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Archive | Soil Fertility

Keys to Composting for Increased Soil Health, Vitality

For many years we have been composting various agricultural and forest materials at Tobacco Road Farm to provide for the soil fertility in order to raise vegetable crops without the use of pesticides. This practice has been highly successful though it has required more refinement as the environment continues to deteriorate and the soil’s need for rebalancing becomes increasingly important.

Compost with temperature gauge carbon materials

Compost with undigested carbon materials still present has now cooled to about 80°F and is ready for application.

The composting system is the mouth and stomach of the farm system and prepares the nutritive materials for absorption into the soil. How we choose the appropriate materials to feed into this system, along with an examination of mixing, piling and application of this material, is the focus of this article.

Let us set the stage of how and why this compost is utilized on our farm. At Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we focus on intensive vegetable production with 3 acres in crops. The vegetable fields produce tremendous volumes of crops year-round. The soils are typical of the Northeast with a sandy acidic nature. The impact of pollution and climate manipulations on our soils is tremendous. The forest surrounding the farm is in a rapid state of decline. There are die-offs of trees and vastly reduced numbers of insects, bats, frogs, snakes and birds.

The variety of pest insects and diseases of vegetable crops moving into the region continues to increase and is a reflection of the environmental conditions. It has been very useful to re-examine compost and its utilization through a holistic eye that can see these changes and adjust the compost system accordingly. This is similar to the way humans have had to adjust their diets in this modern age of illness. Continue Reading →

Soil Balancing: Worth Another Look — The Ohio State University Soil Balancing Team

Farmers make multiple management decisions daily — decisions driven by questions and input. Helpful input can come from many sources, guiding what to choose or avoid. Most university-led research has placed soil balancing on the “avoid” list. Still, it’s practiced by many farmers who report improved soil tilth, better crop yields and quality, and greater ease in managing weeds as the ‘balance’ of their soils improves.

At least one team of university researchers remains curious, wanting another look at soil balancing. Their work is beginning to reveal that farmers and researchers think, talk about, experiment with, and understand soil balancing differently. If those differences could be bridged, what new questions and helpful input might researchers and farmers find by working together?

The Science Behind Soil Balancing: Basic Cation Saturation Ratio

Soils vary in their nutrient content, but also in their ability to hold nutrients. A soil’s ability to hold nutrients is measured by its cation exchange capacity (or CEC). Generally, a soil high in clay content will have a higher CEC, but organic matter also increases CEC. Soils with a high CEC hold more nutrients and thus, can release more than soils low in CEC. Continue Reading →

Soil Balancing Call-in Conversations

The Ohio State Soil Balancing team will host a public conversation about current beliefs, practices and research efforts related to soil balancing. The first of three Conference Call-in events is scheduled for Wednesday, October 17, 2018, from 1:30-3 p.m. EST.

Additional events will be November 14 and December 12. Each call-in will bring together a panel of growers, crop advisors and researchers to share a variety of perspectives and experiences. Listeners are welcome to submit questions or comments before, during, or after the event. Get more details and register to be part of the conversation.

Soil Balancing Call-Ins At-A-Glance

Soil Balancing: From ‘Renegade’ Grass Roots Past to Open Future

When:  Wednesday, October 17, 2018 | 1:30-3 p.m. EST

Description: The history and current use of Soil Balancing provides a rich opportunity to examine the different ways that farmers and scientists develop and use their knowledge. Join us to discuss what the concept and practice of Soil Balancing currently means to farmers, researchers, and consultants, and to brainstorm ways in which improved soil management can strengthen sustainably-minded farm management. Continue Reading →

True Soil Health: Create the Capacity to Function Without Intervention

My philosophy is that whatever you do on your farm should improve soil health. But how do you know what that is? The USDA defines soil health as, “The continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” I would add to that definition and say that soil health isn’t just the capacity to function, it’s the capacity of soils to function without intervention.

The same field pictured below, three months later. This is the result of managing the field to promote healthy soil life and maximize biological nutrient cycling: a beautiful organic seed corn crop, just after detasseling.

What counts as “intervention?” Does intervention mean biotechnology, insecticides, fungicides and tillage? Is fertilizer an intervention? Do these interventions make your farm better for future years? I believe money spent on interventions needs to be shifted to inputs that yield soil health.

Appropriate intervention when absolutely needed is wise, but the goal is minimum intervention — in other words do everything you can to get the soils healthy and mineralized. Mineralize your soils using exchangeable nutrient sources that come from the carbon biological system. You have to create an ideal home for soil life and feed them in order to build soil health.

Remove the negatives, which include monoculture crops and excessive tillage. Reduce the use of other possible negatives added through harsh soluble fertilizers and excessive nitrogen, not to mention chemicals and biotechnology.

Farming for soil health means treating your farm like a system. For years we have been promoting the “rules” of biological farming (Six Principles of Biological Farming). Following these rules will lead to healthy soils that produce good yields. The soil health guidelines you now see published in many places focus on minimum disturbance with an emphasis on no-till. In my opinion not all soils are capable of being farmed no-till. Continue Reading →

Farming the CO2 Factor

In a rare moment in an early Rover reconnaissance mission to Mars, carbon dioxide (CO2) was released from a soil sample during a scientific test and was thought to indicate the presence of microbes. Excitement quickly faded to puzzlement, then dismay, as it was realized that a glitch in the expensive on-board lab had produced inorganic CO2. Chemicals used for the soil extract triggered release of inorganic CO2, perhaps from the ubiquitous magnesite (MgCO3) found in Martian soil.

Will Brinton and Odette Menard (MAPAQ Quebec) speak at an on-farm event in Pennsylvania as part of the No-Till Alliance Field Days,

On Earth, the release of carbon dioxide from moist soil due to microbial activity is so pervasive that it is difficult not to observe it. We don’t have the problem they do on Mars trying to distinguish biological CO2, in an atmosphere containing 96 percent CO2, from non-living sources. In science we call this dilemma “distinguishing small differences between large numbers.” Here on Earth, CO2 in the atmosphere is only 0.04 percent, and climbing just barely perceptibly, making it relatively easy to distinguish biological CO2. Curiously, almost nobody is doing it.

Borrowing From the Past

I learned about soil CO2 respiration working on a graduate program in Sweden investigating fertilizer and crop effects on soil biology. Agronomists in the 1950s set up farm plots and maintained them for decades, enabling later researchers such as myself to observe the long-term effects of differing soil management.

In the process, I discovered a trove of even earlier Swedish work on soil respiration. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Biodynamic Pasture Management

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. book, Biodynamic Pasture Management, by Peter Bacchus. Copyright 2013, softcover, 160 pages. Regular price: $20.00.

From Chapter 3: Organic Soil Fertility, Soil Biology & Whole Farm Management

Front cover Biodynamic Pasture Management book by Peter Bacchus

Biodynamic Pasture Management by Peter Bacchus

To grow healthy plants and animals and high-quality food products, you need fertile soil. Soil fertility in turn is related to the growth and reproduction of soil organisms and to the plants that grow in the soil. In due process this affects the health, well-being and fertility of the animals and humans who live as a result of the plants that grow in the soil.

We often do not recognize that soil fertility depends on the carbon cycle, which starts with photosynthesis in plant leaves and the absorption of light and carbon and other elements from the air into the plant. The carbon taken in from the air by plants and transformed into sugars is the basis of the carbon cycle, which maintains life in the soil by providing food for soil organisms.

Continue Reading →