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Book of the Week: Dung Beetles by Charles Walters

Editor’s Note: This is the prologue from Charles Walters’ book, Dung Beetles, which was published by Acres U.S.A. Copyright 2008.

By Charles Walters

“A camel is a smoother ride than a horse.” I made up my mind to add that line to my notes as I glided along on a Bactrian camel while most of my associates took their pounding on ever-jolting horses. We left the Great Pyramid of Giza on a day trip from the Pyramid of Cheops to el-Sir (pronounced sigh-ear). The camels often did not keep pace with the horses. This enabled a personal discovery that has not entirely evaporated during the intervening quarter of a century.

Dung Beetles, by Charles Walters.

It was a sandy trail, this ride along the Nile. Animals fed in the evening usually discarded their used feed along the trail, which was free of vegetable growth. Horse biscuits dropped only moments earlier were already being worked on by the time I came along. Incredibly, some beetles were rolling the fresh deposits across the sand, seemingly coating the purloined dung with flecks of sand that caught the sun like so much mica.

Where did they come from, these beetles? This was real desert, not the arid land we Americans call desert in spite of flowers, cacti, brush, and grasses with roots tucked under rocks. This desert drifted with the wind, scoured its foundation as if to desiccate the earth below ever deeper. The cycles that turned the Sahara from a grassland savannah into a centuries-long desert required only 300 years. Those same forces made Australia what it is, a drought-cycle-dogged land forever at the long range mercy of the perihelion, when the Earth is closest to the sun, and the epihelion, when the Earth is farthest from the sun. Add to the above the positions of the largest planet, Mercury, and Earth’s neighbor, Mars, plus the Chandler wobble at the North Pole, and you have a good example of cause atop cause until Australia arrives at its six-year drought cycle, a short-term hard times, and finally cessation of the most imaginative event since ancient seekers first domesticated wild animals. Continue Reading →

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Windbreak Benefits on the Farm

Windbreak benefits extend beyond reducing wind erosion. Research reveals windbreaks can also be customized to meet your farm management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

Windbreak benefits extend beyond controlling wind to include soil moisture retention and additional wildlife habitat options.

A “national menace” is what Congress called wind erosion during the Dust Bowl. This menace caused an estimated loss of 850,000,000 tons of topsoil and spurred President Roosevelt’s large-scale Shelterbelt Project of planting tree windbreaks across the Great Plains to reduce future wind erosion.

Research shows that reducing wind erosion isn’t the only benefit provided by these windbreaks, and they can be customized to meet your farm’s management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

In a field adjacent to a windbreak, there is an area where a crop yield of 110 percent isn’t uncommon; it’s the area which Charles Barden, professor of forestry with Kansas State University and principal investigator of the Great Plains Crop Yield Study, dubs the “sweet spot in the field.” In this sweet spot, usually found in an area about two times the height of the trees and extending out 12-15 times the height of the windbreak trees, research has found an increase in yield of 23 percent for winter wheat, 15 percent for soybeans and 12 percent for corn.

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The Best Worm-Friendly Worm Bin for Composting

Worms harvested from a DIY worm bin

Continuous-flow worm bins makes harvesting easy on you and the worms.

Composting with worms produces a consistently superior product called vermicompost, which contains high counts of beneficial soil micro-organisms. Harvesting the finished vermicompost from most worm bins presents a problem, though: one either stops feeding a significant part of the bin to take it out of production, encouraging the worms to vacate the area to be harvested, or the worms have to be physically separated from the finished compost.

The Continuous-Flow Worm Bin

Continuous-flow worm bins are designed to provide a continuous output of finished vermicompost without disturbing the worms or taking any part of the bin out of production. This design makes it much easier to harvest the finished compost. Most continuous-flow designs have a winch-powered knife that cuts a slice of finished compost from the bottom of the bin about 2’ above the ground.

Hügelkultur Gardening

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

Hügelkultur (pronounced "hoogle-culture") is German for "hill culture."

Planting potatoes in a hügel bed.

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

Hügelkultur Construction

  • Hügel beds can be made to any length, width or height desired. The average hügelkultur bed is three to five feet tall and can be rectangular, square, round or horseshoe-shaped (keyhole).
  • Beds are typically built on top of the ground and sometimes in 12- to 15-inch deep trenches.
  • Beds are generally free-standing, without any physical support or enclosure, but can be framed at the base with blocks, untreated lumber, logs or hay bales as desired.
  • A mixture of soft (faster-rotting) and hard (longer-lasting) woody base materials usually includes freshly dead or rotting firewood rounds, stumps, branches, brush and twigs.
  • Avoid wood from allelopathic trees like black walnut (for its juglone toxicity); high-resin trees like pine, spruce, yew, juniper and cedar; and hard, rot-resistant woods such as black locust, Osage orange and redwood. Any type of wood with sprouting potential (such as willow) should be completely dead before using.
  • Small branches, twigs, sawdust and coarse woodchips are used to fill voids in the woody base before construction is complete and periodically as the bed breaks down.
  • A simple hügel is covered with three to five inches of rotted manure or compost, followed by another three to five inches of garden soil or topsoil, but this can also include multiple layers of various organic materials in the fashion of a “lasagna-style” garden bed.
  • Hügel beds are ready for planting immediately after construction.

Continue Reading →

Composting: Join the Revolution

The so-called brandling or humus worm thrives in litter. They enjoy great popularity among a number of experimentally inclined gardeners. What is so special about these small worms?

My theory is that in worm composting or vermicomposting (Greek vermi: worm), we have something completely new that has little in common with conventional composting, and most importantly is superior to any previous method. The final product, worm castings, which is the term for worm excrement, is not comparable to other types of compost. It represents a new level of quality.

At this point, I want to quote the well-known words of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl: “The crucial thing is what comes out at the end.” This applies to humus worms in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. This “new” method is able to meet the modern demands of nature, environmental, and climate protection much better than any previous approach.

There is an ever-increasing discrepancy between the waste of natural power and resources in conventional composting methods (unavoidable losses in the forms of gases and liquids during hot composting) and the growing need to protect nature and the environment (through sustainable development to curb global warming). A solution is desperately needed. Composting is a part of the battle of opinions between humus management and ecological gardening and farming on the one side and Justus von Liebig’s so-called mineral theory, which serves as the foundation of the chemical industry and conventional agriculture, on the other side. The remainder of this book shall demonstrate the superiority of the former in detail.

Continue Reading →