Know Your Food-Know Your Farmer Series: E3 Building Soil

March 18, 2019

Healthy animals, sounds simple right?  Well, not so fast.  Many things go into the development of nutrient dense food.  Genetics, management, and feed are just a few, but I'd like to start at a more foundational area: the soil.

Healthy soil is alive with microbial activity, retains water well, has a high organic matter content, is high in earthworm activity, is well balanced in its nutrients and minerals.  But not all soils start here.  Here in Washington Boro, we have a clay loam type soil that is above average, but years of the same kind of farming will start to remove a portion of the soil profile and open the door for other problems.  When a crop is grown is removes a portion of the nutrients from the soil.  Then when that crop is harvested and leaves the property, those mineral are removed from the nutrient cycle and have to be added back in in the form of fertilizers or manure.  But there is an alternative.

In the previous article, I spoke of our water retention plan.  Since water is checked off the list, the next step is to increase the organic matter in the soil.  This is typically rotting roots, live plant material trampled into the ground, or hay/straw that is brought in and fed and trampled into the ground.  The trampling effect starts to build the carbon content of the soil which in turn feeds the billions of soil microbs.  An increase of organic matter by 1% will substantially increase the water retention capacity of the soil and allow it to be more drought resistant.  As organic matter, microb activity, and water retention increase, we also see an increase in dung beetles, plant variety, earthworms, and less weeds.  

Quick note about weeds.  I know farmers who spend all their waking moments trying to eradicate every weed on their property, and I know farmers whose fields are overrun with noxious weeds to the point of sapping the nutrients from whatever is trying to grow there.  Land left alone will try and heal itself, and our eyes usually don't like the result: weeds.  I've read that some people liken weeds to the land's version of a scab.  After a few years, a piece of land will start to produce more perennial grasses and start to decrease the week population.  Also, have you noticed that poor soil tends to grow weeds, and healthy soil has a lot less weeds...Hmmm.

So our plan.  Roll out round bales directly on the pasture and feed the livestock.  Even if they trample 50% of the bale, it is feeding the soil.  As they trample, manure, and urinate on the soil, it is giving the soil a big booster shot.  Within a year, we should see a big increase in the health of our soils.  How to we track the health of our soils?  That's for another time.

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