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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 →

Soil pH: Making Adjustments to Boost Fertility

Raising soil pH is relatively inexpensive. Lime is the product of choice but there are two basic types of lime: high-calcium and dolomitic.

Soil pH adjustment may seem like a pretty straightforward operation, but there are many things to consider before undertaking such a bold step with soil chemistry. The first step is determine the direction you need to go and the products to use to achieve your goal.

I cannot stress enough the importance of getting a good soil test. I’ve heard people say that based on the type of weeds or the fact that moss is growing means the soil pH needs adjusting. Assuming those statements were true, which direction and how much adjustment should be made? Without a good soil test it is pure and simple guesswork.

Continue Reading →

Preventing Tomato Blossom-End Rot

800px-Blossomendrot

Plants are subjected to numerous environmental stresses — drought, extreme temperatures and excess light can all affect plant growth and quality. Looking for methods to improve the quality of tomato plants, researchers at the University of Tennessee turned to abscisic acid (ABA), a plant hormone known to help plants acclimate to these types of severe environmental stresses. The research results and recommendations for growers were published in HortScience.

According to the study’s corresponding author Carl Sams, ABA can have a positive effect on nutritional fluxes in plants; for example, it can promote the uptake of calcium in tomato plants. Adequate levels of calcium in tomato fruit have positive effects on fruit quality — specifically firmness — while insufficient calcium uptake and movement in tomato plants can result in a disorder called blossom-end rot. Blossom-end rot often occurs in plants that have an adequate calcium supply but are grown in challenging environmental conditions such as humidity, high light intensity and high temperatures, all of which inhibit transport of calcium to plants’ rapidly growing distal fruit tissue. Blossom-end rot can also occur when plants experience increased demand for calcium in the early stages of fruit development.

This summary appears in the March 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Blood Calcium in Dairy Cows

 

Photo by USDA NRCS

Photo by USDA NRCS

The health of dairy cows after giving birth is a major factor in the quantity and quality of the milk the cows produce. Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that subclinical hypocalcemia, which is the condition of having low levels of calcium in the blood and occurs in many cows after giving birth, is related to higher levels of fat in the liver. John Middleton, a professor in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, says these higher levels of fat are often precursors to future health problems in cows. “We found that about 50 percent of dairy cows suffered subclinical hypocalcemia and subsequent higher levels of fat in the liver after giving birth to their calves,” Middleton said. “These higher levels of fat in the liver are often tied to health problems in dairy cows, including increased risk for uterus and mammary infections as well as ketosis, which is a condition that results in the cows expending more energy than they are taking in through their diet. All of these conditions can decrease the amount of milk these dairy cows will produce.”

This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.