It maybe far out thinking in an era dominated by new technology that promises to give control, define, push limits and make everything bigger, faster, stronger, and more efficient in life, but let’s see what earth worms and soil microbes –
which have been around since the dawn of dirt- can do in improving crop efficiency and farm profitability.
But that’s the gist of what speakers leading Day 1 of the Soil Health Academy School were telling farmers and ranchers interested in sustainable and profitable crop production. Producers need to learn how to use, tap into, and capitalize on what Nature can do in terms of growing grass and crops — almost for free.
The tools are there naturally, speakers told the 40 some producers attending the three-day school at the North Peace Applied Research Association research farm near Manning. Those tools are essentially a bazillion soil microbes, bacteria and fungi that can do a tremendous job in capturing, processing and delivering nutrients to forages and annual crops if they are left to their natural resources.
But modern and so called “progressive” agriculture over the past 100 years that includes (or has included) tillage and use of synthetic fertilizers, and crop protection products essentially kills or at least neutralizes the natural processes. Since the natural processes have been killed off, in many cases farmers are growing crops in dead soil and everything the crop needs to grow has to be added. How many times did I hear “and you guys must like writing cheques for all these inputs”…learn to back off, Nature will do it for you.
Presenters for the school include North Dakota rancher Gabe Brown. He didn’t invent this stuff on his ranch near Bismarck, but in the 1980s he began using some of these natural practices, which has led him to develop a successful mixed farming operation, with minimal input costs. He’s given many presentations on the benefits of using multi-species of grasses and legumes, cover crops, on pasture and annual cropland, across Canada.
Also speaking are Dr. Ray Archuleta, a certified professional soil scientist with the Soil Science Society of America; Dr. Allen Williams, a consultant, and a champion of the grass-fed beef industry and an expert in grazing methodology and regenerative agriculture; and Dr. Kristine Nichols a world-renowned leader in the movement to regenerate soils “for healthy food, healthy people and a healthy planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production, sequestering carbon in soil, and providing abundant and nutritious food”.
There are four speakers not only describing the problem but also explaining the solution, so there is a lot of material to cover. But a few of the key take home messages include:
- Don’t till the soil
- There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth. A foot of soil over an acre contains literally tons of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and arthropods.
- All this life in soil flourishes (feeds on) carbon, so do everything you can to keep soil covered and plants growing from the time the ground thaws until freeze up to bring carbon into the soil.
- Crop diversity is key – corn and soybeans in the U.S. or wheat and canola in Canada — are not crop diversity. Grow the widest range of annual crops possible to benefit soil health.
- Whether you are producing livestock or straight cash crops include a diverse blend of cover crops in the rotation — grasses, legumes and forbs.
- All this plant diversity benefits the soil microbes, bacteria and fungi.
- The soil is a living organism — not a bank. It is always changing and dynamic.
- As soil health improves— synthetic fertilizers and crop protection chemicals can not only be reduced but eliminated.
- The transition can begin to show positive results in as little as two to three years.
So stop abusing the soil, start growing cover crops, let the natural soil biology start working its magic, and stop writing cheques for chemical inputs. Sounds like an amazing tale, but it also sounds like there is solid science behind it too. Day 2 ahead, more will be revealed.
Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]