After a long pandemic-induced hiatus, Northern Plains hosted its first Soil Crawl of 2021 at the Graham Ranch, just west of Conrad. Unfazed by the hot, smoky weather, around 30 participants turned out for rancher Lisa Schmidt’s tour and presentation of the management practices that sustain her vast grass-fed beef and lamb operation. Schmidt shared her approach to managing the ranch, explaining, “I really like to stop and observe every once in a while and then think about how to improve [the land]. That’s the overall theme of today – to observe and experiment.”
Crawl participants viewed the effects of Schmidt’s bale grazing experimentation on portions of the ranch where cheatgrass had taken hold. Using the natural slope of the landscape, Schmidt rolls hay bales downhill and carefully spreads the hay in a thin layer. When combined with manure from grazing animals, this thin layer retains moisture and offers a suitable environment for native grasses. Across the hillside, participants could see bands of native grass in an area that had been previously occupied by cheatgrass.
This summer’s unusual heat and dry conditions have taken a toll on producers across the state, and Schmidt acknowledged her ranch was no exception. “All the stuff I wanted to brag about was eaten by the grasshoppers in the last couple weeks,” she said. Nevertheless, Schmidt took the challenging conditions as an opportunity to encourage state-level policy efforts on soil health. “We need to build off the work at the legislature and think about how to improve the health of soils across the state,” she said, referencing SB 180, a bill that Northern Plains helped bring to the state legislature. Schmidt gave a nod to state Senator Bruce “Butch” Gillespie (R – Ethridge), who co-sponsored the bill and attended the event. The bill would have appointed a task force and assessed the need for a state healthy soils program.
The crawl also featured additional speakers, including Bureau of Mines geologist Ginette Abdo, MSU soil scientist Tony Hartshorn, and Montana Salinity Control Association director Scott Brown. Abdo provided geologic context and tied it to the characteristics of the ranch’s soil. Hartshorn walked participants through a soil profile on a cut bank and discussed the importance of plant root structure. Brown spoke to the management of saline seeps at a natural seep below one of the ranch’s many springs.