3 Rules of Adaptive Stewardship: Diversity

Variety is the Spice of Life

For those of you keeping track, this is the second 6-3-4 article on the topic of diversity. To read about diversity’s role in building soil health, click here. In this article, I’ll discuss what stewardship means and why fostering diversity is an integral part of good stewardship.


To me, good stewardship begins with humility and a realization that our lives are quite short in the grand scheme of things. The author of the biblical book of James writes, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”1 Try telling a mountain just how long your life is, if you disagree. One might think that the brevity of our lives makes it acceptable to extract, degrade and plunder Earth’s resources because “hey, I’ll be long gone by the time there are major repercussions. That’s a problem for future people.” This very well could be someone’s take on life, but my personal spiritual beliefs tell me that all life is connected and when we harm the environment around us, we harm ourselves.  I also believe we have a responsibility to the next generation to take care of the resources we find ourselves managing. In fact, the primary goal of most land managers that I’ve spoken to is some variation of “I just want to leave the land in better shape than I found it for my kids and grandkids.”


How does this apply to the topic of diversity? Well, if I want to care for the land and steward it well, I first need to understand how to do so, and I believe nature is the best teacher. Natural systems are more often than not healthy, balanced and efficient. There’s a lot we can learn from observing them.  That’s why engineering genius, Nikola Tesla, said, “If you don’t know how, observe the phenomena of nature, they will give you clear answers and inspiration.” We call the implementation of these answers and inspiration from nature “biomimicry.” So, the next time you’re in a natural landscape, stop, listen, watch, and smell what is going on around you. You never know what kind of inspiration you might be able to bring back to the natural landscape you are managing!


One observation you’ll likely make is that nature is stunningly rich with life. To give you an idea of the numbers, every virus on Earth placed side-by-side would stretch out in a line 100 million light years long. Similarly, there are more bacteria living in a gram of dental plaque than humans that have ever lived!2 Think about that the next time you go to bed and wake up with fuzziness on your teeth. The sheer numbers of living creatures is mind-boggling in its own right, but the diversity of life is also hard to comprehend. Scientists estimate that there are around 8.7 million eukaryotic species in existence, but only around 1.2 million species have been identified and described so far, most of which are insects.3 Other research from Indiana University estimates between 100 billion and 1 trillion species of bacterial prokaryotes on Earth, with much less than 1% of them identified.4 In total, roughly 86% of existing species on Earth and 91% of species in the ocean likely still await description, meaning almost all organisms inhabiting the planet remain a complete mystery to us.5 What we do know is that they’re everywhere and we need them. This rings true particularly in the world of soil biology. Research shows that Earth’s soils are likely home to more than half of the species on Earth, making it the single most biodiverse habitat on the planet.6 While we now have a rough estimate of the number of species in the soil based on modelling and our best guess, other data suggest 90–95% of living soil organisms are unidentified and unknown to science.7 In other words, we don’t have a clue who is under our feet, what they look like or what they’re doing. Humbling, isn’t it?

The 6 Kingdoms of Life

Understanding this richness and diversity of life on Earth is the next step on the road to practicing good stewardship. We don’t really know what’s happening, so I believe our best strategy as land managers is to mimic nature as best we can and foster all forms of life knowing that ecosystem functioning and resilience is positively influenced by increasing biodiversity.8,9 This shows that nature is both competitive and collaborative, not just one or the other. Think for a moment about all the players needed to grow a crop or raise an animal. They rely on each other like our organs rely on one another. My brain knows not to take all of the oxygen in my body or else the rest of the body dies, eventually taking the brain down with it, ironically. The same goes with life in the soil. Someone needs to capture sunlight energy and carbon dioxide and transform it into forms living beings can utilize. Someone needs to wrestle nutrients away from rock, which bring them into the cycle of living beings. Someone needs to break down organic material and recycle its contents for future use.  Someone needs to constantly rebuild soil structure to avoid collapse. Someone needs to consume other organisms to keep them in check. On and on it goes. 


Organisms feed off of each other, literally and metaphorically, to create feedback loops that drive ecosystem functioning. It’s a beautiful system with a near infinite amount of jobs to be done, many of which we have no idea are happening. Thankfully for us, we don’t have these tasks on our to-do list because the trillions of microbe, insect, plant and animal employees we have working alongside us take care of them. This is only possible with an extremely diverse workforce, which, as amazingly diverse as they are, all share a few simple demands if they are to do their jobs and do them well: they demand adequate food, water and shelter. Good stewardship is placing their demands at the top of our actual to-do list.

Stewarding Livestock with Diversity

I believe good stewardship of livestock strives to provide the Five Freedoms of animal welfare: Freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.10 Obviously, animals get sick, foxes break into hen houses and casualties are lost every once in a while. That’s the nature of the business. The key is to do your best to provide livestock with every opportunity to flourish and tip your cap when nature reminds you who’s really in charge.


One of the reasons why I advocate so fervently for regenerative agriculture is its far superior stewarding of livestock compared to conventional systems. Large, confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) come nowhere close to meeting the Five Freedoms. I would argue that they meet one freedom solely because their whole ethos is to stuff animals with as much cheap feed as they can handle to fatten them up as quickly as possible. The other four freedoms are tolerated, at best, and completely ignored, at worst. Conventional agriculture treats living, breathing animals as if they’re cars in a Detroit assembly line with one goal in mind: efficiency (based on their definition of the word). However, we know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in life, so what’s the cost of this increase in “efficiency”? The cost is that animals are crammed together in uncomfortable conditions11, which are breeding grounds for pandemic-strength pathogens12,13. Many animals never see the light of day14, which violates their freedom to express normal behavior and be free from fear and distress15, leading to immuno-compromised animals 16 that require roughly 75% of the world’s antibiotics to fight off infection and mature at unnaturally quick rates.17 In essence, CAFOs are where good stewardship and diversity go to die.

Sows live in farrowing crates for weeks at a time, which inhibit them from moving, expressing their motherly instincts and forces them to urinate and defecate in the same spot. This causes stress and reduces immune system function as pigs prefer to eat, sleep and play far away from their manure and urine.
Upwards of 99% of US beef cattle finish their lives in cramped feedlots. Here, cattle live in their excrement, die by the thousands in heat waves and consume diets of cheap grain that their bodies were not designed to process.
Poultry barns are especially concerning vectors of pandemic-inducing pathogens, including various avian flu viruses.
Many egg laying operations provide less space per hen than an iPad. Not nearly enough room to move, stretch their wings and express their unique "chickenness".

On the other end of the spectrum lies regenerative grazing systems with its focus on animal welfare and wellbeing.18 This isn’t subjective, tree-hugging nonsense. Dr. Stephan van Vliet and his team out of Utah State University found that,”Compared to pasture-finished animals, we observed impairments in glucose metabolism, mitochondrial metabolism, bile acid metabolism, glycerophospholipid metabolism, and increased oxidative stress in pen-finished animals. Several of these metabolic pathways are interrelated and may result from reduced physical activity and/or higher grain-feeding.”19 In other words, there is a really good chance that the meat we eat from pen-finished livestock came from a sicker and weaker animal compared to meat from a pasture-finished animal.  In my mind, the rise in chronic disease and obesity across the developed world begins to make a little more sense knowing that we are what we eat.


Animal welfare is a core principle of regenerative agriculture and it is incredible to see how various producers respect their livestock. Joel Salatin of Polyface farm describes this as respecting “the pigness of pigs, the chickenness of chickens and the cowness of cows.”20 I love this idea because it shows that animals are living creatures with a diversity of traits and personalities that want to be expressed. What’s more is that each of their unique traits work together to regenerate the land when given the chance. Joel later goes on to write that the way he manages his pigs means they “are not just tenderloin and ribs; they are co-laborers in our land-healing ministry. They are team players.”20 Co-laborers and team players. Much different than widgets on the CAFO assembly line.


Just as good businesses and teams diversify their personnel, good stewarding seeks to diversify livestock impact on the land. Different classes of livestock have different skillsets and different dietary patterns, which can stimulate increased pasture diversity. Pigs provide a positive disruption to the land with their natural rooting instincts, though much care must be taken to avoid the creation of a muddy pigpen. Chickens are the best livestock species to accomplish forage trampling, as well as consuming bugs in the soil and larvae in manure pats, which reduces future pest loads. Goats can be utilized to manage areas where woody species, like briars and other thorny bushes, have taken over. It’s our job as the coach to evaluate the skillsets of our players, create a gameplan and put our players in the best position to achieve a common goal, which is increasing ecosystem functioning by stimulating diversity.


Adaptive grazing is the gameplan that has been shown to increase pasture forage diversity greater than any other grazing strategy.21,22 This increase in plant species diversity from adaptive grazing has also been observed to increase native obligate grassland bird populations23, likely driven by increased habitat and richer insect abundance and diversity.24 Research also shows that greater plant diversity “significantly increased shoot biomass, root biomass, the amount of root exudates, bacterial biomass, and fungal biomass.”25  Soil structure and function benefit from all of these improved metrics. Ultimately, a more diverse soil microbiome transfers nutrients into forage plants more efficiently, which provides more nutrition per bite for livestock.26  Animals, including us humans, have the ability to select for food which contains the nutrients they need the most when given a diverse array of choices. Dr. Fred Provenza, author of the paradigm-shifting book Nourishment,  concluded in a research paper, “Thus, individuals can better meet their needs for nutrients and regulate their intake of toxins when offered a variety of foods that differ in nutrients and toxins than when constrained to a single food, even if the food is “nutritionally balanced”.”27 Lastly, livestock are exposed to more secondary and tertiary plant compounds when offered a diversity of healthy plants growing in biologically active soil. Generally speaking, secondary and tertiary compounds are those not directly essential for growth and survival. Think of these compounds more as improving the quality of life, resilience and well-being of individuals. Many of these compounds are concentrated in broadleaf species, such as anthelmintic (anti-parasitic) compounds found in chicory28, sanfoin29 and birdsfoot trefoil30. It’s no wonder that many farmers and ranchers who implement AMP grazing report drastically reduced vet bills over time.


Look, I’ve seen the data and understand just how much food is produced in the CAFO system. I also understand that the population is growing and the demand for animal protein is sharply increasing. In many ways, it’s a wonder that we are able to feed as many people as we are. I just think that the CAFO system attempts to shortcut and violate natural laws, which means the majority of our food supply is more susceptible to nature striking back in the form of disease and death on global proportions. Yes, it’s most important to continue to produce enough food to prevent immediate death by starvation, but we must not do this blindly and ignore sustainability issues caused by the current food system.


There are enormous challenges to slowly transitioning the production of animal protein away from CAFO systems. These challenges are often cited as reasons for the impossibility of a local, regenerative animal protein supply chain. The fact is, though, that humans are capable of almost anything when we put our minds to it. We’re smart, creative, driven creatures that put a man on the moon with far less technology than what’s inside each of our cell phones right now. We’re at a critical time in history where we have the knowledge and technology to design good animal stewardship systems that prioritize life, diversity and the Five Freedoms, all while supplying food abundantly. We can choose to develop these systems if we have the desire to do so. Yes, it’ll be hard, but so is developing an atomic bomb and the internet and self-driving cars and artificial intelligence and we chose to create those. Now is the time to make regenerative improvements to our food system, particularly our animal protein system, not because it will be easy, but because it will be hard.

Excerpt from President John F. Kennedy's September 1962 "Moon Speech" to Rice University

Stewarding Crops with Diversity

Two major revolutions, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries and the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, transformed agriculture into the mechanized, chemical-laden, big-business industry we find ourselves working within today. These transformations in agriculture have brought about enormous changes to the way we manage the land. Many positive outcomes have resulted from these revolutions, including the ability to support explosive population growths around the world. Without an adequate food supply, we would not have been able to grow from a global population of 0.9 billion people in 1800 to 8 billion people in 2023. In fact, recent research found that innovations and technologies from the Green Revolution likely played an important role in the prevention over 100 million infant deaths in developing countries since 1961.31 Some may think this is an issue because they view humans as a nasty parasite proliferating at an unsustainable pace while greedily pillaging the Earth of all its resources, but I do not share this sentiment. I believe every human being is special and a growing human population can be a net positive to the planet. To do this, however, we must continue to adapt and change our methods of producing food, fiber and fuel. We have to take an honest look at the good and the bad from the last 250 years of agriculture if we want to continue production and simultaneously provide good stewardship to the planet.  

World population growth (blue) and annual growth rate (red) (1750-2100)

Crop farming, particularly annual crop farming, is arguably the most obvious example of a sector that has brought about incredible positives to society while causing many unintended negatives. On the positive, from 1961 to 2014, global cereal production has increased by 280% with most of these improvements in cereal production due to improvements in yield. The average cereal yield has increased by 175% since 1961. This is important because the world can now produce almost three times as much cereal from a given area of land than it did in 1961.32 Many other crops follow this increase in production and average yield. On the negative side, modern technology that mechanically and chemically disturbs the soil has caused agriculture’s long history of soil carbon loss33 to speed up.34 High-powered tillage, overapplication of synthetic fertilizers and irresponsible pesticide use are examples of such disturbances. Soil carbon is an important metric for determining stewardship, in my opinion, because carbon is the backbone of life on this planet. More carbon means more life. More life, especially more diversity of life, means more health, balance and efficiency in an ecosystem. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as a loss of carbon in the biosphere means less life, health, balance and efficiency of ecosystems. This dearth of carbon ripples all the way through the web of life, restricting life starting from the microscopic in the soil, continuing on into the macroscopic. Global insect populations have been hit particularly hard in recent decades,35 which is not a good sign for our species historically.36


As simple as it sounds, introducing diversity back into cropping systems is one of the best first steps toward regenerating the carbon levels and diversity of the landscape. Life begets more life and diversity begets more diversity. One common way to introduce more diversity into cropping systems by extending the cash crop rotation. Large swaths of the United States would benefit greatly from simply adding a biennial such as winter wheat into their corn and soy rotation. However, the introduction of more cash crops into the rotation can be challenging as new equipment or modifications to current equipment might be necessary for certain crops. Just like anything else in life, though: if there’s a will there’s a way.


Probably the fastest-growing method to introduce more plant species diversity on cropping systems is through the use of cover crops. This is not a new concept, as many farmers grew cover crops prior to the introduction of pre- and post-emerge herbicides in the 1950’s.37  George Washington is even quoted as saying he raised “crops to eat and sell and crops to replenish the soil”. The father of the United States used clover, grass, and buckwheat in his cropping system to accomplish this replenishment.38 This shows we’ve known for centuries that simplifying rotations to one or two cash crops carries a greater risk of wearing soil out and negatively affect diversity, which drives ecosystem functioning. Cover crops can be utilized between cash crops or interseeded between actively growing cash crop rows, such as with the interseeding of a nitrogen-fixing legume beside a nitrogen-hungry cereal crop.

Interseeding between rows of young corn
Nitrogen-fixing legumes growing between rows of corn

First and foremost, cover crops provide the soil with a green, growing plant when the soil is likely to be bare. This alone is a huge boost to soil diversity because it provides excellent erosion control. Topsoil is the most biologically diverse portion of the soil profile and it happens to be the first layer that blows away in the wind or rushes away with water, so our first job is to keep it where it is. Unfortunately, it appears that roughly 35% of US Corn Belt, which is largely dedicated to cropping systems, has completely lost its topsoil. These losses were concentrated on hillsides and ridgelines.39 On the bright side, research from Iowa State University found farmers and landowners can reduce sediment movement off their field by 95% simply by converting 10% of a crop-field to diverse, native perennial vegetation.40 Annual cover crops also reduce erosion if dedicating a portion of your field to perennial plants is not an option.41


Cover crops also promote diversity by providing food to soil biology. Plants pump compounds down to their roots as building material for new roots and to attract microbial helpers. These compounds are known as root exudates. Different plants produce different root exudates, which attracts a diversity of soil microbes to the root of that plant. In addition, cells slough off of roots as they grow and move throughout the soil which provides another excellent food source for soil biology. The result from increased populations and diversity of soil biology that crop farmers care most about is that this increases plant access to water and nutrients, thus increasing their tolerance to drought and reducing fertilizer applications. Plants also become more resistant to root disease through increased competition from fellow bacteria, fungi and nematodes that are fighting for nutrients and energy the plant is providing. Root pathogens are crowded out from the root and cannot infect the plant in large enough numbers to induce large-scale disease. Many microbes also deploy antibacterial or antifungal compounds in a form of chemical warfare, thus providing another check and balance to the system. Interestingly enough, a diversity of soil microbes also increases resilience against foliar pathogens and insect attack.  Tessa Glasswitz of Cornell University writes, “Various benign soil bacteria and non-pathogenic fungi (including species of Trichoderma and some mycorrhizae), can also “prime” the production of plants’ own natural defensive chemistry, allowing a more rapid and vigorous response to subsequent attacks by pathogenic bacteria, fungi and/or viruses. Depending on the species involved, this ‘induced systemic resistance’ (ISR) can result in increased levels of plant defence not only against soil-borne pathogens, but also to some foliar pathogens and leaf-feeding insects.”42

Microscopic pictures taken of Trichoderma fungi (T) attacking fusarium oxysporum (F), a fungus known to cause disease in humans and plants, including lentil vascular wilt disease. Credit El-Hassan et al. (2013)


Just like fellow microbes defend against microbial pathogens, fellow insects defend plants against insect pests. In a paper titled “Trading biodiversity for pest problems, Jonathan Lundgren and Scott Fausti write, “reduced biological complexity on farms is associated with increased pest populations and provides a further justification for diversification of agroecosystems to improve the profitability, safety, and sustainability of food production systems.43  It should come as no surprise, then, that research found diverse cover crop mixes benefit the populations and diversity of natural predator insects and biological pest control.44 Another method to support natural predator populations, as well as pollinators, is to plant perennial prairie strips in narrow bands along contours and at the base of sloped areas in annual crop fields. Pair all of this with research observing insect pests were 10-fold more abundant in insecticide-treated corn fields than on insecticide-free regenerative farms45 and you can see just how important diversity is to the balancing of ecosystems. You can also begin to see the unintended consequences of pesticide use and the impossibility of targeting and eliminating one pest while leaving all others species undisturbed. Even if this was the case, pests are a food source for other species, so an effective mass extinction of one species will harm our neutral or beneficial species that consume it.


Another way to propagate diversity on a cropping system is to integrate livestock directly onto crop fields. This can be done by grazing crop residues post-harvest, grazing actively growing cover crops between cash crops or by bale grazing. Livestock naturally introduce various nutrients and trillions of beneficial microbes through their manure, urine, saliva, shed hair, hooves and other body parts. When used appropriately, livestock can increase organic matter content of soils and the crop farmer can reap the myriad benefits that comes with increasing organic matter levels, such as increased water and nutrient holding capacity. Interestingly enough, profit is also one of those benefits. One study investigating  corn production systems found that particulate organic matter (organic matter not held tightly to sand, silt or clay) levels were correlated with profit, while yield had no correlation to profit.46 In addition to profitability, grazing in the field can strengthen financial resilience through the diversification of revenue streams and closing loops. For farmers that do not own livestock, custom grazing of someone else’s livestock is a good option. For those that do, grazing cover crops and crop residue further reduces the net cost of seed purchases and can greatly reduce winter feeding costs.


Forsaking millions of lives in the name of being “carbon neutral” or any other green ideology is bad stewardship, especially knowing that the loudest voices advocating for these changes would likely be the last folks to face the consequences from drops in food production. On the flip side, unwillingness to reconsider business-as-usual practices that degrade our natural resources is also bad stewardship. There is no simple solution to such an enormously complex problem as feeding and fueling a growing world population.  American journalist HL Mencken humorously wrote over 100 years ago that, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”47 It’s human nature to attempt to identify problems and solutions in as simple terms as possible. This reductionist way of thinking has benefited us greatly in many arenas of life on Earth.  After all, it makes no sense to pause and think about unintended consequences when being chased by a lion.


Fortunately and unfortunately, we are entering a time in which we face fewer single issue/single solution problems like hungry lions and more incomprehensibly complex problems with thousands of connections to other parts of the problem. What this means is that our problems are becoming more diverse, so our solutions need to evolve and become more diverse. Human medicine is figuring this out the hard way with the overuse of antibiotics. For example, Clostridiodes difficile (c. diff, for short) is a gut bacterium that can infect the colon of vulnerable patients. Deadly infections of c. diff are on the rise and studies show patients are 7-10 times more likely to get infected with c. diff while taking antibiotics or right after.48 It’s the same principle we observe in our livestock, pastures and crop fields. Biological systems are interconnected and complex, and it’s nearly impossible to target one species without drastically affecting everything else. We need to realize that pests and pathogens are who they are because they’ve developed mechanisms to either 1) take advantage of abundant, concentrated food sources to multiply quickly, such as in a monocropped field, or 2) they are able to bounce back quicker than other species from large-scale change or extinction events, such as soil pathogens after pesticide use, weeds after tillage or gut pathogens after antibiotic use. We are creating the uniform conditions devoid of life in which they flourish.


Simply put, good stewardship of any biological system needs to prioritize diversity, both as a desired outcome and as a mechanism to promote health, balance and efficiency.


For more info, check out Dr. Allen Williams of Understanding Ag’s article on the importance of Diversity.














































45 https://www.ecdysis.bio/_files/ugd/49b043_52b386bf17c644779508f99115975267.pdf