Discontinuing all pesticide applications at once

The most intriguing element of the interview with Michael McNeill was the suggestion that you should stop all pesticide applications all at one shot. I know it can be done because this was the approach we took on our farm years ago, but I have been hesitant to recommend that leap to others.

Our approach in our consulting work has been that we have to earn the right to discontinue pesticide applications by producing such a healthy crop, it becomes resistant to possible pests, and you no longer need the pesticides. Of course, achieving that outcome is made much more difficult from the continued pesticide applications.

We also have slightly different contexts. We are working with many high-value crops, with more intense pesticide applications, where we don’t have the luxury of making any mistakes. Of course, broadacre producers would say they don’t have the luxury of making any mistakes either.

In practical application in the field, I am comfortable making recommendations to discontinue the use of fungicides and insecticides when we have sap analysis reports, and we can observe the nutritional profile of the crop is not conducive to infection.

In any case, who can argue with success?

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: Michael, what is the one action that you would advise all growers to take right now that could make the biggest difference in their operations?

Michael: Stop poisoning the soil.

John: I guess that’s easy!

Michael: It’s real simple—just stop.

John: That sounds simple. It sounds easy to do—but how? How do you manage that?

Michael: It is a challenge, if you’ve spent most of your life doing things one way. Stopping doing something is not necessarily easy. But that’s the one action growers need to take to be successful.

John: Are there transition steps that can be taken to move away from that? What are what are some of your growers who have moved away from using herbicides doing?

Michael: I have seen a full array of actions—from taking baby steps to jumping off the cliff—100 percent stop. And I have seen growers—from the smaller, 300- to 400-acre growers to the 10,000- to 15,000-acre growers—step off the cliff. And it’s worked really well for them. I was really concerned about some of the larger growers, but I found that they had the management ability and the resources to make it happen. And once they understood what they were doing and why they were doing it, they were very successful.

And I think that’s something that most people don’t believe. I get that thrown in my face almost every day. “I can’t do that—I have too big an operation.” And I really enjoy throwing it back—”Well I know somebody who has.” Those successful large growers have not necessarily added more hired men or anything. The one thing that they have added—if they’ve made a mistake or a failure—they’ve had to employ a large number of people for a short period of time to hand-weed a field. If they made a mistake, that’s the only fix there is.

John: I’m struggling with this a little bit myself as well. So, when you use the words “stepping off a cliff,” are you talking about eliminating 100 percent of all herbicide applications right out of the gate? What does that mean, exactly?

Michael: All pesticide applications.

John: Aren’t you going to lose your crop to potential disease and insect pests when you do that?

Michael: When you do that, you’d better have read that book that I just suggested (Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease – Datnoff, Elmer, Huber )—so that you understand that you need to have the right micronutrient balance to keep that plant healthy enough to protect itself. And you can do that through starter fertilizers, foliar feedings—multiple foliar feedings—you can pull it off.

John: What are some of the failures of growers who have tried to do this, and what has been their degree of success?

Michael: By and large, I have had all successes. I’m trying to think of a failure, but I really can’t think of any. I make sure they really understand and know what they’re doing when they do it. I’ve had a few where they missed a field or two, timing-wise—a rain caught them and they didn’t get the weeds taken care of when they should have. But they were able to get it cleaned up—to the point where it did not suppress yield.

John: Wow. How do their yields compare?

Michael: I think that their yields have been going up. That’s what’s been somewhat shocking. I want to be sure it’s attributed to that—not just necessarily a good growing season. Because we’ve had some good growing seasons recently. But their yields have continued to climb quite rapidly. They’ve moved to a different yield plateau.

John: So you’re saying that their yields are actually higher now than they were when they were using herbicides and pesticides regularly?

Michael: Yes.

John: Well, that’s exciting, because those are the same types of things that we’ve observed in the fruit- and vegetable-production world. And those are really the types of regenerative systems that we seek to create and to establish, and I absolutely agree with you that those are possible.

From a management perspective, the one piece we often do a bit differently on fruit and vegetable crops we work on is that we don’t usually advise people to “step off the cliff,” to borrow your terminology. Rather, we advise growers to manage nutrition and to regenerate soil health to a higher plateau of performance—to the point where growers earn the right to eliminate pesticides. Then, all of a sudden, we don’t have problems with powdery mildew anymore. We don’t have problems with spider mites anymore. We don’t have problems with leafhoppers anymore. When we get to that much higher plateau, and we no longer have the problems, then we start cutting and eliminating pesticide applications.

It seems a bit scary to me—when you’re managing a crop that is really valuable—to suggest eliminating all pesticide applications immediately. But obviously, you’ve been successful in doing so.

Michael: Yes, it’s worked. And it was really scary when I first started doing that. But I’ve learned the few things that you have to be sure to accomplish: getting the soil as healthy as you can, and helping the plants be as healthy as you can. And that’s pretty hard to do when stepping off the cliff. But it can be done.

2020-06-08T11:49:26-05:00May 29th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

Developing disease suppressive soil

Diseases and insects only become a problem when plants are unhealthy, lacking nutritional integrity and microbiome integrity. The tools of nutrition management and microbiome management are so effective, they have been and are used as management protocols for bio warfare weapons mitigation.

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: Michael, we’ve been circling around this topic of soil health and the impacts of tillage, herbicides, animal manures, cover crops, and so forth. At the beginning, you mentioned that there’s a correlation between soil health and the diseases that are present. You mentioned some work you were doing in Maryland—studying diseases as a weapon. What did you learn from that experience? And how does all of that tie into what we’re talking about?

Michael: Let’s say you want to use a fungal disease as a weapon—that you can get this disease introduced into the soil. Not only does it kill a crop this year—it’ll continue to kill it into future years. So hey, that’s a pretty good weapon—you shut down a people’s food supply. They have a problem.

Well, if you have good pseudomonas bacteria in the soil, they act as a policeman in the soil, if you will, and they’ll take out the pathogenic fungi that can arise. But if you use products like glyphosate—that’s an antibiotic type of product—you’re going to kill all the pseudomonas, and then you have no protection. And it’s very easy to get a huge population of fusarium going in the soil, which probably is a pathogenic fusarium—or pythium or phytophthora. You’ve lost the natural balance. If you have that balance, though, the pathogenic fungi are not going to do much to you. Your good bacteria will clean it right up.

John: So you can actually have a disease-suppressive soil where you don’t have challenges with those pathogenic fungi. I think I also heard you mention that you were working on developing solutions to those diseases as weapons. What were the types of solutions that you were working on?

Michael: There are all kinds of approaches. If you need a fast cure, of course you’ve got to look at chemistry and the fungicides and that sort of thing. But what you find is that if you get the soil contaminated, how do you fix it? Because if you put anything on it, you’re going to kill everything in the soil. Using a soil sterilizer is not necessarily a great idea. But there is microbial life in the soil that will hold everything in balance. And if you have the right nutrition available, everything will take care of itself.

I’ll use you as an analogy, John. If your nutrition gets pretty poor, you’re going to get pretty run down, and you’re going to be very susceptible to all kinds of diseases. Would you agree?

John: Oh, I think that’s just the story of the people who are trying to sell me supplements. (Sarcasm, I take many supplements, and believe they are important.)

Michael: That’s funny—but when that occurs, you can take this supplement or this drug to prevent the disease, but you’re still improperly nourished. You’re going to get another disease, and then you’re going to get another disease. But if you get your nutrition back and properly balanced, and everything is at the correct level, your immune system starts to function properly. A good share of your immune system is in your digestive tract—there are a lot of microbes working for you.

And the soil is no different. You get those microbes working for you, you’re going to stay healthy. The soil is going to stay healthy, and so are the plants.

John: Are you saying that when you manage the nutritional balance of the soil and the microbial population of the soil, that it’s possible to grow crops that don’t have disease?

Michael: Yes. When a plant is perfectly healthy, it’s very hard to get a disease to invade it, and an insect will not even stop to look at it. Why is that? It’s because an unhealthy plant cannot convert the sugars it’s produced into complex sugars—starches and lignin—which insects and diseases can’t use. They can use simple sugars and the nitrate nitrogen in the plant. The nitrate nitrogen is taken up by the plant, and it’s immediately converted into amino acids and proteins in a healthy plant. An unhealthy plant—a plant that does not have the right mineral balance to make all those processes and cycles work—will have a pretty heavy load of nitrate in it—a fantastic food for the insect. They can detect that, and they will land on that plant and feed on it. Disease and insects are Mother Nature’s garbage collectors—getting rid of the bad stuff, the weak plants.

Eliminating the need for fertilizers with a larger root zone

A common theme from many pioneers in the regenerative ag space is that you can develop soil biology to the point where you can eliminate fertilizer applications and maintain or even increase yields. Here is Michael McNeill’s perspective on the possibilities.

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: We’ve been talking about a number of different things that you seem to have a very different framework on. What are some things you believe to be true that many other people don’t believe to be true?

Michael: I believe that the soil can grow an extremely healthy, high-yielding plant with minimal additions of inputs. There are plenty of minerals in the soil if you treat it properly. I think most people would disagree with me on that. They have “proven” that you have to put on fertilizers to get good yields.

John: Wow.

Michael: I’m going to stick with that, because I’ve proven it to myself—that you can do that.

John: So you’re saying that you can actually grow healthy, high-yielding crops without adding fertilizers?

Michael: Yes.

John: How do you do that? How does that work?

Michael: That’s a complex question with a very complex answer. But the key is creating healthy soil that allows plant roots to go deep into the soil, to extract the minerals they need. There’s a vast sea of minerals that are available. If you’re starting to see suppression of crop yield, and then you add fertilizer, and the yield comes back—that’s because you’re only using the top few inches of the soil. The roots are not healthy enough to penetrate deeper—to actually mine the minerals that are there. Our soil is nothing but minerals.

John: This is something that I’ve talked about as well. And the question that I often get is, “Aren’t you going to deplete the soil of minerals if you’re not adding fertilizers?”

Michael: Well, my quick reply to that is, “Try and take all the salt out of the ocean.” You can deplete minerals in a rooting zone—I’ll grant you that. But what you need to do is expand your ability to search in a bigger rooting zone. And you need to add mycorrhizae into that equation, because you want a really big rooting zone. Let the mycorrhizae work for you.

Which does the most damage, tillage, herbicide, or fertilizer?

When growers discuss the damage to soil biology from herbicide applications, and possible alternatives, one of the first questions/justifications is: “Doesn’t tillage harm the soil more than herbicide applications?” Michael McNeill believes applied products often have a bigger negative contribution than tillage.

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: You’ve iterated several times that you have to stop doing what inflicted the damage in the first place. What I heard you saying was that it’s really the herbicides and fungicides and the insecticide applications that are causing this degradation of soil health. And I heard you mentioned that these herbicides and these various pesticides that people are applying are actually chelation agents.

Why do you believe that these products are the causal agent for the suppression of soil health? Couldn’t it also be the extensive tillage that we had for a number of decades and some of these other contributing factors?

Michael: Well, I have some farms that I feel are way over-tilled. They’re organic farmers. They really do till excessively, in my mind. But it doesn’t seem to be bothering the soil at all. It isn’t quite as good as I’d like to see it, but as long as they’re keeping their organic matter up, preventing erosion, using cover crops, and that sort of thing, the tillage in itself doesn’t seem to be doing as much damage as I originally thought it would.

Now, having said that, you have to be careful which tillage tools you use. A disc is not a very good tillage tool to be using—it causes compaction, it fractures the soil structure much worse than a tined implement that you could pull through—whether that be a v-ripper or a narrow-pointed field cultivator. These kinds of things do not seem to do the structural damage that I see with things like the disc, or even like a moldboard plow or a field cultivator with sweeps on it.

John: In essence, you’re saying that tillage doesn’t have the damaging effects on soil health that the herbicides do, from your perspective.

Michael: It’s not as bad as the herbicides, not as bad as anhydrous ammonia, and not as bad as the high-salt fertilizers. They tend to be more of an issue. And when you put them all together, it overwhelms the soil-life system.

John: I understand the impact of anhydrous ammonia and salt fertilizers—both of those are very oxidizing and can have the potential to produce a lot of damage to the soil’s microbial community. But I don’t understand how herbicides would have that same effect. You mentioned herbicides being chelating agents. From your perspective, how is it that herbicides and these various pesticides have such a damaging effect on soil health?

Michael: We have not paid a lot of attention to micronutrients in the soil. Micronutrients are extremely important to plant growth. And they are readily and easily chelated by the pesticides that we use. And once you tie them up, you start shutting down significant pathways. That’s where my physiology training and background came into play—when I started seeing a lot of these physiological processes being shut down.

An example people are probably familiar with is that if you chelate manganese and tie it up, you shut down the shikimate pathway. When you shut that down, diseases can move in very quickly, because that’s sort of the plant’s immune system, if you will. If you shut that down, you have to buy fungicides. You put on the fungicides to protect your plant from the disease that’s invaded, and then you start killing more of the fungal life in the soil. And it’s a vicious, vicious cycle that you’ve set up.

When micronutrient levels in tissue analysis don’t correlate with field observation

My frustration with tissue analysis a decade ago that lead to our use of sap analysis was that tissue analysis results did not correlate to disease and insect pressure, which the literature indicated should be possible. Tissue analysis also did not correlate with field observation of deficiency symptoms. Michael McNeill discusses how accumulated pesticides residues in the soil profile can chelate micronutrients, and continue to hold them in chelated form even after they have been absorbed by the plant. The chelation constants of many pesticides are much stronger than naturally occuring chelation agents like amino acids and organic acids.

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: Michael, what is something that you’ve puzzled over for a really long time? What’s really caught your attention in the agriculture space that you’ve been working on?

Michael: Well, something that I’ve finally figured out, I think, was the impact of the lack of availability of micronutrients in our crops. I was doing tissue testing, for example, and I had adequate copper and iron and manganese and magnesium and calcium—everything looked good. What I didn’t realize was that a lot of those minerals were chelated. They were tied up into a form that the plant could not use—yet they showed up on a chemistry test when we tested the tissue. And when I finally figured that out, then everything started to gel for me.

John: I think what you’re saying is that these various minerals and trace minerals were being chelated inside the plant tissue by the herbicides and fungicides that growers were applying.

Michael: Yes. When I tested the plant, it had adequate levels. But when I looked at the plant, it was showing deficiency symptoms. You could look at it and just tell that there was a zinc deficiency or a manganese deficiency; it was obvious. But when I tested it, it was fine. Why was that? And it’s when I learned about this chelation issue and how it can be such a problem.

John: This is something we’ve been monitoring for a number of years. And it seems that, in some cases, sap analysis reports those a bit more accurately. And perhaps that doesn’t take all the chelation into account—but of course it’s still extracting nutrients that are held within the plant sap, and it’s still possible for them to be chelated. We do see the sap analysis correlate more accurately to what the plants are actually showing visually.

Michael: I would agree. I think the sap analysis has been a good step forward. When I figured out this chelation effect, that’s when it really gelled for me and I could understand why I was seeing deficiency symptoms in what, on paper, looked to be an appropriately healthy plant.

When to use inoculants to regenerate soil

In our experience, when microbial inoculants are applied as part of a different nutrition management system, they have consistently been some of the most significant ROI applications, and produce dramatic changes in soil health. Yet, many growers buy ‘bugs in a jug’ and see little or no response. When this happens, it often because the applied inoculant was put into the wrong environment, was not supported with biostimulants, or fertilizer and pesticide applications were continued. Don’t expect to continue managing everything else the same, and a microbial inoculant will change soil biology. The biology became degraded in the first place because of management practices and product applications. If these remain the same, don’t expect biology to make a miraculous comeback.

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: When you have a degraded system like that—where there are suppressed yields and suppressed soil health, as you’re describing it—how do you go from depressed yields of 70 to 90 bushels per acre back up to 200, with aspirations of going back up to 250 bushels per acre? How do you achieve that?

Michael: Well, it’s a long, hard task. There aren’t any silver bullets. You have to figure out what was going wrong and stop doing that—that’s number one. Number two, you’re going to have to look at what it’s going to take to remediate the soil. Has the soil become really hard—hard like a road? I get penetrometer readings where it takes 500 pounds of downward pressure to penetrate the top two inches of the soil—that’s hard. That’s just like a gravel road. A crop will not grow in that.

When they tilling it, it’s breaking up into chunks. And then when it rains, it puddles and it just seals over. And so we get no oxygen into the soil. You have to incorporate some tillage, and then you have to start providing some food for the microbial life—which is almost non-existent. It’s not non-existent, because you can bring it back—that’s the good news. If you don’t let this thing go too long, you can bring it back.

Now whether we’re bringing all of it back or not, I don’t know. But once you get it started coming back, then you can look at inoculating with mycorrhizae and some of the things—the pseudomonads, the actinomycetes—that could be missing, and stimulate them. But first, you have to get oxygen into the soil, get the water working correctly, and get the food right. There’s no magic in inoculating the soil—if it’s loaded with poison, it will kill your inoculant. You have to fix that problem first before you try inoculating. You wouldn’t have to do an inoculation, but it does speed it up—you gain about a year, maybe two years, when you do that.

I see people thinking they’re buying a magic silver bullet by inoculating, but then they continue to do the things that caused their soil to die in the first place. And they’re not winning. They’re losing.


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