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Archive | Soils

Minerals: The Big Four for Soil Health

Minerals and their respective roles in achieving healthy soil is a common topic of discussion among agriculture consultants and farmers. A long time ago, when I was going through my initial soil balance training, mineral balance was all that we talked about. Get the minerals right, address calcium and get it to 68 percent base saturation and all will be great.

Healthy, well-mineralized soils have good aggregation.

The physical and biological aspects of soil weren’t even part of the discussion. Even alternate mineral sources were just touched on. Potassium chloride (KCl) was a no-no due to the high salt index and the chloride, as was dolomitic lime due to our already high magnesium soils. Also on this “not to be used” list was anhydrous ammonia because of its damaging effects on soils. The concept of soil correctives and crop fertilizers wasn’t talked about either, nor was the idea of different calcium sources for different soil conditions. The balance of nutrients on a soil test was the only goal.

Now, looking back, I can certainly see that wasn’t the whole picture. What about the biology and the physical structure? How about making a fertilizer that not only delivered soil minerals but did so more efficiently? Why not have fertilizer that can balance the soluble to the slow release, make sure carbon is added for the buffering effect and provides something for the minerals to attach to so that it is “soil biology food”? Soil health is the capacity to function without intervention; therefore minerals are certainly a part, but not the whole of soil health. Continue Reading →

Rock Dust Can Improve Our Soils

Rock dust is a byproduct of the quarrying industry and results from rock crushing. In the industry it is known as blue metal, cracker or crusher dust.

Soil can benefit from the minerals found in rock dust.

Landscapers use rock dust for filling holes, bedding paving stones and mixing with cement. More recently its applications have broadened to other areas and its true importance is becoming apparent.

Over 100 years ago Julius Hensel wrote a book called Bread from Stones, which explained how crushed rock could improve soil fertility. His cause was taken up some nine decades later in the early 1980s by the late John Hamaker and Don Weaver. They asserted that impending climate change could be ameliorated by massive-scale soil remineralization combined with reforestation to provide a vegetative carbon dioxide sink. Their book, Survival of Civilization, was a landmark, while their warnings of climate instability have essentially come true.

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Organic Nitrogen: When are Nitrogen Units Not Nitrogen Units?

Organic nitrogen and inorganic nitrogen: what’s the difference?

A farmer gives a plant organic humus fertilizer to plant.

Organic growers frequently attempt to quantify the amount of organic nitrogen they add to their soil ecosystems in the same manner that conventional growers use inorganic nitrogen units to calculate their nitrogen requirements. Logically, they reason that a ton of organic material with 4 percent nitrogen content as verified by a laboratory test will provide 80 pounds, or units by some determinations, of nitrogen.

The truth is that organic nitrogen sources vary in their efficiency of transformation into soil components over a much broader range of response than do inorganic synthetics, which offer precision measurement and a repeatable predictability of release. Use of inorganic nitrogen units to determine nitrogen needs for organic growers is therefore problematic. A popularly available and reliable conversion algorithm between tested inorganic nitrogen and untested organic nitrogen in organic soils does not exist, however. Without such an algorithm there can be no scientific basis of comparison. Continue Reading →

Tractor Time Podcast Episode 7: John Slack and Soils from a Geological Perspective

This week, we’re dipping into the archives back to 2005. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and YouTube was founded, and in 2005, John Slack also took the stage at our Eco-Ag conference and spoke about rocks.

John Slack.

But we are not really talking about rocks. We are talking about geology. And even more so, geology-microbiology, or as Slack puts it, “Bugs eating rocks.”

The basis of all this, and why it’s interesting to us and other eco-farmers: the industrial chemical revolution that occurred after World War II caused scientists, or geologists, or just rock fanatics, to pause in their research in regards to agriculture. Yet a few passionate folks, like John, continued. They avoided the noise of short cuts and pollution and learned how many living things manipulate rocks to get the nutrients they require.

John Slack does not call himself a geologist or a farmer. He calls himself a prospector. “We went out and looked for calcium,” he says in his talk. He talks about what he looks for when he walks the fields and digs his hands into the soil, to see what plants are reacting to those minerals.

John Slack is a fourth-generation miner who worked throughout northern Canada in the search of economic mineral deposits from 1979 through 1992. This entailed extensive stream sediment, soil geochemistry, geological mapping, compilations, mine development and mine management. This experience would result in employing these techniques in the evaluation of agricultural landscapes. In 1992 Slack left the mining industry and started farming on the family’s 330-acre property, Golden Innisfree Farms, located in Erin Township, Ontario. The farm was a grass-based cow-calf operation. Today the farm comprises organic vegetable production and a grass-based sheep dairy. Slack and his father started to evaluate and experiment with agrominerals. Commonly referred to as rock powder and rock dust, this research resulted in developing the Spanish River Carbonatite Complex, a unique igneous (magmatic) calcium carbonate deposit. Slack commenced soil auditing services that resulted in introducing soil evaluation methodologies, commonly employed in mineral exploration, to farm clients.

We’re proud and happy to share that talk from 2005 with you this week. It’s still as relevant, and shrouded by short cuts and industrial chemical fertilizer and pesticide propaganda, as ever.

If you like this talk, you can purchase other talks from John Slack at AcresUSA.com.

Also, find all of the Tractor Time podcasts here, or for free in the iTunes store.

Hosted by Ryan Slabaugh.

Subsoil: Digging Deep into Hardpan without Over-Tilling

Subsoil: The term implies tilling in an out-of-sight area called the “subsoil.” Building these zones may be the most important

Tractor plows farm land. Understanding why you till and how deep to till are important.

tillage practice, and it also may be the least understood. To understand why it is necessary to till the subsoil, we must first look under the ground into the real world of agriculture.

We will find mysterious things lying underground that can severely limit yields, regardless of how well we have managed the surface zone. Let us begin by taking a slice of the soil to see what is under there. The farmer should begin by looking for evidence of worm activity in the upper 6 to 12 inches of soil. Worms are a beautiful sight for those who understand their value. Their burrows enhance soil aeration and soil fertility. The burrow linings thrive with microbial activity. Once the soil passes through a worm’s digestive tract, the castings will be much higher in nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium than the nearby undigested soil.

We may also see a number of vertical holes that are formed by a different worm, commonly called the “night crawler.” These holes may be as large as 3/8 inch in diameter and extend from the surface to deep into the subsoil. In other areas we may not find night crawlers because while some soils may have them, others do not.

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Weed Control: Mulching Questions Answered

The Mulch and Soil Council have investigated the use of colorants in mulch products.

Weed control through mulching makes sense for many growers, but there are often questions about sourcing, safety and sustainability. May is a critical time for many gardeners to deal with existing or imminent weed issues before problems get totally out of control. Mulching is a key component of a multi-pronged approach to gaining the upper hand in the weed control battle.

Is Cypress Mulch Sustainable?

Shredded cypress is a popular mulching material for weed control because it is slow to decompose and the long strands lock together and don’t blow or float away easily. Attractive and natural looking, cypress mulch has many fans in the garden. The majestic swampy cypress forests across the Southeast, where most of the cypress mulch is harvested, are a true ecological sanctuary and face encroaching building development as more and more people flock to the Sunbelt. Gardeners are  now beginning to look at the source of their mulch and question the sustainability of cypress mulch harvesting.

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