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Soil Health, Quality & Microbial Diversity

Soil health and soil quality have evolved as important concepts as we continue to expand our understanding of soil as the vital factor for vigorous plant productivity. These concepts have also stressed our awareness that soil is indeed a limited non-renewable resource that requires deliberate stewardship to avoid or minimize its degradation.

Figure 1: Bacteria (small rod-like structures) and fungi (larger spherical shapes) associated with the surface of a root (rhizoplane) readily use organic substances released by the plant as sources of food and energy for mediating many biochemical processes and to maintain dense communities in the rhizosphere. Note the non-random distribution of bacteria showing concentration of cells on the rhizoplane where several processes take place including nutrient transformation, synthesis of plant growth-regulating compounds and antibiotic production for protection from attack by pathogenic microorganisms. Micrograph presented as 5,000X magnification. Source: R.J. Kremer

According to John W. Doran, soil health is the capacity of a soil to function and sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality and promote plant and animal health.

Optimal soil health requires a balance between soil functions for productivity, environmental quality and plant and animal health, all of which are greatly affected by management and land-use decisions. Soil health focuses on the living, dynamic nature of soil that incorporates the biological attributes of biodiversity, food web structure, ecosystem functioning and the intimate relationships of soil microorganisms with plants and animals.

Soil quality also refers to the functional capacity of soil, but has a greater emphasis on agricultural productivity and economic benefits. Indeed, the development of the modern soil quality concept by Warkentin and Fletcher in 1977 was within the context of intensive agriculture, where the major concerns were food and fiber production and the capacity of soil to recycle nutrients, presumably from residual fertilizers and crop residues.

The term soil health, with its focus on biological function and protection of environmental quality, is most relevant for eco-agriculture production systems promoting good management practices that foster a balanced focus on all functions of soil health rather than an emphasis on single functions, such as crop yields.

Several articles published in Acres U.S.A. within the past decade illustrate how eco-agriculture embodies soil health, which is an inherent benefit of this production system. In a series of articles from 2012 to 2015, Gary Zimmer focused on the importance of mineral nutrition for both plants and soil microorganisms for improved soil health. He also stated that the capacity of a healthy soil to function could be realized without intervention, suggesting that eco-agricultural systems facilitate functional capacity by minimizing disruptive management of synthetic fertilizer, pesticide inputs and intensive tillage. Continue Reading →

How to Establish Dung Beetles in Pastures (and Why You Want to Do This)

I only recently became interested in dung beetles, largely because it has only been recently that we have had any to become interested in. As a rancher, I must create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive, and they will come.

The first time I saw dung beetles completely bury a manure pat in a number of hours, I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about them: what they do, how to help them establish in pastures, how they work, etc. My continued observations and research has led our family to develop a deep appreciation of these hard-working creatures. So much so that we created our updated business logo in honor of them.

Our daughter art directed the logo and our neighbor, Brian Taylor, created it. We get a lot of stares when people see our logo on the side of our truck, but we hope it piques their curiosity enough to learn more about dung beetles and the vital role they can play on a healthy farm or ranch. Continue Reading →

Veteran Farmers Making a Difference

Veterans are once again taking up the call for our country as veteran farmers. Charley Jordan stops to listen to the quiet and to feel the breeze as his cattle graze in the distance. The silence is a stark contrast from the thunderous helicopter rotors he knew in the Army.

Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he now brings the same gung-ho attitude to sustainably raising his pigs and chickens.

Richard Gwilt no longer breathes the cordite he once did as a range master and paratrooper. His days in the 101st Airborne are over. Today he serves as director of operations for the Desert Forge Foundation, a nonprofit located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is dedicated to transitioning veterans to farmers. The former chief warrant officer raises horses, cows and chilies, among other crops.

Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he still has the same gung-ho attitude, which he has been able to apply to raising pastured pigs and chickens. He has found a vocation that allows him to apply the problem-solving skills that he honed in the military.

Many veterans come home to a life completely different from the one they grew accustomed to in the military. Some aren’t lucky enough to adapt. For thousands of veterans, farming has become that new life: an occupation that is saving both them and agriculture.

There are currently more than 23 million veterans in the United States. When their service ends and their tours are over, veterans often have no place to turn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s vets are more likely to be unemployed than both civilians and veterans of prior conflicts. Through 2012, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent — compared to about 7.9 percent for the general U.S. population. Continue Reading →

Winter Poultry Care

The answer to the poet’s ques­tion of, “What is so rare as a day in June?” was, until recently, a farm fresh egg in the middle of winter. Egg laying was essentially a seasonal activity and was greatest only when the hours of daylight lengthened.

Egg output increased as producer experi­ence and skills increased and were motivated by the demand for eggs in the cooler months when baking is increased and appetites are heartier. Take stock of your flock facilities and management techniques for successful winters to come.

Lighting 

Earlier egg producers learned to make the most of what nature of­fered them. Poultry houses were built with larger southern-facing walls, of­ten with large numbers of windows to catch as much of the thin winter sunlight as possible. They were white­washed inside each fall as both a sani­tary measure and to further amplify the light factor inside the building.

When electricity became more available many began to light their laying houses to stimulate egg produc­tion in the darker, gray months. It is a practice that continues with good effect though not always done well. Continue Reading →

Book excerpt: A Biodynamic Farm

The book A Biodynamic Farm by Hugh Lovel is a practical, how-to guide to understanding the definition of biodynamics, and practicing biodynamic techniques on your farm.

An expert in quantum agriculture and biodynamics, Hugh Lovel goes into detail in this book on biodynamic farming. The table of contents includes chapters on:

  • What is Biodynamic Agriculture?
  • No-Till Farming Without Chemicals
  • Biodynamic Training
  • The Compost Preps
  • And many more chapters!

The excerpt below details the thinking behind creating a biodynamic farm, and the guidelines to doing so.

Continue Reading →

Daniela Ibarra-Howell on Bringing Eco-Farmers Together

Savory Institute Co-Founder, CEO Daniela Ibarra-Howell Shares Insights into How the Organization is Bringing Like-Minded Farmers and Ranchers Together

Daniela Ibarra-Howell

Daniela Ibarra-Howell

It is not often that someone who is not a billionaire decides to take decisive steps toward solving a global problem. It is even less common for anyone, even and perhaps especially billionaires, to have ideas about how to do it that not only work but point the way for others of like mind. Daniela Ibarra-Howell is one of these rare people. She is a co-founder and the current CEO of the Savory Institute, the nonprofit wing of the Savory operation based in Boulder, Colorado, (her husband, Jim, heads the for-profit wing). Beginning in 2009 and now boasting over 8 million hectares (19,768,430 acres) under holistic management in every continent except Antarctica, the Savory Institute is becoming a force to be reckoned with. As scientific evidence accumulates, adding to an enormous fund of narrative accounts, holistic management’s value becomes ever more undeniable.

As Ibarra-Howell recounts here, she declined to follow the well-worn paths offered to her as a girl in Argentina. She wanted to make a difference. Between meeting Allan Savory in 1994 and the beginning of the Institute, she and her husband devoted a number of years to consulting and running a notably successful ranch near Boulder. Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in December. Continue Reading →