I suggest to all growers that they invest a little more when soil testing, and check their total phosphorus levels. If you have a history of regular phosphate fertilising, this test will typically reveal huge reserves of phosphate in your soils. However this bank account is in locked-up and insoluble forms. The question then becomes, “how do I unlock my frozen reserves to reduce my requirement for applied P?”.
This will become increasingly important, as the era of peak phosphorus arrives. When the majority of experts agree that a non-renewable resource is half gone, that resource has peaked. In the history of economics there are no exceptions. When a resource has peaked, prices rise, and continue to rise throughout the second half of the extraction process. Phosphorus has almost peaked, and many countries are now banning exports in recognition of this issue. Our response to this challenge should involve a combination of stabilising the highly unstable P inputs, while releasing some of our huge reserves. Most of us have enough locked up P to service our requirements for many years to come. Here are some key strategies to trickle feed P from your frozen resource.
Become a Cover Lover
Here, I am not suggesting that you spend spare time in the tractor cab drooling over the implants and puffed up perfection of the magazine cover girls. I am, of course, referring to the phenomenon called cocktail cover crops. At NTS, we are now more likely to receive emailed photos of a farmer’s current cover crop than the cash crop. That’s because the grower is excited about the profound soil improvements that will be seen following the digestion of that cocktail cover crop. I guess this might be the time to describe the dynamics of this new form of fertility boosting.
A cocktail cover crop involves the inclusion of five plant families in a seed blend, and preferably, involves several species from each family. The gifted Brazilian soil scientist, Dr Ademir Caligari, originally shared this secret with a group of humus-seeking US farmers calling themselves “The Carbon Cowboys”. These trail blazers paddock-tested the concept and then shared their successes on YouTube.
The five families are cereals, grasses, brassicas, legumes and chenopods. Subsequent USDA research has revealed the reasons for the remarkable soil building capacity of this combination. When, and only when, all five species are combined in the seed blend, a remarkable phenomenon occurs. The plant roots begin messaging each other, and then begin a joint outpouring of substances called phenolic compounds. These are the same compounds for which we drink green tea. Just as our cells respond so positively to these powerful antioxidants, the root zone responds similarly. This biochemical gift sparks a flurry of microbial activity. Essentially, the soil-life goes into hyperdrive and the multiple benefits of cover cropping manifest much more rapidly.
Researchers have waxed lyrical about the observed conversion of inhospitable clay and gravel into a much more fertile medium, and growers are even more excited. One of my Canadian farmers reports, “The penetrometer, that could barely be pressed 2 inches into a tight, closed soil, could now be plunged to the hilt with ease”. Dr Luke Baker, head scientist at the leading US soil testing facility, Brookside Laboratories, described a trial on their research farm: “A spade could not be driven into the soil prior to this cocktail blend, but the aftermath was like pushing a warm knife into butter”.
We are currently losing 3 to 5 tonnes of topsoil for every person on the planet every year and, at that rate, in just 60 years, there will be zero remaining top soil. At that point, there are no remaining humans, because we do not exist without the most precious commodity of them all, the soil that feeds us. Topsoil loss is increasing as rain storms become more intense. The concept of chemical fallow is so pitifully anti-science that it makes me want to scream in frustration. Soil should always be covered. The plants feed the soil-life, that creates the carbon glue, that holds the soil together. At some point soon, bare soil will be illegal.
So, if you recognise that soil should always be protected and supported with a cover, why not make that cover a multi-species blend with multi-leveled benefits.
One of those benefits relates to increased access to our phosphate reserves. The legume component of our cocktail blend will release acidic exudates that can break the bond between locked up calcium and phosphate, and increase uptake of both of these key minerals (this duo are the most important minerals in photosynthesis).
A second benefit is linked to the diverse stimulation of Phosphate Solubilising Bacteria (PSB), associated with the range of root exudates pouring from the five families. These bacteria will also contribute to a constant trickle feed of phosphate that will sustain your crop.
The Cow as a Fertility Tool
Rudolph Steiner argued that a farm is not a farm without cattle, and I suspect he was correct. My recent visit to India revealed remarkably productive worm farms fueled by cow manure, conventional compost piles charged with the same, and multiple fermentations, involving cow urine, as a key component. In fact, foliars of fermented cow urine were a key component of the success of an impressive, organic farmer I visited in Rajasthan. His farm was a genuine showpiece of the power and potential of regenerative principles. In fact, the day I arrived in this State, Mr Hukam Chand Patidar, received the Padma Shri award, the Indian equivalent of our Australian of the Year award.
During my visit to his farm, he also shared his findings related to seed treatment with bovine amniotic fluid, collected (somehow) during the birth process. This rich, yellow fluid delivers much greater germination and a significant kickstart for seedlings and this microbe dense, biochemical charged soup has a long shelf-life.
When you also factor in the humus-building potential of pasture cropping with cell grazing, I am wondering why my own two farms remain cowless. That will soon change!
Brewing Your Own Microbes
Now, the above digression may seem barely relevant (as is often the case with my strange, roving approach) but the spurious link relates to what I believe is another essential (besides the cow) in the Nutrition Farming armory.
I am convinced that all of us need a microbe brewer. We all need the ability to create our own, cost-effective, living, liquid fertilisers.
It needn’t be a big expense, but it will prove an invaluable addition to your problem solving tools. You can then recharge your soil life for a paltry sum. If you toss in some missing minerals before application, the associated MEND (Microbe Enhanced Nutrient Delivery) response will provide an additional reward.
This DIY brewing station can be a game changer on the farm. This simple technology allows easy creation of your own microbial inocula. For example, you may choose to emulate some of the most successful regenerative farmers across the globe and make a compost tea, to boost microbial diversity. Here’s how you might do it: simply add 1 kg of a good compost (e.g., Life Force® Carbon™) per 100 litres of water, add 1 litre of special microbe food (LMF™), and multiply the biology by bubbling the mixture for 24 hours.
It may not even require 24 hours. Here is a wonderful tip from a dynamic, young Indian farmer. Sachin Omar Patil is an engineer who decided to return to farming. He has embraced the Nutrition Farming approach in no uncertain terms and he has enjoyed great success growing table grapes through the informed management of minerals, microbes and humus. He is now sharing some of his innovative strategies, including a great new way to monitor your microbe multiplication and maximise brewing efficiency. Sachin has found that you can weigh a litre of your starting mix and, after 12 hours, you can begin re-checking the specific gravity (you are monitoring the increasing weight linked to the burgeoning microbial life). When the original weight has increased by 80 grams per litre, the job is done.
Microbial inoculums are a wonderfully cost-effective strategy to release your P reserves. Here are some options;
Fungal dominated compost teas – all beneficial fungi release acids that can gradually prise apart the bond between calcium and phosphorus, and counter the Siamese conjoining of iron and phosphate, in red soils. It is typically difficult to achieve a fungal domination when brewing, because bacteria are much more active. They commandeer the space and resources, as the fungi become secondary citizens. The key is to slow down the bacteria, and this is best achieved with 1 litre per 100 litres of a unique NTS creation called Dominate-F™. Then you will have an end product jam-packed with phosphate solubilising fungi. When you apply it to the soil, you can send this team off to work with a ‘lunchbox’ through the inclusion of 10 litres per hectare of DIY Liquid Humic Acid, the favorite food of fungi.
Click here to view our DIY Liquid Humic Acid recipe.
Bringing the bacteria on board – there is a second strategy for P solubilising, via DIY microbial brews. Here we involve phosphate solubilising bacteria (PSB). Again, we begin with 1 kg of Life Force® Carbon™ and 1 litre of microbe food (LMF™) per 100 litres. This time we also add 1 kg of guano powder per 100 litres to the brew at the outset. This provides a food that is specific to phosphate solubilisers and it also introduces some new PSB to the mix. Guano is notoriously populated with these specialists (making it very difficult to stabilise liquid, micronised guano). In this manner, you select for an end product bubbling with PSB and brimming with associated potential to unlock some of your P reserves.
Using Trichoderma as a stubble digester – Trichoderma is a multi-function wonder. Not only does it attack and destroy over 30 plant pathogens, it also creates humus from crop residues (cellulose digestion), boosts root growth and enhances plant immunity. However, there is another major P-based benefit associated with the addition of these organisms. When Trichoderma sp are applied to crop stubble, to speed digestion and humus conversion, you have essentially introduced a new workforce to your soil. The new recruits are supplied with a huge feed reserve (crop residues), within which the new workforce can thrive and multiply. Your soil is now brimming with Trichoderma, which will also solubilise locked-up phosphorus. This is the reason for so many reports of substantial yield increases in the season following a stubble digestion program. You are, in effect, supplementing your subsequent crop with a percentage of your frozen P reserve.
Enlisting Mycorrhizal fungi – there are other microbial inocula proven to release phosphorus. Nutri-Life Platform®, for example, is used as a seed or seedling treatment to inoculate the crop with mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and other beneficial microbes. AMF is famous for its prowess as a living root extension, to seek out immobile phosphorus and to deliver that reluctant energiser to the host plant.
Phosphate is the energy maestro that drives photosynthesis, plant immunity and flavour. However, the brilliance of the phosphorus torch can be short lived. This triple charged anion is drawn to cations like a moth to the flame. Water soluble phosphorus rapidly forms insoluble compounds and we lose 3/4 of our fertiliser investment within 6 weeks. Ten billion dollars worth of insoluble phosphate lies locked within our farming soils.
Hopefully you are now better equipped to stabilise this most unstable of minerals, to choose the right form for your situation and to release some of your frozen reserves.