularly if they are provided with access to a blend of free choice minerals suitable to your locality. Again, we use New Country Organics to custom blend a cattle mineral that provides our cattle with the nutrients they need to maintain fertility, health, and vigor. This natural mineral mixture further amends the soil as the cattle consume the mineral and then deposit their manure as they graze the pastures.
Another critical element in properly stewarding the soil is to discontinue the "mining" of minerals and nutrients through cropping and haying and then exporting these products off the farm. If, as in most Virginia winters, it is necessary to feed hay, it is useful to do this on the land rather than in confinement buildings, where the livestock can return the nutrients directly to the soil in their manure. At Wolf Creek Farm, we make our hay off our best soils during the spring and summer months, producing nutrient dense feed. We then feed this hay to our cattle by unrolling it on pastures with poorer soils during the winter months. This results in the steady improvement of these poorer soils, and by properly monitoring and amending our hay making pastures, we ensure that the overall fertility of our farm's soils improves each year. Not only does the land receive a return of essential nutrients, but the animals also remain healthy in the fresh air of the pastures rather than the damp of feed lots and barns.
In addition to overall mineral balance, organic matter is a key measure of the soil's ability to retain water and support the growth of nutrient dense grasses. By eliminating chemical applications and focusing instead on natural soil amendments, the soil's biota (fungi, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, dung beetles, etc.) perform the critical task of sequestering carbon into the soil, thereby increasing its organic content. The soil can then support a denser and more diverse sward of grasses and legumes, which capture the sun's energy and produce carbohydrates and sugars through photosynthesis. This nutrient dense sward can then sustain the grazing ruminants which promote additional sward growth through managed clipping (ie management intensive rotational grazing) and distribution of nutrients (ie manure.) Thus, contrary to the mistaken belief held by many urban elites that ruminants are contributing to rising greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation, ruminants are in fact essential to the proper stewardship of our soil, water, and air, provided they are managed as an integral element of a sustainable grass farming operation. At Wolf Creek Farm we have increased the organic content of our soils from less than 1% to over 5% (ie massive increase in carbon sequestration), thereby increasing the water retention capacity of our soils by thousands of gallons per acre (ie a natural filter for water flowing downstream into the Chesapeake Bay), all while increasing the carrying capacity of our pastures (ie more animal protein produced per acre.)
Selected Reading on Soil Fertility: