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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 →

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.

Continue Reading →

Integrating Sheep into Organic Production

Flock_of_sheep

Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may enable farmers who grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State University and North Dakota State University researchers.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term USDA research, education and extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences.

The project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms. Continue Reading →

Grasping the True Value of Cover Cropping

cover crop

Photo by USDA NRCS

Planting cover crops in rotation between cash crops is even more valuable than previously thought, according to a team of agronomists, entomologists, agroecologists, horticulturists and biogeochemists from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Research, published in Agricultural Systems, quantified the benefits offered by cover crops across more than 10 ecosystem services. Benefits included increased carbon and nitrogen in soils, erosion prevention, more mycorrhizal colonization and weed suppression. Researchers simulated a three-year, soybean-wheat-corn rotation with and without cover crops in central Pennsylvania, which presented agroecological conditions broadly representative of the Northeast and mid- Atlantic regions. The cover crop rotation included red clover, frost-seeded into winter wheat in March, and winter rye, planted after corn was harvested in the fall. The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used simulated management practices, including tillage, synthetic fertilizer use and mechanical weed control.

This report appears in the May 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.