Do you want to grow grains and oilseeds, and/or hay and pasture without any or at least much-reduced input costs, yet maintain production and increase profitability? Well making that happen is a simple answer— get the soil healthy and get it working for you.
That’s the overall message from the recent three-day Soil Health Academy school held in Manning, AB. In some respects it is “out there” thinking considering how much time, effort and money North American (and world) crop and livestock producers spend on producing cash crops and all types of feed for cattle.
Conventional crop and livestock production is high input, high cost business because that is what everyone has learned over the past 100 years or so. To produce more efficient, higher yielding crops of any kind, crank on the inputs.
Well, these experts with the Soil Health Academy are saying throw out that conventional crop production thinking, and consider a new paradigm. Nature —natural biological systems — were doing a pretty good job of producing plants and animals for a few million (or billion) years before man came along with modern crop production technology. Mother Nature hasn’t forgotten what to do, if farmers will just let her, and work WITH her instead of fighting against her.
And that’s a pretty big, but important concept to get your head around. Let nature do its thing. Regardless of how many cattle you are running or acres you are cropping, you may be amazingly surprised to see what natural systems can do with proper management and left to their own resources. The school’s message isn’t totally new. It’s been difficult to attend many crop and livestock conferences in at least the past five years where there hasn’t been some mention of soil health. Well this school isn’t just talking about it — it’s also about let’s do it.
The principle characters behind the Soil Health Academy don’t look or sound like died-in-the-wool, tree-hugging environmentalists. Gabe Brown is a long-time Bismarck, ND farmer and rancher who realized years ago he was going broke trying to provide inputs to grow crops and grass on his farm. He looked for a better way.
Dr. Ray Archuleta, is a soil scientist who worked for the U.S. government for more than 30 years much of that time as a conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). One of the light bulbs that came on in his career – putting land and soil on a shelf (taking it out of production) is not conservation.
Dr. Allen Williams is a beef reproduction physiologist, beef producer and marketer himself, who again learned many years ago that natural system themselves were quite capable of producing high quality forages, and ultimately high quality beef if properly managed.
And Dr. Kris Nichols, was a Pennsylvania farm gal, turned soil microbiologist who wasn’t interested in farming, but was interested in understanding how the soil worked. She learned that healthy soil was really the foundation of producing healthy food, healthy people and a healthy planet.
So you bring all that expertise together in a three-day school and the here are some of things you learn:
- Throw out your old way of thinking about producing any type of crop, whether annual cash crop, or forages for pasture or grazing.
- Once the natural soil systems — the billions of microbes, bacteria and fungi begin functioning, as they should, you won’t need inputs including synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.
- Don’t till the soil.
- Soil microbes and bacteria need carbon. Feed them carbon.
- Always keep the ground covered, productive and growing.
- Zero-til is a start but not the total solution. Use cover crops — think diversity. Use legumes, grasses and forbs in multispecies cover crop seed blends.
- Once grain and oil seed crops are harvested, even in short windows before freeze up, get something else seeded for ground cover.
- Forget about monoculture cash crops. Grow cash crop blends i.e. peas and barley, canola and lentils, oats, peas and fall rye. Use your imagination.
- Think diversity, diversity, diversity.
- Have faith. The natural systems have worked for centuries, give them a chance. Give those organisms some groceries and a bit of time and see what they can do.
- It may sound a bit wimpy, but this is about learning to be “one with nature” or at least learning to be in harmony with nature (and still be profitable). And at one time that was really the essence of agriculture.
- Be adaptive. Be flexible. There is no rigid formula or steps to follow.
- Use livestock to improve soil health.
- Don’t think in terms of yield and maximizing production, think in terms of profit per acre, or profit per pounds of beef raised.
And the list of “messages” can go on and on.
In basic terms, modern crop and livestock production practices— tillage (if still used); chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and mono-culture cropping systems have basically killed the soil. And a healthy soil should be a functional, dynamic, living ecosystem. With a change in practices and “food”, that living ecosystem can kick into gear and produce amazing results.
Talk about food for thought.
Learn more about these consultants and their approach to management of soil, crops and livestock at: www.soilhealthconsulting.com
Lee Hart is a field editor with Grainews based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]