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Crop Diversity

Crop Diversity

Photo by Douglas Gayeton

Crop Diversity

Location: Curt Sayles's Farm
Featuring: Curt Styles & son-in-law and Dryland Farmer, Patrick

What lessons can dryland farmers learn from grazing migratory bison that disappeared from these high plans over 100 years ago?

The High Plains once grazed by migratory bison featured a diverse mix of perennial and annual plants. “When you have diversity in a cropping system,” Curt observes, “You keep the weeds and bugs off balance. I used to think these plants would compete but we're finding now that they actually work in conjunction with each other. Some plants make nitrogen available and some plants make phosphorus available and some plants are better at retaining moisture. That diversity helps them all survive.

“To get the soil biology right, you have to have diversity above ground if you want diversity below ground. So, we have crop diversity, but the component that we've been missing is the livestock. it's much more than just urine and feces. It’s the way their hooves interact with the soil and when they graze off a plant but don't kill it, so the exudates are going out of the roots. Bison used to migrate in massive and dense herds, only eating the tops of their favorite plants as they went. By keeping our cattle at high densities and frequently moving them between fresh cover crop patches, they eat only a small amount of the total plant biomass. This allows the plants to regrow and benefit the soil, while also providing the cattle with a tasty and nutritious diet. All of these things stimulate the soil biology more than just the nitrogen and phosphorous that might be in the manure.”

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