AoR 78: One Study to Rule Them All - 3M Soil Health Research with Jeff Goodwin & Derek Scasta

How do we build soil health? What is soil health? Is careful grazing helpful or hurtful? Can anything be done to meaningfully influence soil health? And how would we know? What can be measured that indicates progress? These are the questions Derek Scasta and Jeff Goodwin and their team intend to begin to answer through a recently funded national-scale project called Metrics, Management, and Monitoring: An Investigation of Pasture and Rangeland Soil Health and Its Drivers. This ambitious research and outreach effort, funded through a variety of public and private monies, will combine state-of-the-art experimental research with case studies documenting existing soil health effects on farms and ranches where consistent practices have been in place for years (and unlike investing, prior performance does predict future results). These results will inform policy and trade in carbon markets, enhance agricultural resilience to climate uncertainty, and advise land managers on how to increase profitability, land health, and animal health. This interview introduces the project's history, objectives, and timeline. Stay tuned for those future results.

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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at


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My guests today on the Art of Range are Derek Scasta with the University of Wyoming and Jeff Goodwin with Texas A&M, formerly with the Noble Foundation. They're part of a large-scale grant-funded project called Metrics, Management, and Monitoring, An Investigation of Pasture and Rangeland Soil Health and its Drivers. That's a pretty lofty title. There's an awful lot of talk right now about soil health and how to improve it. And some of the talk is quite confident and there is enough mostly I think good-natured controversy that this topic is definitely worth investigating. Jeff and Derek, welcome to the show.


>> Thank you, Tip. I'm happy to be here.


>> Yeah, thank you, Tip.


>> Before we get into the project, let's do some brief self-introduction so that listeners know who they're listening to. Derek, what's your background, how did you end up as a range scientist?


>> Yeah, Tip, so I'm originally from Texas and did my undergrad degree at Texas A&M University and really was interested in kind of ranching, probably because of my two sets of grandparents. And so, you know, had an interest in animals and then got more interested in the land. And from there, I became a county extension agent with the Texas A&M system. As a matter of fact, that's where I first met Jeff. We worked pretty close together when he was with NRCS. And ended up doing a Master's at Texas Tech University and then my Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University because I really wanted to get more detailed in what I was doing on rangeland type of work. And really just appreciate, yeah, the soil and plants that support livestock grazing. And moved to the University of Wyoming in 2014. Wyoming is primarily a rangeland state because of the soils and the climate. And so, I work on a wide variety of range issues. A lot of times it's those really kind of controversial issues, predators eating livestock, grazing permit renewal. And then increasingly, I focus on environmental aspects of grazing. And we've been doing a little bit of work on soil health. And so, yeah, this is kind of falling in line with some direction we're going here.


>> Yeah. And you, Jeff?


>> Yeah, yeah. I've got a Bachelor's degree and Master's degree through Tarleton State University in range and range management. And early on in my career, I wanted to work on ranches, you know, and I wanted to work with ranchers. So, I started working with the USDA-NRCS. And I worked for that organization through, you know, developing conservation plans and implementing farm bill dollars on rangeland acres all across the State of Texas. I ultimately, worked my way up to the state rangeland management position in 2016. And it's a great opportunity really to work with a lot of great landowners. But I had an opportunity in 2016 to go work for Noble Research Institute. And so, made the move to Ardmore. Really jumped in with both feet, working with ranchers from Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas on just really focusing on that grazing land soil health component. And they allowed me to really dive into that. And I really wanted to better understand how do we bring data to the table to better understand or make these inferences that we hear. And so, tying that together, I had the opportunity to continue work on a Ph.D. And I'm about to wrap that up through Texas A&M-Kingsville. And so, yeah, I've worked with Noble through this process. Really the whole impetus of this whole project started in about 2017. We can get into that in a minute but, yeah, I was at Noble for about five years, and in November, I recently accepted a position with Texas A&M University to come down and help start the new Center for Grazing Lands and Ranch Management here in College Station. So, I'm happy to be here and work, collaborating very closely with Noble and all of our partners on this project.


>> Good. Thank you. Yeah, some of that's news to me and I'm glad to hear about it. As I mentioned before, the scope of the title of this project is really large. It seems to me that if you had a group of 10 soil and ranch scientists in a room, you'd get at least 24 different opinions about what works and what doesn't, and how we should evaluate it. And this topic of soil health is just -- I mean, it spans microbiological communities and interactions with plants, soil disturbance regimes and history, plant community diversity, the effects of livestock, manure, compaction, soil organic matter. And, you know, every single one of those topics is worthy of a book-length research summary. And there's advocacy and there's great literature. Are you trying to cut through some of that with this project? What are the goals of this, you know, large-titled multifaceted project?


>> I'll take a stab, Derek. You know, overarchingly, we want to be able to better have an understanding of what those interactions are across rangeland and pasture space. I mean, we step back and look at what we consider the soil health movement if you will, over the past 10 or 15 years, primarily most of that's been focused in the cropland space. And at least recently. I mean, we've been working in rangelands for a long time and we've been understanding the impacts of management on plant community dynamics and soil dynamic properties and things of this nature. But pulling it together with the soil health sort of focus, cropland has gotten a lot of that focus lately. And so, much of the impetus for this project was to put more -- shine that light back on 655 million acres of grazing lands that are across our country and help us really to put some data behind some of the impacts that we're seeing. So, really, we wanted to be able to quantify those metrics, right. Everything from the soils through those microbial interactions. But the soil health metrics that we all hear and talk about, all the way through the plant community dynamics, all the way up those linkages between soils, plants, animals, and ultimately, the human because what we, I think, found is that we can't really disconnect the implementation of these management strategies by taking the human out of the situation. The landowner, the manager is really -- has a tremendous amount of opportunity to impact these systems. And so, having a disconnect there is really a disservice to understanding science. And so, not only are we interested in the ecologic impacts of management in these systems but also the socio-economic drivers that help producers -- what's helping them decide what they want to do on the daily basis. I mean, is this information going to help them make a more informed decision, are we going to be -- what's driving their decision-making. And ultimately having this information as a feedback tool to better inform those decisions in the future is really one of the primary drivers. I'll stop there. Derek, you may have some things to add.


>> No, I think that was a good overview, Jeff. And I think, you know, circling back to the managers is an important emphasis of this effort. Certainly, there are some really awesome, you know, biological science that's going to happen but we also have these sociologists and human dimensions folks on our team. And the time is right to really engage on that side of it because, you know, that determines how those decisions are made. And then, you know, the provision of ecosystem services on these rangelands is tremendous. But the ranchers right now, the ranching community has a lot of questions about all of these kind of soil dynamics in the context of their management. And they've kind of been underserved in a way, you know. Historically, we would say, we'll take a soil test and send it in to a lab and the output they would get would be a nitrogen fertilizer recommendation with a bushel of corn target. And so, what we really need to work on, and I think this is what this project is going to do, it's going to bring all of this information, it's going to help us develop those tools, as Jeff alluded to, to make soil health more practically applied for ranching and rangelands and pasture lands. And I think that's what is really exciting to me. And when I talk to ranchers in Wyoming and surrounding states, man, they are eager to be engaged on this topic more than I've ever experienced.


>> Yeah, I think I sensed the same thing. You mentioned a minute ago that pasture and range is 655 million acres in the US and that that is approximately 41% of the land use, more than cropland and timberlands. I think that would surprise some people, even some of us who are in this social sphere of range and livestock people. And that makes me -- I find that myself and a lot of range people I see kind of in this middle space between what Barry Perryman calls "the pristine management paradigm," you know, the idea that if humans just walk away from a given land situation that it'll somehow return eventually to a pre-Columbian ecological nirvana. And all we have to do is leave it alone and nature will heal itself. And I would say that it's pretty well-established now through solid range science that, you know, we have these multiple pathways that succession can take in our job, I think we have some responsibility to try to be responsible about directing some of that succession and shifting it away from some of the less desirable pathways. But I see even in the history of the Noble Institute, I think, addressing some of these things. If I'm recalling correctly, the Noble Research Foundation was established in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl actually reestablishing perennial pasture in places that I think had been used heavily for cotton for many years. So, there's, you know, nearly a century of history of trying to stabilize soil and improve soil health, specifically through smart management of lands raised for livestock. Am I remembering that correctly, Jeff?


>> Yeah, Noble was the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and it was founded in 1945. And, you know, they've been around for 75-plus years and working with producers on a number of issues. And in 2017, however, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation decided to split the organization, the endowment is still held to the foundation, but the organization decided to develop the Noble Research Institute which really is the operational arm of Noble. And so -- and they've refocused all of their efforts recently on focusing on regenerative grazing lands stewardship essentially. Focusing on those 655 million acres that we referenced and really trying to find practical applied solutions for landowners that are ranch-scale and that drive lasting profitability. So, that's been their focus and that's the reason that Noble is interested, and that's the reason they're putting up seven and a half million dollars to help support this project. One more thing if I might just kind of touch base back on, some of the objectives for this work is we talked a little bit about some of the individual metrics, and I think we often fall into a little bit of a trap when we start thinking about metrics and -- I don't want to say that we get myopic in our thinking but sometimes we get pretty singularly tracked and we're only looking at carbon or we're only looking at water, or we're only looking at the plants, or, you know. One of the things that we're going to strive to better understand in this study is to better understand those linkages between all of those systems. And at least the systems that we're currently studying, and then more aptly be able to scale that understanding. So, one of the reasons is we've got this large gradient of aridity that is setting the foundation for the intensively measured sites, right. So, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. And so, we've got a broad reach of variability there from an environmental perspective. And so, intensively studying all of the carbon work, and it's not just soil carbon cores, we are working with some of the best researchers on the planet Earth on the carbon side, with Dr. Francesca Cotrufo at Colorado State, Dr. Keith Paustian at Colorado State, and their teams are working with us on further developing their MIMB models. And we're also working with a company called QuantERA out of the UK that's helping us to work through the eddy covariance flux data. So, we'll be looking at, not only just soil carbon sequestration and organic matter dynamics but also full-scale carbon fluxes in these systems. And so, it's not just how much we're putting into the ground that some, you know, an aggregator may want to compensate the producer for for a market perspective, this is more about understanding our management's role on the carbon in the system as a whole. And so, then as we begin to understand these metrics and look at these interactions and linkages across the plant dynamics, we start to bring in our remote-sensing components. And we are working closely with Dr. Martha Anderson, Dr. Justin Derner, with ARS looking at how do we develop these better tools to be able to utilize remote sensing to be able to scale our understanding across these vast rangeland systems. We're never going to scale this thing with us and a shovel, right. So, we're going to have to have better tools to be able to better understand and then interpret what we're seeing, and then provide actionable, informative information that we can provide back to landowners so they can make a better decision. That's what this is all about at the end of the day.


>> Yeah, that's exciting. It appears that with, you know, somewhere near $20 million of funding and a pretty impressive list of research partners, there probably is enough horsepower to pull off those lofty goals. We've maybe danced around some but I'd like to spend just a couple of more minutes discussing how the effort came together because that's a broad list of people. And I know how much work it takes to try to coordinate and integrate something like this.


>> Sure. Yeah. So, in 2017, we were -- actually, my good friend Chad Allison and I, when Chad worked at Noble, we were working together and working closely with Dr. Keith LaKisha Odom at the Foundation for Food and Ag Research. And we held a convening at Noble just to really focus in on some of this -- some of the impacts. We worked also with Kristie Maczko early on, with the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable. And just working through some of the ideas of what could we do in a space here, in a rangeland space to really understand everything we've been talking about. And so, it sort of evolved and, you know, time happens and, you know, 2020 and everything else between now and then sort of worked its way through. But at about the same time, Noble was transitioning to the Noble Research Institute with their focus of regenerative land stewardship on grazing lands, this opportunity was kind of coming to the table. And our president, the President of the Noble Research Institute, Mr. Steve Rhines was very interested in developing a project. And at the time, he asked me to work directly with a colleague of mine that I had known for a while that Derek knows well, Dr. Jason Rowntree at Michigan State University who's co-director of this project. And we just started working through the process about lining the key takeaways and priorities and building the team. We've got -- we pretty immediately brought Derek onto the team and then started to put together the infrastructure of what it's going to take to maybe answer some of these questions or, you know, put a solid effort at being able to put the data behind the science. And that's really where we started to bring together a lot of the other nonprofits that are with us too, TNCs are participating with us, the National Grazing Lands Coalition is tied in with us, the Savory Institute, Snaplands LLC. I mentioned some of the other partners, Texas A&M, of course. But one of the key takeaways here is that -- I don't really want to get lost here -- that we really haven't mentioned is we've got these three intensive sites that we're focusing our efforts on. But when we start to scale our understanding, we can't just scale it into the abyss, right. So, we'll be working with 60 ranchers across the country, 20 in each of these primary geographic regions to be able to test our models, right, to be able to take what we've learned in these intensive sites where we're looking at using stock density if you will, or prescriptive versus adaptive grazing approaches to create gradients, and looking at how those metrics that we pulled here, how they scale to these 60 producers that are -- we're not going in trying to change their management but we want to be able to make sure that we can most aptly measure what they are doing. That's the key here is to understand all of the keys and interactions and the data that we're pulling, can we accurately measure it on these ranches. And that's how we're going to be able to tie in and start to scaling this up. Derek, you may want to jump in on the producer piece.


>> Yeah, well, I just wanted to add too that, you know, as we started to have some of these discussions, we also talked about encapsulating the gradient of different types of rangelands and pasturelands and so it's kind of how Wyoming became involved was, you know, how do we have kind of these western rangelands also incorporated. And so, that gradient is really important, you know, because it's that environmental context I think that can really determine how soil, the vegetation, these other indicators respond to management. And so, you know, rather than say advocating for one management strategy or another, we're really trying to understand, the variation across these ecosystems. And then have kind of regionally relevant grazing practices so that we can start to customize, you know, the advising and information we provide to producers. And so, the other thing is on producers' wellbeing, you know, that's a really big deal right now, you know, times have been pretty stressful for a lot of different reasons. But agricultural producers are kind of catching it from all sides. There's a lot of criticism about the environment, about, you know, food production, you know, use of, let's say, antibiotics, competition from meat that's not derived from animals. And so, if we can bring to the table better information on this topic, and like Jeff was saying, not just a single indicator which can be a ditch we run off into but rather understanding the complexity of soil health responses. I think that's going to be pretty key. And kind of let that data then kind of guide, you know, thinking about management.


>> Yeah, in the summary document, you say that farmers and ranchers have been implementing soil health principles that have improved the health of their land but that the evidence for the improvement has been mostly anecdotal. How would you summarize the anecdotal benefits of implementing soil health principles in the run-up to this grand effort, you know, how would you characterize what livestock producers are saying are the benefits in terms of soil health that they believe they see?


>> Well, I mean, just briefly, you know, we hear that -- we hear often that if we increase our organic matter, we're going to increase water holding capacity in our soils and, you know, there's these blanket numbers being thrown out there with a high level of confidence. And I think that at any time that we actually sit back and look at the complexity of at least -- even a soil's map will tell you it's likely that there's some variability associated with a lot of those numbers. Soil carbon sequestration is another one. There's, you know, conflicting sort of data out there on the impact of grazing management. And certainly, there's a lot of really good data out there. There's a lot of -- you know, I think there's a bigger story to tell here that the climate is a bit of a driver in this system too, especially west of the 100th meridian. And so, there's some anecdotal -- but it's the emotion that has to be taken out of this system, right. That's why we want to bring the information and the data. And a lot of times when you see good things happen, it makes you feel good, right. Well, that leads to seeing what you want to see. And I'm a proponent of managing for healthy soils. It's the foundation of all of our terrestrial ecosystems. I mean, it makes complete sense for me to manage that way. But, you know, we want to be able to do it in a smart way so that we can better understand the complexities but also balancing the fact that these people are small businesses and they have to make a living and economic viability is paramount as well.


>> Yeah, and I think a lot of ranchers, I mean, they have conservation ethic, right. I mean, they quite often understand, look, the land is the resource space that is supporting my livestock enterprise. And if I'm going to sustain that into the future for the next generation, you know, I need to be a good steward of that. I think a lot of the anecdotal evidence that they see is what we might often consider rangeland health indicators. Am I reducing erosion and runoff? Am I increasing perennial native grass cover? You know, those are certainly positive influences on the soil-plant interface. And they may not always have that quantitative number where they didn't run a bunch of plots and take a bunch of estimates but they do have you and I for that. I think what we're going to be moved the needle on here is we're going to come alongside producers, we're also going to have some intensively managed kind of institutional ranch properties, and we're going to start to really quantify those values as well as some other indicators that, like Jeff alluded to, might be marketable. Maybe carbon credits are something that, you know, an enterprise -- and we have folks in Wyoming that have marketed and received payments for those. So, you know, this anecdotal thing, you know, is not necessarily good or bad but it is what folks look at as they get their boots on the ground and think about their management. But they desire more quantitative information and they're not getting that from just a standard soil test necessarily. And then they don't know which indicator to pay attention to sometimes. And so, we're going to dial that in a little bit more for those producers to see how does that influence and then take to the next level, you know, regenerative rangeland agriculture with an eye on soils.


>> Yeah. So, I think part of what I'm hearing is that maintaining rangeland health, particularly in situations where maybe it hasn't been great is good but that's more like holding the line rather than boosting or amplifying soil health in a way that say increases the output of some ecosystem service. Is that right?


>> Exactly. Exactly. So, let's say Jeff and I have producers we're working with in our respective regions, and they really want to know about carbon. And maybe they really want to know, okay, are we storing carbon. Well, that's great. Are we accumulating carbon? Well, that's a different question. At what rate are we accumulating carbon in my environment which is high elevation, cold, as opposed to Jeff's environment which is mesic and warm? And so, you know, that's what we need to answer. And then what's the time scale that things are realizable? You know. Because nutrients cycle very slowly in my environment. I mean, we're extremely cold. They cycle more rapidly, you know, in Jeff's environment. So, that's where that regionally appropriate information is going to come in. And like you're saying, Tip, yeah, maybe we've been holding the line, we've been good stewards but we don't even know the upside potential of some other objectives that maybe we would hope to achieve with some management. And that's where we're going to put some numbers to, I think.


>> Yeah, I'm trying to think through in my own head here to what extent. There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation or it feels like that. Maybe it's just a two-stage research process but, you know, identifying accurate and reliable indicators of soil health is something different from research that's determining how specific agricultural or grazing practices influence those reliable indicators of soil health or carbon sequestration. It sounds like you're trying to do both of that.


>> Yeah, I think that's a fair statement.


>> But I think I'm also hearing that there's likely enough research out there that there are some accepted indicators of soil health already. You mentioned back in the beginning, I think, Jeff, that QuantERA was working on this EVO flux data. I didn't even know what EVO meant until you said the word but after you said the word, I couldn't catch it long enough to write it down to repeat it in a later question. Can you describe -- so, I guess there was a couple of questions there. One is what are some of the actual direct measurements of soil health that you're looking at already that are different from what you get on the standard soil test and how are some of those things measured. I know there are maybe new ones. I'm not a soil scientist so maybe EVO is a really common term that I just don't know about yet. But can you describe some of those?


>> Yeah, so the plant interactions piece, the land management piece where we're going to be the land monitoring piece is going to be done through working collaboratively with Savory's ecological outcome verification program. So, they start an EVO platform. And it's not the only one that we're going to be evaluating. There's other monitoring processes that we're going to be evaluating as well. But primarily, what we're going to be looking at is the short-term and the long-term indicators established through the ecological outcome verification metrics through Savory's work program. And so, it looks at everything from plant community dynamics, from the perspective of, you know, cool-season grasses versus warm-season grasses, and soil infiltration tests. We also look at the Haney test as well so we can look at water-extractable organic nitrogen, water-extractable organic carbon. Certainly, the metrics that Dr. Rick Haney has put together in that test that are -- they tell a much different story to Derek's point on the typical kind of, you know, agronomic based soil test that you get. It shows you -- it provides you a lot better insight into carbon that's available for the microbial function. And so, we look at some of these other ideas and metrics around soil health. So, the EOV process has done a really good job of I think of having a very qualitative or quantitative-focused long-term monitoring site protocol. And then they have -- they do a lot of short-term monitoring sites that look at much more qualitative kind of metrics. And it's really -- those are built to fit to the producer. And producers can go out and really get into some of these easy, more tangible metrics to be able to understand and see changes in a shorter timeframe. As opposed to, you know, these lagging indicators like organic matter change, no one is ever going to see that. But can they see litter movement? Can they see, you know, accrual or reels, or, you know, evidence of erosion, things like that? Those are things. And a lot of these metrics are tied in with rangeland health as well, the rangeland health assessment. A lot of them are very similar. And so, but Savory's been using that. They've got that program on millions of acres across the world currently. And so, we decided to go and set the monitoring framework to monitor the land management aspect here. And then tie in many of those metrics with this whole concept of tying it into the remotely sensed interpretation. Is that kind of where you were going with that?


>> Yes. That was my question. And I think some of the remotely sensed data will be especially applicable on rangelands. I've done a fair bit of long-term rangeland health monitoring using a variety of different systems. And I've been pretty frustrated with the inability to feel like you're capturing anything useful that's going to change. And, of course, in a lot of situations where if you're starting with decent rangeland health and after 15 years of implementing good grazing practices, you still have decent rangeland health, you're not expecting a lot of things to change, and that should be something that's positive. But I also think that it's difficult to capture that at the micro-scale without a ton of sampling. And I've been a big fan of the rangeland analysis platform and a couple of other ones like it where you've got, you know, landscape-scale full cover data that provides at least one set of indicators that can be useful over time.


>> Hey, Tip, the comments you were making there kind of brought a thought to my mind too. And I think this really differentiates this kind of soil health trajectory on rangelands, and it distinguishes it from what's happened in the cropland world. And that is that, yes, the history of the land that you were getting at. And so, in croplands, you know, if we increase litter, move to more conservation tillage approach by reducing the number of times we're turning the soil, and even moving into perennial stuff. We can make really rapid enhancements, right, it's very detectible. There's some papers that have really capitalized on that and been published. But the reality is --


>> And everything is uniform.


>> Right. Right.


>> Every square foot is, you know, a similar soil type. It's all been mixed up. You've got equal treatments. And so, you take -- you know, if you're analyzing data across 100 points, they're all going to be pretty similar. Whereas on rangeland, you can take 100 points and every single one of them is different.


>> Exactly. So, the complexity, and then the starting point on a lot of rangelands, it's not that land that is necessarily highly disturbed, right, like in a cropping scenario. And so, that starting point, that land history really is relevant to, you know, any possible changes. If we move into range, it's very degraded. You know, the upside potential might be pretty dramatic as opposed to very well-managed rangelands. And I think that's going to be important as we work with producers because we're going to have a lot of ranches at a lot of different places, a lot of different stages. And so, that makes this rangeland soil health business quite a bit different than what's been done in row crop agriculture.


>> Right. Right. Yeah, and the irony which has been pointed out before is that on rangelands, you know, you have significantly higher carbon sequestration potential on degraded rangelands because any effort to improve some of these ecological processes going on at the plant-soil interface are going to make an appreciable difference. And so, you know, like for a while there were -- maybe there still are contracts on the climate exchange for carbon sequestration, and they paid it a higher rate on rangelands that had a lower rangeland health score because there was a greater potential for sequestration.


>> Yeah, yeah. That starting point from when you start to measure things is really pretty contextually relevant to what may happen.


>> Yeah. Maybe some of the details of the research haven't been worked out yet but I'm curious what kind of specific agricultural or grazing practices that are intended to influence soil health are you planning on applying in the structured research? What treatments are planned?


>> Well, I think one thing we need to make sure we clear up is there's kind of two sides to this. One of those is our very intensive research ranch investigations. And that is where we are going to manipulate grazing management, we're going to have a really in-depth suite of things we're going to measure. So, that's going to include a ranch at the University of Wyoming, two ranch properties at the Noble Research Institute, and then a ranch property with Michigan State University kind of in the northern part of the state. There we're going to alter grazing density or stock density anywhere from two- to fourfold. And that is really kind of what we're going to contrast. And we're really not aiming to say advocate for this practice or that practice, we're really trying to understand a gradient of intensities and how, you know, the soil and plants respond. That's the intensive side. On the producer-cooperator side, we're going to come in alongside of them and understand how they're grazing. And we're going to probably have all sorts of grazing management that you could imagine. I know folks I've talked to, you know, some are like, "Look, I contract and bring in steers just kind of a seasonal continuous type of grazing." Others are very much in a more intensive rotational type of program. So, Jeff, I'll let you jump in on that.


>> Yeah, I was just -- I think you did a great job of kind of focusing on those intensive sites, those three sites that we were talking about, three universities. I mean, we're trying to create the gradient, right, within our own context. And so, within the context of the Southern Great Plains, how can we create that gradient of management? And so, one treatment will be very prescriptive, low-density, very prescriptive management, calendar-timed rotations, you know, pretty typical low-intensity management. And the other one will be using higher stock densities and very adaptive management. And the forage resource will be telling us, you know, when we come back and really driving the recovery days. And so, that's the focus on those. And then, to Derek's point, we create those regional gradients and then build in the producer ranches that we're going to be working with. They fill in the gradient, right. And so, we're not going out to tell them how to graze. We want to be able to most aptly measure how they graze -- measure the responses. Excuse me.


>> I like that. How that kind of a two-part approach where there's both the case study research where you have people with established practices that have produced results already, whatever that might be, you know, somebody's been managing within -- you know, at this point on the gradient in this particular environment for 25 years. What did that do? And then identifying people that are at different places on those gradients with different treatments. And then the classic scientific method at the intensive research sites where you're manipulating a variable or a few variables to measure what happens. I think that's a brilliant approach.


>> Exactly, yep. You got it there, Tip.


>> What is the timeline on the project? Are you in year one or year five? And how long is this going to stretch out for? Because it takes a while to measure some of these things.


>> Yes, it's a five-year project. And we're just now getting the ball rolling. We plan to have our flux towers installed. And just to kind of give you a little bit of an idea of the magnitude, we're going to have 58 flux towers across the country tied in on all these trenches and these individual sites. So, we're going to have a tremendous amount of information coming in off these properties. But the goal is to get the first 28 towers out this year on the three sites. The first part of this year and start actually getting our baseline data developed. And the first year we'll be getting our intensive sites up and rolling. And then we'll be identifying producer-participants and enrolling them as well. So, you're exactly right. Some of these metrics are lagging, they take time to sort of happen. Organic matter doesn't -- you know, carbon doesn't sequester overnight. I guess, it does but you just can't measure it that fast, right. But the point is, we're working through the process of getting everything lined up. One of the key things that I think we sort of talked a little bit about the producer wellbeing piece, the economic evaluations that are going to be tied into this study as well, to me, I think are going to be pretty important. You know, when we start measuring the actual management that these producers are doing and when we tie in -- their willingness to help us tie in the economic metrics to these -- and start tying the economic metrics with the ecologic metrics, we can start to tell a whole lot better story to these producers that are trying to make a decision of whether or not they want to go down this path of managing this way. I think too often, we've balanced -- we've had an imbalance of our information where we focus -- you know, we provide them all the ecological information in the book but we don't have the economic data to back it up to say, okay, that's all fine and good but it's not going to make me any money. We're hoping to change that with this project.


>> Yeah, Jeff, I think that's what's exciting. And you said the word linkages at the very beginning of the podcast. But we're going to link soils, forage, livestock, producer decision-making, and then economics and sustainability. When you think about those five kind of tiers or hierarchies, those are generally not all connected in a single effort, and that, man, that is invaluable in this case. The other thing is, five years of funding is unprecedented, even federal grant funding, you know, cycles are generally not of that duration, often three years. So, pretty unprecedented you have the duration of the project there.


>> Yeah, I was going to say something or ask a question a little bit earlier and maybe this is a good time to come full circle. We said that range and pasture is 41% of the land in the United States and the importance of caring for those lands well is a big deal. But I think a lot of people hear things like social research and rancher wellbeing and they see, you know, fuzziness, feelings, something that's not research. But I don't want to gloss over that. I think that is a very big point because whether or not those lands stay in a condition where they're able to produce ecosystem goods and services and food and fiber for human flourishing really depends on rancher wellbeing which has quite a bit to do with whether or not they and their family members think they can make a living at this. And when they don't, I know there's a ton of good stuff that's been written and researched about what happens to ranchlands when they're no longer a working ranch. And it is not usually to go back to pre-European wilderness. You know, so whether or not those 41% of lands in the US continue functioning depends largely on this social and economic sustainability, and that's a very, very big question, particularly as we have a wave of baby boomers that are dying and approaching death right now. And a lot of the heirs to those ranches don't have a lot of interest in continuing the ranch as a working business.


>> Tip, I think that is a really good point. I mean, we have historic ranches here in Wyoming with no apparent heir. And it's a big issue. And listen, the provision of open space that working ranches provide is really critically important to just the maintenance of, yeah, open landscapes, biodiversity, air quality, migrations of animals. And, you know, here in Wyoming, you know, we really have three tiers to our economy, energy, recreation, and then agriculture. And for agriculture, ranching is a big part of that. So, it's important to these small towns, rural communities, it's really important. But, you know, there's probably never been a better time to think about mental health and wellbeing and, you know, optimism for the future. And I think that's part of this, right, this idea of regenerative agriculture. That's kind of an optimistic mindset, you know, this idea that I'm having a positive impact on these natural resources upon which my children and hopefully my children's children may rely. But even for those ranches that don't have an apparent heir, they are eager to see the next generation of ranchers come in and continue that. So, I think the time is right. Maybe some of that's been revealed by COVID to think about mental wellbeing and optimism and things like that. But how we can help, you know, parameterize and feed into that decision-making, you know, with an eye to the future is really critical.


>> Yeah. And it's one of these issues kind of like other things in ecology that operates on the thresholds rather than a gradient. You don't necessarily sense, you know, the mental wellbeing of people that are involved in a ranching business moving toward the tipping point after which it all falls apart. You just see the tipping point. And I'm not quite sure what else is going on right now but in the last two weeks, I've had phone calls from three investment companies interested in potentially purchasing farms and ranches in central Washington. And that's brand new for me, and I've been doing this for 20 years. You know, it's not the guy next door who's saying, you know, "Joe is getting old and his kids are all gone. Can I take on his place? Can I afford to buy it?" You know, it's large corporations that are seeing this as a long-term investment, which may not translate into, you know, local money staying inside of local communities supporting local businesses and schools and employees and other people. And I think there is some genuine concern there.


>> Yeah, it's like it doesn't matter until it matters. I mean, talking about that tipping point or threshold and, man, when it matters, it matters in a big way. And, yeah, the social dynamics that we're in right now are really, well, they're dynamic.


>> Is there a website yet for this project where people can learn some more if they're interested in even just keeping track of what's going on? Or not yet?


>> Yeah, I don't think there is one yet. Noble Research Institute will most likely be putting something together on the outreach and communication for the project. They're sort of leading the effort along with the Foundation for Food and Ag Research. But I think that's very -- it will be forthcoming and people will be able to sort of follow along.


>> That sounds good. I'm excited to do that. I think we're about wrapped up. Is there anything else you guys wanted to say that we haven't talked about yet? And if not, then I really appreciate your time.


>> I just thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk about it. It's been part of Derek and I's life for the last few years, trying to land this jumbo jet or get it off the runway, whichever way you think about it. But it's going to be a fun ride. And I'm proud to be a part of it, and proud to be part of this team. And thank you for having us on.


>> Yeah, ditto. And thanks for the great podcast, Tip. I mean, you really bring in some great awareness and just insights to rangelands. And I appreciate your innovation in the podcast world.


>> You bet. Thank you. Thank you for listening to The Art of Range Podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering range line managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


>> The views thoughts and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.


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Mentioned Resources

Noble Foundation news release, "$19 Million Research Project Seeks to Understand How Management Impacts Soil Health, Farmer Well-Being"

Colorado State University news release on the project.

Ecological Outcomes Verification,

Journal article, "Usable Science: Soil Health". Rangelands, 2016.
Journal article, "Valuing and Rewarding Ecosystem Services From Rangelands". Rangelands, 2014.
Journal article, "Rangelands and Ecosystem Services: Economic Wealth From Land Health?". Rangelands, 2011

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