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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.


Rachel Whiteheart


  1. Avatar Willa Thompson on October 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    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

  2. Avatar suprabhat on October 20, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    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…

  3. Avatar Carol Kryda on November 5, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    I do live at the beach, and have been turning all sand, into soil for the purpose of self-sustainable living in our retirement.
    Fields are hardly the same size, as my 12X4′ raised bed, or, 150 feet of new flower beds. Regardless, sand is sand, and factors of weather, labor intensity, and money, are three things, our project sizes, do have in common.
    With that said, here’s what I’ve been doing to turn pure sand into fertile and nutrient rich soil, on an island in the northeast.
    Author of the winning entry, Anne Lincoln and her husband, used really good practices, to turn sand into soil. An example of what COMMONALITY, agriculature has, no matter the size of a farm, or the urban cottage landscaper, is Anne’s description of allowing the grasses to always grow to about 6 inches, by keeping her herd relocating, to allow regrowth. Grass reseeds itself, if kept 3 inches or higher. Thus, this practice works on a farm or urban lawn. Mowing a lawn too short, or not “mooving” your herd, doesn’t allow grass to self-seed. Make a note of that, because, as Anne points out, water is retained, grass is a lush green, and money isn’t spent buying seed, or irrigating.
    Anne, also mentioned the benfits of their field now having a few varieties of grasses, which reseeded and benefits the herd’s diet. In my situation, I don’t want grasses anywhere near my property, unless it’s a non-invasive species of beach grasses.
    Anne’s lucky to have natural manure, constantly dumped on her field, attracting burrowing insects, which help bring this natural fertilizer down deeper into the sand. I bought manure, and dumped bags of it, on top of the sand in my planting areas.
    Anne probably has leaves, pine needles, and sticks, blowing onto her fields? Maybe, she gets rid of old hay bails, there? Both are going to compost, which add nutrients and food for microbes to live in sand..(now, you’re creating soil). In my beach yard, I used to curse the neighbor’s pine trees. Now, I just bury them in each new sand/flower bed! (The needles, not the neighbors).
    I drove over to the county’s recycling center, and took bags of leaves from people, showing up to dump them. Yes, they thought I was nuts, but, my goal is soil, not diagnosis by people, who obviously don’t have gardens.
    Leave now shoveled into my sand/soil stew. No rain in sight, so I watered it.
    In my case, added topsoil, then turned into beds. If you don’t have anyplace on farm to dig up some topsoil, your mix will still produce certain crops, of you’ve done the rest of the steps, above.
    Root vegetables, various flowering bulbs (including garlic or potatoes), squash, pumpkins, etc, like sandy loam, and grow easily. You can have several rotations during a season. Check out lists on garden sites.

  4. Avatar Ismael Galabe on January 4, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    I really enjoy your abstract. I am about to begin a Farm Business in the United Arab Emirates purely made up of sand and insufficient water. I think I will try to practice this method above. Please update me with further methods or share links and books with me. Thanks

  5. Avatar chandiga ronald on February 14, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Iam personally intrigued after reading your findings and would like to take up afew of your practices,so kindly organise a detailed abstract on the method used including the steps followed as i plan to start vegetable production on my sand-stony plot of land.

  6. Avatar Kanika on November 19, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    I have so many questions for Anne. Is there anyway I can get in contact with her? Our 16 acres is really sandy and basically barren. I’d rather buy livestock than pay to bring truckfuls of dirt. I’d love to talk with her via email if possible.

    • Kelsie Raucher Kelsie Raucher on November 29, 2018 at 11:47 am

      Hi Kanika,
      I do not have the contact information for Anne. However, I would recommend reaching out to your local USDA-NRCS office to get advice on how to best use your sandy soil. If you live in NY, here is a link to find your local office: https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?state=NY
      Good luck!

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