Building Living Soil Systems
With Biological Farming Methods
This presentation is neither endorsement nor condemnation of any particular label of agriculture. It is to provide a much broader view of conditions as they are, and to promote life supporting practices that build, rather than diminish the vitality of our food supply.
BIOLOGICAL FARMING Identifies and uses best practices of conventional, organic and other labels of agriculture that build without compromising, soil and crop health.
In any agricultural system, a farm's true wealth can be measured by the degree to which it has developed highly functional, living soil. Getting a handle on stable and productive farming practices that encourage soil life requires looking past the symptoms that drain away farm wealth. Sustaining farm profit is best achieved without expending the natural systems that contribute to soil and crop health.
All crops benefit from microbial partners and larger forms of soil life.
Knowing what's behind a problem before we try to fix it. Some under lying causes of crop and soil problems are due to:
- Incorrect ratios between elements.
- Poor soil respiration (compaction or waterlogging).
- Lack of humus (fully decomposed organic matter- as opposed to organic matter that is not completely broken down), which moderates and buffers antagonistic elements and toxic conditions. Humus is the soil's mineral and energy storage system.
- Sluggish decay cycles (previous year's residues are still whole and will not break down) This indicates that decomposers are on strike due to poor living condition.
- Heavy use of herbicides and fungicides are major culprits in collapsing the first levels of the soil food chain. (They kill 'bad' plants and microbes as well as the good ones). Most crop protection products do not discriminate between good and bad organisms.
Some effects (symptoms) that indicate a need to improve living conditions for soil life and nutrient balancing:
- Feeds, forages and produce display high % of spoilage, and are not palatable to livestock.
- High levels of insect and disease damage in the field.
- Heavy weed pressure, Low yields, Low nutritional values.
- Crops are intolerance to weather extremes.
- Soil becomes difficult to work; cracking badly when dry, too sticky to work when moist and water runs off without good penetration.
- Livestock show stress, show poor reproduction and need added nutritional supplements, even on fresh forage and hay.
- Livestock show elevated and premature mortality, with frequent veterinary intervention. (When given the choice of pasture, sick livestock will often strip bark off trees, eat soil, and break out of fencing to be found grazing in mixed weeds. (Many'weeds' are extremely nutritious!) Weeds, for the most part, are very accurate indicators of the basic functions of soils; physical, chemical, biological and energetic. A deficiency in any of these areas diminishes the whole. Read articles by Jerry Brunetti of Agri-Dynamics.. (Acres USA web-site has tapes of his presentations) Books by Jay McCaman, E.Pfieffer and Charles Walters are excellent guides.
Soil and Sap Testing
When soil tests show adequate levels of most primary and minor elements, yet the crop tissue analysis comes back deficient, it is a strong indication that significant microbial life is missing in the soil. Before symptoms are visible to the eye, it is possible to test for crop stress by sap analysis. Using consistent refractometer readings, leaf BRIX should be relatively high at mid-day, and lower by late night. High sap CONDUCTIVITY (measured with EC meter) and low BRIX readings during the day often points the way to chemistry imbalances in the soil. With salts dominating the sap rather than carbohydrates, it is likely that many species of soil microbes are not able to associate with the plant roots and may be missing for the most part or be replaced by anaerobic organisms which proliferate in waterlogged or low oxygen conditions. Almost all crops require aerobic soil conditions and nearly all beneficial microbes are of the aerobic (air breathing) group.
Testing sap pH is also a way to troubleshoot the chemistry balance with an ideal being somewhere around 6.4. References and tools for plant sap testing can be found at:
Pike Agri-Lab Supplies 154 Claybrook Rd. Jay, ME.... And at;
Rex Harrill's web-site or Book Brix = Quality, www.crossroads.ws/brixbook/Bbook.htm
Soils and plants are composed of complex dynamic relationships between at least four inter-dependant systems; soil chemistry, physical structure, soil biology and energy supply. Limitation in any one of these factors affects the potential of the whole system.
Advanced Biological Agriculture is the intentional cultivation of; microbial, plant and animal life to its highest potential quality while maintaining a net gain in the farm environment.
Chemical: Soils are often toxic due to the build up of soluble fertilizer salts, herbicide, pesticide and fungicide overloads. Anaerobic byproducts such as alcohol, formaldehyde, methane and chlorides are but a few of the toxins that eliminate beneficial soil life. Always provide and test for available foundation elements, with CALCIUM as the most important foundation followed by NPK in correct ratios to each other. (Morgan Extract - Lamotte / Reams testing)
Providing the widest possible selection of minor and trace elements is especially important. When these run out and are not replaced regularly, crops and livestock become increasingly more expensive to maintain.
Physical: Limitations to the aerobic soil system are compaction zones, inability of soils to build and retain humus due to excessive tillage and poor water retaining and draining qualities due to collapsed capillary structure. This same structure is built by successive generations of aerobic microbes, earthworms and root systems. The physical soil structure must function like a set of lungs, inhaling fresh oxygenated air during the expansion cycle of the day and exhaling the carbon dioxide of microbes during the cooling contraction of night fall. It is not a mistake that plant leaves are lined with CO2 breathing stomata cells that face the soil and open during the dark hours and early morning.
Gary Zimmer, The Biological Farmer "Given the choice, plants will always feed in the aerobic zone".
Biological: Diversity and population of crop enhancing soil life also depends on adequate quantity and variations of microbial foods to build the communities of trading partners that do business with plant roots in exchange for their exudates. In a healthy soil it is never a one way street. Nutrient exchange goes both ways.
Much like a battery, the soil system needs to be recharged regularly to meet the demands of crop production, which is always selling off a portion of the soil's wealth. Soils cannot recharge by chemistry alone, they must have a reserve of biological activity to keep energy flowing into the crops.
Energetic: The final measure of a crop is dictated by the amount and quality of energy that is available to the plant during its entire life cycle. Every thing is in motion and reaction, and every reaction in the physical, chemical and biological systems is an exchange of ENERGY. Plants are energy condensers, and can only release as much nutritional energy as they receive. Balanced, high-energy soils grow high-energy crops, which equals health. "All life is electrical", (Dr. Maynard Murray), Sea Energy Agriculture. See also; Magneto-hydro-dynamics, and other water restructuring technologies.
How Nature Builds A Plant Where are plants getting most of their mass? The bulk of all crops is composed of atmospheric elements, those being hydrogen and oxygen in the form of water, and then nitrogen which is freely available to most crops by mycorrhizal association and the decay cycle. Carbon dioxide is photosynthesized in the leaf to become carbohydrates, (sugars, cellulose, lignins, and other carbon compounds.) The remainder and smaller percentage of a crop's makeup are of course the major and minor soil elements with many of them in the trace ranges of only a few parts per million . These are no less significant to the balance of the whole. The ability of a plant to reach it's full genetic potential rests on the effectiveness of the soil's interaction and delivery system with the full compliment of soil elements in correct ratios, throughout the entire growing season.
Don Schreifer, From the Soil Up & Agriculture in Transition, points out that plants are like antenna systems which collect solar energy and atmospheric elements. This living antenna operates at a level dependant upon soil efficiency. Much of the finer tuning that makes crops efficient gatherers of elements rests in the department of diverse soil organisms.
The best top quality cropping is mostly due to preserving the inherent relationship of plants and the mineral/microbial/energetic world. We can theoretically provide the entire chemistry range in soluble form to most crops. Yet without a living delivery system, much expense is wasted and missing are the finer details that give immunity, flavor, shelf life, and often yield.
Efficient Soil Building Methods
- Keep in mind that all on-farm manures and crop residues can become assets, not liabilities if balanced and decomposed properly.
- Remember that rotations of compatible crop types will encourage beneficial microbes.
- Consider that aiding the decay cycle of cover crops and fall residue will help digest and fix the availability of rock minerals.
- Stock microbial populations (in the same way you would replenish a bank account).
- Match raw organic and mineral inputs to crop type (see Elaine Ingham's work, Soil Foodweb Inc.)
- Adopt a full range of biological testing services to augment the information of chemistry values.
- Reduce tillage and herbicide use to a minimum in order to preserve soil structure, humus particles and limit microbial die off. (Using a humic acid or other catalysts with herbicides will cut the rate yet keep the effect with less soil damage).
- Maximize the value of rock powders more effectively by aerobic composting with residues, spoilage and manures, (TRI-The Rodale Institute and www.newfarm.org)
- Investigate on farm production of inoculates (David Dowds, USDA-Agricultural Research Service)
- Use composts, compost teas, humates and other carbon sources to humify liming products and keep calcium high in the active aerobic zone.
- (Humates are composed of carbon, humic, fulvic and ulmic acids that are the most condensed geological form of decayed organic matter.)
- Use humates or well finished composts and other carbohydrates such as sugar or molasses with nitrogen sources to help create amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
- Add calcium sources at the cooled end of composting processes.
- Pay attention to anionic and cationic properties of soil amendments. Anionic elements initiate vegetative growth. Cationic elements initiate fruiting and seed production. The resistance/ attraction between elements of differing charges; (+ -) is a major source of energy for plant growth. (see work by Carey Reams Biological Ionization Consider the application of paramagnetic rock powders such as granite, basalt and other volcanic origin amendments in order to increase the electromagnetic field which influences cell nucleuses and the proliferation of microbial activity. (Phil Callahan, Tuning into Nature, Paramagnetism and other books.
- Identify and switch to fertilizers that do not damage the humus component of the soil.
- Reconsider all toxic inputs to the cropping system and replace with a method or those that can still do the job without negative side effects.
- Match seed selection to the soil conditions. Although open pollinated varieties hold the highest nutritional potential, they need the most nutrition in the soil to do so. Many hybrids can out produce in all soil types, yet are not as capable of full nutrition-micro nutrient uptake. Hybrid seed is not often saved successfully nor is it seed type stable.
- Keep in mind that some genetically modified crops are showing more questionable nutritional values and are facing legal, biological and market acceptability problems. It is important to consider these attributes and determine how they will affect your bottom line.
- Use cultivation trips as soil feeding opportunities where side dressing recipes in either liquid or solid form can be folded into the active root zones. If you feed the soil food web, the crop prospers. Conversely if you offend the soil food web, the crop is compromised.
- Learn to build cost-effective aerobic composts and inoculants on the farm.
- Learn to use soil amendments more economically. More is not necessarily better. When overdoing mineral or fertilizer applications on a weak soil there is often not enough digestive power to deliver the materials to the crop. Better to apply lightly more often and with compost, compost tea, or some appropriate microbe package.
Some Notes about fully functional soils.
- Plants are not necessarily limited by time or degree-days as they are by availability of the soil system to deliver nutritional energy to the crop.
- The widest diversity of crops grown on any given soil will harbor the widest diversity of soil life.
- Other than surface applied amendments, it is the crop exudates and residues that feed the microbial populations.
- Building better microbial habitat is to build soil.
- Soils that have high levels of aerobic microbial activity yield more valuable crops that are less costly to grow, thus keeping soils alive and making the farmer more money.
- It is much more affordable in the long run to maintain fertility with the help of biology than with chemistry alone.
- Cover cropping with modest amounts of good aerobic compost and rock powders is one of the fastest ways to recover and improve soil health.
- Great crop yields, and quality are not necessarily dictated by calendars, clocks, and labels.
It's about putting life, quality and inspiration back into family farm economies.
Copyright Mark Fulford 2007