Restoring white tailed deer habitats is a long conservative effort for hunters and ecologists alike. A big misconception in restoring habitat is the use of fertilizers. Using too much fertilizer can have severe negative effects on the environment, such as excess run-off being absorbed by nearby water sources or overapplication of fertilizers stunting plant growth.
Oftentimes people are quick to think that adding more fertilizer will instantly solve their problems and spring up a green crop of fresh growth. This is, however, a flawed way of thinking about how we use fertilizers. In fact, many professionals have begun to advocate for a metered approach to fertilizer use, claiming that many of the fertilizers and pesticides used in major farming operations today are for the most part unnecessary, assuming proper care is paid to soil reparation.
During his recent appearance on the National Land Podcast, Dr. Grant Woods described how soil reparation is at the heart of most of his conservation efforts, the beneficial properties of microbes in the soil, and the ways in which he goes about repairing soils and restoring native white tailed deer habitats on his own property. Here’s what Dr. Woods had to say:
(Mac Christian) “Okay, so you’re establishing your open areas, and what I’m not hearing is ‘I’m dumping fertilizer, I’m dumping new seeds.’ You’re not manipulating the environment, but you’re leveraging the environment at hand to do new things with it, right? For the most part, it sounds like you look at a lot of leverage points.”
(Dr. Grant Woods) “Well, let’s rephrase it this way if you will. We’re restoring native white tailed deer habitats. When we read about the early explorers, Daniel Boone is one, but everyone knows Lewis and Clark. It turns out, in all the areas where there was a trapper or a convict, or really anybody that was literate, they’d take notes about the area.
Here in my area, it was a guy named Schoolcraft and he was looking for lead deposits for mining. He’s one of the first guys that wrote notes about this area to come through. He would hole up in a cave or something every day, and every morning, he would write in his journals. Well, someone found that journal and published it. And so there’s a firsthand look at what this habitat looked like pre-European settlement, or at the very beginning of the European settlement before they’d altered the habitat map.
So we know he talks about walking through these open stands of timber and grass being five-foot-high, and no one thinks about buffalo being in Missouri, but [he saw] herds of bison everywhere. And this is what’s really interesting. He recorded all the days that he smelled wildfire from Native Americans setting fires, either to burn out a neighboring tribe, use it as a weapon, or make better habitat to attract the buffalo to their hunting ground because the buffalo want that fresh growth. So I have found that by replicating these natural processes, by burning at certain times, we’ve produced really high-quality habitats.
And I will create food plots, but I don’t use fertilizer. I have found and many other brilliant researchers have found, every acre on the planet has about 30-plus tons of nitrogen in the air above it. Every acre.
Why would we ever pay for nitrogen which is highly toxic in the form it comes in in fertilizer? Why would you ever pay for phosphorus that’s already in the microbes in the ground? And this is fascinating, if I’m going down a rabbit trail too far you tell me. So why don’t we use all these?”
(Laughing) “I’m along for the ride. This is good.”
“Why don’t we use all these synthetics? Well, we didn’t know how to make nitrogen until World War II. And actually, a German scientist discovered how to make synthetic nitrogen while trying to build a bomb. Germany, fortunately, lost the war and he came to America with this recipe in his brain on how to build nitrogen, and that’s where nitrogen fertilizer came from.
There was plenty of phosphorus in the microbes in the soil but then we started plowing, and plowing does several things. First, it compacts the soil, but plowing also lets more oxygen in the soil than God would have. This is because things like earthworm holes and dung beetle holes let just a certain amount of air to infiltrate the soil and let water freely infiltrate/percolate into the soil. Plowing disrupts this natural process.
So we started plowing which seemed to loosen [soils] up, but then it crusted over. And we killed those little organisms and microbes by the gazillions when we run a plow through and turn their habitat up. So there were about 16 million bison on the Great Prairie, people estimate, with no additives. Bison weigh around 1,500-2,000 pounds apiece, more meat than cattle now, with no additives, no pollutants.
The bottom line is microbes in the soil convert the nitrogen out of the air, the phosphorus, the sulfur, the boron, and everything the plant needs. What we’re missing are the microbes. A teaspoon of a bison rumen has about a trillion microbes in it, so if we get the synthetics out of the way and let these ungulates, these ruminating mammals, salivate, not be crude, but urinate and defecate on the land, you’re gonna get all those microbes back in there.
So I just quit fertilizing my food plots and quit disking. I just no-till-drill or broadcast and we have not used any fertilizer in 8 years. I had a very high-end soil lab come out and do some research here and they found that our soils here are better on average than the best farmland in Iowa. I’m in the Ozark Mountains in a county named, ‘Stone County,’ as in rocky.
So you can build dirt anywhere, that’s what this is, building dirt. Wherever you purchase land, you can make it better. I was taught in college that it takes 1,000 years to build good soil. And that may be true if we’re talking about weathering rock down, but that did not account for the microbial action.
When scientists started doing testing, they needed to make sure all the soil they were testing was the same. So they would fumigate it, to make sure there weren’t any worms in it or things like that, and it would kill the microbes. Without microbes, you have to feed the plants. Microbes go in and out of the plant and trade their phosphorus for the plants’ excess carbon. They’re basically doing the fertilizing themselves. There’s a big economy in the soil of microbes trading all the elements that a plant needs for carbon. The plant freely makes carbon, but when we started plowing the soil we interrupted that economy. It’s all about getting back to that natural cycle.
It’s really that simple.”