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Farming to Improve Soil Health

Today, you can’t pick up a farm paper or any other ag publication without seeing something about cover crops, minimum tillage and farming to improve soil health.

But what exactly is meant by “soil health?” Much of the soil health focus is on soil biology and fostering a healthy, diverse, living ecosystem in the soil. I agree that soil life is a key component of soil health, but in my opinion, the other important aspect of soil health is the soil’s ability to dish out nutrients to the crop, and then using the right sources of minerals to make up for any shortcomings in what the soil can provide. This aspect of soil health is often overlooked in discussions on the topic, but is equally important in getting you a high-quality bumper crop.

Like many aspects of biological farming, it’s the balance of different components that makes the system work.

I believe that many farmers now recognize that the soil is alive, a teeming underground city of creatures, all doing their own “jobs,” working together. They can be really productive, naturally balancing things out and providing nutrients for the crop that’s being grown. Soil health under this definition is a balance of organisms — no group crowding out any other group, seizing control and causing crop problems. Continue Reading →

Minerals for Healthy Soil & High-Quality, Top Yields

It’s a new century, and there is more knowledge about farming and the role of minerals, and there are more farmers paying attention to it. When it comes to farming, we know what the “base” is: putting all the pieces together including minerals, biology and soil structure — and using crop fertilizers that provide above and  beyond what the soil can dish out in terms of nutrients and biology.

A fall mixed cover the author grew after rye was harvested. He used the cover crop to capture nutrients in a biological form and to cycle nutrients to get more minerals into the following cash crop.

Even though there’s a lot of discussion about soil health, no-till and soil structure in farming right now, not enough attention is paid to minerals.

It seems like so much of agriculture is spending its time and money chasing magic biologicals, foliars or plant protection and not focusing on doing everything you can to feed your crop a balance of minerals and prevent the problems in the first place.

So what is your limiting factor or constraint that interferes with plant production and plant health? You need to understand that your farming practices have a lot of influence on plant health, and plants that are healthy protect themselves — just as you have an immune system that functions well if you are healthy. Reduce stress; eat a balanced diet with a balance of nutrients; eat a variety of foods that are clean without foreign compounds to fight and a good biological balance. If you get all that right do you need to take supplements?

It’s not farming the same way it was in grandpa’s day because there was a lot he didn’t know. He didn’t understand nutrients, soil health or soil fertility, and didn’t have the tools we have. He was stuck with a “plow.” If I asked you to do everything you could to get your soils healthy and mineralized, what would you do? Continue Reading →

Key Stages of Resilience for Plant Health

Our vision and our mission is to help farmers produce healthy crops which are insect and disease resistant and have no need for toxic insecticides and fungicides. We can accomplish this goal by providing farmers with knowledge of how diseases and insect pests interact with growing plants, tools to monitor crop health in the field, and information and materials which can be used to increase and enhance plant health.

The degree of plant health and immunity is based on a plant’s ability to form structurally complete compounds such as carbohydrates and proteins. Complete carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are formed by healthy plants with a fully functional enzyme system, which is dependent on trace mineral enzyme cofactors.

So-called plant pathogens, bacterial and fungal diseases, and insect pests have less complex digestive systems than higher animals and lack the needed enzymes to digest complete plant compounds. In his book titled Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution,  Francis Chaboussou has documented a fair amount of research on plant-pathogen relationships, protein formation in plants, and the plant immunity connection. Chaboussou’s theory of plant health which he calls “Trophobiosis” is founded on the premise that insect and disease pests cannot utilize complete proteins and carbohydrates as a food source. Continue Reading →

Transitioning to Organic: Strategies for Success

The year two spring rye crop — note how few weeds are present. This rye grew well during the spring and early summer, and was ready for harvest in mid-July. Below shows the rye straw after the grain was combined. Yields were about 35 bushels/acre of rye seed the first year and 4 bales of straw/acre. This year, the yield was 52 bushels/acre of rye seed and 8 bales of straw/acre.

With conventional prices for corn, beans, wheat and dairy really low right now and both prices and demand for organic products high, a lot of growers are thinking about transitioning to organic.

For most growers, one of the biggest deterrents to going organic is the 36-month-long process of transition, during which time you can use only organic-approved inputs and practices, but the crops, milk or other farm goods produced can’t be sold as “organic” and receive the price premium.

In my opinion, chasing profits is not the right reason to go organic, and there is more to it than not adding prohibited inputs and getting paid more for your crops. Being a successful organic farmer requires a different mind-set, and the best time to figure out your approach to organic farming and set yourself up for success is during the transition period.

Before Transitioning to Organic 

If you’re considering transitioning to organic, the first thing you should do is sit down and think about why and then think about how. If your answer to why is that you are doing it for the money, maybe it’s not for you. Continue Reading →

Crop Diversity: The Key to Sustainability

monocropA study is showing that crop diversity is the key to sustainability, although that’s old news to eco-farmers.

U.S. farmers on the whole, however, are growing fewer types of crops than they were 34 years ago, which could have implications for how farms fare as changes to the climate evolve, according to a large-scale study by Kansas State University, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Less crop diversity may also be impacting the general ecosystem.

“At the national level, crop diversity declined over the period we analyzed,” said Jonathan Aguilar, K-State water resources engineer and lead researcher on the study.

The scientists used data from the USDA’s U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is published every five years from information provided by U.S. farmers. The team studied crop diversity data from 1978 through 2012 across the country’s contiguous states.

Croplands comprise about 408 million acres, or 22 percent of the total land base, in the lower 48 states, so changes in crop species diversity could have a substantial impact, not only on agro-ecosystem function, but also the function of surrounding natural and urban areas. Because croplands are typically replanted annually, theoretically crop species diversity can change fairly rapidly. There is the potential for swift positive change, unlike in natural ecosystems.

“At the very simplistic level, crop diversity is a measure of how many crops in an area could possibly work together to resist, address and adjust to potential widespread crop failures, including natural problems such as pests and diseases, weed pressures, droughts and flood events,” said Aguilar. “This could also be viewed as a way to spread potential risks to a producer. Just like in the natural landscape, areas with high diversity tend to be more resilient to external pressures than are areas with low diversity. In other words, diversity provides stability in an area to assure food sustainability.”

The study is the first to quantify crop species diversity in the United States using an extensive database over a relatively long period of analysis, Aguilar said. The results of the effort, partially funded by the K-State Open Access Fund, were published in PLOS One.

In addition to the national trend, the researchers studied regional trends by examining county-level data from areas called Farm Resource Regions developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Although the study showed that crop diversity declined nationally, it wasn’t uniform in all regions or in all states.

“There seem to be more dynamics going on in some regions or states,” Aguilar said, noting that not all of the factors affecting those regional trends are clear.

For instance, the Heartland Resource Region, which is home to 22 percent of U.S. farms and represents the highest value, 23 percent, of U.S. production, had the lowest crop diversity. This region comprises Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and parts of Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kentucky.

In contrast to all of the other regions, the Mississippi Portal Region, which includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, had significantly higher crop diversity in 2012 than in 1978.

While overall, the national trend was toward less crop diversity, the region called the Fruitful Rim (parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) and the Northern Crescent (states along the northeast border from part of Minnesota east through Wisconsin, Michigan through to Maine and south to New Jersey and Pennsylvania) had the most crop diversity.

The data used was specific enough that the researchers were able to quantify crop diversity and trends even down to the county level.

“A significant trend of more counties shifting to lower rather than higher crop diversity was detected,” the team wrote in the study results. “The clustering and shifting demonstrates a trend toward crop diversity loss and attendant homogenization of agricultural production systems, which could have far-reaching consequences for provision of ecosystem services associated with agricultural systems as well as food system sustainability.”

“Biodiversity is important to the ecosystem function,” the researchers wrote. “Biodiversity in agricultural systems is linked to critical ecological processes such as nutrient and water cycling, pest and disease regulation and degradation of toxic compounds such as pesticides. Diverse agro-ecosystems are more resilient to variable weather resulting from climate change and often hold the greatest potential for such benefits as natural pest control.”

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.