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: , , , |

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 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.

Pesticides as a cause of soil degradation

Many agronomists and farmers with three or four decades of experience describe how soil health deteriorated quickly when herbicide and pesticide use became mainstream. Michael McNeill shares his observations.

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: And when you say you have about 165,000 acres that you work on today, what is the scope of the work you do on each of these farms?

Michael: Most of it is working with soil health and soil fertility, and helping growers select the right genetics for the fertility programs that they’re working with. Soil health is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for me to deal with. When I first started, it wasn’t a really big issue. It’s huge now. And so I’m devoting more of my time now to soil health than I ever thought I would.

John: I’d love to talk about that a little bit—when you say that soil health didn’t used to be a big issue, and now you’re spending a lot of time on it, what changed with soil health? How are you managing it differently today than you were twenty or thirty years ago?

Michael: Well, it’s interesting that you would ask me that, John. The other day I was cleaning out a drawer in my desk, and I found some old pictures that I had taken back in 1972 or 1973 of crops that were growing. I had some close-ups and some overviews of the field. The thing that I noticed was how healthy the plants were. There were no disease lesions on them anywhere. The corn plants were just perfect. And the whole field was that way.

It’s really hard to find a field today that is that way. I was looking at the weeds that were growing along the fence rows, and they were big and healthy and looked great. They don’t look so good today, comparatively speaking. And you say, “Well, maybe that’s a good thing!” No, it’s not. The whole area that we’re farming is unhealthy. It makes me ask the question—what’s changed?

To me, the big difference from that era until today is that farmers have been drawn into big ag. You need to use herbicides. You don’t want to use a cultivator. You have to farm more land. So you use herbicides, but herbicides are doing things to the soil, because they’re all chelators. So now the plants become a little bit imbalanced in the nutrition that they’re taking up, and you find more disease—you find more insect pressure. So you start using fungicides and insecticides—more chelators, more poisons being dumped onto the ground. And you’re pretty impressed with how they work. The field is perfectly clean, and weed free—excellent. The diseases were dramatically reduced. The fungicides worked really well. The corn borers and some other of the insects that were issues went away. It was magic. The chemistry was totally magic—it looked beautiful.

But as time went on, the chemistry started poisoning the good things that were in the soil. And so, today, I’m called out to look at farms where the guy’s production has dropped off dramatically and the soil is virtually dead.

John: When you say the production has dropped off dramatically, what have you observed?

Michael: Looking at ten-year crop insurance records, the guy was getting 190 to 210 bushels per acre and had around a 200-bushel 10-year average. Excellent, excellent yields. Now it’s getting 70- and 80-bushel yields. That’s dramatic, and it will put him out of business very quickly.

John: That is very dramatic.

Michael: This isn’t just happening on a little field here, a farm there. I’m seeing 8,000- and 10,000-acre farms that this has happened to. And that really, really woke me up. I started seeing this about five years ago. I’ve been working with these growers who are asking me whether I can help them remediate that. Can I help bring the farm back? And in a three- to four-year period, we’ve had pretty good success. I would say we’re back now at where we were when this crashed.

The farmers are excited that they can now take it to a different level—to the 250-bushel range or greater. And they can see growth and potential and doing what they’re doing. They’ve moved away from GMO crops, and they’ve particularly moved away from glyphosate.

Pesticide safety assessments

A thought-provoking quote from Jonathan Lundgren on the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast:

My research focuses on two general areas. One is the risk assessment of pesticides and genetically modified crops and, basically, farm management practices in general. And then the other half is working on developing sustainable systems. So, I’ve got quite a bit of experience in understanding the ecological risk assessment in the framework that we use for trying to determine whether a particular agrochemical or something is safe or not safe. I’ve advised the US EPA. I’ve been on advisory panels for the European version of the EPA, the Brazilian government, the United Nations and their conference on biodiversity. And after twenty years of studying this, I can honestly say that when you look at the side of a jug and it says that it’s safe, that is meaningless.

You can go out and you can buy something off of the shelf and it’s labeled and it’s regulated. Nobody is watching. Nobody is watching! Risk assessment is incredibly hard. And we can get closer to the mark with scientific approaches to risk assessment, but again—when you understand the complexity of the natural world . . . ! 

Right now, just for pesticides, there are a couple of hundred different pesticides whose active ingredient is registered with the EPA. And that’s where most of the safety assessments are focused—on those active ingredients. But whenever you add an adjuvant—maybe it’s a sticker or a spreader or a defoaming agent or whatever—it changes the toxicology of that active ingredient such that the risk assessment that you’re actually performing on an active ingredient really does not hold much weight anymore. And think about all of the formulated products—there are 20,000 formulated pesticides in the US, and each of those pesticides would require an independent ecological risk assessment—each of them. 

We don’t have the first inkling of what the implications of these things are, be it glyphosate, neonicotinoids, propiconazole, or the adjuvants, which are sometimes more toxic than the active ingredient in terms of its ecological effects. And we’re not just talking about the soil, right? We’re talking about human health problems. Farmers have the highest suicide rate of any career at this point in the US. And we know that pesticide use is linked with depression. The science has been done on that. I mean, are we killing ourselves?

From: Ecosystem Diversity Prevents Insect Pressure with Jonathan Lundgren

2020-03-23T14:17:53-05:00March 24th, 2020|Tags: , , |

Foliar Feeding with pesticides in the tank

Why would you add toxins to your food? ~ Michael McNeill

(When asked whether it is appropriate to add foliar fertilizers to a spray mix which contained fungicides or insecticides.) 

It is fairly common to combine nutrients and biostimulants with toxic compounds in the same tank mix, but is this really what is best for plants?

Sometimes a combination is the only application logistically possible, but field experience suggests that separating foliar fed nutrients and pesticide applications will produce a bigger crop response to the foliar fed nutrients.

Foliar feeding in a combination with pesticides is better than not applying the needed nutrients at all. Applying nutrients and biostimulants without the toxins is best. 


2020-03-16T13:52:31-05:00January 11th, 2020|Tags: , |

Are diseases present because pesticides were not applied in time?

Do people or animals get bacterial infections because they have an antibiotic deficiency?

Do plants get disease infections because of a pesticide deficiency? If not, why do we apply pesticides before the organism is even present?

Come to think of it, plants do absorb antibiotics synthesized by soil microbes, and they help prevent possible infections. Maybe plants do become infected because of antibiotic deficiencies after all?

In that case, what produces the antibiotic deficiency?

That would be dysfunctional soil biology. Which is likely dysfunctional because of all the pesticide applications the soil has been exposed to.

Perhaps killing the microbes that protect our crops isn’t such a good management strategy.

2020-03-16T13:46:02-05:00December 10th, 2019|Tags: , , |


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