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My best employee ever!

My best employee ever!

When you run a business, it is always important to make sure you find and keep really good employees. To do this you need to follow a couple of simple rules. First, you need to make sure you make the working conditions favourable to attract good employees. This means you need to understand what they want, and what they don’t want. Second, you also need to accommodate their life goals in order to give them the desire to work for you. Employees work better if they have a passion for what they do. Does this sound like a sound plan that would allow you to attract and keep good employees?  I think so and it works at all levels.

If any of you have ever taken my school, or heard me at a seminar or conference, you might already know who my best employees are. They work hard and put in long hours. They don’t ever cause me any drama, they never ask for a day off and they never retire. My best employees are willing to work until they die. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the best employees at Greener Pastures are the soil organisms that recycle nutrients. The dung beetles, earthworms, nematodes, yeast, fungi, bacteria and all the rest of the critters that live in the soil all work for me. There are millions of interactions that occur beneath our feet but yet we know more about the solar system than we do our soil life. These soil organisms are very important and cannot be overlooked in our operations. The best part is that they work for room and board. I simply need to provide them with food, water and shelter.

Why do we want soil organisms anyway?  There are millions of benefits to the environment that these soil critters perform.  Here are just a few examples. There are bacteria that work together with our plants to fix nitrogen; a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria and the legume plant. The air we breathe is 78 per cent nitrogen, why would you ever buy any?  It’s free! Our soil life can also recycle our manure and dead plant material, making the nutrients more available to the plants again. Some soil organisms help keep the plants healthy by controlling disease and parasites. If we are always killing off the “bad bugs,” what do you think happens to the “good bugs”?

I’ve heard many experts talk about how nutrients can bind up in the soil and how that is a bad thing. I disagree as I see this as a positive step to building the soil. It’s true that the nutrients in the soil are tied up and not available to the plants; however, if you have a healthy soil life, these nutrients can be released when needed by the soil organisms. The plants need the soil critters and vice versa.

Do you know that our soil organisms can give us a higher effective rainfall? As these employees eat the organic matter they leave humus, which in turn increases the water-holding capacity of the soil. This is a huge benefit for our pastures. A healthy soil life can also buffer the soil pH. Did you know that anything that comes out of the back end of an earthworm is pH neutral? These are only a few of the millions of interactions that occur on a daily basis in our pastures. We need the soil life to have healthy profitable pastures.

Let’s see what we need to do to keep our employees happy. What are the desired working conditions favourable for our soil life? First, they need food. I need to provide organic matter for them to eat in the form of manure, plant material and old root matter. The job of my dung beetles is to eat poo and die! That’s a pretty simple job description. And you think you have a crappy job!

They also require water. If the soil is allowed to dry out due to evaporation, the conditions are no longer desirable for my employees. This means that on our pastures we need to leave enough residue in order to keep the ground covered to hold on to our moisture. Leave more residue!

As for shelter, that is what the thatch layer is. Thatch on a pasture is like the skin on our bodies. It protects all of the biological systems beneath it. Build up your thatch layer and avoid disturbing it whenever possible. Bugs don’t like tillage!

The goal of our soil life is to reproduce. The more soil life we have, the more employees we have so let them reproduce.  We need to keep conditions favourable to maintain a prolific soil life. A win-win for all of us. It’s easy to just say “keep the conditions favourable” but what is favourable?  Maybe it’s easier to explain what is not favourable.

They don’t like chemicals, plain and simple. Insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides are all detrimental to our soil life. If you need to wear protective gear when you handle these products, what chance does a one-celled bacteria or a dung beetle have at survival? Avoid using chemicals whenever possible. There are ways to manage our land and animals in order to avoid using these products that is so much easier on our soil life. I also have a few natural remedies that might help you transition into a healthier production system if you care to contact me. Just stopping cold turkey might have you headed into a wreck.

They don’t like tillage. Tillage turns their life upside down and destroys their shelter.  That protective thatch layer is destroyed and allows more soil moisture to evaporate.  The last thing I want to do to my pastures is to rip them up. I work hard at building thatch, not destroying it. Please keep a roof over their heads. Yes, tillage will make the nutrients “bound up in the soil” release and become available, but at the cost of depleting your soil faster. This is only a short-term gain that degrades your soil in the long term.

They don’t like low organic matter soils. If there is no food to eat, they cannot survive to reproduce. We need to feed our soils critters as much as we feed our livestock.  Some producers have issues with “wasted grass” left out in the pasture. I say “waste it” because this is simply a wage paid to your soil life employees. Feed your soil! Leave as much residue as you can cash flow. Not only is this food for them but it is also gives us the ability to hold onto soil moisture.  The more residue, the less loss we have due to run off and evaporation. Residue is one of the most important aspects of my grazing management.

They don’t like weak root systems. There are millions of symbiotic relationships under the soil. In many cases, the plants and organisms work together to provide different nutrients to each other. For example, the plant might exchange a molecule of sugar to a bacteria in return for a molecule of protein. The problem begins when the plants are overgrazed and are too weak to spare anything to the soil life. One-sided relationships just don’t last. We need to keep our plants strong and healthy by not overgrazing.

They don’t like increases in pH. Did you know that the fertilizers we add to our soil can alter the pH? When the granule of nitrogen we add to our soil meets up with water, a reaction occurs that releases an H+ ion into the soil. More H+ ions means higher pH. Each bacteria present in our soil has a certain range of pH desirable for living conditions. It is detrimental to them to change your pH too much. Did you also know that when a bacteria and a legume team up to pull nitrogen from the air, the pH does not change? Yes, I know we are all scared to death of legumes but I believe there are more economic losses in agriculture today from the fear of bloat, than we would ever get from bloat. Learn how to manage legumes. It’s all free nitrogen.

I am not saying that you need to totally change all of your management at once, nor am I saying that any of these detrimental practices I have described will totally eradicate your soil life populations. What I am saying is that by using a number of these practices over and over, you will definitely lower your soil life populations. Our advantage is that they repopulate very quickly.  Build it and they will come. All I ask is that the next time you make a production practice decision on your operation, just make sure you think about your underground employees and how it might affect them. They are far more valuable to you than you might think.

Best wishes and God Bless!

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta.,, 780-307-6500, email [email protected] or find them on Facebook.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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