Balancing Biology Improves Outcomes | Culture

Ford Smith, co-founder of Regenerative Land Solutions (RLS) in Emigrant, Montana, looks at agriculture through an “organic” lens.

“We help growers increase their bottom line through biology,” Smith said of RLS, the agricultural advisory business he owns with his father, Vern Smith. “Getting the soil biology correct helps balance the system.”

The Smiths have helped growers increase their soil life performance, improve production quality, and reduce chemical inputs at RLS in south-central Montana.

“Regenerative Land Solutions strives to promote natural nutrient cycling, limit expensive chemical fertility inputs, and transition to biologically beneficial fertility by combining traditional chemical testing with soil biology and ongoing tissue testing. season,” he said.

Biological tests provide a detailed profile of soil biology, which examines microorganisms in the soil, such as bacteria, fungi, and protozoa.

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“Additionally, in-season tissue testing can give growers the confidence to reduce inputs and monitor deficiencies, which can often be small amounts of micronutrients instead of expensive macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium,” Smith said.

Some of the “positive ripple effects” of healthy soil include natural nutrient cycling, higher germination rates, fewer weeds, reduced disease and insect pressure, more nutrient dense crops , better water holding capacity, better soil structure, better water and reduced soil compaction. .

“Natural nutrient cycling creates more nutrient-dense crops, which is healthier for people and livestock,” he said.

In agriculture, soil life is constantly disturbed by tillage, salty fertilizers, overgrazing and pesticides.

“These soil disturbances are hard on soil fungi and result in more bacterial-dominant soils, he said. “It encourages annual weeds and grasses, instead of our desired perennial crops and healthy rangelands.”

RLS works with Earthfort Labs for soil biology profiles that display readings such as total fungi, total bacteria, protozoa and more.

The Smiths use Earthfort products that stimulate beneficial soil biology in their research trials.

Two such products used by RLS include: Soil ProVide, a liquid inoculant with various soil microorganisms; and Soil ReVive, a water-soluble powder with components that nourish living soil, especially hyphal fungi.

Montana State University and MSU Assistant Professor Dr. Jeb Eberly have partnered with RLS to conduct research on how soil microorganisms can improve soil quality and crop performance and fodder.

Vern and Ford began to search for their own land.

“Vern wanted to know the potential of his fields. He took a soil biology test at Earthfort Labs and found there was low beneficial fungal activity in his soils,” Smith said.

Vern has set up a simple trial. One side of his front field was treated twice with Soil ProVide and Soil ReVive. The other side of the pitch was left untreated.

“Dad treated the soil with a prebiotic and a probiotic two years in a row. The treated section had significantly thicker and healthier grass/alfalfa blades than the untreated side,” he said.

Eberly took two samples for DNA sequencing.

“The DNA showed that on the untreated side there were significantly more bacteria associated with unhealthy acidic soils,” Smith said. “It’s something that these fields have suffered from for 20 years, but having a healthy biology has helped balance the system.”

The RLS team, along with MSU, Eberly and AMB West, one of their neighbors, conducted another “more scientifically rigorous” trial in Paradise Valley from 2018.

This time they conducted the trial on a pivot irrigated pasture and a pivot irrigated alfalfa field.

“We set up a repeat trial and used the same products that Vern had used in his fields, ProVide and ReVive, which are very diverse, broad-spectrum probiotic and prebiotic food sources for the soil,” he said. declared. “We also applied Spectrum/Nutrinate, which are similar products. The main difference is that Soil ProVide comes from a natural source and has a wide diversity of beneficial bacteria and fungi, while Spectrum is lab-made and contains a short list of targeted bacteria and fungi.

Biological treatments were applied in addition to the regular program in both areas.

After two years, they found that soil organic matter – carbon – had increased when diversified with ProVide. In addition, there was better nutrient cycling.

“Releasing nutrients improves the bottom line of an operation,” Smith said. “This led to a numerical increase in alfalfa hay yields, higher quality feed value and increased dry matter weight.”

After this research, RLS conducted another side-by-side trial with AMB West, which demonstrated the differences between biological approaches and a traditional chemical approach.

There were two treatments on a field that was seeded as an alfalfa grass hay field.

For the organic approach, they used Earthfort’s ProVide and ReVive, Fish Hydrolysate and G22 fertilizers. They proposed rates based on biological and chemical soil tests.

“G22 is a lower salt, more environmentally friendly fertilizer,” Smith said. “The organic treatment was cheaper by $7 per acre initially. Additionally, input costs should come down as the biology improves.

For traditional treatments, the owners applied their normal chemical application which they have always used on the fields.

The first summer, MSU helped them set up a sampling grid layout with the biological curriculum on one side and the traditional chemistry curriculum on the other side of the layout.

“On the organic side, there was a lot less mustard, and on the chemical side, there was also about four times more weed than on the organic side,” Smith said.

They also tested feed value in the fields as the hay was cut and baled.

“There were slightly higher proteins with higher dietary value on the biological side,” he said.

With nutrient testing, they found the plants were biologically healthier.

On the traditional chemistry side, there was more empty ground.

In 2021, RLS returned to the site.

“We wanted to check out the perennial hay field and found almost 50% more Cache Meadow Brome on the organic side than on the traditional side,” he said. “The alfalfa was nearly equal on both sides.”

Due to the bare ground spots on the traditional side, they found new weeds blooming in these spots.

“We see a lot of growth in Montana for what we do – a lot of people aren’t aware of the potential of their soils. There are also many biologically friendly fertility products available for people who want high production but don’t want to sacrifice long-term soil health, which is critical to the long-term success of an operation,” Smith said.

At RLS, they believe that soil biology testing, soil chemistry, and in-season tissue testing are the beginnings of building a biological fertility program.

“The RLS foundation starts with an open mind and an openness to see things differently. We would like people to rethink their fertility program and management to make it more biology-friendly, increase resilience in these dry years, and make the more profitable operations to keep people on their land,” he said.

Vern Smith has managed the land holistically since the 1980s and has been ranching in Paradise Valley for 32 years. After a for-profit ranching seminar in 2004, Vern began his educational journey in soil health and biology.

His son, Ford Smith, grew up working on the family ranch along the Yellowstone River. Smith earned a degree in economics and political science from Williams College. He is excited to show growers how in-season biotesting and tissue testing can be added to traditional soil testing and can make a difference on their land.

For more on RLS, see or email Ford at [email protected]

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