Outgro Farm Information Series

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What on earth is biological farming?

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Farmers across the country are seeking answers. According to organisers of the recent national Beef and Lamb workshops “there has been an unquenchable appetite (for information) about biological farming”. How can biological farming benefit your farming business and what is involved?

Over the years in my conversations with farmers the motivation to adopt biological farming practices appears to be driven by four major concerns: financial, social, environmental, – and disappointment.

Many farmers feel concerned that they have spent the last 10-20 years applying superphosphate to try to achieve an Olsen P level of say 20-25 because they had been led to believe that was the key, yet the reality is that when they finally achieve the Olsen P of 20-25 their stocking rate is lower than when they had the Olsen P of say 10-15 – and their animal health bill has dramatically increased. Farmers also have felt powerless about the loss of New Zealand’s ‘clean, green’ brand due to the continuous use of very soluble nutrients that are prone to contaminating our waterways and, also, from their fertiliser consultant continuing to recommend they keep applying fertilisers with higher-than-ideal levels of heavy metals such as cadmium.
The adoption of regenerative farming methods has been shown to reduce the negative impact on waterways, reduce GHG emissions and improve food qualities. Looking after the land also promotes a sense of stewardship for future generations, while improving the bottom line for farmers today. There is some confusion around the term ‘biological farming’ as, of course, all farming involves biology. If all farming is biological, then the next question to ask is “how well is your biology working?” The recent surge in interest shows that we have been overlooking the important role of biology in favour of chemistry in our production systems. Confusion also occurs between ‘organic’ and ‘biological’ as some organic associations overseas are called biological. In New Zealand, ‘biological farming’ does not necessarily cover organic producers – its scope is much wider. Biological proponent Dr. Arden Anderson believes that “biological farming is a ‘best of both worlds’, it’s a mix between organic and conventional farming practices, involving careful monitoring of crops and soils to ensure that production is of high quality.”

There is no mystery or quasi-science behind biological farming; it is simply a commonsense ‘soils first’ approach. As soil function and mineral availability increases, farmers and growers find an improvement in the health of their crops and livestock. In turn, the need for chemical inputs reduces.

There are many tools on hand to regenerate soils and provide support to livestock and crops; these may include diverse plantings for pasture, fodder and riparian protection, crop rotations, best tillage methods, growing green manures and legumes, improving grazing management, composting, proper livestock manure use, reducing toxic chemicals and soluble N & P, using ‘bio-friendly’ complex fertilisers, and, balancing soil minerals.

Many of you are already using some of these tools. These farming techniques are not new – generations of farmers have followed this farming method successfully. They knew how to work the land and understood the process of harnessing their free underground workforce. Now modern science can support and refine the principles behind these good management practices.

Skilled biological farmers learn through monitoring of their soil, plants and animals which fertilisers work best for their farm and which are environmentally-safe. They use farming practices that encourage beneficial organisms living in the soil, avoiding those fertilisers that do not promote life. At times soil disturbance may seem unavoidable, such as pugging in wet seasons and regrassing. Biological farmers can choose to repair these disturbance events by applying bio-friendly products, or, by planting cover crops to stimulate good microbes and reduce weed pressures.

Healthy soils contain a balance between the organic (carbon-based) particles that serve as plant food and living microbes such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa, plus the more visible critters such as earthworms. These organisms process and decompose the inert mineral and organic materials, thereby feeding the plants. An optimally productive soil contains a balance of inorganic minerals, organic materials, and living organisms, all contained within a physical structure that absorbs and holds water to help the natural chemical reactions which feed plants on demand.

Excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides compromises this balance in the soil, achieving the exact opposite of what is required.

Practices which artificially prop up plants and animals through chemical applications mask symptoms that reveal the underlying nutritional and biological deficiencies. The challenge taken up by those on the biological path is to learn from these clues and to act in a way which considers the soil/plant interaction.

Biological farming makes economic sense. The input costs of fertilisers can be reduced over time and the use of pesticides is greatly reduced (or eliminated) as the healthier plants that result from biological farming are more disease-resistant and pest-resistant. Carbon-rich, biologically-diverse soils are also more resilient against climactic pressures, such as drought and temperature, thus lengthening the growing season and reducing water requirements.

Biological farming is not defined so much by any prescriptive approach (as farmers employ a vast variety of techniques), but rather from the outcome from these practices – a reduction in pests and disease and the production of nutrient-dense foods. Since 1940, many food mineral values have declined between 30-60 percent. Regenerative farming practices yield soils that are able to support nutrient-dense crops from higher concentrations of plant sugars, minerals, vitamins, amino acids and proteins; these soils are putting the food value back into food.

These practices are growing rapidly across the world as farmers respond to mounting costs, legislation, environmental concerns and consumer awareness. Biological farming is by no means the easiest method but farmers around the country are finding the results are worth it. If you are looking for more information, contact another farmer who has been using this approach for at least 3 or 4 years. At the end of the day it’s about putting the control back into your hands. Where it belongs.

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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Improving forage quality

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This summer it seemed as if the entire country flipped on its axis, with the West Coast weather arriving in the East. The weather may not have done stonefruit growers any favours, but for those in the business of growing grass, it contributed to a superb season for many. Managing all that extra feed is a blessing that comes with its own challenges. This article touches on the important role of calcium in maintaining forage quality.

Just as calcium forms the bones in our bodies, it also provides an essential framework in the soil. Calcium provides far more services than just as a mere pH modifier; it is the key to nutrient uptake. Maximum yields and quality are not achievable in the absence of this premier nutrient. Calcium aids with water infiltration and soil structure while promoting soil life. In a plant calcium is present in every cell wall; in fact, plants and animals use more calcium than any other nutrient. Calcium improves disease resistance, plant health, and, resilience to weather extremes. Calcium also helps to grow a more digestible forage rich in pectins. In livestock, calcium has a major effect on rumen metabolism. It also has important roles in blood, muscles, reproduction and nerve function. Adequate calcium can shorten the period of time between calving and maximum milk production, while reducing the risk of milk fever. Generally, calcium is applied in the form of lime.The quality of limestone products is evaluated by calcium content, particle size and pH neutralising value. Products with higher values and finer particle sizes reduce application rates and provide quicker soil and plant responses. For calcium to perform optimally it requires boron; a low calcium pressure and an increase in brix. When grazing low-NDF, high-quality pastures, biological dairy farmers report a dramatic lift in milk production within 24 hours. High pasture productivity is not enough; pastures also have to last. Through the adoption of a balanced fertility programme and improved grazing management, longevity is ensured. Grazing management will depend on your stock class and production type, but the ultimate aim is to encourage desirable species and disfavour the undesirable. This is the opposite of set stocking, which favours undesirable species. Increasing grazing interval encourages plant diversity, seed production and greater rooting depths. Allowing pastures to set seed also offers a multitude of free services, and reduces the need for other grains. Pastures have evolved to be grazed; when the above-ground materials are clipped, an equal volume of root materials are shed into the soil, contributing to your all-important soil carbon. This organic matter builds soil health, water holding capacities and nutrient cycling, and, it feeds your underground livestock. Another concern with tall rank pastures is the increase in facial eczema (FE) spores. The use of bio-fertilisers and calcium will promote worms and microbial activity to ensure thatch layers are actively composted, leaving few sites for disease to spread. Of course you can have too much of a good thing; excess calcium can cause mineral imbalances in livestock. Also, high applications of nitrogen will suppress boron uptake, thus depressing pectin levels and the quality of forage. It is important to monitor your soil and plants as an excess of any element can also lead to issues. At the end of the day balance and moderation is the key to producing quality food. References available on request. forage quality reading in herbage tests may be due to a deficiency of this trace element. Both calcium and boron are required in a continuous supply over the season, therefore, foliar applications of fine particle limes with boron are an important tool to address immediate shortfalls.

Forage Quality
A Wisconsin University fact sheet recently declared “The relationship between forage quality and level of profit often is under-appreciated”. The quality of forages depends on the age of the plant, soil heath, climate, genetics and species composition. The ultimate quality test of a forage is animal health and performance or – in practical terms – “milk in the vat,” “weight on the scales,” or “lambs on the ground.” As plants reach maturity, cell walls become more rigid as the woodier NDF (neutral detergent fibre) material increases (figure 1). The key then is to delay this woodier phase through the production of pectins (calcium pectate). Pectin is interesting, as it is a quickly fermented structural carbohydrate (whew!) with a digestibility similar to sugar; up to 90% is consumed by bacterial enzymes. This is a central point to note, as ruminants are relatively inefficient at converting grass proteins to milk/meat proteins. Feeding concentrates is one way to increase efficiencies; however, it is far more economical to increase the sugars and calcium in the forage. Ruminant nutritionists recommend increasing pectins to improve the digestibility and energy concentration in forage. Tall grass pastures, previously seen as ‘rank’ can be managed through biological practices to increase quality, metabolisable energy (ME) and production. As the quality of forage improves farmers report changes such as an evenness of grazing, a decrease in weed pressure and an increase in brix. When grazing low- NDF, high-quality pastures, biological dairy farmers report a dramatic lift in milk production within 24 hours. High pasture productivity is not enough; pastures also have to last. Through the adoption of a balanced fertility programme and improved grazing management, longevity is ensured. Grazing management will depend on your stock class and production type, but the ultimate aim is to encourage desirable species and disfavour the undesirable. This is the opposite of set stocking, which favours undesirable species. Increasing grazing interval encourages plant diversity, seed production and greater rooting depths. Allowing pastures to set seed also offers a multitude of free services, and reduces the need for other grains. Pastures have evolved to be grazed; when the above-ground materials are clipped, an equal volume of root materials are shed into the soil, contributing to your all-important soil carbon. This organic matter builds soil health, water holding capacities and nutrient cycling, and, it feeds your underground livestock. Another concern with tall rank pastures is the increase in facial eczema (FE) spores. The use of bio-fertilisers and calcium will promote worms and microbial activity to ensure thatch layers are actively composted, leaving few sites for disease to spread. Of course you can have too much of a good thing; excess calcium can cause mineral imbalances in livestock. Also, high applications of nitrogen will suppress boron uptake, thus depressing pectin levels and the quality of forage. It is important to monitor your soil and plants as an excess of any element can also lead to issues. At the end of the day balance and moderation is the key to producing quality food. References available on request.

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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Reading cows coats to cut costs

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Call it old timer’s lore or good animal husbandry, there is a skill in the ability to read animal coats that is as old as the hills. The farmers and consultants interviewed for this article believe that observing visual animal indicators is a handy additional tool to assess animal health and reproduction.

Until more recently, most fertiliser applications have not focused on broad-spectrum nutrition, and many soluble fertilisers unintentionally have suppressed trace elements including zinc, copper, selenium and others. As a result, we are now seeing a rise in animal health costs from issues including mastitis, scours, reproduction and birthing challenges, which arise from inadequate or imbalanced mineral nutrition.

Reading and observing animal coats may not be an exact science, but it can provide a quick, economic and complementary tool to more in-depth diagnoses. Like us, when cows are healthy they will have healthy hair, produced from adequate protein, vitamins, and minerals. The ingredients for healthy hair are also needed for reproduction, immunity and optimal growth. Spring is one of the best times to evaluate your cows’ coats, as early shedding of the winter coat is closely associated with reproduction ability and good health. Healthy livestock should have sleek, slightly oily coats, strong hooves, moist noses and clear, bright eyes. If your animals have trouble losing their winter coat you could suspect malnutrition, low sodium, low copper and/or low selenium. When beef farmer Steve Horgan sees a pale colour developing on the edges of his cattles’ ears he knows copper is required. Low copper also can also show up as a curl on the end of each hair and an appearance of ‘spectacles’ around the eyes. “Observations are so important”, Steve says and this sentiment is mirrored by the experiences of the dairy farmers also interviewed. Kevin Davidson and Hamish Galloway both commented that copper (and selenium) may be deficient if animals do not express their true colours. “Blacks should be black, browns brown, and, whites white”. In white coats, a yellowing on the brisket behind the front legs may indicate liver damage. Both Kevin and Hamish attribute low zinc to upright white hairs on the cow’s back, while long hairs growing on the top of the neck, on the belly and on the udder may indicate low cobalt (neck hair indicators are different for bulls). When cows have “crying, watery eyes” especially in spring, Hamish gives them a shot of B12, “which gives a good immediate response”. Hamish says “The best test is visual, and it’s probably more accurate than bloods. We do bloods as well, but this doesn’t necessarily tell us what’s in their liver”; a more accurate test.

Visual observations offer a rapid assessment; over the years Hamish has linked his observations to more intensive monitoring. Low selenium can be observed in animals with low head and tail carriage; this deficiency also increases the risk of retained membranes. This hasn’t been an issue for the past three years as the Galloways have improved the mineral levels in their cows. “It’s coming through the pasture, and we are seeing higher and higher levels in the cows.” Hamish believes that minerals are obtained in an ‘organic’ available form “which doesn’t lock up in their body’. Kevin and Hamish also use pre-indicators for condition. When milk docket protein levels start to drop, it’s an early warning that cow condition is dropping. When cows spend a lot of time licking their sides this precedes an increase in condition as “their skins become itchy as they put on weight”. One indicator that a cow is in optimum condition is the presence of one to four ‘happy lines’. These near horizontal lines across the belly are yellow fat deposits, which build when the animal’s weight is optimum. ‘Grazing Info’ consultant Vaughan Jones believes these lines “indicate that the animals are healthy and well fed with the nine soluble minerals on correctly limed and fertilised pastures.”

All the farmers I spoke to agreed that the best and most economical way for livestock to access minerals is through the soil and plant. As the shampoo ad says, “it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen”; if there are deficiencies in your soil and pasture, offering free- choice minerals, salt licks, supplements in the water and injections provide a quick band-aid solution to correct immediate mineral deficiencies. It is important that the entire animal health picture is taken into consideration: soil, herbage, feed, water, blood and tissue tests. Indicators can be misinterpreted – an unhealthy coat may be due to a range of factors including parasites, disease, toxins, excess minerals, or more serious issues such as liver damage. Many mineral nutrition problems vanish when animals are well fed and managed. By addressing the limiting factors on your farm, ensuring healthy water and nutrient-dense pastures, you can reduce the need to bring in the vet and use costly supplements. Good animal husbandry starts with observations and correcting issues before they impact on your bottom line. The best long-term and sustainable way to support optimum health and performance is through farming practices which balance the biological, chemical and physical aspects of the soil.

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Facing the facial eczema challenge

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Understanding facial eczema can help reduce risks into the future.Facial eczema spore counts look set to rise significantly in some parts of the country, as the recent rain, humid nights, and warm soil temperatures create the perfect storm. Biological farming is all about being proactive – identifying the root cause behind these challenges and then acting – rather than reacting. This article looks at how farmers can reduce risks into the future.

Facial eczema (FE) is a fungus which lives on dead plant materials at the base of pastures. When consumed by livestock the spores release a toxin which can cause severe injury to the liver and bile ducts. FE can have a dramatic impact on farming bottom lines as liver damage translates into poor growth, lowered production, ill thrift and, sometimes even death.

There are some excellent resources on FE available, which outline management options such as fungicides, zinc supplementation, reducing stock numbers and/or replacing stock with FE-resistant animals. The risk of FE has been escalating over the past few decades, with theories attributing it to a range of factors including climate change, overgrazing, reduction in earthworms and microbial imbalances. Facial eczema spores flourish on the dead litter layers just above the soil surface in humid, warm conditions. Thick litter layers or thatch mats start to form as the natural breakdown cycle breaks down. Soil critters vital in consuming litter are influenced by soil pH, soil moisture, available nutrients, food resources and the use of chemicals. Interestingly, many of the fungicides promoted to control FE are used in the turf industry to control troublesome earthworms. If you have not yet started on a biological programme, then fungicide applications may be required this season to reduce animal suffering and maintain production.

The biological system takes time to become fully established, but supporting soil health is the best way to get off the treadmill over the long term. Farmers adopting proactive soil management practices find their spore counts and afflicted animal numbers drop dramatically. Animal health and infection risk reduce positively due to an increase in secondary metabolites and trace elements. The secret behind the success of these farmers seems simple; when worm numbers and microbial diversity increases very few food resources remain for the FE spores to flourish. Earthworms are vital in this process and DSIR research has shown that earthworm activity kills any FE spore passing through the worms gut (Keogh, 1976). Data has shown that an imbalance between fungal and bacterial populations allows FE to spread without competition. The use of bio-fertilisers in international studies has shown an increase in biological activity, worm counts and a reduction in thatch layers. The researchers also discovered the use of urea increased thatch over time. Observations can help determine why the decomposition cycle has broken down in certain areas. Manures should break down quickly, and the soil around the base of plants should be free of any litter. Identifying the worst pastures may hold clues as to why these environments suit FE; for example exposed northern faces with low humus and inhibited bacterial activity provide the perfect breeding ground, or perhaps you’ve been using some flats for footy practice or pony club and the soils have become compacted? If you’re not confident yet with the biological approach, why not trial your worst FE paddock and see how it compares next year? The proof is in the paddock.

Reducing FE risk is just one of the many good reasons to encourage pasture diversity. Facial eczema risk is much higher in pastures of ryegrass, cocksfoot, brown top, dogstail and Yorkshire fog. These pastures can be integrated with species which don’t support the fungus such as legumes, plantain, chicory and tall fescue. These mixes can be sown into high risk areas.

Zinc is an invaluable tool for at-risk farms. However, the supplementation of any individual mineral can have unintended consequences; for instance zinc has an antagonistic relationship with copper and selenium and can interfere with calcium absorption, leading to milk fever in cows. It is invaluable, therefore, to ensure that adequate trace element levels are present in herbage and liver tests. Avoid copper supplementation during risk periods, as it can make animals more susceptible to FE. The use of zinc has been a literal life saver for millions. In 1960 it was a dairy farmer, Gladys Reid, who first discovered the value of zinc against FE. Her findings were publicly ridiculed by organisations for over a decade. Now, 50 years on, it is interesting to reflect that again farmers are finding the solution lies in their own hands. If there is an aspect of biological farming that you’d like to read more about please email info@outgro.co.nz References available on request.

• Use biological fertilisers
• Apply lime and trace elements
• Introduce low risk pasture species, herbs and legumes
• Use measures that maximise the decomposition cycle and increase earthworm numbers
• Monitor animal health
• Use reactive measures when animal health is at risk

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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How to control weeds

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One vital key in the success of biological farming is building observational skills, to help address the causes behind on-farm challenges. Determining, and then addressing, the reasons why weeds grow provides valuable long-term outcomes. So “what on earth is a weed?” In simple terms, a weed is a plant growing out of place; what is a weed for a cattle beast may not be a weed for sheep, or even a weed in a crop.

I remember a time when plantain was regarded as a weed, and now it is marketed as tonic. Weeds in fact are our idea, not Nature’s. Weeds can provide important services to soil and animals. Following on from our article on diversity, a pasture with no weeds may have lower medicinal or nutritive value for your livestock.

“Each plant is an indicator,” stated the US botanist Frederick Clements. “This is an inevitable conclusion from the fact that each plant is the product of the conditions under which it grows.” The idea of weeds as indicators of soil conditions is not a new one; in 50AD farmers knew land that supported wild plum and thimbleberry (blackberry family) would grow good wheat crops, while many early immigrants to America chose farm land according to the vegetation cover. Different weeds species can have a range of tolerances for mineral imbalances and soil conditions. A large number of weeds indicates low functional calcium – especially coarse grass weeds – while broadleaf weeds can indicate high available potassium and low phosphorus. There are some great books available which look at the different weed indicators. How weeds grow, above and below ground, can offer clues to their role in repairing soil. Scrambling weeds offer protection to soil surfaces and help prevent the loss of valuable carbon. Deep tap-rooted weeds, such as dock and Californian thistles (with root depths over 6m deep) provide services; they open up tight soils, transport nutrients from the subsoil and create channels for air and water. Shallow roots can indicate high water tables, compaction and overgrazing. By finding out what role a weed is filling, we can use techniques to help make them redundant. Chilean needle grass.

Many annual plant species produce massive amounts of seed. They have adapted to colonise disturbed areas and help with the soil building process; this is referred to as ‘plant succession’. Deep-rooted weeds mine minerals from deeper down in the subsoil, feed micro-organisms and build humus, creating a more favourable soil environment for higher plant species such as grasses. This is not an overnight process!

Overgrazing, pugging, stock camps, working wet soils, certain farm chemicals, mineral and biological imbalances can create favourable soil conditions for weeds to germinate. Alternatively, the weeds are out-competed by using regenerative soil practices which change the soil environment to suit more advanced pasture species and crops. Biological farmers around the country can testify to the changes in weed pressure. Hawkes Bay dairy farmer Neil Armitage has had an interesting journey with weeds. For much of his farm’s history two full- time personnel (aka Mum and Dad), worked up to 60 hours a week spraying ragwort and thistles. “We could have 8 people with knapsacks walking across the paddock,” reflects Neil, “but all that did was control the weed. We’d have to do it all over again the next season”. Now, over the past 3 years, the workload has reduced to 1-2 hours a day chipping thistles. The weed seed-bank in the soil is massive; a single ragwort plant can produce 150,000 seeds, viable in the soil for over 15 years. As Neil observed, “I used to get peed off as waves of thistle fairies flew in from the neighbours’ land, but that’s not why I had thistles, it’s the environment we create.

So now, when the great thistle migration comes, it doesn’t bother me”. Neil also has found he no longer requires a boom sprayer when regrassing. Under Neil’s Outgro programme “we have conditioned the soil, made it healthier, more aerobic and taken away the environment for the thistle to grow.” There also can be 400 to 1200 clover seeds in a square metre of soil, yet not a single visible clover. Many farmers using regenerative soil practices see a natural return in clover over time. “Now we have created an environment for the grass and clover to grow,” Neil also advocates a pinch of patience, “you need to create the conditions in the soil; it’s not an overnight sensation, BUT wean yourself off what you’ve been doing. Now, I’ve got a lot more confidence.” There are many management tools at our disposal for weed control, with grazing management playing a role. Australian research has shown that Chilean needle grass – with its longer rooting depths – prefers overgrazed pastures, with low competition from grasses. Researchers found the best ‘herbicide’ was improved pasture management, with the deeper roots and taller pastures outcompeting this troublesome weed. Why not try this for yourself? Take a section of your paddock and trial biological products, or, try missing every second grazing and then mob stocking. Weeds can indicate a number of different environmental factors, so viewing the whole picture is vital. Dig a hole, observe patterns, record changes, take herbage tests, note previous management or climactic conditions and set up some trials for yourself. This all helps to build your own knowledge bank.

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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Enhancing the N cycle

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Nitrogen use in New Zealand hit a record high last year; further highlighting the challenge for farming today to find strategic and responsible fertiliser solutions to reduce costly losses. Optimising fertiliser efficiencies is a research priority around the world. Progressive approaches including fine particle applications, biological inoculums and carbon-based additives, such as humates, are showing positive results in research and on the farm. This article touches on some of this new science and the advantages of fluidised nutrients.

Larger applications of synthetic fertilisers are highly inefficient due to losses into the air, waterways or tying up with other minerals in the soil. Many of these losses are unseen; for example, up to 50% of the nitrogen applied, may be lost to the atmosphere. Although solid fertilisers may contain higher nutrient concentrations, when compared to fluidised fertilisers, very little of this is actually available to the plant.

Foliar feeding took off in the 1950s when Michigan scientists found that foliar feeding of plant nutrients was 100% to 900% more effective than soil applications. Since that time the use of foliars has been hotly debated, as results can vary depending on factors such as soil type, P-retention, pH, soil calcium levels, nutrient diffusion and the time that dissolved nutrients sit on the leaf. There seems little doubt that where soil fixation exists, foliar applications of certain nutrients is the most efficient method of fertiliser “placement”, especially during pinch periods when nutrient demands may outstrip a plant’s capacity to supply itself. Fluidised fertilisers have entered the agricultural scene more recently, with advancements in knowledge and research around chelators and inoculants. It is now technically possible to increase the efficiency of fertilisers; greatly reducing losses to the wider environment. Fluidised applications of nutrients including phosphates are found to penetrate the soil surface to deeper levels. Phosphate which remains onthe soil surface is prone to runoff and erosion. Another consequence of soil surface nutrition is that shallow- feeding roots are encouraged; leaving plants more vulnerable to climactic stress. High-solid fluidised fertilisers offer other advantages, as the nutrients remain uniform in the tank, ensuring that each droplet spreads nutrients evenly across the field. By mixing with water, nutrients diffuse outwards towards the plant, as opposed to applications which attract water.

Trace elements
Foliar applications are an extremely effective way of supplying your pasture/crops and stock with trace element requirements to allow them to perform to their optimum. When foliar trace elements are applied in small doses at strategic times during the growing season results have shown improvements in yield, nutrient uptake, crop and animal health.. Applications of trace elements, such as Mo and Co, also enhance the nitrogen cycle, increasing plant available nitrogen.

This multi-use soft coal is receiving a huge amount of agricultural scientific interest due to its benefits for plant nutrition and mineral chelation. Chelation allows a nutrient to “maintain its own identity” within the spray tank, and prevents nutrients from being tied up with other nutrients or chemicals in the tank. These humic chelates are very mobile in the plant and can enter through the leaves and roots, enhancing the uptake and utilisation of plant nutrients. Studies have shown that humates increase the efficacy of foliar applications by increasing the permeability of the leaf cell walls. Humates and biological inoculums also help to stimulate beneficial microbes that live on plant surfaces and in the soil; these organisms are essential in recycling nutrients, increasing fertiliser efficiencies, reducing losses and converting soil nutrients into more plant available forms. Independent research on dairy, sheep and beef and horticultural properties has shown that equivalent yields are possible around the country using biological farming techniques. Research currently underway on a West Otago sheep and beef station by Dr Peter Espie, has led him to conclude that the “biological enhancement of plant growth and nutrient content is scientifically valid.” Other research from biological dairy farms in Rotorua has shown that these farms had significantly lower nitrate concentrations than the conventional farms. The goal of fertiliser use should be to optimise crop production without causing environmental problems; the ideal management system uses appropriate application rates, timing, and placement in consideration of soil properties. Fluid fertilisers which harness new research developments are leading the way, showing that low input does not have to equal low output.

Foliar: In general, foliar feeding is used as a means of supplying the plant with supplemental doses of both minor and major nutrients, plant hormones, stimulants, and other beneficial substances directly onto the leaf surface (with a sticking agent).

Fluidised: A blend of both liquid and solid fertilisers (typically only 18-30% water) containing highly concentrated fine particle size minerals which may be blended with carbohydrates, biological inoculums and plant / biological stimulants. Fluid fertilisers and their components are available to the plant both through the leaf and the soil.

Chelate: The word chelate derives from the Greek word “chel”, meaning ‘claw like’, and refers to the way metals are bound with organic compounds resulting in a ring structure.

Ali, L.K.M. and Elbordiny M.M. (2009). Response of Wheat Plants to Potassium Humate Application.

DORNEANU et al (2011). Efficacy of liquid organomineral fertiliser with humates extracted from lignite on leaf fertilisation of crops in the vegetation period.

Leach, K.A. and Hameleers, A. (2011). The effects of a foliar spray containing phosphorus and zinc on the development, composition and yield of forage maize.

Mosali, J. et al. (2006). Effect of Foliar Application of Phosphorus on Winter Wheat Grain Yield, Phosphorus Uptake, and Use Efficiency.

Potarzycki, J. and Grzebisz, A. (2009). Effect of zinc foliar application on grain yield of maize and its yielding components.

S. H. Chien et al (2011). Agronomic and environmental aspects of phosphate fertilisers varying in source and solubility: an update review.

Hettiarachchi, G.M. et al. (2009). Reactions of Fluid and Granular Copper and Molybdenum-Enriched Compound Fertilisers in Acidic and Alkaline Soils.

Schefe, C. R. Et al. (2008). Organic amendment addition enhances phosphate fertiliser uptake and wheat growth in an acid soil.

Gale, D.L et al. (2011). Opportunity to increase phosphorus efficiency through co-application of organic amendments with mono-ammonium phosphate (MAP).

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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Do you have worms?

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Not the sexiest of catchphrases perhaps, yet biological farmers around the country are finding an increase in earthworm numbers is one indicator for farming success. The work that worms do may be one of the most important and undervalued positions on the planet. Through their physical action and the castings produced, worms create an elixir for life.

Good healthy soils are a teeming mass of life – and it is this life which the earthworms are feeding upon. They can be likened to the ‘blue whales of the soil’, and as such provide a simple indicator to the abundance of microscopic life. Some of the deeper burrowing species could even be compared to ruminants in the way they pre-digest and process their castings.

New Zealand has over 170 species of native earthworms and 23 introduced species. Many arrived with European settlers in the 19th century, generally as stowaways among plants, or in the soil used as ships’ ballast. Some farmers, seeing the benefits, have introduced earthworms around the country. It is these foreign worm species that provide countless benefits to our agricultural systems. Biological farmers, such as John Frizzell, Steve Horgan and Neil Armitage and others, have all testified to the valuable contribution earthworms make to their farming operations.

Substantial benefits
The action of worms and their castings increases infiltration, water and nutrient retention, aeration, organic matter cycling, weed suppression and disease prevention. There is a dramatic difference between what goes in the front end and what comes out the back end of a worm. On average, worm castings contain 7 times more phosphorus, 10 times more potassium, 5 times more nitrogen, 3 times more magnesium and 1.5 times more calcium than surrounding soil. Castings also contain important hormones, enzymes, vitamins and antibiotics, all important for plant health and animal health. These hormones can influence plant growth and development as well as crop quality significantly when present at very low concentrations. The castings from certain worm species converts phosphorus in the soil from ‘unavailable’ into plant- available forms. Any process that can increase phosphorus availability and turnover rates notably through plants and soil organic matter is hugely vital for improved bottom-line production. Studies have shown that earthworms have major effects on the amount of extractable nitrate in the soil and show a high denitrification potential; why use nitrification inhibitors when worm castings can increase available nitrogen to the plant? New Zealand earthworm research in the 1950s showed a 30-110% increase in grass production in response to worm activity. With benefits like that, creating an optimum environment for earthworms is a no-brainer.

“Build it and they will come”
In a hectare of healthy soil, earthworm numbers can equate to more than 3,000kg. This could be more than the weight of your aboveground livestock! Therefore, it’s just as important to know how to manage the livestock beneath your feet. Earthworms respond to increases in microbial action, organic matter and humus. Using lime and fertiliser products which provide carbon and microbial foods increases worm numbers. Soil compaction, over-stocking, frequent tillage and some salt-based fertilisers and fungicides reduce worm populations over time. So how do you know if your free workforce is doing the business? The best way to find out is to count your worms by digging a spade hole, 20cm cubed. Carefully sift through all of the soil, ensuring you pull apart the roots and organic matter where many worms may be hiding. This is one job on the farm sure to get the kids involved! Ultimately you want to find a variety of species, with babies and mature worms present. Less than 15 is not a good sign, while a worm count above 30, especially if there are a few different species, is cause for celebration. If you do have a small number of worms, it’s not all bad news, as the number and size of earthworms can depend on the time of the year, moisture and microbial foods. To assess if your worm numbers are increasing, you’ll need to dig your holes at the same time of year, with similar moisture levels if possible. Soil texture and climate can affect worm numbers, but there are biological farmers around New Zealand in dry, brittle, high altitude sites with worm numbers well over 60 worms per spade. The challenge is to build resilience into the system; by increasing humus levels, water-holding capacities and rooting depths, worms are buffered against climactic extremes. The two are inextricably linked; worms help to create healthy resilient soil systems and a healthy biological system supports more worms. Charles Darwin dedicated the later stages of his life to the study of the meager worm, aware that there was a greatness underfoot that deserved far more attention. Fortunately, we are seeing a lift in awareness towards the importance of soil health and worms, as farmers around the country experience the benefits that a change in approach brings to their operation.

Abbot, I., and CA Parker. 1981. Interactions between earthworms and their soil environment. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 13, 191-197.

Edwards, CA., and JE Bates. 1992. The use of earthworms in environmental management. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 14(12):1683-1689.

Elliot, PW, D Knight, and JM Anderson. 1990. Denitrification in earthworm casts and soil from pastures under different fertilizer and drainage regimes. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 22(5): 601-605.

Hopp, H. 1949. The effect of earthworms on the productivity of agricultural soil. Journal of Agricultural Research. 78(10): 325-339.

Joshi, NV and B Kelkar. 1951. The role of earthworms in soil fertility. The Indian Journal of Agricultural Science. 22(2): 189-196.

Parkin, T and E Berry. 1994. Nitrogen transformations associated with earthworm casts. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 26(9):1233-1238.

Ross, DJ and Cairns, A. (1982). Effects of earthworms and ryegrass on respiratory and enzyme activities of soil. Soil Bureau, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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Farming for gold

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“Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills”, black gold that is. Soil carbon and humus is the stuff that underpins the wealth and health of any farming enterprise. Over the past few years carbon has become quite the political hot potato, with carbon trading markets expanding rapidly. However, grasslands ecologist Dr Christine Jones believes that “the best carbon trading scheme is the one which happens underground”, directly passing its rewards to farmers, with benefits including increased nutrient storage, improved soil structure and resilience to climactic extremes.

Soil carbon is like a giant sponge; each 1% increase in soil carbon can increase the ability of soil to hold an extra two buckets of water per sq metre (or 144,000 litres/ha). That’s a significant increase. Carbon and nitrogen are intimately entangled in the soil and in all living organisms. All living creatures, including microbes, have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in their bodies. This means that the addition of excessive nitrogen fertilisers, without their companion carbon-based foods (such as fish, seaweed or humates), produces a hungry population of microbes that can eat into soil carbon reserves. Urea is also effective at dissolving more stable carbon forms; this means nitrogen must be used more efficiently to help reduce these losses.

The loss of soil carbon internationally is estimated to be as high as 200 billion tonnes; a major loss for a resource that has such a central role in the longevity of agriculture. University of Waikato research shows an average loss of around 21t/ha1 of soil organic carbon is occurring under New Zealand pastoral farms. Losses can be attributed to soil management practices, plant species, erosion, bio-cides, low biology, residue management, compaction and the inefficient use of water and nutrients. The news is not all bad however, if soil carbon can be lost on such a scale, we also have the means to rebuild it.

There are several carbon cycles at work here; the one most studied is the more rapid decomposition cycle, whereby organic matter becomes microbial food and much of the carbon is lost as the microbes respire. As the more recognisable parts of living materials – roots, leaves, manure and dead critters – totally decompose they gradually turn into the dark crumbly soil materials known as humus. The aim of regenerative farming practices is to build humus and more stable carbon forms. In the last few years the interest and research into carbon and humic substances has been on the rise. Humic materials are now becoming a regular addition in fertiliser mixes to help increase fertiliser efficiencies, reduce nitrogen leaching and increase yield responses. This approach has been well documented in international studies, even in soils with naturally high soil carbon levels. The other important way that stable carbon is delivered from the atmosphere into the soil is through the nightly exudates from plant roots. Over half of the sugars gathered by plants during photosynthesis are sent out through the roots as liquid carbon; these are chemically similar to nectar and feed the organisms in the root zone. Much of this ‘liquid carbon’ is held at deeper undisturbed levels in the soil, 50-60cm down. This is the cheapest, most efficient and beneficial form of organic carbon for soil life. Excessive applications of N and P have been shown to stop this important soil process. Biological management practices, which foster the growth of beneficial microbes, encourage deeper rooting depths and increase plant photosynthesis, are required to build stable soil carbon.

The benefits of soil carbon and humus on soil properties:
Physical: improves soil structure, increases water storage and buffers soil temperatures

Chemical: increases cation exchange, complexes cations, binds toxins, improves nutrient uptake, humus stores anions (N, P, S and Zn), reduces the need for nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisation and buffers pH

Biological: energy for microbes, reservoir for nutrients and increased resilience

How to check for carbon
How can you tell if your soil is losing or gaining carbon? One way is to take a soil test which gives you a small part of the picture, or take a deep core which will show carbon levels at depth, but this may not be helpful if you don’t have data for comparison. Another cheaper and quicker method is to dig a few holes and compare the colour of your topsoil to a hole dug in an undisturbed area nearby which hasn’t received fertilisers or intensive grazing. If you see a visual difference and your soil is paler, that can indicate management changes are required. The Australians recognise gold when they see it, after dragging their heels over a carbon trading scheme, the Australian Government has now leap- frogged New Zealand with their new Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). The CFI plans to invest $1.7 billion in protecting biodiversity and rewarding farmers who build carbon in their soil. There are now countless numbers of farmers around New Zealand also turning the tide and building resilience back into their farming operations today and for future generations.

Ampt P and Doornbos S. (2010) Communities in Landscapes project Benchmark Study of Innovators.
Available online:

Khan SA, Mulvaney RL, Ellsworth TR, Boast CW. (2007) The myth of nitrogen fertilization for soil carbon sequestration. J Environ Qual. 2007 Oct 24;36(6):1821-32.

Pettit, RE (2004) Organic matter, humus, humate, humic acid, fulvic acid and humin: their importance in soil fertility and plant health [Online]. Available at: www.humate.info/mainpage.htm

Sainju UM, Whitehead WF, Singh BP. (2003) Agricultural management practices to sustain crop yields and improve soil and environmental qualities. Scientific World Journal. Aug 20;3:768-89.

Schipper LA, Baisden WT, Parfait RL, Ross C, Claydon JJ and Arnold G. (2007) Large losses of soil C and N from soil profiles under pasture in New Zealand during the past 20 years. Global Change Biology, 13: 1138-1144.

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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The benefits of pasture diversity

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As you’ll read in many of Outgro’s Farm Results series, increasing pasture diversity is a very simple and valuable tool for any farmer. Recently, on a farm walk with a founding farmer of the Outgro programme, he commented that he felt reluctant to bring the cows into these paddocks as the pasture looked “just too good to eat!” And it’s not just a feast for the eyes here – there’s a whole lot more going on underneath his pastures.

Lately there has been an increased focus on the central role that farmers have in enhancing biodiversity. A well-managed pasture system is one method which can significantly contribute to the sustainability of a farm. Balancing the soil’s chemistry helps to enhance the physical soil structure which supports soil life; by also encouraging plant diversity there is a dramatic multiplier effect to the soil foodweb. Forage diversity has a vital role in this overall biodiversity increase, adding depth, dimension and range into the habitat and food supply, both in its canopy and around its root system. Forage diversity turns a farming operation from a single-dimensional affair into something much more three-dimensional.

Forage diversity creates more diversity in microbes, minerals, enzymes, vitamins and other secondary compounds invaluable for plant and animal health and ultimately, for human health. Diverse pastures are less prone to insect attack, grass staggers and animal health problems than are ryegrass-based pastures. Biodiversity also provides vital services which are commonly overlooked, such as food for bees and beneficial predators. Encouraging a wide range of plant guilds – legumes, herbs, forbs (broad-leafed herbs) and grasses – builds far more resilience into the pasture system. As you can see in the root diagram different species occupy different soil zones or niches; this means they can exploit different nutrients and resources. Biodiversity also buffers pastures from the greatest leveller of all in agricultural income: the climate.

New Zealand and international studies have shown a 10-50% increase in production, a 30% increase in root biomass and rooting depths, when diverse mixes were sown (11-17 species). There has been a lot of research into the benefits of different pasture species, and while it can be tempting to sow a limited number of species, farms can miss out on benefits which not only contribute to production, but enhance the quality of the food produced. Forages are able to produce quality protein, energy, medicinal compounds, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and many other growth factors. Using as examples chicory and plantain, which are highly relished and preferentially grazed by livestock (in spite of the slight bitterness of chicory), each herb comes up with over 80 recorded phytochemical compounds and minerals, including salicyclic acid, ascorbic acid, tryptophan, betacarotene, and alpha-linolenic acids in significant quantities. These plant chemicals not only boost milk production and growth, and provide cures for animal illnesses, but they also play an important role in the prevention of animalsickness in the first place; clearly the most preferential and satisfying route to herd health. When researching plant varieties, it is useful to assess what are your particular goals; do you want to increase production, or nutrient density, or overcome current gaps in your growing season? Specific species can be introduced to address soil issues; cocksfoot is a great choice if you want to improve soil crumb structure, while species such as lucerne, chicory and sweet clover have a strong tap root to break open hardpans. It is essential to source varieties that will perform well in your local conditions. Not all varieties will flourish on your patch; Timothy, for example, prefers summer wet areas and heavier soils for persistence, while Yorkshire Fog loves more acid, low-fertility conditions. Also different species may require different grazing management to optimise their growth, so it’s important to talk to your Outgro consultant about which species will suit. As soil health improves, the nutritional component of the forage species also increases.

Many Outgro clients notice a change in the palatability and evenness in grazing, with ‘weeds’ now becoming an important part in the animals’ diet. ‘Weed’ species like dock and dandelion are high in tannins and have important health properties. Interestingly, compared to lucerne, dandelion has more digestible nutrients, protein, and a higher relative feed value! Many forage species are important contributors to organic matter levels, which can be maximised by lengthening grazing rotations, increasing trampling and the root biomass which is shed following grazing. Increasing soil organic matter and ultimately humus is one of the best ways to add value to the land over time. Fields high in humus act like sponges, absorbing water and reducing the leaching of nutrients. Author Peter Andrews found that old-school English horse breeders consider that good horse breeding pastures should contain at least 80 species. If the pasture had less than 40 species, it was considered to be in decline. These pastures would not produce a Group One winner for 10 years if the soils were cultivated and resown. Fascinating stuff. With the advent of industrial agriculture we have lost much of the art and husbandry skills associated with diverse pastures, but fortunately we are seeing a revival of interest in building the resilience back into pastures.

Diversity Benefits

• Increase in annual herbage yield – 10-40% more annual production depending on year and site (Daly, 1996)
• 40% more annual production from an 11 species mix (Sanderson et al 2004) • Greater root biomass and rooting depth
• Diverse pastures are less prone to insect attack, grass staggers and animal health problems than are ryegrass-based pastures
• Improved soil structure, aeration and porosity
• Increase in soil organic matter, carbon and humus
• Improved overall feed value of available forage
• Legumes fix nitrogen
• Diverse pastures filter water, build more resilience into soils and extend grazing seasons.

Daly et al.1996. A comparison of multi-species pasture with ryegrass-white clover pasture under dryland conditions, Proc. New Zealand Grassland Assoc. 58 (1996), pp. 53–58. Sanderson et al. 2005. Forage mixture productivity and botanical composition in pastures grazed by dairy cattle. USDA, ARS Source: Agronomy journal. v. 97, no. 5, p. 1465-1471.

Nicole Masters INTEGRITY SOILS Independent educator, writer and systems thinker.

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