By Pam Wavrin, PMRCAA Director of Ranch Operations
Here in Sisters, fall means golden tamaracks and aspen, the elk herd moving down from the mountains, and crisp mornings. It is also the time of year that we do soil tests at Pine Meadow Ranch.
This is our second fall taking soil samples. Armed with a stepped soil probe, buckets and baggies, we headed out to our main pasture. Next year we are teaming up with Sustainable Northwest, so we decided to follow their soil sampling protocols and use the same labs. Per test area, we needed 2 quart baggies from 0-10cm, and 1 quart bag from 10 to 40 cm.
Challenge #1 – The top 2 to 3 inches of the pasture is a solid mass of 90% roots and 10% something else impenetrable, so getting the probe through that top layer took more force than my strength and weight could muster. Challenge #2 was that the rest of the soil was almost as hard, and Challenge #3 was the hardpan about 30 cm down where small rocks joined with the ‘soil.’
Through a combination of balancing on the step, twisting the probe in like an auger and primarily pounding on the top of the probe with a rubber mallet, we collected the samples we needed. We broke 2 mallets that day.
The ideal soil is often described as chocolate cake: rich brown, moist, and soft and crumbly. Our soil is not like that. Unsweetened cocoa powder would be a more accurate descriptor. Light brown, silty, dry and seemingly lifeless. Roots are basically non-existent outside of the top two inches, which seems to be as far as the water is able to penetrate. The irrigation has only been off for two weeks, and the week prior to these tests we had intermittent rains. Yet the soil in many areas was bone dry only a few inches down.
Ultimately, we want this pasture to provide a variety of forage plants for grazing cattle. We want the forage to be diverse, nutrient rich, and provide for pollinators and wildlife in addition to our livestock. Living, healthy, ‘breathing’ soil is the key to being able to do that.
We took our first steps towards improving the soil in this pasture this year. This main pasture is 120 acres, and we divided it into 3 areas for animal rotations. We plan on dividing it into 6 sections next year. Over time we will increase or decrease the number of paddocks based on how the pasture is responding. A specific challenge of this location is that it is watered by a pivot so any fencing needs to be able to allow the pivot to roll over it, or be moved before the pivot reaches it.
Another thing we did this year is seed arctic peas, turnips and radishes into the sod in half of the pasture. Our hope is that the radishes and turnips will establish, winter kill and then rot in place, adding organic matter and creating some air pockets in the soil. So far, the peas are the happiest of the bunch. The others seem to be struggling to get their roots down into the sod mat.
To seed these intercrops, we used our no-till seeder, which has a front roller similar to an aerator, so in addition to the planting it should provide some aeration to the soil that may allow for better water infiltration.
One of my favorite things we tried were some test sections with biochar, to see if that has any impact on the pasture. For more on that, check out our summer intern Max’s blog.
I don’t expect the soil tests to provide any big surprises, but they will help establish a baseline for us to use to test the results of our various attempts.