Managing for Soil Health on an Organic Farm – A Farmer’s Perspective


Today’s webinar coordinator
and moderator is David Lamm. David is the leader of
the National Soil Health and Sustainability team, located
here at the East National Technology Support
Center in Greensboro. And with that, David, I’m
going to turn the webinar over to you so you can introduce
the topic and our presenter. Thank you very
much, Holli, and I want to send out a big
welcome to everybody. And I want to
apologize for my voice. I’m battling a cold,
if you can believe that in the middle of summer. And it’s decided to settle
in my voice box there, so if I sound a
little raspy, it’s just because that’s
just the way it is. I’m really excited
about today’s webinar. It’s the last one
in the soil series. This’ll be the 10th one. And I think we saved
the best one till last. I’ve had an opportunity to hear
Klaus speak as part of the Soil Renaissance Forum that was
held earlier in the summer, about mid-July. He participated along
with Dr. Honeycutt and a few other folks,
and he’ll explain more about that, what that is. Klaus is a farmer from
Penn Yan, New York, and he farms with the
lake, the organic grains, and he’s just a
wealth of knowledge. And I want to give you folks a
head up– this presentation is a lot of pictures,
so don’t miss out. There’s not gonna be a lot of
written language in this one. You’re gonna have to
listen and take notes, because this gentleman has a
lot to offer when he’s talking about organic farming
and building soil. And pay attention, because
this is a rare opportunity. And also, I give Klaus a big
thank you, to start off with. He had a group from Cornell
out to his farm this morning, he’s on the webinar
with us this afternoon. I don’t know when he finds
time to farm the 1400 acre he has there in New York. He must have it figured out. So we got Klaus. I appreciate your time,
and I turn it over to you. I wish I had it
figured out some days. Talking about soil health,
a lot like human health, we don’t think about it
except in the absence of it. And really defining it
can be a problem for us. But I think the NRCS definition
of soil health is a good one. We had a meeting where
we discussed soil health and tried to define
it for several hours, and went around in
circles and then came back to the NRCS one,
which I think really attests to how well
thought out it was. Right now, I’m almost
afraid to quote it because I’ll get
it wrong, but it has to do with the
ability of soils to function, to do what
we want them to do. And I would go a little further
on this definition of soil health and say
that it is creating an environment in our
fields, in our soil, that is suitable for the crop that
we’re trying to grow there. And just for an
example on this, if we were to grow– I’m kind
of muddying the waters, but if we were to want to
grow a tree fruit crop, I would think that some of our
parameters and some our things that we’re looking for
in the soil to be healthy might be different than
what they are in a row crop. But be that as it may, a lot
of the functions in soil health are going to be the same–
the ability to absorb water rapidly; the ability
to hold water so that when there are periods
of excessive we can store it, and then when there are periods
when we’re not getting water, that we can bring
it back; the ability of the soil to resist diseases. Those are all key
pieces of soil health. When I became
interested in it, it was right about when Cornell
was starting their work. And we were noticing that yields
of especially vegetable crops were dropping. And nobody could
quite understand why. We had better fertilizers,
we had better pesticides. But for some reason there
was something pulling back the yields where they
just weren’t performing as well as they had before. And a group was called together. And I really want to
give Cornell credit. It wasn’t just a
pathologist or just somebody who studied weeds. They brought together what’s
known as a program work team, which represented
almost all disciplines that have to do with
agriculture, so that we were looking at the
soil from many aspects. And it’s interesting– back when
modern agricultural research started, [INAUDIBLE]
did his work on minerals from the soil going into plants. And he came up with the theory
of the barrel with the shortest stave limiting
what the yield is. But it’s really a lot more
complicated than that. And when we do a
soil test, we’ve gotten very good at doing
chemical soil tests. But we may not be
identifying what is our yield limiting factor. And yield is probably
the simple one. If we’re really
looking at health, there are other factors. So I’m going to take you
on a thought process. I want everyone to
think about what happens when you abandon
a field, something that’s been in row crops
intensively farmed. What happens the first year? And I would hazard that in
most parts of the country, if it’s been something that
was in corn or soybeans, that the first year
when we abandon it, it is covered with
broad leaf weeds, things like
lambsquarter, ragweed, redroot pigweed,
probably some velvetleaf. The interesting thing about
these weeds, something like a pigweed or an
amaranth can produce close to a million seeds. And when we come
into the second year after a field
that’s been let go, we actually have many orders
of magnitude more seeds laying on top of the same species that
were there the year before. But in the second year
after being abandoned, almost none of this grows. There’s a different
group of species. What has happened here, is
the environment in that soil has changed. And this takes me back around
to a more refined definition of soil health. And that is, a healthy soil
is providing an environment that the species that we’re
growing is best suited in. That way the species
we’re growing ideally should be biologically better
adapted for the environment that we provided it than
any of the other species. Now if we make the connection
back to human health, if we’re in an environment,
a person, where we have the right nutrition,
we have the right temperature, we have what we need, we
would expect to be healthy. And if we come
into an environment where maybe it’s too cold, too
wet, we’re not adequately fed, we would expect to get sick. I really think the analogy
works very well here with soil. When we first started
farming organically, here in Penn Yan, one
of the big advantages that I found in
organic farming, was there were markets for almost
anything we wanted to grow. I had farmed conventionally
for 20 years, and sad to say, quite
often, my profit was entirely in
the subsidy money that I was getting, where
I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it’s not
likely to be profitable. Prices were low, inputs
were fairly high, but we were getting
enough subsidy to make up the difference. I also knew that if
my corn followed, say, clover or alfalfa or
some other legume crop, that it would take less inputs
to produce a good yield, and that I would almost
always make more money. And this created
a tension for me, because the rotation crops
didn’t have a good market. Once we went to
organic farming, we found that we had markets
for almost anything that we could grow. And that made it a lot easier
to create a healthy rotation, especially things–
the obvious things would be like northern
corn rootworm, corn borer– some of our weeds became easier
to handle because of the way we rotated. Also, we could grow
our nitrogen and not need the off-farm inputs. But that wasn’t really
what we were thinking when we made our
switch, that was just something we discovered. When we first made the
change transition to organic, it was entirely
economically motivated. We weren’t making a
good living on our farm, at least we didn’t think we were
making as much as we wanted to. We had kids coming
along, and we wanted to be able to send
them to college and maintain a good
standard of living. One day we saw an ad in the
paper that was offering us, at that time, the astronomical
price of $6 a bushel for wheat, which was roughly
double the conventional price. And I went to our local
experts, and they assured me that organic farming was
something that probably was appropriate for a small
backyard plot or a market gardener. But it was totally impractical
and undoable on the scale that we were talking about it. And I guess that was
all the encouragement I needed to at least try it. But we did all the calculations
of how much yield we could lose and how we were going
to come out of this if the experiment failed. We definitely laid
our plans for, what if we make a
big mistake here? But what we also did was
went to Cornell and study the Mann Library. And when we went there, we were
looking for two major things. We were looking for what
machinery or other things we could substitute for the
herbicides we’d been using, and how we were going to be
able to provide something to substitute for the
fertilizer we’d been using. And I know now that those were
exactly the wrong questions. You can farm
organically that way, but it’s really
farming conventionally with organic inputs and to
sell them is very satisfactory. It’s not a successful
way to farm, it doesn’t produce good
yields, and it certainly doesn’t produce good profits. But what I found
that was unexpected, when I was doing my
search in the library, was a professor he’s kind of
the guru of weeds in Germany. He’s credited with being
one of the first people to do experiments
with herbicides. And in his writings,
there was a concept that kind of turn my
thinking upside down. I’ll share a quote
with everyone. What he wrote was that
every crop should follow its most suitable predecessor,
so that the vigor of the crop alone will check
the growth in weeds. Now that was a bit
of a surprise to me, but it kind of made sense. Another thing that he wrote
was that cultural practices form the basis of
all weed control, while the various
other means should be seen as auxiliary only. Now these were
interesting statements, coming from the guy who was
pioneering using herbicides. And they raised more
questions in my mind than they did answers. But in finding the answers,
I learned some things that made a lot of
sense to me when I thought about them
out in the field. One is a concept back to when
we talked about abandoning the field, and you have the
first year all broadleaves, or annual type weeds
that make a lot of seed, and the second year,
almost none of those weeds, but a different group. And if you waited
a third year, we would start going into
more perennials, goldenrod, some of these abandoned
cropland weeds. And then if we waited
a little longer, we’d start seeing
brambles and woody plants, and then the
beginnings of trees, and we would have a
succession of species. What Dr. [INAUDIBLE]
was writing about was essentially creating
an environment in our field that give us a natural
succession that was providing the right
environment for the crop that we were going to grow. And the concept really
made sense to me from a yield standpoint, too,
because if the environment in the field makes our crop
be the favorite species, it would have advantages
over everything else. If you go back to our
analogy to human health, if we’re in an environment
that’s not favorable to us, we get sick. Well, if the crop’s in
an environment that’s not favorable to it,
it gets quite diseased, you start seeing
insects, you definitely are going to have more
weeds because the crop’s not as vigorous or as competitive. And it really does help
hold with that analogy. In addition to these
things there’s, back to what a crop
needs– and I’m going to skip here
to match the slide. At Cornell
University, after we’d been farming organically
for some time and had very good results– and
I’m fast forwarding here. We were pleasantly surprised
with how quickly we learned how to make the
system work for us. And we started with
a rotation that I was somewhat familiar
with already. And that would be a
winter small grain that was frost seeded
to a legume, which, in our case, the most successful
legume was medium red clover. The next spring that
would be turned under to grow a crop of corn. That corn would be followed by
either soybeans, or dry beans, or some other– or spring
small grain, something that had a lower
nitrogen requirement. And that spring small
grain or soybeans would be followed by a winter
small grain, which would then again be underseeded to
clover, and come back to corn. Now that’s an oversimplified
version of the rotation, because there’s all kinds
of branches and options that we could add to that. But our search
for, what do we do about replacing the fertility–
we had to find manure. Dairy manure will not meet
the needs of a heavy corn crop unless we’re putting on
some really high rates. And if we’re having to
import the manure because we had no animals on
our farm, the freight would become pretty burdensome. So we settled on poultry manure. And we did our first couple of
years just kind of by guess. And I wanted to know how
much we should be using. I wanted to do some research,
or see some research, that would tell us what is the
optimum amount to use. And to do that I wrote
a research proposal and submitted it to an organic
funder who promptly turned it down. They didn’t like it. I had a friend at Cornell
who said, can I use this? And he turned it into another
organization, actually a conventional organization. And they funded
it for five times what I had originally asked for. And we set up a
randomized block where we used GPS to map
out a 20 acre field. And we did a random block
of many different rates using poultry litter. And we did use our
basic rotation. So the nitrogen for the
corn part of the system would be also supplemented
by nitrogen from the legume. And we used, for our
one x-ray, actually what a conventional consultant
would have recommended for a field with that soil test. And we decided to do
zero, half of that. And then we doubled it. And I think we went as high
as six– well four times or whatever. It was a high
multiple above what would have been used under a
normal conventional system. We ran this for five years and
analyzed through the rotation cycle where we got
the best yield. We had used a yield
monitor on a combine. But we didn’t just
look at yield. We also had our weed ecologist
from Cornell, Chuck Mohler, would come out and
analyze the weed growth. We did soil health analysis
from Niel, who’s our extension specialist– came out
and studied what impacts or differences we might
have seen in the soil. We tried to look at it from a
multi-disciplinary approach, everything that we
could learn from this. And what we learned
was quite interesting. From an NP&K standpoint, or
at least for a P&K standpoint, we showed that the
conventional yield response curves were the same
as the organic ones, that when we put
on poultry litter, we could find our top yield at
just about the same place where if we were using other
sources of that phosphorus and potash– which was a really
important thing to learn, because it told us
we could rely on some of these pieces of research
that had been pretty well done and established
from the beginning. We did learn
something surprising. And that was that we were
almost never short of nitrogen. We though nitrogen was
going to be a big challenge. But what the research we did
in that field– and then later, Cornell University
did a systems trial where there was a conversion
between a regular, on a good upstate
New York soil type, from conventional
farming into organic. They followed essentially
what were standard practices on a large number of
successful organic farms. And that research backed
up the same finding, that nitrogen was almost
never a yield limiting factor. Even if we only had a poor
cover crop of medium red clover, we were growing more
than ample nitrogen to make maximum
yield in our crop. And I think that’s
really significant, and it should be pointing out,
not just for organic farmers, but for other
farmers, that where we’re relying on imported
manure for nitrogen, we are probably causing
ourselves some problems. In this trial on our
farm, we saw that yield of weeds never tapped
out, even at six times the rate where we had
the top yield of corn. We were still getting an
increase in the weed pressure. And the way we’re
measuring the weed pressure was going out and
weighing the weed biomass. And I think that was
pretty significant. We’ve also found
the time of year when we put the manure on had
an impact on weed pressure, where if we put the manure
on an actively growing cover crop the season before,
it not only was better for the environment,
but it also give us a lot less weed
pressure than the crop. And from that, I wish more
farmers had paid attention to that, because there are so
many farmers who are applying manure hugely in
excess of where they’re getting maximum benefit from it. This is based on research
that is pretty well documented and was done under the
discipline of university trials. Klaus, can I ask you–
I need to clarify this. So you’re saying that
where you put the manure on at a time and a half to the
acre, you maxed out your yield. But when in excess, all you
did was raise more weeds? Is that basically
what you were saying? That’s exactly right. And I’m glad you brought that
up to strengthen that point, because I really–
we were surprised. And we thought we could push the
fertility and push our yields, but all we did was push
the yields of the weeds. And it was not just the
number of weeds that sprouted. And incidentally, these
weeds were not in the manure. This manure was carefully
heated to make sure that we weren’t importing weeds. But it had a biological effect. It increased the germination
of weed seeds in the soil and also increased their growth. The time of year makes sense,
when we think about it now, where it was going onto an
actively growing cover crop. Whatever it was
in the manure that was stimulating the weeds was
being taken up by the cover crop and then returned slowly
the next year to the crop, where, when we put
it on the spring, it was there to feed the
weeds right off the bat. So I think that’s a really
significant finding. This might look
like an odd picture that I just brought up for
a soil health discussion. But it brings a point in
what we’re plowing down. And I think for a lot of
us, we think soil test, and we think and NP&K
and trace elements. But how often do we
really think about what’s in that green matter that’s
being returned to the soil? And I did these
calculations based on actual tests that
were done on our farm. And this crop that’s
being plowed here was roughly three
tons of dry matter. We were turning in 240 pounds
of N, 30 pounds of P205, and 120 pounds of K2O. Now that was not showing
in the soil test. That was cycling
through the cover crop. And I believe we are not
even scratching the surface with cover crops, what
they can do for us in terms of being a nutrient sink. And this is in the fall and
through the winter, when we’ve got rain and
leaching conditions, these crops are actively growing
and picking up those minerals. They’re adding carbon
to the minerals. And what I think is
underestimated, or under appreciated, is that
these cover crops also provide food for our microbes. You think about this
three tons in the spring, there were an additional
four ton the fall before that were turned under
after a small grain crop. And I still remember the guy
who was running that tractor saying, what are we
going to do this mess? We can’t get rid
of this cover crop. It’s nothing but a
problem, because we’re not going to be able to handle
it with our machinery. When spring came the
ground was virtually bare. And if you look closely, you
can see earthworm castings all over the place. This stuff was
earthworm pasture. And we had, even
with plowing, which I know the plow is supposed
to destroy organic matter and it’s supposed to
destroy earthworms, but we had at least
two orders of magnitude more earthworms than I’ve
ever seen on the farm before. And because of the amount of
food we were putting down. I like to upset both
conventional and organic farmers with some of the
talks I do, where I ask, how many of you
think the chemicals that we’re using are
killing the earthworms? And of course, all
the organic farmers say, yeah that’s what’s doing
it, that’s what’s doing it. And then I ask,
well how many of you think it’s the tillage that’s
killing all the earthworms? Another group of
farmers will be yelling, yeah it’s the tillage
that’s killing earthworms. And I say, you’re both wrong. It’s starvation. Now how well are
your cattle going to grow if they lived on a
diet of old dead crop residue? Now there’s no
protein there, there’s very little protein,
there’s very little energy, there isn’t much in
the way of minerals. How could we claim to
be producing increases in earthworm populations if
we’re starving them to death? This is regardless of what
kind of tillage we’re doing, regardless of what kind
of chemicals we’re doing, if we want to have a
lot of life in the soil, we have to feed it. And I think that’s a
really important factor all the way through. I’ve had the picture of the
plow here for another reason. The plow has been blamed
for a lot of damage, and it’s been responsible
for a lot of damage to soil. I wish the resolution
was a little better here, but you notice we’re
plowing quite shallow. And there’s a little bit
of green sticking up. When I was in high school,
I had a really great teacher who used to say he
used to be bothered as we got bigger
and bigger tractors. And the boys in the coffee shop
loved to talk about how clean they were plowing and how
deep they were plowing and how nice it looked
when they were done. Think about where does
the fence post trot off? Generally in the
top four inches. Why would we want to turn all
of our organic matter down 10 inches deep and,
what’s worse even, flip it and create a layer so
that it’s all buried that deep? It’s in a zone that’s
anaerobic, it’s in a zone where there’s
relatively little activity. It’s also being
placed down so far that it’s not doing us any good. When we plow it back
up a year later, that would tell me
that it’s not gone through an aerobic breakdown. Much more likely, in those
anaerobic conditions, we get biology that
makes methane, makes CO2, makes ethylene. The products of
this organic matter, if it’s turned down deep, are
not things that are desirable. And I really think the
damage that the plow has done to the soil has really
increased tremendously since we’ve gotten big
horsepower tractors and plows that are able
to grow really deep. If you go down to
Lancaster and see where the Amish are
plowing, I didn’t see very many furrows there
that were more than four or five inches deep. And the organic material is
kind of mixed into that zone when they turn, and that’s the
way everybody did it for years. But in recent years
I see a progression, and I’d like to call this the
coffee shop progression, where everybody is showing off how
much black smoke they can blow, and how deep they can plow, and
how cleanly they can flip it. And then the next thing, you
see the plow parked and they’re using a chisel plow because
their yields went down or because their soil
has been damaged. And I think it’s because
we’re making very poor use. First of all, we’re not putting
enough organic matter down. We’re not using cover crops
on anywhere near enough farms. But even when we do,
we’re putting them into the soil in a
way that they’re not giving us a lot of benefit. That’s my little soapbox. Klaus, can I ask a couple–
I had a couple questions come in here. They were wondering
about– you know, you’re talking about
that nutrient content. When is that going
to come available as far as the crop growth of
say, your fallout with corn or the proceeding, or the next? That’s a really good question. The rule of thumb with the
nitrogen is that half of it’ll come available
during the crop year. But that’s only
part of the answer. Of course, that’d
be 120 pounds of N. But there’s also the nitrogen
the root nodules left in the ground, and there’s the
nitrogen from the fall before. And Cornell has done some
really interesting studies on our farm, studying
nitrogen fixation. And we’re finding
legumes are like people. They’re basically lazy and only
work as hard as they have to. So in these systems where
there’s a lot of nitrogen, the legumes really
are fixing less, and we’re actually
recycling some of the same N over and over. And that’s been done by
tagging with a nitrogen isotope and actually following
it through the cycle. But what we’re
finding is that, up to the level where
we got optimum yield, we seem to be in good shape. And the bigger problem
is, if we can’t time the mineralization of
that nitrogen correctly– it’s a little bit like
the cavalry came there after the Indians got done– if
the nitrogen becomes available late, the crop needs it upfront. And then the nitrogen
is made available after the crop
needed it, all it’s going to do is make weeds grow. So that is one of the reasons
that organic farmers rely on tillage more, is because,
whether we realize it or not, is timing the mineralization
of that organic material. I don’t know if I answered
that question completely. No, I think that’s good. And I had another question. Do you think you would achieve
these kind of nutrient cycling benefits if you
would just not plow that under– let that
come across or rolled it, or something like
that, just knocked it down? The question is, could we
do this without plowing? Yes, we definitely could
get the nutrient balance. But I’m not sure–
depending on where you are in the country–
like in the north, it’s quite cool in the
spring– it would come slower. So while we would have the
same amount of nitrogen, there are some environments
where leaving it on top would make it
mineralize more slowly and come at a later point than
where we really wanted it. And I think that’s
why, especially in the northern areas,
no till quite often is accompanied by
some extra nitrogen. But it’s a, it depends answer. Actually all of this
nitrogen would cycle, it just may not cycle
exactly when we want it to. And that’s a place
where maybe we need to be looking
at the species. The nitrogen in
clover is tied up with a fair amount of carbon. We did some experiments
where we used Austrian winter peas, which had a huge
amount of nitrogen. And I know the Rodale Institute
has done some research where they used hairy
vetch and rolled it. And they found that, by
delaying the corn planting dates slightly and then rolling
these legumes that break down a little
faster, they were able to time the mineralization
with the needs of the crop and have no yield drop. So again, this is a
really important question, because it has to do with
not just quantity but also the timing of when
it comes available. Any other questions
in this area? Well no, I think you kind
of summarized those good. But the key is timing, I think
is what I’m hearing from you. Yes. And that kind of
makes sense, Simon, when we learn to use
the sidedress nitrogen. The reason we’re
sidedressing is that we’re timing its application
with the needs of the crop, and we’re also trying
to avoid losses. We’re trying to avoid
having leaching or tie-ups that we sometimes get on cool
ground, which protects water quality but protects
our wallets, too, so that we’re not
buying extra just for what’s going to be lost. One more quick question,
and I’ll let you continue. How long– you talked about
this successional moving from where you were
to where you are now, and then you jumped
into this manure thing. How long do you
think it took you before you started to
reap some of the benefits of this increased soil health? The nutrient
cycling is basically what you’ve been talking about. Yeah, this is a
really good question. It depended on
crop order we used. We found that if we were
trying to move into corn, we lost money for– it took
about five or six years before things
worked if we started with corn as our first
crop, after getting off the synthetic fertilizers. When our first
crop of soybeans– we would actually have a
full crop the first year with soybeans. They’re very efficient feeders. Then we would have a yield
depression in the second year when we followed
them with a grain. And then after we had
the clover plowed down, we would be– the system
wouldn’t be up to speed, but it was up to
speed enough to grow a crop of a heavy nitrogen-using
crop with no yield depression. So in that system it took
us about three years. But if we started
with the wrong crop it could take five or
six years and there would be a lot of red ink
between when you started and when you finally
got it running. So again, this has to do with
order of plants order of crops. And it has to do
with using our heads and using the information
that’s available to us. And a lot of farmers, especially
when we first started, lost a lot of money
trying to grow a heavy nitrogen-using crop
like corn before their land was ready for it. And that creates an
environment that’s really not good for corn, and it makes
for some pretty sick corn. So this picture probably looks
familiar to a lot of people. If we could pan
over to the left, there would be a
whole row of silos. This was the field that
always got the manure. It was our neighbor’s field. He keeps telling me, I wish
you’d quit using that picture and use one of your own fields. But what’s growing in this
field is lambsquarter, pigweed, and velvetleaf. And in this particular case,
they were about six feet tall. The corn and soybeans
were four feet tall. And this was a case of
making an environment where these weeds were better adapted. Even though the soybeans
were doing great, the weeds were doing better. And the reason I mention
the silos is there’s something about these
weeds that kind of gives us some hints as to what’s
happening underground. These are non mycorrhizal weeds. And we’re tying back
to the soil test work. We saw an increase
in weeds when we used more manure than where
our optimum yields came on the crop. We’re way past that
point in this field. And incidentally, this field
had been cultivated fairly well, too. These are just the weeds
that were in the row. What’s interesting
about these weeds is that non mycorrhizal
plants really thrive where phosphorus
levels are high. In fact, very high phosphorus
inhibits mycorrhizae. Most of our crops have
mycorrhizal root systems. And what mycorrhizae
are, is a fungus that’s in the soil that actually
helps the plant excess water, but more importantly,
phosphorus. It becomes, in effect, extension
of the plant root system. And it goes out and explores
a lot more of the soil than the crop root itself would. And, in the process,
feeds the crop, these minerals that
are hard to find. Now the crop, on the other hand,
is producing a lot more energy than what we see,
what we harvest. And some studies– I’ve seen up
to 50% of some plants’ energy production from
photosynthesis is given off in the form of root exudates,
which are very high sugar, high in minerals, high in protein–
very high quality food that the plants are giving
off, and feeding things like the mycorrhizae
and probably millions of other species that grow
around the plants’ roots. If we look at what’s
going on here, the crop is actually farming
microbes around its roots. There’s a symbiosis
going on here. While it’s below ground,
then we don’t see it. We see the effects
of it above ground. And this is one of the
drivers of soil health, is what kind of an ecosystem
do we have underground? So back to this
picture– the crop is not getting its
normal advantage here. In fact, I’ve seen
some research that hinted that these
mycorrhizal fungi, in return for the sugars they
get from the plants, not only help the
plant get phosphorus, but they also inhibit the
growth of other plants that are non mycorrhizal
ones, like the lambsquarter and the pigweed. But when we’ve applied so much
manure and over fertilized to the point where the soil
is hostile to the mycorrhizae, it gives these non
mycorrhizal plants a large biological
advantage over our crop. And at that point,
we can hide that by using an herbicide to kill
the plants that are better adapted and allow
our crop to survive. Or, in the case of an
organic farmer like I was, stand there and wonder, how
are we going to survive this, and how are we going to
control these plants? I don’t know about
the rest of you, I’m sure we’ve all seen Palmer
amaranth that kind of tall. Velvetleaf used to be
the bane of my farm. When we converted
organic at first, velvetleaf, by midsummer,
would be so big that you could hardly
pull out of the ground. In fact, you had
to be pretty rugged and the ground had
to be a little damp to pull out a
velvetleaf by the roots, and they were
commonly 12 feet tall. I noticed something after we
change our farming system. We started cover
cropping every chance we had as part of
our organic system. We added more diversity. We were growing
small grains and not selling it, not
removing the straw but leaving it out there
as a soil amendment. After about five years
of this, the velvetleaf started showing some yellow. And I think– the
picture on the left, you can see on the
foreground that velvetleaf, those leaves aren’t– while
the plant’s doing fine– those leaves aren’t quite 100%. The picture on the
right was taken in a field that had been
where the old barnyard was. And the first two years
I farmed it organically without herbicides,
I just mowed it down. The velvetleaf had taken over. But over time– and this
is using the cover crops and using a more
diverse rotation– the velvetleaf didn’t
get as tall anymore. And then we started
noticing midsummer the leaves turned
yellow, like the ones on the left but more profound. And then after a while
they would turn black and they’d fall off. In the picture on the
right, that velvetleaf is just a hair over
four feet tall. And it died before
the summer was over. It made no viable seeds. All the leaves came off. And we found– we actually
asked one of our friends at Cornell to tell
us what was going on. And he found velvetleaf
and thracnose was the actual cause of death. It’s very closely related
tomato and thracnose. This particular race has
no effect on tomatoes, but it will kill velvetleaf,
Hollihocks, and mallows, I guess none of which I feel
a whole lot of sympathy for. So I thought this was great. This ought to be the
answer to our organic– we can grind this stuff up and
spray the spores on the field. And in my research, I found
that there had been at least one or two attempts at producing
a spray made of this. The problem is, if
you put it on a place, you wouldn’t have repeat sales,
because if the disease took hold the next year, it
would still be there and it would still
kill the crop. The bigger problem
was– and this was what was pointed
out by our friend from Cornell who identified the
disease– was that he wanted to know why it was
killing our velvetleaf. And on other farms where
the velvetleaf seemed to be doing better,
the velvetleaf would show signs of the
disease and grow out of it, kind of like in the
picture on the left, where yeah, it’s got
some sick leaves, but plant overall
is still doing fine. And I think he was asking
the right questions. He said, why does your
velvetleaf die from it? This goes back to the
idea of the environment. The environment in the field,
when we first converted, made velvetleaf the best
adapted species, or at least one of the best adapted species. As the soil changed, the
rotation was different, the inputs were different. The environment in that soil was
changing in some profound ways. We couldn’t always see it,
but we could see the effect. There wasn’t just one
disease in this velvetleaf. What we found out later was that
the early yellowing was caused by a virus called
Abutilon yellows, which was vectored
by whiteflies. We had an interesting
field day on our farm about 15 years ago, where the
purpose was to show people cultivation equipment
and how to use it. But everybody was clustered
around these velvetleaf plants. This was in a severe drought, it
was about 100 degrees outside. And they were covered
with whiteflies, and yet the crop didn’t
have a bug on them. And I think this showed us
that, because the plant was unhealthy, the insects were
moving in and attacking the unhealthy plant. And in the process of sucking
juice out of those plants, they were vectoring in the
virus, the Abutilon yellows. And all those factors together
left that plant so compromised that when the thracnose
came, it killed it. You could bend over and pull
these four foot velvetleaf plants out of the ground. They didn’t really
have that big of roots. And the plant in the
foreground is a lambsquarter. That’s another none
mycorrhizal plant. And it, too, in
that environment, wasn’t doing so well. Somehow over several years,
the environment in that soil changed back to favoring
mycorrhizal plants over the non mycorrhizal plants. And I think that carries
an important lesson for us, that every plant that grows
in the soil changes that soil. And those changes make the
soil the best environment for something else, back to
our succession of species. Every plant seems to have
niches that it wants to fill. I’d be really
curious to understand the biological triggers
that make the plant know. Why don’t spring plants
sprout in the fall? Why don’t fall biennials
sprout in the spring? At least, most of them don’t. There seem to be biological
cues in these plants that either tell them to sprout
now, conditions are right and you can grow, or maybe you
better wait for a better chance to grow coming down the road. If we could understand
those signals it would make farming
a lot easier for us. The reason I use this picture
is the field on the left was just drilled
organic soybeans. They were double cropped, but
there was virtually no weeds there. And we had a couple of years
when it got really late– and your heaviest weed pressure
tends to be the end of May. Generally by early June you
have a little less emergence. When you get to late
June, you really have greatly reduced emergence
of those early spring weeds. And a crop like
soybeans actually gets a competitive advantage
then, just by the time of year. I learned something really
interesting by growing these soybeans. When you plant them
late like that, it’s too late to be coming
back in and planting a winter grain on time. While the soybeans are still
ripe, relatively early, right according to what
their group is, you lose just enough time
in these northern climates that it’s really too late
to be planning wheat. And we did an experiment there. We threw on no till
spelt, wheat triticale, drove through the field–
one time I hired an airplane. And we found there’s a
window– I call it yellowleaf. About the time you see the
first yellowleaf, you can do it. When we tried doing
it earlier than that, it actually was
killed, it was smothered. I think there was too much
shade, too much competition. But what I saw happening was
that if we hit that window just right, the winter grain
would take off and get a really good start. If I waited too long after
that, yeah the winter grain would start, but
it just didn’t seem to get the same
kind of a take off. My guess of what’s
happening is that we’ve had a succession there where
there was a living root system from the soybeans. Again, take this as a guess,
but I think it’s pretty educated guess. And then when we no tilled
by broadcasting the winter grain into this system, where
there was a living rhizosphere, and all these functions were
actively going out in the soil, they were providing the services
to the plant roots of the grain crop that tillage
would have provided if we had waited longer. The good news is, by the time
we combined those soybeans, we already had a four inch tall
well established crop of grain in them. And it’s also a
whole lot cheaper to just throw that seed
on top of the ground than to work the ground up
and use conventional tillage to establish a grain
crop in the fall. And I’m going to digress
here a little bit. Two more thoughts on tillage. I think the reason–
farmers aren’t stupid. The reason the plow has
so much widespread use, especially before they built
the plows bigger and deeper and started doing the
wrong thing with them, was that it worked, that it
did result in higher yields. And I think it was the
timing of the nitrogen, but also it helped
destroy organic matter. Now when you burn
organic matter, you’re making fertility
available to the next crop. And farmers observed
that when you do this, it cycled the nutrients faster
and your next crop grew better. The problem came when
they did it too much and they were extracting
more every year than they were putting back. Remember, a lot of
these systems didn’t have cover crops in
them, and a lot of them didn’t have a lot of animals. So this continual plowing was
like constantly drawing money out of the bank without
putting as much as the interest back in, and you ended up
depleting the organic matter. I think we could go
the opposite extreme, and I’ve seen that in New York. I’ve been asked to consultant
on some fields that have been in hay for 50 years. They’d just been hayed, nobody
had put any fertilizer on them, they just got mowed. And year after year,
these fields got weaker. Some of the organic matters
in those fields were 5% to 8%. And farmers were
asking, well I’ve got so much organic
matter, how come nothing wants to grow here? Well it’s because we had pulled
our phosphorus and potassium and our nitrogen down so far
that the microbes were even starving to the
death in this ground. We had robbed it. That organic matter was
very much like if you had a millionaire starving
to death because he wouldn’t take any money out of
the bank and use it. I think when we’re– we need
to talk about managing organic matter. I think a good goal
is to always put a little more back
than what we burn up, or a little more back
than what we’re using. But there is nothing wrong
with using organic matter. We want to have a
healthy, active soil life. And if we’re going to have
soil life, it has to be fed, it has to eat something. And that something
is organic material. The problem comes is when
we’re consuming more than what we’re using. I also think there’s
quite a lot of research available, especially older
research, that indicates using synthetic nitrogen can
create a very similar situation to what overusing
tillage can cause, that it results in a continuing
decline in organic matter. And I remember talking with
Dr. Rakowski about some of the long term no till trials. And these were trials,
I’m pretty sure, without cover crops, where
they were disappointed not to see organic matter go up. Actually, it went down. It went down slower than
where tillage was used, but it still went down. And I remember him
mentioning that he was going back to the data
from the moral plots, which had, early on, indicated that
the use of synthetic nitrogen without enough organic
material to feed that microbial bloom that
comes when you put on was depleting organic matter. So it’s just some
observations that I’ve got, some speculation. But I really like these– sorry. Well no, I was going to
ask a couple questions when you were done there. And I know you got
some other things. Real quick– related
to that, do you think the timing–
you know, because we did go from plowing in the
spring to plowing in the fall. And as far as nutrient cycling
and all that– comment on that. Oh, that’s important, yes. Thank you for bringing that up. Well fall plowing,
talk about drawing– you know, whenever
we do tillage, it’s like drawing
money out of the bank. But if we’re doing
it in the fall and the crop won’t be
planted till next spring, we’ve had time for that nitrogen
to lay there, mineralize, and be leached away, where it
doesn’t do us any good at all, it’s just damaging the water. So when the plow is used
at the wrong time of year– and I understand some
soils are high in clay and they need to be fall
plowed, quote unquote, because of the structure,
the physical nature of them, we’re getting a big
loss in organic matter with no offsetting benefit. And I think that’s
a major expense. I think we need to look at any
kind of tillage as an expense. It’s an expense in terms of
the fuel that we’re using, but it’s an expense,
and if it’s a withdrawal from the organic matter
bank account that’s in our soil– which, it’s OK
to make a withdrawal if you’re investing it in something
that gives you more back– but if we’re just withdrawing
it and not getting a return from it, it’s
destroying our capital. I don’t know if I
digressed too far there. No, no, it’s good. OK I’m going to talk
about one other experience we had regarding soil health. This was one where soil
health testing paid off for us in a big way. It more than doubled our yields. We were growing
edible dry beans. When we first
converted to organic, it was almost like
printing your own money. We had better yields than
the conventional farmers and we were getting a
sky high price for them. This was before the Chinese were
dumping theirs on the market. And they grew great. The second time we’ve grown–
and all the old farmers said, you need to grow them about once
every seven years or five years at the soonest. So we waited our
minimum amount of time and go back and
plant them again. The next time they didn’t
grow quite as good. Figured, well maybe we did
something wrong this year, or maybe it was the weather. By the third time around
some of these fields, we had heavy root rot, we
had very poor production, we had no resilience when
the weather turned bad. They just fell apart when
we had too much rain. And we just didn’t
know what was going on. Professor George
Abawi at Cornell was studying this problem. And these roots were just
covered with nematodes. A lot of damage,
lot of abrasion, and then Pythium, Rhizoctonia,
Fusarium would move in and literally would
destroy the root systems. George did what I consider
really brilliant research in the greenhouse. He would take a variety of
phaseolus vulgaris, dry beans, that was known to
be very susceptible. And he would take a sample from
dozens and dozens of fields and plant those samples out
in the greenhouse, where he controlled the conditions,
and put these susceptible beans in them and grow them out. And he would grow
them to a point where– I don’t know how
many leaves they had, but it was relatively early. And he would wash the soil
off and do a root reading. And he could predict–
the first thing he used this for,
he could predict very accurately whether it was
a good bet to plant phaseolus which, at that time, edible dry
beans were a big crop in New York, and so were snap beans. They’re both the same species. And he had a very good handle
on whether your field was likely to be profitable,
if that’s what you grew, and whether you’re going to
have root rot, and how much. And he scored it on one to five. But then he did something that
I consider a stroke of genius. He started asking,
what would happen if we had a different crop
preceding the bean crop? What effect would that have on
our disease level in the soil? And he tried all kinds
of different crops. I saw the research once. He must have tested 50
or 60 different crops. And what you would do is
get a root rot reading, and then– plant
the crop on the soil and then get a root rot reading. And he found some species
that you planted in between, even though it wasn’t the
beans, made the root rot reading worse. Some species were neutral, some
give you a small improvement, and some gave a
huge improvement. There were two species
in there in particular that gave huge improvements
in root rot scores. They actually, in
what we know now, they were destroying
the nematodes and the root rots both. Yellow mustard was one– I
know Michigan State’s done a lot of work on
yellow mustard– where just a 60 day
crop, or 45– depending on the time of
year, 45 to 60 days. Short term cover crop
of yellow mustard– when that was turned into
the soil it would– there’s an enzyme in yellow mustard,
there’s a compound in it called glucosinolate, which
is, when you put mustard on your hot dog, that’s
what makes it sharp. But there’s an enzyme
in this same leaf, and this is the story that
Dr. Honeycutt talked about at the Soil Renaissance
press conference. That enzyme makes the
glucosinolate turn into isothiocyanate,
which is a gas. By turning in a crop
of yellow mustard, we were fumigating our fields. It’s actually a biofumigation. Another crop you can do
that with is sorghum. And a lot of farmers
who are onion farmers and were really suffering from
nematode problems near us that were on muck learned
that they could actually afford to give up
one year of cropping, plant a crop of sorghum and turn
it in just for that fumigation effect, because of how it would
clean up the nematode problem and the onions would grow
so much better afterward. But in our case, yellow
mustard was indicated. There was one other cover
crop that really improved root health ratings,
and that was buckwheat. But in our case,
George recommended we try to find a way to grow
yellow mustard before planting dry beans. And the window that we tried
was after a crop of field corn. Now in our area, we have
to use every bit of season we have to get the corn right. And if we have good
corn, it’s really hard to get anything to grow in
it that amounts to anything, because it’s so competitive. But there’s a period when we’re
not using the land very well, and that’s from
about early March until we plant the
dry beans, which can be as much as three months. And yellow mustard is
very frost tolerant, and there are varieties that
are– the culinary varieties that have no hard seed. That means they don’t lay there
and become weeds in the sense that most weeds have some
seeds that come right away, and some that lay there until
the conditions are right, and some of those
are called hard seed. Well yellow mustard
has been bred to not have the hard seeds. And we started broadcasting
about eight pounds per acre of yellow mustard seed
in March into our corn stocks. And the first thing we found was
that the yellow mustard really likes a little more nitrogen. That is one place
where it would pay to put on some chicken
manure or some dairy manure, because the brassicas
are heavy feeders. And that time of
year, when it’s cool, there’s not a lot of fertility. So that’s a point aside. But George also said, when
you’re spreading this, now, leave some strips in
fields or leave half a field, because I want to see
what effect you’re having. So we started growing these
yellow mustard cover crops, which incidentally now, we try
to cover every field of corn with yellow mustard
before the next crop. And he found that if you had a
root rot, whatever the root rot rating was, it improved by one. So on a scale of one to
five, where five is all dead and one is zero disease,
if you read two and grew a crop of yellow mustard,
it would move you to one, or if you were at four, it
would move you to a three. Now that’s a substantial
improvement in root health, just for growing a crop
that we’ve no tilled in. And I love cross-seeding
or spinning crops on. It’s cheapest form
of no till there is, because you don’t have
to buy expensive equipment. But that was a
major change for us. We started seeing our
root health improve. Then we decided to try
to add buckwheat, which had a completely
different mode of action. You know, the yellow
mustard we understand, and so sorghum would
be the same way. But these are crops that
produce the glucosinolate and turns into isothiocyanate
and it fumigates the soil which, incidentally, when
Michigan State studied it– while it’s a fumigant, it’s
seemed to be selective. It seemed to do a lot more
damage to the pathogens than it did to the beneficials,
which is– we don’t know why, but it’s a lot better
job of selecting to kill what you don’t want
and not kill everything. But the buckwheat, we
found, has an organism that grows around its root
system that produces cutinase. Cutinase is an enzyme
that breaks down the cell wall of fungi. And buckwheat was equally
devastating to the root rot organisms that were in the soil. So we brought buckwheat in
after a winter grain harvest. So for instance,
after malting barley, if we had season enough,
we’d grow dry beans. Malting barley also improved–
or barley, as a crop, as long as it wasn’t
underseeded to the legume, would improve the
root rot ratings. But if it was too dry
to grow dry beans, we would plant buckwheat. So our farm, then, we had
in a typical rotation cycle, we have a couple of mustard
and a crop of buckwheat before we came
back to dry beans. And we not only brought
our yields of dry beans back up to what they had
been before we started having the root rot problems,
we actually went beyond there. That’s one of those years
you brag about for probably half your life before you
have another one like. In 2008 we had some dry
beans that yielded well above 4,000 pounds per acre. But we’ve never had
anywhere near the root rot issues or the disease problem
since we changed our rotation to manage that disease. And it just shows us how having
more biodiversity on a farm can make quite a difference. Before I go on to
this next piece, were there any
questions on this? Well yeah, Karl just
got a few more here, and then we’ll kind have to
wrap this up in a few minutes. There’s a question
related to– coming back to the clovers that
came in, did you notice a difference
between varieties within the red
clover, as far as– I mean, 240 pounds of nitrogen is
an awful lot of nitrogen as one being a more of a [INAUDIBLE]
producer than others? We found that any clover that
was– like our medium reds, they’ll make two
or three cuttings. They all seem to
be pretty equal. I think it’s more important
to have medium red clover, or to have a clover that’s
well adapted to where you are than to worry about
one variety or another. I really think we’ve badly
underestimated the nitrogen fixation ability of our legumes. I know I had the
old textbook that said red clover could make
up to 50 pounds of N that could be credited to the crop. And I kind of believed
that for a while, and then I started
doing my homework. If I grow clover, hey, even
if it’s not a great yield, I’m taking– six
pounds of protein contains one pound
of N. And I’ve seldom seen clover that didn’t make
more like 300 or 400 pounds that we could remove in the hay. And I’ve seen alfalfa produce
500 or 600 pounds of N just in the form of what’s
being removed in the hay. I think some of these textbooks
were written by people– that these things get
repeated over and over in, the way I put once,
until some idiot puts it in a textbook without checking. And then it becomes fact. Sometimes you need
to ask questions about some of the things
that get repeated. Yeah. And you mentioned a couple
times this soil health testing. What is it you’re doing? OK, this soil health testing
is an evolving process. And right now any test
which NRCS is running– and that’s more of a way to
imitate what a root would find in a way that more direct
our synthetic fertilizer amendments. But the Cornell
soil health tests are looking for other
yield limiting factors. And quite often, we’ve
done are such a great job with fertilizer and
chemical soil testing, that that’s seldom the yield
limiting factor anymore. So one of the soil
health tests that we have had good results with
is one I just described. They call it the disease
suppressiveness test, which is done in a lab
just by George Abawi. Another one is the water
holding capacity test. There is another
test that is done, and this is all part of this
kind of a battery of tests, just like you test for NP&K,
boron, sulfurs, ink, you test for all these different factors. Aggregate stability–
this is a test where you take a chunk of
soil and you just wash it, and you’re measuring how much
of the soil will break up and how much will stay
in stable aggregates. This is a really good
indicator for soil structure. It’s a good indicator for
water holding capacity, even though we’re
measuring it directly. And then there are tests that
measure the resistance, how hard the soil is, the
resistance of roots. Now, the penetrometer
out in the field is OK, but it has a major
weakness, because that changes with moisture. So in a lab, they’re
taking this soil and bringing it to a
known level of hydration and then doing penetrometer
readings, both for the surface and in the deeper layers. These are all measures
of soil health that directly tie back
to your productivity. And they are ways of identifying
what is your limiting factor, not just for yield, but
also for plant health. And once you’ve identified
what those limiting factors are and measured
it, then you can start working on improving it. Interesting thing is, almost
every soil health measure is improved by
using cover crops, but some cover crops
are better than others, just like I described in
the disease suppressance. OK Karl, we’re going to
have to about wrap this up. I got two more questions. And those folks are
in the Cornell test, if you just Google
Cornell soil health test, they’ve got an
excellent manual online. You can download and
you can read just exactly what Klaus
was talking about, and it does a good job of
explaining what they are and what to look for. And you can also–
it has instructions if you want to try and get
some of your samples tested. And you had mentioned
earlier, your quote, I think that’s the thing
that’s– [INAUDIBLE] prepare with this has stuck with me,
is every crop should follow its most suitable predecessor. Who was that made that quote? Because I got people here
wanting to Google this guy and find that out. Well his name was
Bernard Rademacher, R-A-D-E-M-A-C-H-E-R. And
probably his best paper was translated into English–
this was written in German, but it was translated into
English in a journal called Herbage, H-E-R-B-A-G-E. And I
think it might have been 1940 or ’41, the paper
itself was written ’39. And I remember for years, the
old Kraft and Rainer agronomy book, which shows how old am. But it had all these charts that
had German varieties on them. They had been lifted
from Rademacher’s paper in the weed section, in
the American agronomy book that was used
in the ’50s and ’60s. And I finally found
the original source by looking through
the bibliography. But eOrganic has
this paper translated into English mounted on it. The only problem I’ve
had with eOrganic is it’s not a very
user friendly site, but you should be able to get
the entire paper at eOrganic. OK. Well with that, Karl, I’m
going to have to cut you off, because we’ve run a
little bit past time. And again, I
appreciate your wealth of knowledge and your energy. I don’t know if you’ve
got any closing comments. I might let you go. I know you were going to
make a couple comments there about the ragweeds
and the chickory, but– go ahead, do that,
then we’ll have to sign off. Each one of these
plants is a specialist. Every plant that
grows in the soil fits a certain environment. And it can actually– along
with the soil health tests– understanding which conditions
these weeds are favored by is a soil test itself
and can be used by a manager who’s really sharp. This is the idea of seeing
what you’re looking at. When you look at
these weeds, maybe we should see something
telling us that I’m here because the soil
is such and such. It’s kind of a parting
thought, that maybe we could be learning an awful
lot from nature, just from that concept. Incidentally, this is a picture
of a field of buckwheat. It’s kind of pretty but
it’s smells like a cat box when they’re blooming. Well it sounds like we
need to have you back, sir, for another hour discussion
on that topic, Klaus. And with that, I’m going to
have to cut it got it off. And again, I appreciate your
input and your willingness to participate and
encourage everybody to continue listening. We do have another organic and
soil health webinar in October. I don’t know exactly the date. That would be you folks out
there on our mailing list, make sure you watch that,
or listen and look for that. I believe it’s going to be Dr.
Kristine Nichols, who has just started at the Rodale Institute. We’ll be talking a little
more about the connection between organic
farming practices and improving soil
health at that time. And with that, I’m going to say
thank you for participating, and look forward to visiting
with you in the future. Thanks for having me. Incidentally, that corn
in the background is–

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