Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I've been at a conference for the past three days, whilst I normally feel more comfortable on a farm or ranch than anything else, it has been good to stay in one place and recieve some information in a different way for a change.
The conference was run by the Quivira Coalition - they are an organisation that has been set up to try and address the differences between what had been traditional age old enmities - environmentalists and ranchers (and a few others.) OK, that is actually probably putting it far too simplistically but the essence of the organisation is to get people together and try and find new ways of addressing old problems relating to agriculture and the environment. Or simply addressing the old issues through a prism.
For readers in the UK it is kind of like getting the Environment Agency, NFU, RSPB, Soil Association and others together and then saying "forget about all the single issue agenda's and all that, lets do something which gives us all a common aim and brings us together" the premise being you can't solve the individual issues without looking at the context of the bigger system. The key to its positive atmosphere is that a lot of old baggage was left at the door quite a few conferences ago.
Now it does all sound a bit too good to be true and for sure, the Quivira Coalition probably doesn't represent a typical cross section of ranchers in South Western USA but its something of a start. Sometimes old enmities can be generational and intergenerational - Quivira seems to try to act as a touchstone for those who want to look at traditional arguments afresh as well as learn some new things. I liked the vibe, ranchers were articulate and educated about the ecology they worked in and recognised a lot of the problems that needed addressing such as overgrazing. Equally a lot of the people who work in the public and political sectors recognised and valued the ranching tradition greatly. There was a good spectrum of people, it was female and young person friendly as well which gave it a vitality.
In fact some of this was my first taste of real Western ranch culture. A lot of the ranch people were loyal to their traditions. There were quite a lot of pointed cowboy boots going clickety click on the floor, western style shirts, big tie brooch's and ten gallon hats for the men. The ladies usually had colourfully embroidered or sequined blouses and figure hugging jeans (I did notice!). To most attendees there this was nothing but normal, but it was something I noticed and thought was pretty authentic and quite special. Much the same way that in its own way, my local county show is with its bowler hats, or the livestock market with the tweed flat caps is!
This years conference was themed around a mid twentieth century ecological and conservation writer called Aldo Leopold. I hadn't really known a lot about him but he is generally considered the father of the "land" movement and from this various sub streams have spilled out over the years - conservation, environmentalism, agrarianism. Although this was the strand that united the conference the talks and speakers were immensely varied. From dung beetles, to wolves, to grassland managemen,t to interpreting beauty in nature via art, to amish farming, to horse management on a navajo ranch, to prarie literature, to promoting healthy local food. Ok you get the picture!
Before I went, being a typical human being I tried to pigeonhole it and therefore because I didn't quite understand what it trying to achieve, I almost thought it as a bit dreamy. The point is that in agriculture all things matter - its is not just about food production. Its other strands should be celebrated, commercialised, articulated, whatever. In fact one of the most enduring images for me would be the Amish farmer, the Navajo Indian horsewoman, a grizzled old rancher, a biochemical scientist and a Californian earth mother type sharing a question and answer session. All completely different people, all with the same core values of restoring and retaining the health of the land. It sounds dreadfully politically correct and it would be were it not for the fact that it works immensely well.
Suffice to say it was an stimulating and fun three days, I made a lot of friends, sadly all of whom will probably be fleeting. It will be interesting to follow Quivira's progress over the years.
More on the Quivira Coalition:
He started to divide up his 13000 acres of ranchland into paddocks of 130-250 acres. It has cost him about $5 acre to do this - he used old telephone wires for the electric strand and an assortment of metal posts. Efficient and environmentally friendly!
On the pick up ride around the farm which I have now become accustomed to (in the pick up and round the kitchen table is the best way to get any information from a rancher or farmer) he explained his system:
"I'm the only full time guy around here now. I have to make a living from the ranch so its important that it wipes its face" he told me. "Firstly the more paddocks you have the less mistakes you make because it means you don't have to come back too soon." said Roger "in this landscape if you come back too soon then in three or four years time you can end up in a big rick - especially if you have upped your stocking rates in this brittle landscape."
He also says his cows last longer. They used to be culled at 8 years and now they will last 12-15 years. He doesn't know why exactly but he does know that in this extremely tight system replacements are a major cost.
Roger is as much a practical ecologist as a farmer - in fact more of a conservationist than many of those in environmental movements could understand.
Finally Roger reminded me that you can't really overgraze in the winter/ dormant season so he is more likely to extend the grazing cylce in the paddocks and maybe move them once every two days and keep them a little more rationed, besides it gives him more time to play Golf!
More on Roger:
This would be pretty interesting I reckon. It is invitation only but if any of you have had your appetities whetted by what your reading on this then you should be able to request a place in the workshop.
Please contact Davidhugill2@aol.com for info.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
There aren't many young farmers (or beginning farmers as they call them in the US) in this part of Iowa, Torray Wilson tells me. Most of the guys around him are in their late 50's and most of them follow a corn/ soybean rotation. Which works for them says Torray, but its a very expensive, borrowing-heavy method of farming to get into. Besides which, he had always had an interest in grazing and looking at the bigger picture.
Torray and family farm about 640 acres organically, he graduated from college in 2005 and has since been introducing new grazing ideas to his farming, luckily he is supported by his open minded family.
He grows organic corn (maize), soybeans and oats and these are sold off the farm for cash. He also has a burgeoning sheep, cattle and pig enterprise. He generally runs his sheep and cattle all together as a mob. He has plans to cull 1/3 of his 300 sheep flock though because he wants to improve the breeding. He has a cross of wool and hair sheep for his flock - he finds the hair sheep don't put on the meat (n.b.hair sheep have a parasite which shed the wool in the spring)
Previously he was doing New Zealand style MiG with cool season grasses, keeping it short. He has since started to let the grass grow longer almost to seed and he feels he has seen the benefits. He says his animals seem more contented with a varied diet. Previously he may have rotated every 30 days or so, now he grazes no more than three or four times a year on a paddock. He doesn't really like the term mob grazing - "the key thing is putting down the litter not the mob and so I prefer to call it planned grazing" he tells me.
"There's a fine line between being out of grass and having too much, too rich grass" says Torray of MIG. He still says he's learning his art but it looks to me that he's well on the way. When I visited he was holding the equivalent of 90 cattle on a 1/4 paddock for the day. What was more he had a lot of stockpiled pasture and then maize stalks in which to keep them for the winter. He has made no hay this year in attempt to push his system - his pasture monitoring tells him he won't need any. When I was there he was deliberately rationing the animals to get them through the winter but in the growing season when he wants to maximise trampling and compensatory growth he has had 180 animal units on 1.2 acres a day.
On the left you can see what a days work with cattle is for Torray. Lift the one strand electric fence and let them through. The area on the left is yesterdays feed. All the trampled down stuff will become soil food for next year. He expects to be back next spring in this field.
Torray likes to keep his mob as one. He notices each species has a different benefit - for example that sheep trample more because there are more hooves per lb. That said sheep predation is a lot less with cattle as they gang up against the coyotes. In the winter Torray will go back to continous grazing for the sheep or give them a bigger area and move them once a week. You cannot overgraze grass in the dormant season so he has more leeway. The cattle will still be moved daily.
The Wilsons can get up to 40" rain a year and so its getting to be the equivalent of some areas of the UK. "If your not careful you can soon turn to mud" Torray told me "so daily moves are important, as is the rest and trampling which continually build your roots and infiltration." When he short MIG pastures they turned to mud a lot quicker.
Torray emphasised to me that if you graze too early in this system you can really reduce your tonnage of grass. So for example if you turn your animals in at boot stage not at maturity recovery is a lot longer. He aims to have a 5-6ft high pasture for them in the height of summer - though this would be helped by the warm season grasses.
For calving in May and June Torray will give the cows a bigger paddock as he thinks the stocking density could be a bit stressful. So for example then they will get two acres a day and then he will increase moves to twice a day in summer on smaller areas.
Photo left: The little blob at the end of the finger is a worm cast. Excretia that is actually new soil. No onther creature can do this and the worm cannot do this or allow soil to become carbon sinks and increase organic matter levels unless theyt get some surface trampling.
At the moment Torray rotates 4 years of pasture with three years of corn, soybeans and oats which are undersown with grass. I was pretty impressed with it all, Torray had only been farming since 2005! The land could clearly handle more cattle and they were planning to scale up in time and buy into the herd that was being grazed (they were custom grazed).
He reckoned that his weakest link was marketing and he wanted to try and get further up the food chain. One thing I have noticed with a lot of these holistic management guys is that they are keen to be price makers, and its not because they can't make the system pay because its efficent, its more to do with having got the management side of things good enough to allow time to focus on developing other things.
He recent ly had an open day on farm and 60 people turned up - more than he expected. He said there was a lot of interest but one of the biggest problems and the age old one I have found in talking to people is that you need to take a paradigm shift ie you need to look at your farming in a different way. And this is one of the reasons that universities and others have found it difficult to put it in their cirriculums. Oh and the fact that you can farm more for a lot less than before which means there's no money to promote it!!
More on Torray here:
Monday, November 2, 2009
Tom German is an organic farmer but also just about to finish his training as a Holistic managment certified educator. I found that Tom was a particularly articulate in the way he explained things. He farms predominantly cattle and also sells in other niche markets.
He gave me his story. When he started his farming career he was pretty much the same as all his neighbours - mainly cropping, mainly corn and soybeans. All the livestock had left long before, in his grandparents days. That said he had always had an interest in grazing and one day picked up a copy of the Rodale Institute's magazine NEWFARM which was dedicated to organic farming. This also led him on to another publication called STOCKMAN AND GRASS FARMER, which was dedicated to promoting grazing animals. And from an advert in this publication he became introduced to the Holistic Management International organisation. Pretty much all of what philosophies these three introductions have given Tom have stayed with him today as he has developed his own organic grass fed enterprise serving niche and sometimes commodity markets.
"We started using some of the Holistic Management concepts in around '96" Tom told me "but it was quite difficult to implement some of the ideas as there was not so much backup. So I would say I'd been using HM since '96, but not well."
Tom said he had been drawn to this system for a number of reasons, firstly was that he had highly erodable land and he wasn't particularly willing to see it head down stream. He also didn't like the amount of chemicals he was using on the land. "Cows are my kind of no till, but better" he told me.
Tom was definitely one of the most articulate thinkers on HM that I've met so far and I couldn't help but feel that anyone asking the questions was always going to get a complete and considered reply from him.
He said when looking at HM first of all you need to define your holistic goal. Everything else you want to do is a finer point within the context of the goal. He had his written up in A4 format stuck on his fridge door. There was a pencil by it as well, to allow any members of the family to alter it. The holistic goal was basically what you want and how you plan to get there - (it deserves greater explanation than that but for the sake of the blog!)
So therefore Tom drummed into me that all the other stuff I have been getting excited about like mob grazing, or soil building, or top quality no till etc. are not just a means in themselves but tools to allow someone to achieve the holistic goal.
Tom explained his enthusiasm for organic grass fed and he said that he felt it was the most sustainable system for livestock farming. "The problem with the feedlot system is that it not only is it heavily subsidised but also it only works because we are cost shifting a lot of our environmental problems from it elsewhere" said Tom "such as the erosion from the rowcrops, the manure being confined and redistibuted from one central place and that the health of the animals and the consumers of the systems products are not particularly healthy." Tom felt that if we were in free market where those environmental costs were not shifted away, and if there was not so much subsidy surrounding the corn/soybean/ feedlot system then his grassfed system would easily compete better, if it doesn't already.
But there are potential difficulties with a mob grazing system and grazing tall. The advantages of the short grazing duration followed by a long rest means that Tom feels in the long term he has greater harvest efficiency of his grass. "But you can see some slippage" says Tom "don't expect miracles it can take a little while for cattle to adapt to being in herd and sometimes they will go little backwards first, maybe two years for it to be fully acclimitised."
Tom doesn't rotate his sheep at the moment they tend to roam around under the single strand that keeps the cattle in. In the summer he will move his cows once a day, and in the winter for 100 days he will strip graze a stockpile of grass. Last year he fed 50% hay and 50% from the stockpile. He plans to continue tipping this balance in favour of the stockpile.
These are some of the key things on grazing and HM I picked up from Tom:
- A lot of people don't necessarily understand what HM is about. A lot of the time they have a perception of what is means before really looking at it.
- HM is essentially a very thorough management system. So thorough that it is hard to implement fully and completely. Just think of it as an evolving process.
- "We are what we eat" - Consumers are willing to take information to a grocery store on decisions on health for diet etc. but not always back to the farm to the animals and soil.
- Economic cycles are short sighted. HM asks you to plan not just what you want now, but what do you want to see in three generations, therefore it drives ideas of sustainability.
- The key when grazing is the rest. Rest benefits plant communities hugely - it lets a plant fully express itself. And consequently allows it to contribute more to the soil health and fertility.
- When mob grazing aim to uniformly impact all plants and give sufficent recovery time for the slowest recovering plant. This is the only way to keep diversity in the system.
- This very plant diversity creates more stability and resilience. Not every year is the same, some plants do better than others. This is why we rotate.
- The more species you have, the more you get back. So if you slot in more animals into a grazing system they don't necessarily take away from the other ones, but
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Greg Carlton, Knox County, Nebraska
Greg Carlton won't mind me saying this, but he has had to work from the bottom up. Having worked on or around farms for years he is now working on getting his own unit up and running.
His first philosophy is never to get attatched to anything. He is renting a small farm and he tells me if a bigger landholding came up at anytime he could be ready to pack up and go at anytime. And I thought the idea of the West being footloose frontierland died out ages ago! He says its important to keep flexible and not invest in any equipment or needless distractions from the main goal of gaining production without using capital. He says he never got on well with banks anyway and is proud that he doesn't need them now!
He has improved stocking rates on land that had previously been very denuded, by three fold. He wants to keep his sytem low tech - as you can see by his one significant cost on the left - the bale unroller.
Greg's strategy is to mob graze cows in the summer, he'll calve may and june. They then will go to standing corn and then rolled out hay on the corn field or some outlying land.
The following are bits of advice from my notes when I spent the afternoon looking a Greg's system:
- Keep it simple and low tech. Holistic planned grazing will maintain species diversity, build organic matter and enhance the mineral cycle. Thats your capital.
- Aim for low fossil fuel use and high animal use. Always look around for what you can use instead of buying it.
- Never make your own hay! - If you need hay buy it. Five years out of six hay is cheaper to buy in than make. You need to count the nutrients and organic matter your adding with hay.
- Green corn (standing maize) is a great feed. Half the price of shelled corn. He no-tills maize into pasture to extend his season and strip grazes it.
- The herd will teach an animal everything he needs to know.
- A heifer calving at three will last much longer than one at two. Don't push them
Greg's aim is to grow slow and steady, without debt. I couldn't help be impressed by his attitude and his efficiency. The picture where he is bale unrolling means he is adding organic matter to an area of the farm that needs more.
Sometimes a lot of the bigger graziers are wondering what Greg is doing because although a small farmer, he is known for his innovation and they want to see how much they can translate to their operations. The grazing corn thing is a case in point with a lot of farmers being risk averse to doing it even though the economics stack up very strongly in its favour.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Chad mob grazes in the summer months to maximise compensatory growth and improve his pastures, in the winter he will stockpile an area for the cattle and leave them roam on this. A mob grazer will say overgrazing in the winter is not a problem as the plant is dormant. He can do this as his landbase is very large.
On the left is Chads water tank. In the summer when mob grazing his 600 strong herd all he has to do is drag this portable tank to the graze area which takes 20 minutes a day and then lift his electric fence. In the height of summer he will graze 600 animals extremely tightly for around 4 hours a day. The resultant hoof impact and manure on the tallgrass prarie is helping build dark brown organic matter where once was pure sand. For comparison we looked at areas that were not mob grazed as intensely and the lack of fertility was clearer. Its all to do with greater intensity of grazing yielding yet greater intensity underneath.
I asked him what his neighbours thought - he said they think its crazy as they're so used to making hay. He tells them "you know whats in hay?" "what?" they reply "Grass!" he said with a big booming laugh. He doesn't want to make hay, he doesn't have to drag anything to them in winter - he can leave if out in the field in standing buffet form for the animals.
Chad doesn't finish any animals yet. He still has a niche buffalo meat enterprise though. He took me in the truck to see them and we chased them in the around in the 4 wheeler. The buffalo actually seemed to enjoy it - its their bit of sport for the day, the adrenalin seemed good for both parties I thought. Chad only has 100 buffalo now but as we shifted them across the dunes and seeing them striding out as a herd I felt I may have got just a minute glimpse of what the power of a 2 million strong herd may have been like 400 years ago - what collective energy!
Chad feels that the potential of grazing has been for too long ignored. Not only are these animals actually building organic matter and therefore carbon in the soils but he thinks they are more efficent than any other method of producing beef.
He gave me this idea to chew on. "It is often estimated there used to be 60 million Buffalo in the US before the Europeans turned up. They reckon there are about 30 million cows in the usa now. If we stocked the same density and system throughout Nebraska as I do here - and this is not the best land - we would be able to stock 20 million cattle in Nebraska alone, and improve our soils better than any feedlot system."
So he put it to me that actually counter to what we are all being told if you want to save the planet - EAT BEEF!
(Terry on left with George Wagner)
Terry Gompert has been working in agricultural extension service for most of his working life. He has always been interested in Sustainable Agriculture and low cost farming in its various interpretations and has clearly respect for the farmers that he engages with. Its fair to say this is a pretty remote part of Nebraska, and that means its a pretty remote part of the USA! Well to me it is at least, when a Gas station, motel and bakery constitutes as a town!
And it is probably this geographical isolation that has allowed Terry to develop some concepts that colleagues elsewhere may not have have been able to. But of course its not just that - Terry is willing to say what he thinks, and think about what he thinks and it seems Holistic Management is the one area that has continually fuelled him for the past 30 years.
In 1985 he first went to a meeting when Alan Savory - the man who set up the holisitic management framework - did a talk in the locality. He left the meeting thinking "I want nothing more to do with this stuff" as Savory's abrasive style really offended the status quo of conventional grazing management thinking. Equally the problem is a lot of the things holistic management measures, or is willing to consider cannot be quantified in the university system. For example production vs environment vs. quality of life; This is what HM attempts to do, it may be only the first attempt to look at things this way, it will probably evolve.
LEFT: Kentucky along with the UK was once of the pioneering areas of No Till back in the 70's.
Phil has also become an advocate of No Till for the potential of reducing costs and increasing timeliness. Not every farmer in Kentucky buys into the concept with plenty of them preferring to disc three or four times before planting wheat. There are however plenty of people in Kentucky who have been no till for twenty years surrounded by other farmers who insist it doesn't work!
What I noticed that was really different in speaking to farmers is that a lot of them liked to no till for corn (maize) and soybeans but were less keen on doing it for wheat. Preferring to disc for this. This to some extent is the opposite of the UK where most farmers percieve that for beans or maize tillage is a must whereas wheat is slightly hardier. My only conclusion is that you do what you do according to what everybody else does!
Spending time with Phil these are the key things I picked up:
- Disc is best. Single disc is even better. Phil says that tines have more negatives inculding thsat they just move too much soil. He concedes that in the early stages of no till there are advantages to a tine but in the long term he finds discs are better. "So you may as well start with a disc, than buy two drills" he says.
- Be concious of travelling on land. We walked through a field a farmer was no tilling wheat after soybeans into. He pointed out the wheel tracks and this is where the drill didn't place the seed as well. "It does get better over time" he said " but after harvest, sprayers, chaser bins, fertiliser spreaders etc you may traffic up to 80% of your field." Therefore you need to try and minimise this for greater success.
- During may visit it was pretty wet. We noticed the tine seeders tended to pull up wet chunks which could not be consolidated on top of seed.
- "What tillage does" says Phil " is give you lots of large soil pores. The reason you have those small pores in the first place is the tillage. you've broken down your old soil pores. It can take your four or five years to get the distribution you want in no till. And if you roll again you after till you are creating compaction of the future. Because compaction is a result of pressure plus soil characteristic. There is no evidence that deep tillage/ subsoiling makes a lot of difference in the longer term either."
Phil realises that a lot of time no till is not easy to adopt, he has even designed and released his own range of equipment to enhance seeding performance when drill design leaves more to be desired.
More on Phil Needham:
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
An afternoon with Greg Judy was particularly enlightening. Greg runs South Poll cattle and St Croix cross sheep on his 1400 acres in the rolling central Missouri pastures. His environment is relatively non-brittle, meaning growth is stronger and more even thoughout the year. Its not like the UK but it is more like the UK than it is like the brittle extremes of heat and cold in North Dakota.
In the past few years since he adapted the system he refers to as Holistic Planned Rotational Grazing which he moved to from Management Intensive Grazing (MiG) his production has come on leaps and bounds. In fact he says his production has increased 240% in about 6 years. And with much more to come.
LEFT: Greg Judy's fixed costs.
"Everything you need to run a farm for stock they will and can provide. They know what they want you just need to create the conditions to provide it."
Its all to do with how they're grazed. Greg took me out to a piece of pasture of his and pulled over a bit of the thick sward. "Look at this!" he exclaimed "look at that!" What he pointed to was small soil particles which had just been excreted by worms. "Worm poop!" said Greg "those worms are building more and more soil for me every day." By grazing tall and leaving plenty of trash on the surface of the soil after the mob have been through he is providing food for his soil life. He claims that for every one leaf he tramples in, nature will pay it back more than fourfold, possibly eightfold.
Greg started doing MIG about 20 years ago. The problem was that he always ran out of grass. "I would go back to a pasture after 40 days with MIG the sward hadn't had enough time to recover. Sure it looks nice and flat but scratch around and you will see that the grass was not dense enough. I didn't have enough solar collectors. This means that I am not using my field to its productive capacity." That meant when using MIG he was still having to make hay - with all its costs. He used to move 8 times a year with MIG, now he moves 2 or 3 and never runs out of grass.
When he moved to grazing taller he found a big difference very quickly. He has increased his stocking rate and now he claims he needs to add more animals. The mineral cycle is moving so much faster that it is producing more lbs/beef acre.
LEFT: The Winter Feed:
For the sheep he uses St Croix crosses. These have a parasite which means they shed wool in the spring. 25% of a sheep eats is wool- and its worthless , he tells me. So he runs the St Croix in a different flock from the herd and then alternates them with the cattle at a time of year to break the parasite cycle. He doesn't move the sheep as often - perhaps only once a week as they impact less than the cattle.
He will lamb on pasture late. About May. He says that the month of green grass in April is too high in protein whereas the May grass is better balanced and is better for the ewe to lamb later. He gives his sheep nothing and the 300 sheep lamb on a 20 acre paddock for a month at 1.8.
His advice to would be mob grazers is don't get more animals in the first year. Your animal may dip until the energy flow increases. The shorter you can stay on a pasture the closer the plant density and therefore the more "solar collectors" as he put it, you have.
More on Greg:
Monday, October 26, 2009
Kris Nichols is part of an elite group of people - the world of soil microbiology is pretty small. Some of her most recent work has been investigating Glomalin. This is a glycoprotein which was found to be a major component of soil building organic matter. Basically for the layman, Glomalin is something protects something else that transports soil nutrients and may be very important in building soil carbon!
As we were talking, Kris said she always analyses her work from the point of view of her Dad who farms in Minnesota. "I always look at my research and I ask myself - is this something my Dad could understand and apply on his own farm?" This is probably the reason that Kris is often asked to speak at no till and soil conferences packed with farmers, a scientist with the ability and desire to make sure her research can be practically understood and applied. Thats good then, a research scientist with a bit of mud on her boots!
"My advice is to manage the soil environment as a first consideration and everything else will fall into place" says Kris. She said soil has historically been called dirt but to her what separates soil from dirt is organic matter. "We need more of this organic matter and again all these microbes are like people - they need food and shelter."
These are a few key things I picked up from Kris:
- High clay soils need plenty of OM. Clay minerals bind themselves together and it is difficult to break their postive charge to each other. So you need to grow organic matter; this means clay won't bond to clay so much. This organic matter bonds the soil with microbial action and improves water holding capacity.
- Suprisingly crop residue's in fact provide very little carbon to the soil. About 1%. Most carbon from crop residue never gets into the soil. The living plant and its roots contributes most carbon to the soil. 70% of Carbon produced by a plant should be in the soil.
- There are limitations to conventional soil tests. We only measure plant availible nutrients not total availible nutrients. Plants do not operate in a closed system like this.
- Why does manure tilled in show a decent crop reaction? - When you bury manure you feed one particular set of organisms and they utilise this food source very quickly. But they are only one set - after this food source has gone you will be left with famine and nothing for your other creatures. A balanced, varied diet is key.
- Cover crops and crop mixtures are good because they release a variety of different sugars and energy sources which are used by a range of organisms. This will have positive impacts on soil fertility later on esp. with regards to providing or making nutrients availible - for free! These sugars have a positive effect on growth - when we talk about getting the soil to warm up in the spring it may not be a function of temperature thats important but the function of biological activity.
- Pesticides and Soil: She ranks insecticides as the worst. Fungicides next and herbicides relatively harmless. That said even though microbes use herbicides as a carbon food source (for how else do they break down?) they can lead to an imbalance of what she calls aggressive "piranha-organisms." Ones which push others out of the way. The less the better.
There is so much more to say but it is much better communicated by Kris. There is a vid of her in the link. I left here with the feeling that the potential of soil biology is massive - its strange how small pieces of information can lead to a better understanding and a different way of thinking.
More on Kris:
Do you ever remember the film Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner? Well if you do you may remember the phrase "if you build it, he will come". Well this is the analogy Jay Fuhrer uses for soil health building microbes.
Jay works as head of extension work in the Burley County office of the Natural Resource and Conservation Service Office in North Dakota. My instinct tells me that this office is a bit of a rare breed in that they have such a healthy two way relationship with some the farmers in the area.
In fact Gabe Brown and Gene Goven (see other posts) to name two seem to be constantly cross fertilising ideas within the NRCS office to find innovative ways of maintaing the environment as well as increasing productivity. Gabe and Gene both hung around the office when I was there, feet on the table, lobbing around new ideas with other staff - an environment conducive to innovation, and a culture that no idea is too stupid . I imagine very few ideas are dismissed before being considered from various angles.
Jay Fuhrer's big interest at the moment is the potential of soil health to improve productivity. "We don't know half, Will" he said "we don't even know 1%." Jay has studied the Soil Food Web data with Elaine Ingham (google her) and is trying to apply it to agriculture and seeing what happens. I found this particularly refreshing as for me a lot of the soilfoodweb stuff has always seemed a bit far out - but fundamentally its just about biology of microbes, so the principles of it were brought into focus by Jay.
The latest project is to maximise the soil health and also play around with things like compost tea, multiple cover crops and to see what happens. Jay took me on a trip around the state and to a presentation in Fargo, Eastern ND we went to a Soils Conference. When Jay does his presentations its fair to say some people do a bit of eyebrow raising. Some in the audience had some trouble amalgamating their knowledge of the physics and chemistry of soil science with the burgeoning biological side. Thats ok with Jay - he doesn't know what he's doing all the time he says, but unless you try these things you don't know what you can or can't do. One thing that I did notice is that talking of soil biology in agricultural arena seems to be considered a bit of a soft or effete discipline. Therefore those who like their information with charts of two columns proving a hypothesis are left frustrated as there is so much left unproven. That said there are plenty who are getting it or as Jay says "they're on board."
Here are some things which I noticed as interesting when listening to Jay's presentations or when just chatting:
- The aim is to build sustainable soils. That is building soil aggregates with low fossil fuels
If we keep armour (soil cover) on the surface we can do great things - it also keeps it more weed free.
- Try to promote the use of cover crop or forage cocktails - and therefore provide a balanced diet for the livestock. The above ground ground ones and the below ground ones.
From the soil food web data. A forest soil will be fungally dominant and low in bacteria. A Prarie soil would be bacterially dominant and low in fungus. The ideal balance is as close to 1:1 - for to maximise crop production you need a balance. He told me when they tested Gabe Brown's farm they found it was about 2:1 bacterially dominant - this may be as close as they can get a farm soil. At this 1:1 ratio there is more weed suppression, less compaction and higher nitrate availibility. That said to have the fungi you need lignin so maybe its better at 2:1 than 1:1
- Cover crops cocktails are seen as vital for no till cropping systems. Firstly they produce much more than monocultures or two species. Much, much more actually in lbs/acre. This means there is more food. Cover crops also accelerate biological time - the roots and exudates etc. speed up the production and respiration of all the microbes.
- You need to consider the Carbon:Nitrogen ratio as well. Common no till crops such as corn (maize) and wheat and carbon heavy. A designed cover crop will bring the N ratio back up.
A cover crop also maintains pore spaces in the soil. They know that traction of vehicles and rain compresses pore spaces and pockets and this will stop microbes accessing the nutrients. Nodulation of legumes is also inhibited where there is soil compaction.
There is a lot more to say but Jay really brought some things into focus. Not least that farmers need not be afraid of finding more about soil biology - the potential of it is exciting. "It's basically about who eats who, Will" says Jay "like us, soil creatures respond to a balanced diet and if they get that balanced diet they will repay you in spades. Its like sending a son to college, you get him a place to live, make it comfortable, stock his fridge with beer and then leave him get on with it, its the same with soil critters".
"We are constantly seeking to evolve" says Jay "I started my job designing drainage watersheds. They'e pretty much redundant now thanks to No Till. There was a time that I wanted to just get farmers no tilling to save soil, then I wanted them to only use disc drills to move minimum soil, then I wanted them to use a cover crop species, then it was two covers in a mix, now its multiple cover crops and next it could be soilfoodweb and composting, who knows?"
Jay told me that he could retire soon but has decided that things are getting pretty exciting around there so to use another baseball linked analogy he said "I wanna slide into first base when I've really run out outta gas!"
Better just keep practising that sliding technique in the back yard for a few years longer yet then, Jay!
Saturday, October 24, 2009
- Gabe Brown, Browns Ranch, Bismarck North Dakota
Now its fair to say that Gabe Brown likes a challenge. As a first generation farmer maybe he doesn't have the baggage or the weight of expectation that sometimes impacts on generational farmers.
Indeed as he said to me "Every year you've got to plan to fail at something. If you don't fail at something then your not pushing the limits. You won't know what you can and can't achieve"
He farmed conventionally until the early 1990's - the typical rotation of the area on these plains would have been wheat and then a year's fallow. Farmers would typically disc a few times over the years fallow to keep the land free of weeds. Needless to say - the prarie winds took away a lot of the soil...
He moved to no tillage in about 1993. He had some tough years with this between 95-96 he got hailed out twice and lost all his crop. That meant for three years in a row he had no income. In his desperation he knew he had to change his system somehow - the risks had become too extreme; his system and income too lopsided.
Gabe now runs a mixed cropping and ranching enterprise. He has expanded to 4500 acres in the past ten years, from 640 acres.
For No Till he insists that there is only one machine on the market that currently works well enough. The John Deere 750 or one of its offspring. Everything else either cannot deal with the levels of residue cover, or is not well built enough. "It has to be a disc not a shank" he says "I need to aim to do invisible seeding. If I move soil, I burn up organic matter, destroy soil habitats and it promotes weeds."
He says he ultimately focuses on soil health . Every decision he makes he asks will it improve the soil health? If not, he finds another way to do it. He says by focusing on soil health it means that the natural fertility of the farm remains good. He has not used any commerical fertilisers for a number of years - his microbes when fed will provide him with the fertility he needs. He didn't get here overnight though - he has built this fertility over a number of years. Nitrogen is provided by soil activity, phosphates from deep root systems and mychorrizae.
So how does Gabe manage this?
Some of Gabe's farm is permanent ranchland and the rest is mixed cropping and annual forages.
After every cash crop such as maize, soybeans or wheat he will immediatly seed a cover crop. Originally he started with single species covers, then mixes of legumes but now he tells me he will put in as many species as he can - up to 8 or 12. "Mother nature cannot get enough of diversity" he says "all the time she if fighting for the need to provide diversity. There is logic behind this. All plants coexist and feed off each other. As do the microbes." Gabe quite happily uses GM products though is pragamatic on their usage - "its just another tool" he says "not something to base your farming on entirely."
"I don't have a crop rotation" he says "I don't know what I'm gonna put in each year, it keeps me flexible and you can be sure that if you have a fixed rotation mother nature will figure out and you will get weeds and disease." This means some years its peas, or alfalfa, or corn..
His soil structure is now so good that all rainwater (12" in 24 hours in once) is all absorbed by the soil and humus. We dug a hole and it was full of soil building worms. "Thats my plough" he said.
Because Gabe has used this cover cropping rotation so much and so intensely that he no longer needs to use fertilisers. He doesn't fully know whats happening nor do the microbiologists working with him but essentially he has such a mass of soil fauna and flora working and respiring they are providing plant fertility. Also because of this microbial activity his growing season is longer - the plants benefit from the symbiosis and don't shut down in the cold so quickly. The only agro chemicals used on the farm are herbicides. He doesn't require fungicide or insecticides all fungicides will kill soil microbes, these microbes such as mychorrizae are crucial to maintaining his soil fertility, besides he says his healthy soil promotes less disease.
Gabe mixes his cattle with his no till fields. He is not worried about compaction because although intensively paddock grazed they are never on the fields long enough. Possibly 500 head of cattle in a paddock - they almost look like they're touching each other but they're quite happy. Herd instinct means they prefer the company of each other at such densities.
Some of the land Gabe has taken on recently has been ex-CRP land. This is land that the government had paid farmers to take out of production and left to a nature as wildlife habitat. In truth the habitats that have developed are pretty poor for wildlife. They reach a peak after about two years and then become dominated by a group of prarie grasses which don't provide enough variety. The strategy is to add animals and therefore create a more balanced soil biota and above ground biodiversity. If you don't have the animal muck you don't get the insects.
What Gabe is doing left me thinking Jeez this is it! This is what we should be looking for - mixing high levels of production with a judicious use of pesticides (he generally says he is using less and less each year and growing many grain crops without them and still not getting weeds) and promoting wildlife health. But you just know that Gabe is not going to stop here - to him there is no zenith - he will keep evolving his system and will continue to delight in challenging conventions.
Neil Dennis' friends liken him to the Duracell bunny. He just never stops bouncing with new ideas. In the eighties he told me he was having a really hard time, he simply could not make a profit out of his grazing land. He was finding the expenses of keeping the stock and servicing the bank loans becoming difficult to sustain. He knew he had to change something or he had to get out of stock.
In 1989 he started to look at Rotational grazing and then this lead him to Holistic Management. Before this he would graze his pastures conventionally and there was no talk of allowing it to recover from grazing pressure during the season.
His strategy is too move his animals around his paddocks frequently. Sometimes within hours. He will have up to 800 cattle on an acre of land sometimes and leave them grazing 3-4 foot tall pasture for just a matter of hours. He says as a result of this Planned Rotational Grazing system his stock carrying capacity is 300% higher, he is excited about the prospect of his stocking rates going higher yet. Neil also likes to graze what he calls cocktails. As much variety of crop types as he can - this gives him a range of advantages. Flexiblity, better rooting, better water retention and infiltration. It also better for fattening his animals as the protein levels are higher.
The environment can sustain this level of stocking rate without overgrazing because overgrazing is a result of length of time, not of stocking rates. This is the best example he gave me.
"Imagine you and a servant lived on top of a mountain and every day you sent the servant down the hill in the same direction to fetch a bucket of water to wash in. And then after a year the servant would have made that trip up and back 365 times - there would surely be quite a pronounced track in the direction the servant walked. Now imagine that 365 of you lived on the hill and you all decided to make the trip down and up the mountain one day. Would there be a track? - Almost certainly not."
His management focus is to own as little machinery as possible, and he uses virtually no chemicals and fertilisers. With just grazing managment and manipulation he has managed to transform previously unproductive pastures into animal fattening swards. He says he likes to see a hoofprint on every sqaure inch of soil after grazing. He will sometimes seed small fluffy seeds on a pasture before cattle allowing the hoofprints to give seed to soil contact.
When he turns his cattle into a pasture he has to be careful with his management. His aim is to skim graze early in the year (leaving 60% of leaf left) then after July 15th he will go back to each of his pastures again for another bite. The rules of thumb are:
40% grazing of sward won't kill the root system
50% grazing kills about 2-4% of root growth
80% grazing stops growth for about 12 days as the plant uses its own root system as a carbon source for photosynthesis. Thus delaying recovery.
Neil tells me there are no ammonia patches on his swards - the animals are not there long enough. Nor does he have a fly problem - by the time the eggs hatch the cattle are too far away for them to reach them.
Neils system is management intensive but not necessarily time intensive. He will tend to have to do a few hours routine work to manage the cattle everyday and has the rest of time for other things. He worked out that riding around on his quad in the sun -(or "warming the solar panel of the sex machine" - as he referred to his bald head!) makes him about $100 hour.
In the winter Neil makes his cattle graze outside on baled hay - he places them very close together, so that the bales have only a gap the length of one beast between them. These means the manure is distrubuted in very close proximity to where he needs it. He also used this technique when he wants ot improve soils - he will roll out the hay or bale it and make the cattle trample it in and eat it in order to provide some food for the soil microbes.
More on Neil Dennis:
Gene Goven has been practising HM since the middle eighties when he first met Alan Savory - the man who developed the HM framework. He was attracted by the idea that Savory was saying that he could double his stocking rate of cattle on his land and still improve his pasture simple by adapting his management. At the time he was continuously grazing on pasture. Almost thirty years later Goven has increased his cattle stocking rate up 350% on a lb/acre measurement. He thinks he could quite easily get to 600% or more if he felt he needed to but at 63 he feels his quality of life may suffer.
The key to Goven's success is Planned Rotational Grazing. This system incorporates many elements of Cell grazing or Management Intensive Grazing but takes it a few steps further on. He has spent much time monitoring and observing the native prarie. "Look" he said, "if you observe the native healthy prarie you will see that they have four crop types - Warm Season Grass, Cool Season Grass, Cool Season Broadleaves and Warm Season Broadleaves. All crop types in the world will fall into anyone of these catageories and a healthy prarie will have them all."
His overeaching goal as he stated many times to me was to Manage Diversity For Soil Health Enhancement. At first it sounds a bit nebulous but as he explains what he does, it gets more logical. Without a healthy soil he has nothing - and a brittle erodable environment like North Dakota demonstrates this more clearly than more forgiving environments.
"In order to profit and sustain my environment I need to build and feed the soil continually. Everything else will work better for me when I have that healthy soil" said Gene. So he views everything on his farm as a tool in order to get to this goal. His livestock are a tool - an additional organism on the land if you like. They turn solar energy from plants into an excretia that the soil microbes can digest and provide surface disturbance for new seedlings Livestock are as much of a tool as chemicals, or machinery, or fertilisers - in fact they are better ones in most cases. Though Gene doesn't exclude the need for the latter three, he plans he system so as not to need them much. He plans his profit because he anticipates what the wants and needs of his environment are: economically, ecologically and socially.
Essentially his planned rotational grazing means that he ensures that his grazing pastures can get adequate rest. Nothing is more crucial for land in brittle environments than ensuring the land is rested. This means that animals are never grazed more than twice in a year in the same place. Usually skim grazed in the spring, taking about 20% of the residue and then later on in the year to take about 50% of the residue. The rest is left for feeding the soil and its microbes. His paddocks are divided up into plots which allows him to move the animals with electric fencing quite easily.
It sounds counter-intuitive to leave grass on the surface as opposed to commercializing it into more lb's beef but Gene insists this is absolutely vital to keep something back to sustain the soil. Without soil food the pasture would run out of steam in a short period and become dominated by one species type, necessitating fossil fuel inputs to get production to increase again - and then only for the short term. Gene is mainly stock farmer but he does have some cropping. He refuses to use GM crops as he feels it encourages dependence of chemicals. He is experimenting with undersowing crops with covers and rarely uses fertilisers. The wildlife populations are high, groups of ecologists have counted up to 140 species of songbird in an afternoon.
The key thing says Gene is to establish continual thinking. If you don't know where you want to go, how do you know your going to get there? It is a managers creativity that dictates personal limitation and ingenuity, technology has its place but can also make a manager less skillful too. If you have an problem you need to make sure to treat the cause not the symptoms says Gene and this is how he trys to run his farm.
His parting shot was a quote from Henry Ford - "Whether you think you can or can't. You're right."
More on Gene:
Sunday, October 18, 2009
HM isn't really well known about in Europe but as a farm and ranch management technique it is growing in other parts of the world. The aim of this trip is to see what concepts are relavent to farming and the public in general.
Holistic Management is quite a difficult concept to explain in a few short words so I'll do my best and try and explain the essentials as I see it:
Firstly my approach to it is as a result of long been unhappy about the trenchlines drawn between different interests when it comes to talking about the environment and food production. Debates about this are turning increasingly dichotomous so for example we end up thinking about things like conservation land vs farmland, or organic vs conventional, or GM vs non GM. I could go on... but really its too boring!
The point is farming, whilst not natural, operates in an environment that is a Whole. Scientific thinking encourages us to think mechanically and with science we reduce things to a hypothesis to understand them. And as our mechanical scientific achievements (such as chemistry, machinery, breeding etc.) have developed we have had ever increasing problems in our non-mechanical environment - our ecology. We therefore need to make sure we design our farming to manage the whole not just from the perspective of narrow disciplines such as soil science, animal nutrition, economics etc.
I'll stop here before you think I'm some crazy deep thinking hippy! I'm not though - I'm just a farmer concerned that the debate about sustainability and agriculture is not being articulated enough by farmers.
HM encourages us to thing of our farm, our community etc. as not just a sum of parts with various boundaries defined by scientific disciplines but that everything is interconnected and that there wholes within wholes.
Everything effects each other - therefore we need to think and act Holistically. In accordance with the natural systems with with which we operate.
Follow my journey around the world and make your own mind up. I'm as confused sometimes about it as anyone, but please ask questions if you have them. Finally remember there is no one way of doing things - you gotta keep looking at the trade offs, but fundamentally think of this as a management framework that helps us make the right decisions in three ways: Economically, Ecologically and Socially.