Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Soil Health-- part 2

Now as I get ready to sow my seeds and plant my vegetables, I first need to do a soil test. I actually have a previous idea as to the general health of the soil in my garden but with in the month a sample will be taken, along with those of all our pastures, and sent off to be tested by and organic soil testing company. We will plant in our garden (the best soil on our property) but will wait to do our test at the end of Feb. We added amendments to our pastures last fall and need to wait at least 6 months before re testing. No sense in sending two packages. And just so you know---there is a difference in soil testing companies. If you send your soil samples to say.....your local ag guy to have them tested, more than likely you will get back a sample that is based on inorganic inputs--- NPK inputs. "Modern" agriculture has a tendency to think in NPK instead of micro and macro nutrients, biomass and soil health in general. Here is a link to companies that do soil testing based on organic inputs: Attra soil testing list
Also you can contact Countryside Naturals. They work with a testing company that is very nice--they can send you a form to fill out for that company and tell you all about it. They can also supply you with organic inputs for your soil and animal health. We have done business with Countryside Naturals and really like them.
Now disregarding the fact that I have been a long time organic fanatic when it comes to my property there are now studies coming out that show that inorganic, high nitrogen fertilizers are damaging our soils and tying up our nutrients.
I now understand not all soil is created equal but not that many years ago I would have said something like "yes, I know, there's clay and loam and sand and .....they all need compost to keep them healthy and get nice tilth" But that's not exactly what I mean. I am speaking of soil that is full of abundant health. Teaming with worms and microbes and the organic good health of minerals. Calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc and all the trace nutrients that we need in our food are in there-- and hopefully working in balance. Because believe it or not---grass can grow even if the soil is low or lacking in some elements. Legumes can grow if the soil is lacking in some elements. Weeds (not the proverbial enemy we think of them as) will grow when elements are lacking.
The best way to "add" trace minerals and overall good health back to your soil is through rebuilding and organic inputs. Manure is an input that everyone thinks of but studies are showing that cover crops are actually as good and in some cases better than manure. Cover crops can do a lot of different things for you. They can break up tough hard soil with their roots (studies put alfalfa anywhere from 4 feet to almost 50 feet deep), they can add nitrogen in the case of legumes, and they can add much needed organic matter. Cover crops aren't just for garden areas either, they are for pastures too. We have hard compacted soil in about half our pastures so we are trying to get deep rooted plants going to help us out. It can take a while, especially when you work out of pocket and without tractors like we do---but we can see improvement every year. When you plant a crop that sends deep roots down to open the soil for rain and oxygen to get in there, then you plant a crop like buckwheat or rye to turn over (or let your animals eat it down) it adds organic matter. With that cycle you are creating the perfect environment for worms. Worms are THE BEST thing you can ever do for you soil. The clincher is though, you can't just add worms----you have to create nice conditions for them to come to you. Kind of like the old Kevin Costner movie about the baseball stadium "build it and they will come". When they do come--watch out! That's when the soil building really begins. Worms take something we consider great---like manure. Eat it (yes, that is what they do) and turn it into something that is 100's of times better than it was before they got to it. God's little soil factory in one small slippery package :-) The number one thing to remember about worms: they HATE low ph soil (acid soil like we have) and they hate high nitrogen (think inorganic here) fertilizers---it burns their skin.

As I stated in my first soil health post---I know my soil lacks selenium (using that as an example). Selenium is needed in very very small amounts and you do not run down to the local store and get a bag of selenium to throw on your property like you can lime. Selenium, when added in "chemical" form is added in barely ounces per acre---very very low amounts since it is easy to get to much and cause a deadly problem. We will add ours in the form of Kelp (Thorvin, Fertrell, Sea Life etc) You can buy a bagged dried form (which is what we feed our animals) or if you look around you can find a source that offers liquid for spraying. We will use bagged in the garden area but for larger applications to our pastures we will use the liquid since it is cheaper that way. Kelp has just about every micro and macro nutrient you could ever need or think you want in it. Also, since it is a natural form---my animals can eat as much as they want (within reason of course) and any "excess" for that day is excreted by them to help my soil. So referencing back to yesterdays post, my animals will slowly build the selenium up in the soil for me (and them) and over time they shouldn't need supplementary shots.
Over time the micro and macro nutrients will come up in my soils and be in the carrots that I eat which is my main concern. If you are aspiring to eat local then this is something that concerns you greatly. Our modern diet with food from across the country and across the world---evens out the "bumps" of our nutrition. BUT if you do actually become successful at eating local and growing most of your food----you are only going to get the nutrients that are in your local soil. So, using my original selenium example: if your area has no or is low in selenium---you might not get the amount you need to stay healthy. Selenium is a huge part of our immune system--proven over and over by studies. And that is just one of the many many nutrients in our soil---imagine.

Here are a few things I would like to link for your interest. Most have something to do with soil, animal, human health or how they all work together. One I can't link is the book Better Soil by Gene Logsdon. If you can a hold of it --it is very good. A compost book like the one by the Rodale institute is also a benefit. I know everyone "knows" how to make compost---but sometimes having the general information on carbon ratios etc is useful. These are just starting points there are many many places and books to find information about these topics.

Benefits of Biodiverse Pasture Forage
Some compost crops --- there are many more on line and in books.
Diverse information on soils, plants etc
And some worm information : Here and Here

Oh yes, one added thing: A new study shows that planting buckwheat twice in the summer (cut at about 5 weeks to kill it before it self seeds, then reseed) then fall oats or rye (tilled under the next spring) suppresses almost all weed growth and creates wonderful tilth. This would be great for raised beds or small garden rows or blocks that you are trying to build up.


El said...

Great info!! I think the one thing that is deceptive about using manure (and thinking it's a cure-all) is, well, if the animal was grazed on poor soil, their poop won't be contributing much good, you know? It's a closed system. They are what they eat!

I rotationally use green manures in my raised veg beds. Things like a good spring mix (oats, vetch, field peas) can kind of be shoved aside when you plant some taller things like broccoli. Once the oats get really tall, I pull their roots up, and leave the plants behind as mulch. It's helping.

Alfalfa, though, is a commitment, and it hates our waterlogged soils. Too bad, considering what good it does. Clover seems to like the clay just fine.

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

el--I would love alfalfa too. We have to irrigate it here though:-( We are working on possibly collecting rain water and carrying it out to the pasture for to irrigate it. Small spots at a time. Who ever said you HAVE to improve the whole acreage at one time---blocks of 50 x50 work just as well---it's just slower!
Definitely a closed system on that manure which is what I am trying to get people to think about---the missing nutrients they didn't know where missing.
have a good day!