Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Soil Health--part 1

Yesterday I finally moved the cows and rams out of my garden area. With a bit over 2 weeks of "manuring" in there amongst the leaves I think my garden will have a pretty good start. Cows create a LOT of manure and though the leaves seem to have been like quick sand in swallowing up all signs--I know its there. Actually, I have been able to start seeing piles these last few days which confirms my theory that it was building up by quite a bit. So they moved running, jumping and kicking (with the Jack Russell we own barking and racing behind them in fun) on to the next fenced area.
Now that they are gone I can go again and work inside the garden area. I have already moved leaves and prepped some beds but needed to wait for the animals to leave before planting anything since it would just have gotten tromped. This brings me to the point of my post---soil health.
Obviously I received the benefit of many many tons of leaves this year that not all people have access too. And in the scheme of things: they aren't enough to spread on all the soil that I currently "farm". When we purchased this acreage we knew that the soil was in bad shape and needed help. It had previously been a pine tree "stand" that had been cut down. They then scraped all the soil around to form a dam and pond and to terrace the remaining area (they didn't do a very good job of it though).
So when we purchased the property what we actually acquired was: rocky, terraced, compacted soil with mostly wild blackberry canes (and don't say yum---some wild black berries taste about like ear wax)
We are organic so we subscribed to the notion that if we added animals, brought in hay from other farms and rotated our animals around ---over time we would get healthy worm teeming soil. Seems logical right? Oh we knew we might need to put some lime on the pastures---I mean it had been a pine "forest" previously which screams low ph/acid soil. What we never connected with at first is how minerals and vitamins play a role in the soils health and in turn the animals and ours too. Now there are many theories as to how to handle this as with anything else: you have the "keep running the animals and let them poop theory" (which I mentioned above), add all inorganic fertilizers and lime theory (that's a no for us), don't add lime--just apply compost or worm castings etc to the whole of the property which will balance out the ph and help with minerals (exorbitantly expensive option if you don't have a worm farm or enough manure to compost) and on and on and on.
Now I will digress and tell you why these things are important---more than we think they are.
When we bought our first cow she came home and was a healthy running, jumping cow. Then about 3 months later we were able to bring home the other female. Well low and behold Rose (cow #1) was not as black as Caragh (cow #2). O.k. no big deal. Over time though Rose became redder and redder--like a black headed woman with a bad bleach job. Research via the internet said not enough copper was in her diet. O.K. ---we could understand that. So we would just up her copper by feeding her a grain mix with some in it to supplement her minerals.
Well, by that time we had sheep. So we split the cows into one pasture and the sheep into another since sheep can't have ANY copper as cows can. Sheep are greedy little animals---and quick as lightening, so keeping them from getting some of the cow food was next to impossible. Also, our cows were short so the sheep could jump up and eat out of anything the cow could, hence the problem. Over time Rose gained back some of her black color but not as much as Caragh did. We worried, but we were about to find that was the least of our worries.
Our sheep started struggling with worms that summer. Oh the summer was horrible for parasites. If you don't know about sheep and worms let me say this: a lamb can die within ten days by extreme loss of blood (being sucked out by the worms in their stomachs) and it is not a pretty site. Very sad. Anyways, we were trying to rotationally graze them but couldn't seem to get the groove correct no matter what we did. We wormed and wormed with chemical wormers , which I totally hate, but it was the only way to save them. So I started researching organic techniques--garlic, chicory, wormwood, other herbs , and other things in general. I figured that since chemical wormers weren't always available some where there had to be info on what they did in the "old days". As it turns out we stumbled on some new information out of Australia about using copper to help sheep battle internal worms. Supposedly the copper creates an environment in the sheep's blood that doesn't let the worms propagate nor live a healthy life. Some will make it but most will die.
Ask any shepherd or vet about copper and sheep and you will get some of the most horrified looks you ever saw in your life and a "sheep CAN'T have copper--it will kill them almost immediately". I was desperate though and felt there was no other way (besides I don't always believe everything I hear) though we did wonder if we would wake the next morning to a flock of dead sheep.
I am going to shorten this since it is an extremely long journey on my part. What we found over time was that our land was so depleted and exhausted with such low (acidic) ph that really no minerals were making their way up into our animals. Many of the minerals needed by my animals where either lacking (selenium), low (calcium) or "locked" in the soil because of the soil conditions (copper--just to name one). The soils lack of health was requiring our animals to regularly need "modern" intervention to keep them in good health. Even with that they weren't in "tip-top" health. Our first saving grace came when we added Kelp to their diets instead of the salt mineral we were purchasing from the feed store. What an amazing product. Within a month--Rose was almost black and my sheep looked a lot better. We still felt they weren't getting enough copper and selenium though and tests showed they weren't.
My long drawn out point is this: The soil absolutely, completely has everything to do with your health. Whether you eat meat or eat only vegetables---what soil they were grown in has everything to do with your overall well being. If the soil has low or no selenium (most of the U.S now) then so will your veggies. My sheep get "doses" of selenium that many vets (I speak to a lot of them about what they think and what I notice) swear should have killed them. It doesn't though-- BUT I will have to test my soil every year so that I don't give them to much over time as soil conditions improve on my property. Which it will with time. Also as we have an animal to butcher we will send portions of a liver to a lab to test. Testing liver tissue is the best way to see what type of nutrition animals are getting from a property (which is especially important if you are trying to be mostly grass base and have not much acreage) It only gives you the nutrition of the tested subject which should be considered the "average" though-- as with humans everyone is different and observations are required to accommodate those differences. Some animals may need a supplement, some may not---and each farm must choose how they will handle those things.
Obviously based on what we have learned---I will need to add selenium to my garden (remember this is my original reason for posting) so that we in turn receive some. I will need to take soil samples first since some things you don't want to over do. My animals and cows have never been healthier since adding extra of two deadly minerals--- BUT those and others are absolutely needed by all bodies. Needed only in small amounts as a whole, but needed none the less. Some areas naturally lack some nutrients and always have but modern farming is partly to blame behind this lack of nutrition in our soils with its continual applications of nitrogen rich in organic fertilizers. Another thing that can cause soil nutrient problems on your property is pollution. One example is sulfur from factories falling on soils downwind and tying up nutrients. In this case sulfur is considered an "antagonist" and there are a variety of minerals that, when out of balance, can antagonize other minerals in the soil. On our property we lack selenium and our copper is antagonized by other conditions.
After the improved overall health of our animals, their greater resistance to disease, super improved hair coats and on and on----I am completely sold on the fact that all health starts at ground level---not with the carrot you pull from it.
My next post will be about plants that can help your soil which in turn can help your animals and the microorganisms that live in your soil. One big circle of life---but when part of it is out of balance the wheel doesn't roll very well.


El said...

Hi Monica

Very interesting, your discoveries! I completely agree with you regarding your leaves: there is never enough organic matter to go around. We have very clayey soils here, and I admit I have never done a soil test...though I should, considering that "eventually" we'll be getting grass-eaters of our own. Anyway, the Garden blogger's book club book for this month is "Teaming with Microbes," and though I am waiting for it to reach me through the mail, Carol (http://maydreamsgardens.blogspot.com/2007/01/garden-bloggers-book-club-january.html) is hosting a review of the book. I simply thought it might also be a good resource for you. And we always seem to need more things to read, right?

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

I am glad you took something from my article. I decided to post about it since we find so many people have problems with their animals but never check the health of their soil or change minerals--and are skeptical of our advice. We have a friend this summer who finally did what we kept telling her and she found to her dismay that her animals had slowly been dying from nothing more than mineral deficiencies--easily correctable. Not all symptoms fit "text books" so they are missed. Not all vets even believe that strongly in soil health which contributes to the problem. It made us realize it could also be happening to us.
I will check out your garden book club as it sounds right up my alley--no garden book clubs around here that I have found yet and I LOVE to read :-)

Joe Greene said...

Next month will mark one year since we began supplementing our sheep with copper. They are all alive and healthy. We wormed the lambs once last summer and the ewes and rams not at all. I'm going to post about it on my blog next month.