At Understanding Ag and the Soil Health Academy, we teach a concept called Historical Ecological Context. Basically, the concept involves examining what an ecosystem was like at least 400 to 500 years ago along with the influences on that ecosystem, and then determining what that ecosystem can be like today under regenerative management. We try to go back through multiple epochs of time to determine climate and human influences in any specific region.
It helps to understand what a land once was to know its current potential. With the significant weather challenges we are experiencing, we need to know what can be possible if we alter our landscape management.
The western U.S. and many pockets in other regions of the country are experiencing extreme to exceptional drought. These conditions are exacerbating our landscape issues, as drought leads to greater drought, fires, barren landscapes, loss of functional water cycles and soil degradation. Our past management of these landscapes has worsened these conditions.
Following are some of the issues that have accelerated over the past several decades:
- Global soils have lost 133 billion tons of carbon.
- Approximately 35% of the midwestern U.S. Corn Belt has lost ALL of its topsoil. We are now farming subsoil on these lands.
- Our country’s beneficial insect populations have been declining at a rate of 9% per decade.
- In some regions of the U.S., honeybee populations have declined by 90%.
- Grassland bird populations have fallen 53% over the past four decades.
- There are about 2.9 billion fewer breeding birds in the U.S. today compared to 1970.
- The boundary between the arid U.S. West and the humid East has shifted 140 miles eastward over the past 100-plus years.
- The U.S. obesity rate has risen from 30% to 42% over the past 20 years.
- Real farm income (minus crop insurance and other subsidy and disaster payments) has steadily eroded, with many farms losing substantial equity and relying on annual operating loans and subsidies to continue to farm.
However, we know from a growing number of case studies that we can significantly alter these alarming developments with proper application of the Six Principles of Soil Health and the Three Rules of Adaptive Stewardship.
Let’s take a look at a few examples and integrate how historical ecological context has been important in understanding what is now possible.
In the north-central portion of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the ecological context tells us there used to be a vast and productive grassland with active rivers and streams that supported large herds of bison, elk, antelope and deer. These were accompanied by the requisite predators such as the southern gray wolf (Mexican wolf) and grizzly bears. The land once supported large beaver and river otter populations. Any place with beaver and otter is a well-watered land. This land was the prized hunting grounds of several Native American tribes. They were not hunting in desert wastelands.
As recently as the mid to late 1800s there was still some remnant of a decently functional water cycle and good production. Pictures of Apache warriors taken in the late 1800s show them standing in knee-deep grass in an area where there is now hardly any grass at all.
Alejandro Carrillo, who ranches in this desert region, recalls stories of neighboring ranches that decades ago ran more than 3,000 head of cattle annually. Now they run at 200 to 300 head due to lack of water and forage production, and the area is becoming further desertified.
But today a group of ranchers in this desert is taking historical ecological context into consideration as they return ecological function to the landscape. Over the past 10-15 years, these ranches have been able to more than double their livestock numbers while increasing substantially increasing forage biomass production.
Once they created green areas of actively growing grass that conserve soil moisture and lower soil temperature, they changed the local weather. Granted, these ranches have 30,000 or more acres contiguous, so they have enough landscape to better influence a water cycle.
Their water cycle has improved to the point that they are experiencing rainfall patterns very different from what the neighboring ranches experience. This has been documented through actual rainfall on these regenerative ranches compared to the neighboring ranches, coupled with weather radar data that shows the specific building of storms directly over these ranches. We are preparing a case study that documents the evidence gathered.
Additionally, these ranches are experiencing an explosion in beneficial insect populations and wildlife numbers in general. Bird species not seen in decades have returned, including several endangered migrating species. Diversity in grass, forb and woody species has also increased dramatically.
Grand Junction, CO
The country situated north of Grand Junction, Colorado, would be considered quite arid by anyone’s estimation, and is basically a high mountain desert. Ranching in this country can be challenging, with sparse vegetation in the lower elevations. Cattle are often scattered over broad areas, and water resources are few and far between.
However, early Spanish explorers described a very different environment. In passing through what is today a large ranch just north of Grand Junction, they described valleys filled with dense grasses too tall to see over, even on horseback.
The vegetation was so thick that the explorers had to travel above the valleys on the mountain benches. These same benches contained centuries-old Native American trails, indicating that they, too, had traveled by the benches rather than in the densely vegetated valleys.
These valleys were reported to be extremely well-watered and full of bison, elk, deer and moose, with moose described as being especially numerous. Beaver and otters abounded. Finding game to feed their exploration party was not an issue.
Even in the mid to late 1800s there was still plenty of grass and water being seen by ranchers moving into this same country. The ranch that now represents this land consists of two primary valleys situated between three mountain ranges. Ranchers in the late 1800s were placing up to 10,000 head of cattle in each valley for the active grazing season. There was that much grass and that much water.
But once the ranchers had the grass grazed down, the sod-busters started trying to farm it. They dug shallow ditches with mules and pans to drain the excess water off the valley floor before starting with plowing and planting.
In a few short years, the land dried up and became unproductive. It has been that way ever since. Farming this area without irrigation pivots would be a disaster. The same valleys that once grazed 10,000 cattle, barely support 300 today.
The good news is this ranch has implemented regenerative practices and adaptive grazing. The grasslands are once again starting to yield their bounty and plant species diversity is on the increase. Water and mineral cycles are beginning to function again and bird species that had gone away are now returning.
If you know your historical ecological perspective, you can know what is possible on your landscape. These same results can be achieved anywhere, in any climate and environment. We have examples of this happening throughout of North America.
I recommend you take time to learn your ecological perspective by investigating what your area was like before the landscape was degraded by poor farming and ranching practices. Once you know what’s possible, you will be able to implement practices allowing you to completely revolutionize your farm or ranch.
As you do, the transformative power of regeneration will blossom before your eyes.