By Dan Butterfield

Thanks to the Camera for the Jan. 31 article “Soil degradation continues.” I am a former dairy farmer and longtime gardener. I always thought of myself as a dirt farmer, as the highest priority in farming and ranching is soil health.

On my recent drive through east Boulder County I saw many acres of agricultural land, nearly all bare soil, prone to wind and water erosion and the damaging and drying effects of sunlight on bare soil.

I also saw a wheat farming practice of alternating strips of land that grew wheat and other strips of fallow, open ground. We taxpayers are paying that farmer to not grow wheat on those strips to limit production in an attempt to raise prices.

Lierre Keith, in her book “The Vegetarian Myth,” takes the concept of fossil fuels to “fossil water” — the irreplaceable aquifers of water that are pumped down to irrigate crops in this semi-arid region. She also applies the term to soils’ “fossil soils,” topsoil depleted with current agricultural practices.

As the Jan. 31 article states, Boulder County has lost inches, if not feet, of topsoil since agriculture began here.

The two main culprits are overgrazing and monocropping. Many cattle ranchers leave their cows on fragile, overgrazed land, further depleting top soils.

The other short-sighted practice is monocropping. We see fields of nothing but corn, or wheat or sugar beets. Plowing and tillage expose the soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Chemicals try to eliminate the weeds and insects. Chemical fertilizers require large amounts of petrochemical inputs. All of these destroy soil microbes, which are essential for plants to derive nutrients from the soil.

A healthy ecosystem is characterized by biodiversity. Monocropping means no biodiversity and loss of habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, beneficial insects and soil microbes.

The dark side of vegan and vegetarian diets is that they are dependent on monocropping, which means the death of the incredible biodiversity of the land that was before.

The documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” shows how rapidly worn-out and depleted soil can be restored to fertile productive farmland. This is the type of farms that our government should be subsidizing, rather than big monocropping farms that leave the soil decimated and full of pesticides that are injurious to human health and the health of the planet.

How to restore soil fertility and topsoil? Rotational grazing of ruminant animals. Animal manure must be returned to the soil. Rotational grazing requires management, moving cows to fresh pasture before they overgraze. The cows’ manure and urine are returned to the soil. Proper grazing stimulates the regrowth of grasses, fertilized by the cows’ leavings. Cattle yield very nutritionally dense meats with complete protein and essential fats. This produces far more nutrients per acre for human consumption than the other junk food crops like corn, sugar beets and wheat, all grown by topsoil-destroying monocropping.

To improve monocropped soils, sowing a grain like rye or buckwheat after harvest as a cover crop prevents open soil over the winter. When these are tilled into the soil as “green manure” in the spring, it adds organic matter to the soil.

Regenerative farming not only restores topsoil, but biodiversity. Permanent pastures have a multitude of grasses, legumes and herbs, as well as the presence of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. The soil is never bare, so no wind or water erosion. When it does rain, it soaks into the soil instead of running off carrying precious “fossil” topsoil.

Morally and ethically, the death of a pasture-raised cow, which gives us superior nutrition and soil restoration capabilities, pales in comparison to the death of incredibly diverse  ecosystems like the Great Plains and wetlands so we can monocrop corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.

Dan Butterfield lives in Niwot.

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