By Mary Howell
One hundred twenty-five people from seven countries and seventeen states gathered in Emporia for the two day workshop focusing on soil health. Attendees were treated to two of the leading authorities on soil health and cover crops, Dr. Christine Jones, Australian Soil Scientist, and Gabe Brown, North Dakota Farmer/Rancher. It was an amazing two days of educational opportunity with presentations and dialogue among the participants.
Dr. Christine Jones is an internationally renowned and highly respected groundcover and soils ecologist with a PhD in Soil Biochemistry. She teaches regenerative land management practices that enhance biodiversity, increase biological activity, sequester carbon, activate soil nutrient cycles, restore water balance, improve productivity and create new topsoil. Christine stresses that. “Soil is the foundation for everything. Human lives depend on getting this right.”
Gabe Brown, Farmer/Rancher near Bismarck, North Dakota, “Believes that healthy soil leads to clean air, clean water, healthy plants, animals and people.” Gabe, Shelly, and Paul Brown, own and operate a diversified 5,000 acre farm and ranch focusing on regeneration of natural resources. By farming and ranching in nature’s image, they holistically integrate their grazing and no-till cropping systems, including a wide variety of cash crops, multi-species cover crops along with all natural grass finished beef and lamb, pastured laying hens, broilers and swine. This diversity and integration has regenerated the natural resources on the ranch without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.
Lessons to take home:
- A permanent cover of perennial plants increases photosynthesis, provides carbon for the soil, lowers soil temperatures, inhibits weeds, improves soil aggregate stability and porosity, reduces erosion, improves water infiltration, slows evaporation, increases microbial activity, nutrient cycling and promotes good plant growth.
- Mycorrhizal fungi also improve aggregate stability, enhance soil structure, build stable soil carbon, improve plant water use efficiency and increase the efficiency of utilization of important nutrients.
- The importance of microbes in the soil has been overlooked. Conventionally managed crop and pasture lands where loss of diverse perennial groundcover and/or intensive use of agrochemicals, have dramatically reduced the number and diversity of soil flora and fauna, including beneficial microbes such as mycorrhizal fungi.
- All groups of mycorrhizal fungi require a living host. They have mechanisms enabling them to survive while host plants are dormant but cannot survive if host plants are removed. One tip enters a plant root and the other moves through the soil.
- It is a symbiotic relationship…Plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi can grow 10-20% faster than non-colonized plants. Mycorrhizal hyphae have a system that allows dissolved organic carbon from the host plant and nutrients from the soil to move simultaneously in opposite directions. The mycorrhizal hyphae are more efficient than the roots and root hairs.
- Land management: Factors negatively impacting on mycorrhizae include lack of continuous groundcover, single species crops and pastures (monoculture) and application of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. Tillage and chemical use have harmful effects. Biology friendly farming practices based on living plant cover throughout the year (cover cropping or pasture cropping) and the use of bio-fertilizers, enhance mycorrhizal abundance and diversity and are more beneficial for soil health. Soil can be built through grazing and the benefits of soil and carbon sequestration.
- Soil aggregates improve water infiltration. Farmers can promote infiltration with diverse cropping systems that promote soil health. Improved biodiversity leads to improved nutrient cycling, that improves soil fertility, decreases dependency on purchased inputs, less weed and insect pressure leads to less chemicals. Healthy plant systems have fewer problem weeds and insect problems. Farmers often create a system that requires more chemical and spray dependence.
- Mycorrhizae and water: It is well known that mycorrhizal fungi access and transport nutrients and water in exchange for the carbon from the host plant.
- Perennial grasses and mycorrhizae: More mycorrhizal hyphae are in healthy perennial grasslands than in any other plant community. These networks connect plants with each other, enabling exchange of nutrients and water. Mixed plant combinations grow better than monocultures. The permanent root system increases aggregate stability, porosity, improves soil water holding capacity, reduces erosion and enhances nutrient availability in soils.
- Soil benefits from the presence of living plants year-round because the photosynthesis helps sequester soil carbon, rather than the dead plant tissue residue in the soil.
- Plant Diversity for Insects: Monocultures contain 25% of the insects found in a native prairie. For every bad insect, there are 1,700 good insects. They all have a purpose that serves some other insect, bird, plant, animal, higher biological function. Farmers and ranchers should be their own scouts for pests to determine the threshold of what they are finding. In any field or pasture there are predatory insects that feed on the damaging ones. Random spraying, without responsible evaluation and determination as to the severity of a harmful insect problem, results in the elimination of all of the beneficial insects as well. Farmers should strive to make educated decisions in determining the need for and the use of selected chemicals.