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Archive | Soil Life

Tractor Time Episode 14: Neal Kinsey on Hands On Agronomy

GREELEY, Colorado (May 21, 2018) — It’s that sound again – tractors, the voice of Charles Walters, and that happy little strum. It all means we are launching into a second season of the Tractor Time Podcast by Acres U.S.A., the podcast for farmers who care about the Earth. My name is Ryan Slabaugh, and I’m lucky enough to be your host for a second season.

Neal Kinsey

Neal Kinsey

We have a lot in store this year. We are going to talk about a lot of eco-farming tactics and methods. We’re going to go back in time and listen to age-old talks that still apply today. We’re going to talk about with surveyers about the loss of farmland, and what you and I can do about it. Our goal this year is to also make sure we are talking with young farmers, to better understand how they see themselves fitting into the future of agriculture. Anyway, we’re so excited, we hope you are too.

Today’s episode, like our very first episode, starts with the voice of Charles Walters. Charles started Acres U.S.A. in 1971 as a vehicle to report on the challenges facing small farms, and to help give farmers a resource for good, healthy, ecological growing in the face of large-scale toxic takeovers of our methods.

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No-Till Growing: Vegetable Production

Robust spring cabbages at Tobacco Road Farm.

Over the last 20-plus years of vegetable growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we have constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of our crops and soils, and going no-till has been part of that journey.

About 3 acres of land is in vegetables, with half in year-round vegetable production and the other half cover cropped through the winter months.

The crop rotations are very close, with yields very high, so the intensity of production demands very careful soil care. To this end, soil amendments, fertilizers, inoculants and compost have been carefully selected and applied over the years.

Under this intensity of production, tillage was previously utilized to an excessive degree. This left the soil with a soil structure that was lacking in aggregation, tended toward surface crusting and with a plow pan always in need of mechanical breaking. The loosened soil of the tillage layer dried excessively in summer, leading to irrigation needs, and the soils’ air/water balance was constantly in jeopardy. Continue Reading →

The Huge Impact of Mycorrhizal Colonization on Plant and Soil Health

Mycorrhizal inoculation effecta

This University of Florida photo shows the effect of mycorrhizal inoculation on maize drought response. Mycorrhizal colonization (front left and back right) helps plants avoid severe drought losses compared to the control (front right and back left).

Leonardo da Vinci remarked, “in order to be a successful farmer one must know the nature of the soil.” Even today in the age of hydroponics, most of our food, over 98 percent by some estimates, is grown from field on a soil medium. Beyond growing our food, the way we treat our soil determines the nature of our environment and the climate.

There is a great and still relatively undeveloped agronomic and environmental opportunity that could make an important global difference. This opportunity is hidden underneath our feet, in the living soil. The soil is home to the most populous community on the planet. Around the seven continents, the living soil is the Earth’s most valuable bio-system, providing ecosystem services worth trillions of dollars. The most limiting resource for global food system is drought, with over 75 percent of the crop insurance outlay related to these events.

The vast majority of our cultivated soils are in an eroded and degraded state. As we increase demands on our soil to feed billions, we are losing it and depleting it at an unprecedented rate. Our ability to transform it will address both of these key issues. In addition to addressing drought and climate, the web of soil life is critical to maintaining and building soil resources we need now and into the foreseeable future.

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When Less is More: Understanding Fertilizer and Solubility

The amphiphilic nature of humic substances allows them to work in water and hydrophobic environments, providing the critical conditions necessary for biological processes when they are closely associated with clays.

Make the gesture “just a little bit” by squeezing your thumb and index fingers as tight as you can; tighter, tighter — the amount of fertilizer you could hold between your fingers is about the amount dissolved in soil solution … per acre! That’s right; there is very little if any dissolved “plant food” in the water of a typical soil.

The amount of plant nutrients dissolved in soil solutions is so small that it is expressed as parts per million (ppm), not hundreds of pounds or tons per acre. While synthetic fertilizers are sold primarily on the basis of their water (aqueous) solubility, the emphasis on aqueous solubility is generally misunderstood and somewhat misguided.

It is generally known that over-application of extremely soluble synthetic fertilizers has been responsible for disrupting ecosystems and numerous environmental problems. What is not generally known is that all highly soluble soil inputs, including sulfates, chlorides and fluorides, disrupt the structure of water molecules, impeding the biochemical energy flows that affect the metabolism of plants, making them more susceptible to insect pressure and diseases and decreased water use efficiency.

It is also a well established fact that highly soluble phosphate fertilizers become “tied-up” soon after application. When there is an overabundance of dissolved phosphates in soil water, the soil system responds chemically by forming more stable forms of phosphorus, usually by chemically combining with calcium cations and complexing with lanthanides (rare earths) and organic matter. All of these materials can release phosphorus as plant nutrients through microbial activity.

Although water is critical to all life forms, there are numerous metabolic pathways in biological systems where it gets in the way and must be pushed aside; it’s called the hydrophobic effect.

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Weathering Drought

Corn field in drought

For farmers, the decision to put in an irrigation system is often dictated by economics. One must consider the cost of the system versus the possible crop losses due to drought.

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts.

In the summer, temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible.

For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur. Every farmer is bound to find themselves dealing with drought at some point. What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred.

In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat. Continue Reading →

Natural Lawn Care

green grass growing

Lawn management practices makes a huge impact on the health of each lawn as well as the environment.

In terms of acreage devoted to pro­duction, grass in the United States cov­ers more than 40 million acres — as much as corn, wheat, soybeans and the next five top irrigated crops com­bined. Although in most cases, it has only aesthetic value, every year Americans devote much of their leisure time and discretionary in­come to the maintenance of their lawns.

A variety of management prac­tices collectively make a huge impact not only on the health of each lawn but on the environment in general. Armed with a bit of knowledge, the homeowner can adjust his or her cultural practices in such a way as to decrease time and expense given to raising grass and become more eco-friendly at the same time.

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