By Ford Smith

I am sure you have been holding your breath waiting to learn more about our fungal inoculant project. Healthy soil microbiology and what it can do for production, nutrient density, water use efficiency, soil structure, and nutrient cycling makes wondering who won the last sports ball game or the latest political drama seem boring. Am I right?! I hope I can convince you.

We left off with the stage set for our experiment: Ten fields comprised of two-acre control and test plots inoculated or “fed” with food based on EarthFort Lab’s recommendations. Our goal was to see whether these amendments would change the microbial community in a way that would ultimately increase water infiltration, increase plant growth/nutrition, and soil health.  The three main soil biology metrics were 1) total microbial biomass, 2) the ratio between total bacteria and total fungi, and 3) the proportion of active bacteria and fungi within the community. The degree to which these types of amendments can “move the needle” in a system like this is still up for debate. If they can, it may take time and multiple applications to do so. However, we had our fingers crossed we would see movement in the right direction.

In May, the TomKat Ranch Land and Livestock team, with the help of Chelsea Carey (Point Blue Conservation Science) and myself, took forage samples and a second round of soil biology samples. From our forage samples, we observed a number of encouraging trends in nutrient density. For example, the average protein content was 1% greater in the treated sites than the untreated sites. The biomass sample data showed a similar trend with treated sites having higher plant biomass than the controls. As a producer, increased feed value and total biomass are a ‘double win’ and our LeftCoast GrassFed herd will be happy to hear the good news.

Despite seeing some promising results in forage, we were not able to find an obvious link with changes in soil biology at this point. This may be due to the fact that the measurements we took are relatively coarse, leaving potentially important details about the microbial community untested. For example, not all microbes are alike, meaning who is there can matter. It is possible that the amendments shifted total and active microbial community composition, which cannot be captured using direct count techniques. To that end, we have been collecting soil for DNA sequencing and are interested to see whether community composition shifted in any significant way.

There is so much more to learn from this project and from the idea of changing soil microbiology through inoculates and microbial food stimulants. Luckily, TomKat Ranch is not alone. With the help of local partners and the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Coalition, I am helping set up more trials in Paradise Valley, Montana and there are ongoing experiments in North Carolina and Iowa. If anyone else is interested in setting up their own trial, feel free to reach out to me at vernon.telford.smith@gmail.com or the TomKat Ranch team. It’s hard to say what kind of results you might get, but the knowledge you will gain along the way and the network of innovative producers you will meet will be well worth it!