Turning Sand into Soil

This article was one of four winning entries in a writing contest sponsored by the New York State Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI).  GLCI is led by a Steering Committee of farmers and agricultural professionals to promote the wise use of private grazing lands, and is funded by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

By Anne Lincoln

It was sand……sand everywhere. It was like beach sand that filled the house when the windows were open on a windy day. I had to wear “goggles” over my contact lenses to keep the grit out when I walked in the yard. Some neighbors said “you can’t grow anything on that sand”, but this is what my husband, Dave, wanted to use for pasture for beef cows! The neighbors didn’t know, though, that this was like setting down a challenge to Dave.

July 2004. We started with sandy soils and thin, nutrient-poor grass.

I saw what Dave was capable of long before he decided to raise beef on our 25 tillable acres in Willsboro, NY. We had moved there in 1998 after learning we did not enjoy the sounds of close neighbors while living in town. We had both been dairy farmers in previous lives before we met in 1992 and we both still loved growing crops and animals in a quiet country setting. My first surprise occurred when Dave had spent the day leveling off a piece of land near the woods. He said he was going to build a shed for his equipment. Well, I kind of humored him, thinking to myself “that’s too big a project; he will never finish it”. I found I had a lot to learn about Dave. Not only did he build the shed, but over the next two years, built it bigger and bigger, even adding an enclosed workshop with a cement floor.

I was obviously worried when he started talking about building a fence that “you can see through” around the fields, especially the field in front of the house. Well, that came true too! In 2004, when we had decided it was time to start getting some cattle, we looked around for someone to build a fence for us. The contractors seemed to all be too busy or too expensive, so Dave bought a post-pounder, ordered a tractor-trailer load of fence posts and went to work building a six-strand high tensile fence.

OK, well, now we had a shed and a fence. What about grass? Remember, you can’t grow anything on that sand! There was some wispy blue grass that was struggling to grow on the nutrient poor soil, so at least we had something to start with. However, the spark to really get things started was our neighbor, Michael Davis, who worked for Cornell. He introduced Dave to some books about grazing, including Quality Pasture by Allan Nation, Management-Intensive Grazing by Jim Gerrish, and Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin. Dave ate these books up almost as fast as our steers eat new grass. Dave was now full of ideas on how to grow beef on the sand. Managed grazing would allow us to watch our beef grow on lush green grass instead of what we had growing in the sandy fields.

We started grazing in 2005 with a handful of Herefords, putting them in paddocks separated with temporary fencing, and moving them a few times a day. It was a start, but we had a long way to go to raise good healthy beef on that soil. Dave continued his grass education by attending many pasture walks throughout the Northeast. He went to seminars about grazing and beef cattle presented by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and other organizations.  Dave was especially impressed with Darrell Emmick’s presentation at “Hoof to Rail” about what was termed the “Law of Least Effort Grazing”. Darrell said that it was important to relate the animal behavior to how they graze and react to each other and their surroundings.  There seemed to be an emphasis in many presentations and books on observing the pastures and the animals and this has become a key in our cattle grazing philosophy.

One book also mentioned it would take five years to really see an improvement in the pastures and suggested that many people got discouraged and gave up before they got to this five year mark. Well, it did take five years of grazing with about 30 Hereford and Angus cattle, moving them 2-5 times a day through small paddocks. We saw small improvements each year, but it was around year five when we really saw the results of managed grazing.

What were some of our results from managed grazing?

    • The soil was able to hold a lot more moisture. Prior to managed grazing, the water ran off the fields in small rivers when it rained. Now the small rivers no longer appear, even after a heavy rain. The grasses help the soil to absorb and retain moisture and keep the soil moister when the weather is warm and dry. The soil has a lot more organic matter and earthworms are plentiful.
    • The grass species have become more diverse and there are almost no weeds. We started with a wispy blue grass that dies out early in the summer. Without doing any seeding, the pastures now have a large variety of grasses, including orchard grass, quack grass and clover. This diversity helps keep the pasture lush and green throughout the grazing season.
    • The manure breaks down rapidly. Around the fourth year of grazing, Dave was walking the pasture and kicked a manure patty, something he often does to help the manure to break down faster. This manure patty was only a few days old and all crusty on the top. When he kicked it, the top flew off and there was almost nothing left underneath except a few strands and a lot of dung beetles. The patties get dung beetle holes in them now within hours after they are dropped by the cows. The dung beetles are much more active partly because we do not need to worm the cattle.

First time through May 4, 2010. The grass is just getting started for the season

  • The number of grazings and the thickness of the grass increased dramatically over the five year period. By not allowing the cattle to graze too long, they don’t eat the grass down to the dirt or the new shoots, thus allowing the grass to recover and develop new growth much more rapidly. Leaving four to six inches of grass in the pasture also helps to keep the animals from acquiring worm infections.

In 2010, we were able to grow more animals and rotate them through the pastures more times than in any other year. The winter of 2010-2011 was long and snowy, but the pastures last spring were green and growing fast, so we are looking forward to an even better growing season in 2012!

For more information on the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative please contact Karen Hoffman at 607-334-4632 x116 or karen.hoffman2@ny.nrcs.gov.  For assistance with planning or starting up a grazing system contact your local USDA-NRCS or county Soil and Water Conservation District.

Comments

2 Responses to “ Turning Sand into Soil ”

  • Willa Thompson

    Reading the article “Turning Sand into soil” by Anne Lincoln – enjoyed the article. We are looking at land to purchase that is all sand. Interested in the method that these people used. Did they seed the pasture and ferterlize? Did they seed and turn the grass under each year to feed the soil? Like to know more of the process.
    Thank you, Willa Thompson
    North East Texas

  • suprabhat

    Hi Anne,

    It is encouraging to read an article on this nature. I have recently started farming and would like to know if anything can be grown of some value till the time the converted land from sand is just about to produce little more…

    Rgds,
    Suprabhat

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