In the first segment of this three-part article, we considered the mechanics of changing a dietary habit. We will also look at "food" here, but this time the focus is on soil and plant food.
Many of us are locked into unproductive fertilising "habits", so let’s look at the trigger and reward driving this behaviour. The trigger is our need to pay our bills and support our family and our simple belief that more crop yield is the solution. The reward is enhanced yield, as well as the payment and sense of relief we receive from it. We continue to oversupply N and P, for example, and often succumb to the "moron" (more on) approach, because we have seen that it "works" and therefore more might work better. If we analyse the anatomy of this habit, there are several faulty assumptions involved, including the following:
Profit, in any enterprise, is never determined by the amount of a product that is produced. It is always about what it cost to produce that litre of milk or kilogram of beef.
Total cost analysis involves the evaluation of all inputs and associated outcomes, and when we see it as it really is, it can reveal a very different picture. The urea and palm kernel supplementation might have increased milk production, for example, but at what cost? If we factor in the cost of depressed herd health and declining soil health, it soon becomes obvious that more cows and more milk per hectare does not necessarily mean more profit.
Increased efficiency is as important as increased production, but enhanced sustainability is probably more important than both of these. Sustainability is about whether or not you can continue with your current practices indefinitely and at what cost to your farm, your community and your planet.
Humus, Sustainability and Profit
In some instances, sustainability is directly linked to profitability; this is poignantly true when considering humus.
The National Bank commissioned an extensive study of 800 farms in NSW to find out exactly what determined profitability. They were aware that the "get big or get out" philosophy was driving more requests for loans to buy the neighbour's farm. The bank used established criteria to determine eligibility for those loans, but the percentage of failures continued to grow. It was time to review those criteria and to establish what determined profitability.
To the surprise of everyone involved, the single most important determinant of profitability was not the amount of fertiliser used, the presence of cutting-edge equipment or the farmer’s marketing/accountancy skills. Instead, the profit maker was humus. It was determined that the percentage of organic matter was the single most important factor determining profitability. They even put a price on humus, where every 0.1% organic matter increase was worth a substantial amount per hectare (in terms of productive potential). This finding may have surprised the researchers, but for those of us who understand the equation, it is a graphic example of the intertwining nature of sustainability and profit.
Humus directly impacts water requirements, plant and animal health, nitrogen storage and release and the availability of phosphate. It is also the home base for the soil life that determines crop resilience and mineral delivery. Of course this impressive package of benefits would improve profit! The big question remains: how did we lose the plot, to the point that most of what we do on the farm triggers humus loss rather than humus gain?
Three Simple Changes on the Farm and in the Home
On a return visit to New Zealand recently, I met with a couple who had attended one of my previous courses there. They confided that, upon returning home, they had struggled with the enormous amount of knowledge they had acquired during the 4-day course. In the end, they decided to change just three things on the farm and three things in their home life. They deliberated for a few days determining what those three changes might be and then adopted their choices. They shared the outcome of those changes with me. The financial year had just ended and they had received their economic data back from the accountant. They attributed their 128% increase in profit to the three changes on the farm and noted that there had been a tremendous change in the health and wellbeing of the family since adopting the new strategies in the home. So, what were their simple changes?
Calcium, Humates and Pasture Management on the Farm
The three farm choices were simple. They involved intelligent liming, the inclusion of humic acid with fertilisers and the adoption of a more intelligent grazing plan on their beef/dairy farm.
Calcium is an essential mineral because it governs the intake of other minerals across the cell membrane into the cell – hence the term the “trucker” of all minerals. More importantly, calcium determines how well your soil can breathe. Gas exchange (the intake of oxygen and release of CO2 for photosynthesis) is, perhaps, the most important determinant of farming success. However, calcium is a double-edged sword. If you supply more of this mineral than the clay component of your soil can store, it can be worse than undersupplying. In the case of our successful change-makers, they ensured that they got their calcium right.
Their soil test revealed that they needed some sulfur and magnesium, along with some extra calcium. The secret here involves understanding exactly how much calcium you need, so that the “Goldilocks principle” (getting it “just right”) can be applied. The NTS Soil Therapy™ report can be a big help here. When you understand exactly how many kg of calcium will top up the correct balance for this mineral on your clay colloids, you can deliver Precision Nutrition™, which has a big impact on production. Your Soil Therapy™ report will describe the exact amount of calcium required from the appropriate source. For example, our farmers also needing magnesium and sulfur are advised of the exact amounts of lime (40% calcium), dolomite (20% calcium and 10% magnesium) and gypsum (20% calcium and 15% sulfate sulfur) needed to address all three mineral deficiencies. This level of precision can be so productive. That is why we call it “intelligent liming”.
Humic acid is, arguably, the most important of all agricultural inputs, at this point in time. This material is a viable substitute for the all-important humus that we have decimated in most of our farm soils. Humic acid offers multiple benefits in a concentrated and user-friendly form. In this case, our change-making farmers decided to mix NTS Soluble Humate Granules™ with their dry NPK fertilisers. The purpose of this practice is to stabilise and magnify the fertilisers and, in the process, dramatically increase their efficiency.
When humic acid is combined with DAP, for example, there is a remarkable transformation of this harsh, acidic, unstable, source of nitrogen and phosphate. Instead of losing three quarters of your applied phosphate to the frozen reserve in your soil, you deliver phosphate throughout the season. Instead of sizzling the precious mycorrhizal fungal component of your soil with phosphoric acid, you buffer this damage to soil organisms and the plant roots that support them. The ammonium nitrogen from the DAP becomes a stable ammonium humate, which is less prone to conversion to unstable nitrate nitrogen. It is such a simple and inexpensive strategy with such profound results.
When NTS Soluble Humate Granules™ (or the DIY Liquid Humic Acid you can produce from them) is combined with urea, you rapidly create a urea humate. This new complex cannot convert to nitrates, which compromise the plant and reduce resilience. It cannot burn plant roots and their microbe residents, and the nitrogen uptake will be magnified by the cell sensitisation function of humic acid. Cell sensitisation is a highly-researched phenomenon whereby humic acid sponsors increased permeability of the cell membrane, to allow the plant to uptake up to 34% more nutrition (nitrogen, in this case).
In Part 3 of this article we will look at the third farm strategy employed by our intrepid farmers, as well as the three changes they adopted in the home.
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