April 14, 2024

Institute focuses on land stewardship to improve soil health

Hugh Aljoe

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Noble Research Institute is focused on land stewardship for improved soil health for grazing animal production with lasting profitability.

“We had a founder that had a heart for land and the people that took care of the land,” said Hugh Aljoe, director of producer relations at the Noble Research Institute.

Located in Ardmore, Oklahoma, the organization was established in 1945.

“Lloyd Noble had seen what the land looked like after the Dust Bowl because he lived through it,” said Aljoe during a presentation at the 2024 Grazing Conference, “The Hidden Benefits and Profitability of Illinois Grazing Operations,” hosted by the Illinois Grazing Lands Coalition.

“We do field scale type work to try to benefit the soil.” Aljoe said.

Over the years, Noble has added several ranches to the operation, which now includes 13,500 acres.

“The Red River Ranch is the oldest pecan orchard in the state,” Aljoe said. “When we got the Coffey Ranch in 1988, we started a project to see what we could do with rest and recovery to manage the land.”

From 1988 to 1997, Aljoe said, there was a three-fold increase in grazing days at the Coffey Ranch.

“Instead of 10,000 animal unit days, we were up near 40,000 animal unit days and all we did was provide rest and recovery by making more paddocks,” he said.

In 2017, the Noble Research Institute became an Agricultural Research Organization.

“Our board is still Noble descendents,” Aljoe said. “We want to make an impact bigger than the southern Great Plains, so we are focusing on soil health of grazing lands.”

To transition to adaptive land stewardship practices across all of the institute’s land, the first step was to train the staff.

“We have 170 permanent sites we’re monitoring twice a year, so it takes a big team to do it,” Aljoe said.

The next step was to sell equipment that was no longer needed for the ranches.

“We sold over $200,000 worth of hay equipment plus $200,000 of other farm equipment,” Aljoe said. “Because we’re not going to be doing spraying, fertilizing, making hay or plowing, so all that equipment could go.”

A plan was developed for all the ranches.

“We put in lots of water, including 60,000 gallon storage tanks and several wells,” Aljoe said. “And we tracked all the costs, so we can look at return on investment.”

The researchers started with grazing sheep and goats and now they are working to integrate cattle.

“The goats and sheep eat something different than the cattle, so we can tell where the sheep and goats have been,” Aljoe said. “We are growing multi-species cover crops, so we have not sprayed any weeds.”

Two years of data shows, even during a drought, the average organic matter on the institute’s land has increased from 1.1% to 1.7%.

“That gives us confidence that we’re moving in the right direction,” Aljoe said.

“When we got started there was no dark color at the soil surface,” he said. “Now we have 1.5 inches of dark soil that wasn’t there two years ago and that takes cover crops.”

Previously, cattle at the Oklahoma ranches calved in January and February.

“Now we’ll start calving about April 1, so we lined calving up with our growing season to minimize costs and inputs,” Aljoe said.

The researchers are evaluating different grazing allocations that range from moving animals multiple times per day to moving them twice a week.

“The stocking densities range from 1,000 pounds per acre to 1 million pounds per acre for short periods of time,” Aljoe said.

“We try not to do the same thing we did last year or even earlier in the season,” he said. “And we try to keep our herds as big as possible.”

Prior to 2021, lots of hay was harvested on the Noble ranches.

“We were feeding from three to four months of hay, so when we started making the transition we wanted to have 30 days of hay on hand and hope we never use it,” Aljoe said.

After the heifers are weaned, the heifers graze with the cows, so the cows can teach the heifers what to eat.

“The most difficult time is the winter,” Aljoe said.

The heifers and cows are separated before they start calving.

“We don’t want the heifers out there with the cows when they are calving, but by that time the heifers have learned how to graze,” Aljoe said. “Typically we expect 20% fallout of first calf heifers, but last year we had 11% fallout.”

Observing changes in the pastures is important for evaluating the various practices being implemented in the system.

“Go out there and dig holes, so you can see the differences,” Aljoe said. “Smell the soil and look for the biological activity. We are now seeing dung beetles, horn toads and earthworms.”

Costs are tracked at the Noble Institute for each of the ranches, so that the information is available to share with producers.

“On an annual basis, we’re projecting about $175,000 fewer direct costs,” Aljoe said. “And that money can be put toward infrastructure.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor