Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

BEAM Compost in Rangelands

Our first research grant through the California State Agricultural Research Initiative(opens in new window) was approved. The grant will fund a multi-year study on the effects of BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agriculture Management)(opens in new window) on California rangeland.

Rangelands cover more than 31% of the total land area of the United States and 53% of the western region. These lands are native habitat to hundreds of plant species, birds, reptiles, and insects that make up our watersheds, riparian areas and scenic landscapes. Ranching families that live and work on these lands support a $7.3 billion dollar industry and provide jobs for a local rural economy.

Western grasslands represent a vast store of carbon, both in soils and vegetation. However, the carbon sequestration potential of this land depends greatly on appropriate management. Being arid or semi-arid due to low and variable  precipitation, nutrient poor soils and other factors, they are often subject to desertification as a result of drought, low resilience, and past management practices. Increases in invasive species also becomes a problem under such conditions, and those increases are strongly correlated with a reduction in forage suitable for grazing. Minimizing degradation or desertification and restoration or improvement of degraded soils is important both for carbon sequestration and the ranching industry.

Several reports suggest that soil amendments can be added to rangelands with a positive effect on soil nutrient dynamics and carbon storage, but the amount of compost needed is too large at 30 tons per acre to be practical for large-scale grazing operations. New data in vegetable cropping systems from NMSU Institute for Sustainable Agricultural Research (ISAR), however, suggests that when using fungal dominated composts much smaller amounts are necessary for positive effects on soil carbon and nutrient availability. Dr. David Johnson and his co-workers found that when the fungal:bacterial ratio increased to 5:1, compost application as low as 400 lbs/acre might be sufficient. If found suitable for rangelands it would provide a more economical approach to rangeland restoration and soil carbon sequestration. They call their approach BEAM for “Biologically Enhanced Agriculture Management.”

The goal of the CRA study is to test the impacts of a BEAM style compost on rates of carbon sequestration, rangeland soil fertility, and plant productivity (yield and quality) in semi-arid grasslands of the west. The project will compare bacterial dominate vs. fungal dominate compost applications over the course of 3 years to fully assess the impact of treatment on pasture quality and productivity, soil health, and carbon sequestration. In addition, the total cost of the compost applications will be monitored to determine rates of return and cost effectiveness of each approach. DNA tracer technology will be used to profile soil microbiology between treatments over time. We also hope to use this grant to educate ranchers, stakeholders, state agencies, and land management specialists about the results.

The first step is the creation of BEAM compost in the "bioreactors" shown above. This process takes about a year. Learn more about BEAM research here(opens in new window)