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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 →

The Soil Food Web: A World Beneath Our Feet

The soil food web: Unseen beneath our feet, there dwells a teeming microscopic universe of complex living organisms that few humans ever consider. In one teaspoon of soil alone, there may be over 600 million bacterial cells, and if that soil comes from the immediate root zone of a healthy plant, the number can exceed a million bacteria of many different species. These bacterial cells exist in complex predator-prey relationships with countless other diverse organisms.

This topsoil food web forms the foundation for fertile, healthy soil, for healthy plants, and ultimately for a healthy planet. It is an essential but exceedingly delicate foundation that even the brightest scientists know very little about.

Dr. Elaine Ingham has been researching this tiny universe for nearly 20 years. She has sought to understand the importance of these organisms and the relationships that exist between them, and to elucidate the effects that various agricultural practices have on this vast network of life.

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Biological Farming: Customizing Methods for Large-Scale Operations

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JR Bollinger in his corn, head-high by Fourth of July.

Biological farming is not just limited to small plots. Take the story of one Missouri farmer, who through holistic approaches to farming, managed to improve his yields and the size of corn on the stalk.

At the end of 2015, I talked to Missouri boot-heel farmer David “JR” Bollinger about his experiences growing corn, soybeans and milo using carbon-smart farming principles and practices. In his first year fully committed to biological agriculture, Bollinger cut conventional fertilizers by 50 percent and applied blends of biocarbons, minerals and microbes. Soils, plants and yields are all showing positive results.

Bollinger is the fourth generation to farm on 3,500 acres in the southeast Missouri Delta, with the family’s main crops being corn, soybeans, wheat and milo.

“In 2012, I first dabbled in biological farming on a reclaimed coal mine,” he said. “A gentleman with microbial products first tickled my brain about dead soil. He challenged me to find an earthworm. I went looking, and … none. I noticed there wasn’t much life. The soil looked like moondust, vacant of life.”

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More Accurate Soil Testing

soil testingSoil testing that determines needed fertilizer will measure nitrate in the soil, but tests don’t sufficiently account for soil microbes, which mineralize organic nitrogen and make more of it available to a crop. As a result, farmers often apply more fertilizer than necessary.

Richard Haney, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist in Temple, Texas, has developed soil test that replicates some of the natural processes that occur in a field and accounts for microbial activity, along with measuring nitrate, ammonium (NH4) and organic nitrogen.

The new soil test is known as the Soil Health Tool. It involves drying and rewetting soil to mimic the effects of precipitation. It also uses the same organic acids that plant roots use to acquire nutrients from the soil. The testing tool measures organic carbon and other nutrients, accounts for the effects of using cover crops and no-till practices and works for any crop produced with nitrogen or other types of nutrient fertilizer. For more information visit http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2014/140710.htm

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

Fighting Weeds with Microbes

Ragweed

We read many, many studies involving manipulation of DNA with as of yet uncalculated risks. It was quite refreshing to read new research employing DNA-based tools in tandem with common sense for the good of all forms of agriculture and the health of the soil.

Using high-powered DNA-based tools, a recent study at the University of Illinois published in Microbial Biology identified soil microbes that negatively affect ragweed and provided a new understanding of the complex relationships going on beneath the soil surface between plants and microorganisms.

“Plant scientists have been studying plant-soil feedback for decades,” said U of I microbial ecologist Tony Yannarell. “Some microbes are famous for their ability to change the soil, such as the microbes that are associated with legumes — we knew about those bacteria. But now we have the ability to use high-power DNA fingerprinting tools to look at all of the microbes in the soil, beyond just the ones we’ve known about. We were able to look at an entire microbial community and identify those microbes that both preferred ragweed and affected its growth.”

Researchers believe an effective strategy to suppress weeds might be to use plants that are known to attract the microbes that are bad for ragweed, and in so doing, encourage the growth of a microbial community that will kill it.

“We used the same soil continuously so it had a chance to be changed,” Yannarell said. “We let the plants do the manipulation.”

This encapsulation of the research is from the June 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Crop Rotation: 7 Steps to Enhance Your Soil Life

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Crop rotation leads to increased soil life.

Crop rotation has been used since Roman times to improve plant nutrition and to control the spread of disease. A study published in Nature’s The ISME Journal reveals the profound effect crop rotation has on enriching soil with bacteria, fungi and protozoa.

Crop rotation simply means changing the type of crop grown on a particular piece of land from year to year which includes cyclical and non-cyclical rotations. Good crop rotation includes planning ahead two or more years. A lack of planning can lead to problems including the buildup of soil-borne diseases or imbalances in soil nutrients and an increase in pests.

“Changing the crop species massively changes the content of microbes in the soil, which in turn helps the plant to acquire nutrients, regulate growth and protect itself against pests and diseases, boosting yield,” said Professor Philip Poole from the John Innes Centre.

Soil was collected from a field near Norwich and planted with wheat, oats and peas. After growing wheat, it remained largely unchanged and the microbes in it were mostly bacteria. Crop rotation by growing oat and pea in the same sample caused a huge shift toward protozoa and nematode worms.

Seven Crop Rotation Steps

A good crop rotation plan should include the following steps:

Step 1. Identify and prioritize your goals. Your goals may to be build better, healthier soils, control pests, minimize soil-borne diseases, reduce weed pressure and to produce the most nutritious foods possible.

Step 2. Write down the mix of fruits, vegetables and cover crops that you plan to grow next season along with each crop’s planting and harvesting dates.

Step 3. Write the plant’s family name next to each crop and then add up the amount of garden space in square feet that will be allocated for each family. If one family will be grown on more than 25 percent of your garden, then consider increasing the diversity of your crop mix. Having a high proportion of your garden in one family might mean that a location will rotate back to that family too soon, which can lead to soil-borne diseases.

Step 4. Make a crop rotation planning map. Think about how you will divide your garden into small units of somewhat equal sizes. These units could be long rows or individual beds of any shape. Making this map and having your garden divided into these units allows you to keep track of what you planted on a piece of ground years later. The map of your garden will show every unit. The map should be large enough so that information can be written inside each unit. For this mapmaking, 12 x 16 sketch paper or a computer works well. Sample maps can be downloaded. When you are done making your map and before you start filling in each unit’s information, make at least six to eight copies. Next, assign a color for each plant family, cover crop, mulch and fallow periods.

Step 5. On another copy of your map, designate each crop to as many units as you need to meet the area of your specific crop mix. If a unit will be double or triple cropped, separate their names with dashes such as May lettuce-buckwheat cover-fall spinach. If you plan on growing two or more of the same crop family on a unit, use slashes to indicate this (tomato/peppers/potato). When placing a crop onto a unit, try to pair crop families together on a given unit, but avoid placing a family onto a unit that has had that same family on the unit in the previous few years. At this time you may match the colors you’ve chosen for families and color them onto the appropriate units.

Step 6. Once you have your maps finished with the crops written inside each unit, numbered and colored, along with any other usable information, then take your maps and walk your garden. Imagine how it will look and consider the tillage, planting, care and harvesting of your crops and if the proposed crop sequence makes sense for a given location. At this time also take into consideration equipment, irrigation and labor needs.

Step 7. Develop a backup plan by thinking ahead to any problems that may arise with growing a crop within a unit, such as if a spring may be too wet for early planted crops or certain transplants are unavailable at a critical time or who will take over your labor duties if something happens to you and you have to be away for an extended period of time. Write down your backup plans for coping with various problems and make provisions for these possible problems.

Every garden is unique and each gardener will have their own specific needs, but there are principals and general rules of thumb that should be followed when thinking about a new rotation.

  • Follow legume cover crops such as clover with high-N demanding crops.
  • Grow winter-killed cover crops before early-season crops.
  • Never grow any crop after itself.
  • Use crop sequences that promote healthier crops such as cabbage family crops following onions or potatoes following corn.
  • Avoid growing one heavy feeder after another heavy feeder.
  • Grow tomatoes after peas, lettuce or spinach, because tomatoes take a lot out of the soil.
  • Grow beans after sweet corn to rebuild nitrogen levels.
  • Use a cover crop’s residue to help build organic matter levels.
  • When growing a wide mix of crops, try grouping into units according to plant family, timing of crops planting dates and harvesting dates.
  • A minimum return time of a crop should be in the four-to-five year range, which often prevents most soil-borne diseases.
  • Attempt to keep something growing throughout the year, which keeps the ground covered, protecting the soil and at the same time will supply organic material for earthworms and beneficial organisms living within the soils. Incorporating cover crops into a rotation makes this possible.

Rotations are an important part of any gardening system. Yields of crops grown in rotations are typically 10 percent higher than those of crops grown in monoculture in normal growing seasons and as much as 25 percent higher in droughty growing seasons.

Adding cover crops to a rotation can add organic matter, enhance mycorrhizal numbers, add nitrogen, suppress weeds and nematodes, reduce soil erosion, increases infiltration of water, decreases nutrient loss and attracts beneficial insects.

Planning Crop Rotation in Vegetable Gardens

There is a growing consciousness around growing one’s own food and the reasons for doing so vary from person to person. Tough economic times, high unemployment, rising food costs and a desire to provide one’s family with fresh, super nutritious food are just a few examples.

One fact that remains the same is that gardener’s put a great amount of care, hard work and time into their gardens only to sometimes achieve mediocre results.

The one factor that we have no control over is Mother Nature. Gardening is inherently risky and pests, drought, flooding and wind along with other weather extremes can all destroy a year’s work. A good example of an extreme weather event would be the severe drought of 2012 that stretched across more than half of the United States and the record number of 90-plus days. With many of those days reaching up into the triple digits. The result was scorched crop fields, pastures and gardens. The drought was so extensive that it also created problems concerning producers’ water supplies. Creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and aquifers had dangerously low water levels, while others completely dried up.

The number of farmers, livestock producers and gardeners who experienced crop and animal losses in 2012 will not only be felt by them, but will be felt by most American consumers. A large portion of our economy depends on agriculture.

Irrigation was a lifesaver in 2012 for those who had systems in place, but even then some farmers and gardeners were still unable to keep up with demand and eventually had to give up in the face of low water supplies and high fuel bills.

Many gardeners who utilized drip irrigation with mulch or a plastic layer had good results and were able to produce an abundant crop within their gardens.

There are many tools and techniques that growers use to grow their food, somethings they have control over, and others not, but one technique often misunderstood and under valued is crop rotations within a garden.

The smaller a garden is and when a gardener is only growing two or three different crops, it then becomes more difficult for a crop rotation to be effective. There are ways in which a gardener can increase his success rates and be extremely efficient and they include using mulch, compost, manure and short-term cover crops.

Name Game

In the world of gardening there are so many names that it can be confusing and intimidating, but a new gardener who does not understand those horticulture names could make the wrong choice of plants for their garden and the crop rotation plan. To become more knowledgeable with these horticulture names stop by your local library and check out a few books on vegetable gardening, use the Internet, ask your local garden center staff or an experienced gardener. Understanding the vocabulary that comes along with gardening and a crop rotation can make the planning easier and gardening in general a lot more enjoyable, productive and successful.

— by Chad King