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Brix test may be guide to improve soil health

When we moved to the farm October 15, 1994 we had no idea how much we had to learn. Since we haven’t been able to meet our own hay requirements, although we have owned a fairly large land base since 1996, we have decided it is time to buckle down over the winter and figure out what we are doing wrong. It is a very good thing that my favourite things to do are research and learn from other farmers how to make our farm work better.

My husband has spent quite a bit of time this year discussing our land’s lack of productivity with organic farmers. Why organic? Because we believe in order to produce the highest-quality feed for our livestock the soil must first be healthy and chemicals are not going to revitalize our soil.

Compaction issue

The soil here is solid at the moment. Compacted very badly. In fact it sounds hollow when the cows walk over it. Our area has gone through drought, then four years of drowning, then an almost-normal year. We were very lucky this summer to harvest one-quarter of the normal forage crops. Grain crops in our area were also short.

Logically, if this is happening to annual crops the pastures are also suffering. We have also observed many native plants have disappeared. We were told fields full of dandelions mean the land is short of calcium but high in nitrogen. Without sufficient calcium none of the minerals in the soil can move and be utilized. Just by observing the land this summer, we have seen so many problems that indicate our soil needs work. This is where the new learning curve is going to be steep. The burning question though is how do you improve the quality of the feed the land is producing on a small budget?

Soil healthand food quality

Dr. Arden Anderson has studied the correlation between soil health and feed nutrition. His research has shown the nutrient content of foods today compared to half a century ago ranges from 15 to 75 per cent less. According to him we have to look at the soil to decipher why nutrition isn’t at the proper levels. But what does this mean to a livestock producer? It means if we want our inputs costs to go down we need to be raising our feed and livestock on rich soil that is teeming with life.

We have always found feed testing a daunting task so we are very interested in using another testing method known as Brix testing next year. Brix testing involves using a hand-held device called a refractor to make a visual reading on the sugar content of plant material. The test actually refers to the total amount of soluble solids, that is, sugars along with plant proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

A Brix reading lower than 10 tells the farmer that the plant lacks nutrients. The desirable reading is 13, which indicates a robust and nutrient-rich plant. To measure the Brix a refractometer is necessary as well as a method of extracting the juice from the plant. The optical refractometer uses daylight passed through a glass prism to measure Brix. The reading is read through an eyepiece, and the user measures the refracted light angle on an optical scale.

To obtain juice/sap samples some people use garlic presses for this but a juicer is better. There are digital refractometers available but we have used an optical one, average price is $100, available online at www.amazon.ca. A great visual explanation of these machines is found at www.crossroads.ws/brixbook/BBook.htm.

Feed efficiency

The greatest measure of how well the ration is meeting the nutritional needs of our ruminants can be seen in how well their offspring are growing. We do not creep feed so our youngsters depend on their dams’ milk for growth.

While researching how to improve the health of our soil thereby improving the Brix of our feed, I tripped across an interesting article that explains ruminant animals are relativity inefficient at converting grass proteins to milk proteins, only achieving approximately 20 to 25 per cent conversion efficiency.

On top of this, some proteins are not well utilized by the animal. Research proves there is some correlation between this conversion efficiency and high sugar (Brix) content on a farm. IGER Innovations research in 2001 suggests high-sugar grasses have a positive effect on the milk production efficiency of an animal.

Grass is broken down in the rumen, producing amino acids to grow and produce more protein, which is later used for milk production by the cow. However, when the diet lacks readily available energy such as sugars, rumen microbes either cannot grow or, instead use amino acids to provide energy, meaning less milk production. Feeding energy-rich foods in a concentrate feed is one way to increase the efficiency of the rumen, however the cheaper way is to use the sugars which naturally occur in forages (Moorby, 2001). This concept is extremely important to those of us that are grass-based and cannot depend on adding carbohydrates such as barley to our ruminant’s diets to make up for what our grass is lacking.

Added microbes

But how do we improve our soil to improve our Brix reading? One idea is utilizing a mycorrhizal inoculant www.mycorrhizae.com at seeding. Mycorrhizal refers to a class of natural beneficial microorganisms that live in the soil where grasses grow and enhance the plants ability to utilize the macronutrients that are in the soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi are present in most undisturbed soils, such as native grasslands and forests. They live symbiotically with innumerable amounts of beneficial bacteria, protozoa, actinomycetes, worms, and insects. Unfortunately populations are particularly low in agricultural soils that have been exposed to pesticides, chemical fertilizers, tillage, compaction, organic matter loss, erosion, another words not been treated in a manner that would feed them. It is very hard to naturally replace the mycorrhizal fungi because they form their spores under the ground and are not easily moved in the air.

Use of mycorrhizal inoculation at seeding can also reduce the need for applying phosphorous because mycorrhizal fungi such as Glomus mosseae, Glomus intraradices and Glomus etunicatum species produce a high level of phosphotase enzymes that specifically extract tightly bound phosphorus from clay particles and make phosphorus immediately available to the plant. Since high rates of P application can kill mycorrhizal this needs to be considered when using it.

The other tool in our nutrient toolbox will be composted manure. Since we are planning on improving pasture and forage land, weed seeds that can be a problem when applying raw manure are not an issue when applying compost. Other ideas that have been suggested to us involve using fish emulsion, or molasses/raw sugar treatments that feed the beneficial organisms once populations are established.

Over the winter we will be developing a plan. We have been gifted with a four-bottom plough, a disc, a seeder, and already have a manure spreader and haying equipment to be able to become a lot more self-sufficient on our farm. Our goal isn’t just to return to producing sufficient quantity of feed but also good quality feed so as to release us from dependency on high priced feed purchases that are putting a huge stress on the financial viability of our farm. †

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