The greatest pleasure I have found during my 16 year involvement with biological agriculture is to witness a re-awakening of a passion in growers who have embraced this approach. Our work comprises the biggest part of our allotted time on this planet and it is one of life’s essentials that we thoroughly enjoy our chosen profession. If you are not having fun in your work then find something that moves you, because life is simply too short to compromise! The “sparking” process, where growers are inspired to make a change, can happen at any stage in your life. The only limitation is a closed mind. In a world of rapid change the only thing certain is change and, in this flux, an open mind becomes a prerequisite to survive and thrive. Closed minds are often associated with age and religion so I am always excited when older farmers choose to embrace change. I have seen several cases where older farmers have withdrawn their farms from sale after attending one of our courses and experimenting with biological principles. They develop an almost childlike enthusiasm as they discover the pleasures of working with a natural system rather than against it. During a recent visit to New Zealand I was touring local farms with agronomist, Jacqui Tink, to get a feel for the local issues and to witness biological farming at work in that country. Jacqui is head agronomist with Abron Living Soils, the NTS distributors in the North Island. One of her clients is Dennis Yates from the pioneering dynasty responsible for Yates Seeds. We were lucky enough to arrive at the farm on the day that Dennis was celebrating his 82nd birthday. Denis is undoubtedly an astute businessman with no shortage of the Yates entrepreneurial flair and he is also a warm, appealing soul who was happy to share the engrossing history of his property and family.
From Coastal Mud To High Production Corn
Dennis’s grandfather arrived in New Zealand from England in 1888 and decided to continue his profession as a seedsman in his new homeland. It was obviously a good decision, for within 20 years he was in a position to accumulate a large 9000 acre property stretching all the way to Pukekohe. The block that Dennis farms today was part of that original property but his farm was expanded in 1930 when a major engineering program, bravely initiated in the midst of the great depression, reclaimed 200 acres of tidal flats. It was fascinating to imagine the large scale construction work involving manual labour and draft horses as a dam and floodgates were created. Dennis still remembers the yellow flowering, salt tolerant grass that was the first species to colonise the newly reclaimed paddocks. In recent years Dennis has successfully grown corn on 200 hectares of the farm and last year he decided to experiment, working with Abron, in the application of biological principles in his growing enterprise. He farms in a region renowned for wet winters where water always puddles and paddocks become swamps. Dennis was pleasantly surprised, in his first year with the new system, to find that his was the only property in the region that was free from this puddling. This positive change became the basis of the first of many questions from this remarkable farmer who is still learning and honing his growing skills at an age when many are playing checkers in a retirement home. In fact, Dennis is pioneering the biological approach in his region and this somehow seems an appropriate expansion of the Yates legacy. The astute questions posed by Dennis are questions that flow through the minds of any good businessman contemplating a new approach, so I will include this Q/A format in the hope that it will serve to help other potential newcomers to biological agriculture.
Questions from Dennis
Dennis: What is the explanation for my lack of puddling last winter?
Graeme: There was a change in your soil structure linked to two things, minerals and microbes. It would be safe to say that the relationship between these two soil components is the essence of the biological approach. Soil tests revealed that your calcium levels needed boosting and this typically involves an application of limestone followed by a response time that varies between 6 months and two years. Calcium increases the spaces between the tiny clay particles in the soil in a process called flocculation. As a result your soil can breath more easily, plant roots can expand unimpeded and surface water can drain more readily. As I mentioned, this usually takes a significant period of time but Abron have developed a strategy to fast-track the desired end-result. Like NTS in Australia, they use liquid micronised limestone to speed up the response time. The Abron flagship product, Bio-Cal, involves a unique manufacturing process where these miniscule calcium particles are fermented to further increase calcium availability. Then nitrogen, trace minerals, humic acid and a dedicated biostimulant are also added to the mix. Your program included an initial application of Bio-Cal prior to sowing and a second application post harvest. The calcium response is virtually immediate with this product and the biological stimulants that are part of mix, kick start your soil biology so the microbes can also contribute to improving your soil structure. Bacteria in the soil release a sticky alkaline slime that binds together tiny soil particles to form mini aggregates. Then beneficial fungi in the soil use their tentacle-like hyphae to wrap up these mini aggregates into larger particles called macro aggregates. In this manner these organisms create a crumb structure in your soil which promotes more rapid drainage of surface water (amongst many other benefits).
Dennis: I achieved a total yield of 2100 tonnes in my first season farming biologically, at grain prices of $310 per tonne. I was very happy with an average yield between 9 to 11 tonnes per hectare (dry weight). Corn loves nitrogen and yet this year we used a lot less than normal but achieved great yields. How is this possible?
Graeme: Three things are happening here. Your program contained humic acid which has been shown to increase fertiliser response by over 30% so, in effect, you need less fertiliser to do the same job. Your urea has also been stabilised with the addition of humates. In fact a urea humate is formed which does not leach or volatilise. It is generally accepted that you normally access just 28 units of N of the 46 units present in urea, so it is not a very efficient form of nitrogen. Efficiency is dramatically improved with the addition of soluble humate granules. However, a key feature of this approach is that you can now access free nitrogen from the atmosphere. Most growers believe that most of the N they use to produce a crop comes from the bag, but this is not the case. In all soils a large proportion of the nitrogen comes from the atmosphere, either through rain or from nitrogen fixation. The aim of the biological approach is to maximise the “free” supply so you can reduce your reliance on petrochemicals. 74,000 tonnes of nitrogen gas hovers above every hectare on the planet and this is where we were supposed to get most of our nitrogen. The problem is that we need to have a recipe in place to access the “free gift” and this is largely misunderstood or ignored.
Dennis: I like the idea of the free stuff! What is that recipe?
Graeme: Well, there are two types of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil. There are the rhizobium organisms that live in the nodules attached to the roots of legumes like clover. There are also free-living nitrogen fixing bacteria that live near the plant roots and deliver nitrogen in exchange for the sugars the plant exudes from it’s roots. Both of these sectors in the microbial workforce require the same package to ensure their viability and performance. They need 5 things to be in place. They need a good calcium to magnesium ratio to open the soil to allow improved oxygen uptake. Free-living nitrogen fixers are highly aerobic so they must have a good oxygen supply for maximum performance. Secondly,they need an available supply of soluble phosphate as phosphate is the basis of ATP, a compound needed for all enzyme reactions. Nitrogen fixation involves an enzyme called nitrogenase, produced by the soil bacteria. Two minerals must be present for the organisms to manufacture nitrogenase. These minerals are iron and molybdenum. A third trace mineral called cobalt is also required for the health and vitality of nitrogen fixing organisms. Your Abron nutrition program included all five parts of this recipe (calcium, phosphate, iron, molybdenum and cobalt) so that is why you could reduce nitrogen from the bag and still achieve good yields.
Dennis: You have mentioned that this biological approach may generate a second income stream in the not too distant future. How does that work?
Graeme: There is a growing recognition that agriculture is a massive contributor of green house gases and at some point we will have to pay the piper. In fact, farmers contribute 25% of the CO2, 60% of the methane and 80% of the nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide has 310 times more effect than carbon dioxide, in terms of thickening the blanket, so this is no small thing. It is obvious to me that farmers will have to pay for their carbon footprint at some point and that carbon tax could be substantial. The good news is that there will be an opportunity to offset that coming tax and to earn extra income in the process. Farmers will be paid carbon credits for building humus because there is simply no other alternative. If we were to cut carbon emissions by 100%, on a global scale, starting tomorrow, then in 200 years time we would be down to the levels of greenhouse gases we had in the atmosphere in 1975 and this is still much too high. We are locked into crash mode and the only sector that can save us is agriculture. The US, for example, produces 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions with just 5% of the world’s population (8 billion of the 30 billion tonnes of CO2 spewed into the atmosphere each year). If the US were to build 1% organic matter in their agricultural soils that would pull 4.5 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere and that is actually more than is needed. Within a short time you will be paid carbon credits for building humus because there is simply no other choice. Farmers need to be financially motivated to save the world and it needs to happen urgently!
Dennis: Can you explain how we can do this?
Graeme: Yes. It’s all about biology, and this understanding is proving a big driver of the global move towards a more sustainable approach. NTS is now in 35 countries. Last year was our record year and this year we are substantially up on that. The smart operators are realising that if biology builds carbon then anything that suppresses biology is obviously counterproductive. Unfortunately, almost everything in conventional agriculture suppresses soil life. The most important creatures on the planet at present are cellulose digesting fungi. These are the creatures that convert crop residues into stable carbon that lasts for 35 years in the soil. Now that we have begun to monitor soil life it has become apparent that these creatures have been devastated during the chemical agriculture experiment over the past 70 or 80 years .Fungicides obviously take out the good with the bad, over-cultivation slices and dices these little guys and puts them on the back foot. Acid fertilisers, like super or DAP, sizzle up their fragile hyphae just like putting a blowtorch to human hair. However recent research suggests that herbicides may turn out to be the worst culprits. These chemicals can actually kill beneficial fungi more effectively than they kill weeds. The art of humus building is about reducing the impact of these negatives, and there are several ways you can soften the blow. It is also about reducing tillage and building and feeding your microbial workforce. This invisible workforce should number billions in a single teaspoon of productive soil, expending the equivalent energy of ten thousand farm workers above ground. It is no different to managing any workforce. If we neglect our workers then we can expect to pay the price of this neglect but if we look after our workers then they will look after us! In the case of carbon-building, we need to innoculate with cellulose digesters to replenish the workforce and then we need to energise and sustain these new conscripts with suitable microbe food. The most powerful known stimulant of beneficial fungi is humic acid so this becomes a bid part of our programs. Kelp is another biological prerequisite as it stimulates both fungi and plant growth.
Dennis: Is there any way we can monitor the state of our soil biology and check how we are progressing down this new path?
Graeme: Yes there is. there are several institutes that offer soil-life counts including The Soil Food web organisation. Most conventionally farmed soils have reasonable levels of soil bacteria but seriously low levels of beneficial fungi, protozoa and earthworms. The also lack beneficial nematodes which account for 80% of your nematode population. Ironically the main natural control mechanism for destructive root eating nematodes are the predatory nematodes that are knocked out by nematicides. It turns out that the first guy back on the scene after methyl bromide is the root knot nematode and now he has no competition. You just selected for the very problem you were trying to solve and this is so common in the fiasco of chemical agriculture. The experiment in chemical agriculture is a sunset industry because it is not sustainable. Every year since the start of this experiment there has been more chemicals used on a global scale and yet every year there has also been an overall increase in pest and disease pressure. This is actually the definition of unsustainability and it cannot continue. We need a better way and that involves working with nature rather than against her. While I am talking definitions – the definition of science in the dictionary refers to “adherence to natural laws and principles”. Much of what we have done in chemical agriculture over the past ten decades is demonstrably anti-science! Note: During our visit to Dennis’s farm, Jacqui and I collected soil samples for subsequent soil life analysis. We found that Dennis’s soil was packed with bacteria but lacked other important members of the soil food web. Total fungi numbers were just 35% of what they should be and mychorrhizal numbers were only 20% of what is required. Protozoa were also down at 35%. Protozoa are hugely important if you are seeking to minimise nitrogen inputs as they are big players in nitrogen recycling. Soil bacteria have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of just 5 to 1 which means that their body consists of 17% nitrogen. A good soil contains 2.5 tonnes of these creatures per hectare so they can conceivably hold the equivalent of about 900 kgs of urea locked up in their bodies and unavailable for plant growth. The trick is to keep these creatures recycling their nitrogen and that involves other members of the soil foodweb. The chief role of protozoa in your soil, for example, is to keep bacteria numbers in check and to recycle nitrogen from bacteria to plants. One protozoa eats 10,000 bacteria each day. A protozoa has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1 so it needs to eat 6 bacteria with a 5 to 1 ratio to satisfy it’s carbon requirements. However it only needs one of the six units of nitrogen it has just absorbed so it exudes the extra 5 units back into the soil in the form of natural ammonium nitrogen for plants to utilise. In this manner your nitrogen is constantly recycled. If you have knocked out your protozoa, then you will be spending more on nitrogen than you need. We teach you simple techniques to regenerate protozoa to improve nitrogen management and reduce associated costs..
Dennis: Are biological inputs simply substituted for chemical inputs at similar costs or are we building a system that will require less inputs over time?
Graeme: That’s a very good question. The whole aim of the biological approach is to reduce your inputs. The ultimate goal is to reach a point where no outside inputs are required. That point is usually reached when you can count 25 earthworms in a single shovelful of soil. Earthworms are amazing creatures. What goes in one end becomes a very different material when it pops out the other end. Earthworms are virtually little fertiliser factories. Their castings have 7 times more phosphorus, 10 times more potassium, 5 times more nitrogen, 3 times more magnesium and 1.5 times more calcium than in the surrounding soil. At one point the QLD DPI conducted research comparing a variety of natural fertilisers. They found earthworm castings to be the most effective. Castings are sold as a fertiliser at at least $100 per tonne. If you have 25 earthworms per shovelful then they are producing 300 tonnes of castings per year for you. That’s $30,000 worth of free fertiliser! You don’t need other off farm inputs at this point but you do still need to feed them and that involves things like putting in green manure crops whenever there is an opportunity.
Dennis: I don’t seem to have very high numbers of earthworms in my soils at the moment. How can I boost their numbers?
Graeme: Well you begin by improving your calcium to magnesium ratio and associated soil structure. Earthworms don’t like compaction as they like to move through friable soils, unimpeded. However, one of the biggest keys to increasing earthworm numbers is to boost the numbers of the creatures in the soil that earthworms like to eat. Earthworms love to dine on protozoa and fungi. The trick to building protozoa numbers is to make a lucerne tea. For some unknown reason protozoa hang out in lucerne hay in large numbers, so we extract them, breed them up with some food and apply them to the paddock. The best way to lift your fungal numbers is to brew up some cellulose digesting fungi whenever you have some crop residues present. The fungi go crazy with all of this food available and then the earthworms arrive for their feast.
Dennis: The biological programs seem to use less phosphorus than I have previously used. How can I be sure that i won’t run short of P?
Graeme: Well you need to understand that conventional acid phosphate fertilisers like DAP, MAP and Super are an incredibly inefficient form of phosphate fertilising. It has been shown that you are getting just 27% of your phosphate investment before the other 83% locks up and becomes part of a massive frozen phosphate reserve in your soil. The CSIRO in Australia have estimated that soils in that country contain 10 billion dollars of locked up phosphate that has been lost in this manner. In biological agriculture we seek to reclaim some of the frozen reserves in your soil with organisms that specialise in phosphate solubilisation. There is a synergy here with other goals. For example, the cellulose digesting fungi we are striving to increase to build carbon, also serve as very potent phosphate solubilisers. They release organic acids which are a like mild form of the industrial acids used to make rock phosphate soluble when manufacturing DAP and Super. We also like to include Soluble Humate Granules with all applications of acid fertilisers, usually involving as little as 5 kgs of these humate granules per hectare. The humates dissolve at the same rate as the DAP and fuse with the phosphate to form a phosphate humate. Now your phosphate cannot lockup and remains plant available for the full season. We also like to combine slower release forms of P like guano with soluble phosphates to ensure full season phosphate availability.
The answers to Dennis’s questions offer a snapshot of the biological approach and will hopefully inspire those seeking more information to attend one of our intensive 4 day certificate courses.
The response of this remarkable farmer following our discussions was “Lets get started then!” and I am hopeful that he will expand the Yates family legacy by continuing to drive the biological revolution in his region.
The initial game plan was to apply chicken manure in conjunction with an innoculum of cellulose digesting organisms and a green manure crop. However a wet winter prevented contractors from getting on the paddocks so the manure will be applied in spring along with some limestone. It is always a good strategy to combine limestone with manure as there is a greatly enhanced release of calcium associated with the biological activity in the limestone. Maize is actually perfectly suited to building carbon as there is an abundance of post harvest organic matter to work with. Next season an innoculum of cellulose digesting fungi will be applied to the residues immediately after harvest to maximize this humus building opportunity. The planting blend for the spring crop will include granulated Sulphate of Potash, MAP, Urea, trace elements and , of course, Soluble Humate Granules to stabilize and magnify the fertilizer while boosting the soil biology.