Steve Charter is an innovative rancher with a cattle operation north of Billings. For the past couple of years he has been intensively studying how we can rebuild our soil biology where degraded from the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and over-tillage. Steve even traveled to Australia to see what measures are being used there for regenerative agriculture. To this end, Steve has developed a worm “ranch” on an industrial scale in order to harvest the vermicastings.
Steve and his partner, John Brown, use a bulldozer to create worm beds 50 yards long and two feet deep with mounded sides. He uses red wrigglers, the worm of choice for composting. He places a layer of straw in the bottom of the trench, then puts the worms and compost mix on top. He cold composts a mix of wood chips, straw, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, juice bar pulp, beet tailings, cow and horse manure, and weeds to feed the worms. He strives for a mix of carbon and nitrogen similar to compost, but the mix doesn’t have to be as exact as it does with compost because he is not trying to heat it up, just feed the worms. If it does heat up, the worms can go deeper in the soil to escape the heat. The worms stay in the trenches because that is where the food is. Steve doesn’t feed the worms in winter, so if they get too much food in summer, they can munch on that over the winter.
In November, he prepares the worms for winter. He covers the trenches with straw, then a water-permeable tarp, then bags of leaves. The worms lived through the winter last year. They are not completely dormant and can live as long as the temperature doesn’t drop below about 40 degrees F. He hasn’t been able to check the temperature this year because there is too much snow, but he is hopeful that the worms are alive.
When there is a demand, Steve harvests the vermicastings (worm “poop”). Steve and John feed the worms at one end to get the worms to move to the end of the trench, then dig up the vermicastings, which are spread to dry. The result is then put into a trummel, which tumbles the mix and sifts out larger pieces like sticks and wood chips. This product can be bagged and used directly in soil to stimulate and restore the biology of the soil. It is not a fertilizer per se but rather food for the soil web of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods. Compost also helps this process of restoration—adding the worm castings speeds up the process.
Another way to use the castings and make the beneficial effects go further is to make a worm tea or worm extract. To make tea, the castings are put in water with a feed like molasses and then aerated. The tea must be used within hours of preparation to keep it from going anaerobic so this process is more useful for a home operation. For an extract, the castings are added to liquid and aerated but not fed. It is more stable before application than the tea and thus more useful for a commercial operation.
Gardeners can have a worm operation and use the castings and tea or extract for lawn and garden, but need to know how to balance the feed to encourage various microbes depending on use of the final product.
Steve has primarily used his products to develop the soil on his own ranch, but will sell the castings and extract at some point commercially if all goes well. He is interested in continuing to study ways to re-store the soil and educate others on the problems and solutions. For example, he is also learning about ways to sequester more carbon in the soil. Restoration agriculture is a sideline for Steve whose primary business is cattle ranching, but helping to restore the earth is a deep passion and commitment for him and he is grateful that he can put his ideas into action on his ranch.