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Tag Archives | Leilani Zimmer-Durand

Building the Microbial Bridge to Support Nutrient Availability

The root zone around plants, known as the rhizosphere, is an area of intense activity in the soil. It’s a lot like the snack stand at the state fair on a hot day. Everyone is crowding around trying to get to the cold drinks, funnel cakes and hot dogs. Snacks are being sold as quickly as the workers can make them. In return, the snack stand is bringing in a lot of cash.

Corn roots with lots of root exudates and soil sticking to the roots.

While the snack stand exchanges food for money, plant roots feed nearby microbes in exchange for plant nutrients. The roots put sugars down into the soil, creating an area of crowded, busy bacterial feeding in the rhizosphere, and exchange that microbial food for nutrients the plant needs but would otherwise have a hard time accessing.

We tend to think that plants photosynthesize entirely for their own metabolism, but in truth plants spend a good portion of their energy feeding soil life.

Plants fix sugars through photosynthesis, and while 55 to 75 percent of those sugars support plant growth, reproduction and defense from pests, the rest goes into the soil through the roots to feed the soil biology. This isn’t a waste of energy by the plants.

Those organisms living in the rhizosphere, primarily bacteria, not only make nutrients available to the plants — they also provide a protective layer against pests and diseases. It’s a win-win for the plants and the bacteria living in the rhizosphere. Continue Reading →

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 →

Farming to Improve Soil Health

Today, you can’t pick up a farm paper or any other ag publication without seeing something about cover crops, minimum tillage and farming to improve soil health.

But what exactly is meant by “soil health?” Much of the soil health focus is on soil biology and fostering a healthy, diverse, living ecosystem in the soil. I agree that soil life is a key component of soil health, but in my opinion, the other important aspect of soil health is the soil’s ability to dish out nutrients to the crop, and then using the right sources of minerals to make up for any shortcomings in what the soil can provide. This aspect of soil health is often overlooked in discussions on the topic, but is equally important in getting you a high-quality bumper crop.

Like many aspects of biological farming, it’s the balance of different components that makes the system work.

I believe that many farmers now recognize that the soil is alive, a teeming underground city of creatures, all doing their own “jobs,” working together. They can be really productive, naturally balancing things out and providing nutrients for the crop that’s being grown. Soil health under this definition is a balance of organisms — no group crowding out any other group, seizing control and causing crop problems. Continue Reading →

Transitioning to Organic: Strategies for Success

The year two spring rye crop — note how few weeds are present. This rye grew well during the spring and early summer, and was ready for harvest in mid-July. Below shows the rye straw after the grain was combined. Yields were about 35 bushels/acre of rye seed the first year and 4 bales of straw/acre. This year, the yield was 52 bushels/acre of rye seed and 8 bales of straw/acre.

With conventional prices for corn, beans, wheat and dairy really low right now and both prices and demand for organic products high, a lot of growers are thinking about transitioning to organic.

For most growers, one of the biggest deterrents to going organic is the 36-month-long process of transition, during which time you can use only organic-approved inputs and practices, but the crops, milk or other farm goods produced can’t be sold as “organic” and receive the price premium.

In my opinion, chasing profits is not the right reason to go organic, and there is more to it than not adding prohibited inputs and getting paid more for your crops. Being a successful organic farmer requires a different mind-set, and the best time to figure out your approach to organic farming and set yourself up for success is during the transition period.

Before Transitioning to Organic 

If you’re considering transitioning to organic, the first thing you should do is sit down and think about why and then think about how. If your answer to why is that you are doing it for the money, maybe it’s not for you. Continue Reading →