Archive | June, 2014

Improve Soil Health with Mob Grazing

Mob grazing set up

Saskatchewan grazier Neil Dennis places posts without having to leave his 4×4 vehicle.

by Tamara Scully

Saskatchewan grazier Neil Dennis comes from a long line of pioneering innovators. His grandfather raised purebred cattle, sheep and racehorses. His father was one of the first to use an air seeder. Dennis himself is now a leader in promoting Holistic Management grazing techniques, and he has pushed the boundaries of high-density stocking on the 1,200-plus acres of the family’s Sunnybrae Farms.

Today, the pastures of Sunnybrae Farms are thriving, with over 40 types of native plant species and a variety of legumes, none of which were ever seeded. The pastures boast a very high plant density, and water is retained in the soil with little runoff. The carbon content of the soil has dramatically increased over the past two decades, along with the microbial activity. Soil warms up earlier in the spring, stays cool in the summer and produces well into the fall. Salt and mineral supplementation of the 800 to 1,000 head of cattle that call these pastures home has been greatly reduced, as the nutrient content of the forages has increased. Continue Reading →

Fighting Weeds with Microbes


We read many, many studies involving manipulation of DNA with as of yet uncalculated risks. It was quite refreshing to read new research employing DNA-based tools in tandem with common sense for the good of all forms of agriculture and the health of the soil.

Using high-powered DNA-based tools, a recent study at the University of Illinois published in Microbial Biology identified soil microbes that negatively affect ragweed and provided a new understanding of the complex relationships going on beneath the soil surface between plants and microorganisms.

“Plant scientists have been studying plant-soil feedback for decades,” said U of I microbial ecologist Tony Yannarell. “Some microbes are famous for their ability to change the soil, such as the microbes that are associated with legumes — we knew about those bacteria. But now we have the ability to use high-power DNA fingerprinting tools to look at all of the microbes in the soil, beyond just the ones we’ve known about. We were able to look at an entire microbial community and identify those microbes that both preferred ragweed and affected its growth.”

Researchers believe an effective strategy to suppress weeds might be to use plants that are known to attract the microbes that are bad for ragweed, and in so doing, encourage the growth of a microbial community that will kill it.

“We used the same soil continuously so it had a chance to be changed,” Yannarell said. “We let the plants do the manipulation.”

This encapsulation of the research is from the June 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Organic Agriculture Continues to Garner Validation


There are many ways to measure the progress of organic agriculture. We can tally the number of farmers who adopt organic practices, the acreage, crops and livestock they steward or the value of their sales. These numbers matter but by themselves are one dimensional and can’t convey the transformative effect which organic agriculture has over life and landscape. Taking a fuller measure of organic agriculture requires the comprehensive investigation and analysis we call scientific research — establishing what we know, hypothesizing about what we don’t and working assiduously to shorten the distance between the two.

Thankfully, organic agriculture has transcended the second class status to which it was once relegated and become a vital focus of research on land grant campuses and agricultural experiment stations nationwide. The early fruits of this evolution are evident in a new publication entitled Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2014 UW-Madison Research Report. The University’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which has promoted multiple forms of eco-agriculture for 25 years, and the similarly supportive Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection jointly drafted the report.

What I find especially exciting about the report is its confirmation that the emergent organic research in Wisconsin is consistent with the closed system and renewable resource foundation of organic agriculture itself. Organic agriculture cannot be achieved through an input substitution approach which simultaneously embraces organic certification’s disregard for energy requirements, scale of production and proximity to markets. True organic agriculture must be decentralized, functional at the family farm scale and driven by renewable resources, especially solar energy. By focusing on locally adapted seed varieties, rotational grazing and other practices which optimize pasture and season extension through high tunnel systems and multi-cropping, the research in Wisconsin is reducing farmers’ dependence on non-renewable inputs and contributing to regional food systems. Continue Reading →

Scientists Make Ethanol without Using Plants

corn-fieldStanford University scientists have found a new, highly efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas. This promising discovery could provide an eco-friendly alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops, say the scientists. “We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure — a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction,” said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the Nature study. Most ethanol today is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel. In some parts of the United States, it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which, in turn, yields about 3 gallons of ethanol. The newly developed technique requires no fermentation and, if scaled up, could help address many of the land- and water-use issues surrounding ethanol production.

This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.