Good soil, bad soil in ranching production and technology

This is technical sounding title. But stick with me for the story.

This is technical sounding title. But stick with me for the story.

When I had the privilege (for four years in the 1990s) of being the Forest Minister in B.C., I joined trade missions to China and Japan.  My second trip to China was to open a wood fair featuring the woods we produce in B.C., the first in China as I recall.

When in Japan I met with the President of Oji Paper, then the largest pulp and paper company in the world. I learned that his company had great laboratories.

They had recently completed a huge contract to supply triploid (complicated genetics) poplar trees for a planting program in the Gobi desert.

One of the first things you learn about Beijing is that when the wind blows from the northwest, much dust and sand originating in the Gobi Desert is deposited in the city and surroundings after it darkens the sky and pollutes the air.

The desert is in the headwaters of a large river, which has been stripped of its trees and now its farmed soils. The desert is getting bigger.

In order to stop this trend and perhaps eventually reverse it, the Chinese government had this huge planting program.

When I was leaving China I picked up an English language paper and on the front page was a story about Fukuoka-San, Japanese author of “One Straw Revolution.”

He had just returned from the Gobi desert where his organization had been advising and helping supply a simple planting technology where plant seeds are encased in clay pellets to protect them for the beginning of growth.

In this case, the plant seeds were from the original plant communities that existed before desertification.  Fukuoka-san’s big idea is to mimic nature in establishing the habitat that had evolved to a previous level approximating a stable environment.

So there we have some modern technology (invented tree variants) and old seed varieties. The hope is to restore the soil so more life can be sustained and the desertification is stopped or slowed.

What has this to do with ranching you say? Well, the idea is simple respect for the soil base we have and if we can tweak our management to allow the continued building of pasture and hay land soils. That is a good thing.

The record of civilizations East and West is terrible. Several civilizations have been destroyed over the last 20 centuries by overexploitation of their soils. The Middle East had cedar forest around the Mediterranean.

Restoration is a lot harder than prevention when it comes to soil conservation.

We need to be sure that our introduced technologies do more good than harm and that they don’t drive the need for props or expensive inputs to keep up production.

Costs go up usually, not down with inputs to agriculture.

One ranch management consulting company has recorded that in the US, (we need to check this in Canada) those ranches with the poorest soils had the greatest profits.

It seems if you have good soil, logic suggests that you should farm it, fertilize it, reseed it and your production will be greater. Maybe so for the time being, but for how long and at what cost?

It turns out that the extensive use of large grazing pastures that are rocky and have poor soil (which no one would dream of cultivating) are more cost- effective left as they are in a natural condition.

That would have been easier in the Gobi Desert. We keep thinking that we can feed bigger populations by just adding new technologies. There are limits. Ask the Chinese.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.