Photo above: Max Springer, ecological and land management intern at Pine Meadow Ranch

An intern devises a test to measure the benefits of biochar and no-till methods on restoring soil health on our cow pasture

By Max Springer, ecological and land management intern at Pine Meadow Ranch

In our 160-acre cow pasture, we have a pivot covering almost the entire area. Pivots are effective systems for irrigating large patches of land using sprinklers placed along the length of a rotating pivot arm. Our pivot has a section about halfway down its length where there aren’t as many sprinklers, and the ground it covers doesn’t get the water it needs. There is a circular swath in our field where it turns from green to tan-ish yellow exactly where the sprinklers fail. That is the context for my project. 

My task was essentially to increase the water retention of the soil and its overall health. After consulting with my supervisor and discussing learning more about possible solutions, I came up with a plan. 

My plan revolves  around the biochar we made have here at the ranch. Biochar is basically burned organic matter or biomass. It holds water really well and adds valuable nutrients at the same time. After deciding to use biochar, I had to determine how to get it into the soil and how to test its effectiveness.

When fleshing out my ideas in our weekly intern meeting and looking at the equipment I had available, I landed on tilling the biochar into the ground. My supervisor also recommended I test the differences between tilling the biochar into the ground versus using a no-till method. (See photos below.)

I also selected seven species to seed after applying the biochar to test the differences between till and no-till and see if the soil health had increased. I chose four warm-season grasses, two cool-season grasses and one clover. It was difficult to choose the species to seed because they had to be good forage, perennial, drought tolerant and preferably native. Here’s how my project progressed this summer.

First, I started collecting all the biochar we had here at the ranch. I dumped the same amount of biochar into three, 28-foot by 28-foot plots that I had measured in one of the most dry areas in our pasture and spread the biochar out into about a ½-inch layer.

My plan for the first plot was to till the biochar into it and then seed it. For the second plot, I’d use the no-till seeder to distribute the biochar into the soil with minimal disruption to the existing plants, and then seed the plot. Finally, I’d use the no-till seeder again on the last plot, but not add any seeds.

The first two plots are testing the difference between tilling biochar into the ground versus a no-till method and its effectiveness in restoring the pasture soil. The third plot is solely for testing how effective the biochar is by not adding seeds and seeing if the plants, existing grasses in the pasture, can come back. 

The two guiding questions in my project are: testing the effectiveness of biochar in increasing soil health and water retention and secondly, testing the differences in tilling the biochar into the ground versus using a no-till method. 

I really have enjoyed testing these two questions because they will return health to the soil and help our ranch. The subject of till versus no-till methods hasn’t had much research, so this test will hopefully be helpful to farmers and ranchers. Planning, proposing and implementing a solo environmental research project is new to me, and I have really enjoyed designing, implementing and proposing my own environmental research project.

Check back with us here this spring when we see the results of this project.

Max Springer, one of three ecological and agricultural land management interns at Pine Meadow Ranch. is 19 and has finished his first year at the University of Oregon.

Photos below, left to right:

One of Max’s plots after the biochar was tilled
The change in color of the pasture, from green to yellow
A Great Plains no-till seeder pulled behind a Case IH tractor

Published On: August 26th, 2022 / Categories: Pine Meadow Ranch, Pine Meadow Ranch Programs /