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Biochar: Prepping it for Soil

Biochar can benefit your soil, but only if properly prepared prior to application. In November 2007, scientists at the USDA National Laboratory for Agricul­ture and the environment (NLAE) in Ames, Iowa, began multi-year field trials to assess the effects of biochar on crop productivity and soil quality. Scientists amended almost 8 acres with biochar made from hardwood. Twelve plots re­ceived 4 tons per acre; 12 were treated with 8 tons per acre.

Author David Yarrow helps install a biochar test plot at Subterra in Kansas.

They found no significant difference in the three-year average grain yield from either treatment. Other USDA field and laboratory studies in Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas showed hardwood biochar can improve soil structure and increase sandy soils’ ability to retain water. But soil fertility response was more variable.

USDA scientists violated four key principles for biochar use: 1) bulk char, in one large load 2) raw, uncharged char 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage and other antibiotic practices.

After all, soil may get 25 or more inches of rain a year, but not all at once in a single event. Biochar, like water, is best added in a series of small doses so soil has adequate time to distribute and digest it. We already know from research in the Amazon that dumping five, 10, even 20 tons of raw char all at once into poor soil retards plant growth for one year and maybe two. But after that, plants erupt in impressive, vigorous growth.

But a dip in yield isn’t acceptable for production agriculture. Farmers can’t wait a year or two to harvest a profit­able crop. Professional growers need fast response and strong stimulus to growth. Economics and handling logistics require convenience and low cost, with vigorous growth from minimal applied material.

Fortunately, we are learning how to prepare char for optimum results in soil and on crops. Biochar research in America is hardly 10 years old, but solid research shows that properly prepared, intelligently applied biochar has dramatic effects on soil structure and plant growth at as little as 500 pounds per acre.

To prepare biochar for optimum effec­tive use in soil, there are four fundamen­tal steps: moisten, mineralize, micronize and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →

Tractor Time Episode 9: Ben Hartman and How to Make a Living on One Acre

In this week’s podcast, we’re going all the way back to last year’s Acres USA Eco-Ag Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. There, an author-farmer named Ben Hartman spoke for more than an hour about a little miracle he and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, created in southern Michigan.

Ben Hartman, courtesy of claybottomfarm.com.

In The Lean Farm, the title of his book, Ben shows how he and his family connected with local restaurants in Chicago and the southern Michigan area to create a sustainable, profitable farming venture on less than one acre of land.

His talk last year at our conference was educational, inspiring, and one worth sharing. For those who want to attend our conference in Columbus, Ohio, from Dec. 5-8 this year and talk with hundreds of farmers and experts, including last week’s guest Andre Leu, you can learn more at www.acresusa.com, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and of course, subscribe to our monthly magazine.

Learn more about Ben Hartman at http://claybottomfarm.com, or by buying his book at www.acresusa.com/the-lean-farm.

Check out all of our Tractor Time podcasts here.

Soil Testing: The Need for Total Testing

What many farmers probably don’t know about soil testing is that most soil tests only tell us what is soluble in the soil. They do not tell us what is actually there in the soil, no matter what fertilizer salesmen might like to imply. To find out what is actually there requires a total acid digest similar to what is used for plant tissue analysis. Mining labs run these total acid di­gests on ore samples which are crushed, ground and extracted with concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acid solutions, but a mining assay does not determine total carbon, nitrogen and sulfur as a plant tissue analysis would. These ele­ments need a separate procedure essen­tial for evaluating soil humic reserves.

Total soil testing is key to understanding your soils’ needs.

Most soil tests measure total carbon, which then is multiplied by 1.72 to calcu­late soil organic matter. This assumes that most of the carbon in the soil is humus of one form or another. While this may or may not be true, determining the car­bon to nitrogen, nitrogen to sulfur, and nitrogen to phosphorus ratios is a good guide for evaluating organic matter, and this requires testing total nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus as well as carbon.

While carbon in almost any form is a benefit to the soil, it helps enormously if it is accompanied by the right ratios of ni­trogen, sulfur and phosphorus. Though these ratios are not set in stone, a target for carbon to nitrogen is 10:1, for nitro­gen to sulfur is 5.5:1 and for nitrogen to phosphorus is 4:1. This works out to an ideal carbon to sulfur ratio of 55:1, and a carbon to phosphorus ratio of 40:1. Because soil biology is very adjustable these targets are not exact, but achieving them in soil total tests is a good indica­tion of humus reserves that will supply the required amounts of amino acids, sulfates and phosphates whenever the soil food web draws on them. Continue Reading →

Liquid Organic Matter Can Save Costs, Increase Yields

Plants, when delivered liquid organic matter, have been proven to use less and make a higher yield.

Organic matter improves tilling properties and increases soil water holding capacity in soil. It also makes nutrients in soil more readily available to plants as they leach through soil at minimum rates. Most importantly, due to their unique chemical and physical compositions, organic matter-bound nutrients have been proven to be very efficiently utilized by plants. Organic matter is no doubt one of the most important key ingredients to increase soil productivity, which ultimately results in higher crop yields.

However, there are many types of organic matter with different methods of application, in which practicability and efficiency can be a concern. Canadian Humalite International Inc. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has been making an effort to mitigate this challenge by utilizing low-quality coal (non-hazardous material, energy value around 7,000 BTU/lb) as a source of organic matter. This material is transported from the mine, crushed, liquefied, combined with nutrients, and then applied to soil and/or plants. Rather than using it as a non-efficient source of energy, this coal material is developed into products which are beneficial to soil.

The products are applied to soil/seeds, seedlings, and plants up to 15 percent flowering through drip irrigation and pivot/spray systems. Significant yield increases have been observed on various crops grown in different types of soil and climate regions in Canada and the United States. The following example is one of the most recent findings obtained from a field trial completed in Forrestburg, Alberta, Canada, in 2013. Continue Reading →

Cover Crops on the Farm

Cover crops are increasingly being used by farmers across the country to suppress weeds, conserve soil, protect water quality and control pests and diseases.

A mix of rye, clover and vetch.

The fourth annual SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey, collected data from more than 2,000 growers from 48 states and the District of Columbia and provides insight into cover crop usage and benefits as well as farmer motivation for including cover crops as components in their farm management and soil health plans.

Responders reported a steady increase in the number of acres they have planted to cover crops over the past five years. They said the most important benefits of cover crops include: improved soil health, reduced erosion and compaction and increased soil organic matter. Other key benefits of using cover crops include: weed and insect control, provides a nitrogen source, attracts pollinators and provides deep taproots.

In the 2015-2016 survey, SARE and CTIC sought data on how farmers manage their fertilizer inputs as a result of their cover crop practices. Cover crop users were asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of fertilizer-related statements, using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The statement that got the highest level of agreement was, “Using cover crops has enabled me to reduce application of nitrogen on my cash crop,” with 134 of 1,012 respondents strongly agreeing and 244 checking “agree.” The statement that had the highest level of disagreement was “Using cover crops has required me to use additional crop fertility inputs over time to meet the needs of my cash crop.” Continue Reading →

Pollinators in Peril

Pollinators have a staunch ally in Graham White. White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides since 2003. To this endeavor, he brings his background in environmental education and teaching, a fascination with the biodiversity of life and his long-term involvement in environmental issues.

Graham White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and their affect on pollinators since 2003.

Born into a family of coal miners and glassmakers in an industrial town near Liverpool, England, White developed his love of nature exploring remnant woodlands and abandoned 19th century canals. As a teenager he was introduced to hiking and as a university student in the late 1960s he became an avid rock climber. He credits his 1976 expedition, hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney in California, with changing his life.
When White returned to the UK, he decided to make it his mission to introduce John Muir, his writings and environmental values to the people of Britain. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, was from Scotland, but was virtually unknown there. White founded the UK’s first Environment Centre in Edinburgh in 1978 and served as founding director for 23 years. In 1994 he proposed the creation of The John Muir Award for environmental excellence as a personal development program for people of all ages. In recent years over 200,000 people have completed this national challenge award.
White is also an accomplished nature photographer, author and editor of environmentally themed books and articles, and radio broadcaster, whose productions include the BBC interview series Deep in Conservation with environmental luminaries such as David Brower, Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Amory Lovins, and Bill Mollison.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. How did you come to be a campaigner for bees?

GRAHAM WHITE. I started keeping bees in 1994, with four hives; within two years I had 10 hives. I harvested about 20 pounds of honey per hive each year, to share with friends and family. I only became a bee campaigner around 2000, when my bees began to die for no apparent reason. The Varroa mite arrived in 1998, but we treated for it, and I didn’t lose any colonies. The French have had Varroa mites since 1963 without any impact on honey production. In 2001, I moved to the Scottish Borders, an area where wheat, canola, barley and potatoes are intensively farmed. I soon noticed something odd happening with the bees; my colonies didn’t die, but they no longer thrived or made as much honey. They seemed weaker and lacking in vigor. In 1998 Bayer’s imidacloprid appeared in the UK. I wasn’t living among the wheat fields back then, so I wasn’t aware of it. When clothianidin appeared, around 2003, people began to lose bees on a large scale — 50 to 80 percent of hives died each winter. After some online research, I discovered that mass bee deaths had occurred in France since 1994. We were just the next in a line. I began to educate myself and try to alert my fellow beekeepers in the UK. Continue Reading →