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The Agronomy of the future

Will not be based on chemistry but on biophysics and biology.

In the future, soil analysis will not be looking only at mineral balance and nutrient levels, but at the levels of amino acids, peptides, enzymes, carbohydrates, and other compounds that plant roots can absorb from the microbial community.

Agronomists will look at soil paramagnetism, redox, and electrical conductivity to evaluate a soil’s capacity to deliver to crop yields and quality.

Crop scouts will measure plant leaf redox and electrical activity to determine disease and insect susceptibility, and determine what treatments to apply to prevent possible infections.

The emerging knowledge of this space that is becoming more widely known is extremely exciting.

I posted a few weeks ago about Olivier Husson’s work on redox. His work is much broader and deeper than can be described in the referenced papers. He has been kind enough to appear on the podcast and to share his work in-depth in a six-hour-long webinar that we made available as a free online course on the academy that you can find here.

This will be the agronomy of the future. Enjoy.

 

2020-05-05T08:58:03-05:00February 12th, 2020|Tags: , , , , , |

The only thing that can not be overdone

Is balance. 

In regenerative and sustainable ecosystems anything can be applied to excess. 

Water can be excessive. So can oxygen. Or CO2. Or calcium, seaweed, biochar, humic acid, rock powder, liquid fish, crab shell, limestone, gypsum, manure, fertilizer, pesticides, and anything else you might name. 

You may have heard someone make a comment to the effect of “You can never apply too much of…(insert product here). 

You can be certain someone somewhere has done exactly that and suffered the consequences. Because there are always consequences of excesses. They are usually significantly worse and more difficult to deal with than deficiencies. 

2020-03-16T14:02:55-05:00February 11th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

The best Regenerative Agriculture YouTube channels for professional growers

In the last few years, YouTube has become a wealth of knowledge and information sharing for the regenerative agriculture community. So much, that it is easy to miss some of the great stuff.

I personally prefer to read rather than listen, since I can absorb information faster, so I asked you to recommend the channels you enjoy most, and added some additional. The emphasis of this list is that the information is focused on commercial growers who derive their income from farming. There are lots of great channels for homesteaders and gardeners, but that is not who this list is for.

If there is a channel you believe belongs on the list, please let me know!

These are in no particular order, and all worth scanning to see if they are of personal interest to you.

Menoken Farms
Jason Mauck
Loran Steinlage
Mike Omeg
Living Web Farm</a
Greg Judy
Ernst Götsch (Portuguese)
Bionutrient Food Association
NoTill on the Plains
Organic Grain Resources
National Organic Training
Sustainable Food Trust
Landcare Australia
Savory Institute
Grassfed Exchange
Green Cover Seed
Quivira Coalition
The Wallace Center
Ranching for Profit
SARE Outreach
Cover Crop Kings
Regeneration Canada
Groundswell Agriculture
Richard Perkins
NeverSink Farm
No-Till Growers (vegetables)
NOFA MASS
Diego Footer (permaculture)
No Till Farmer
Geoff Lawton (permaculture)
Not on Youtube, but worth looking at
CSU Chico

And of course, our channel at Advancing Eco Agriculture, where we post both the webinars and the podcast interviews.

Enjoy, and let me know who should be added to the list!

2020-03-20T03:30:27-05:00January 28th, 2020|Tags: , , |

Weeds, Guardians of the Soil

We understand quite readily that different crops thrive in different soil environments. Blueberries require a different mineral and microbial profile than alfalfa, which requires a different profile than peaches. It should not be a stretch to realize that the same also holds true for the plants we call weeds. The weeds which grow most vigorously and abundantly in a given profile are indicators of the soil’s physical, mineral, and microbial characteristics.

There are several good books which have been written on this topic, particularly in the context of mineral profiles associated with different weed species, but one of the foundational books is from Joseph Cocannouer, titled Weeds, Guardians of the Soil, and framed specifically around his experiences as a farmer and agronomist in Kansas.

Here is an excerpt:

The late war in Europe, despite the suffering and destruction it brought about, gave birth to a new weed knowledge that should play an important role in rebuilding some of those ravaged countries. Necessity forced the investigation of the food value of many weeds that until then had been given a little attention. Some weeds that had long been looked upon as worthless were found to be a highly nutritious fodder for livestock. Once these weeds were correctly processed, that is, cut and cured into hay or made into ensilage, livestock not only devoured the hay and silage, but gave back gratifying returns.

American farmers will probably be more than a little surprised to learn for instance, that the detested bindweed, when cured into hay, gave returns from dairy cows considerably above either alfalfa or clover. Many weed experiments were carried on at one of England’s leading experiment stations, where the weeds, of course, were under control.

Thistles of several kinds, when treated correctly, were also found to rank high as stockfeed. Thistle ensilage is not entirely unknown in the United States. Stinging nettles, a European weed that is now established in many parts of our own country, the English investigators found to be excellent feeding, when cured, for both dairy cattle and poultry. These nettles are rich in protein, and laying hens, fed the cure leaves and stems as a major part of the ration, showed a marked increase in egg production. With dairy cows, nettle hay produced a very noticeable increase in milk and butter fat. Page 121

Lambs quarter is also a good weed, fitting into about as many niches as the pigweed. It is an annual and a native of Europe. As a general rule, lambsquarters may be found where ever pigweeds grow, and often as a companion of giant ragweed. This weed is a good diver and brings up much food material to the surface soil. It is an excellent green manure and makes an ensilage second to none when mixed with legumes. It is also a good mother weed if controlled, and one of the best potherbs of the whole group.

The giant ragweed, or horse weeds of the middle west, are a bit more exacting, preferring edges of cultivated fields, open forest areas, or sunny coves where they can grow unmolested. This weed will also take hold in hard land…

The giant ragweed has been used successfully for making ensilage. Page 159

~

What caught my attention, in particular, was the description of giant ragweed, ‘a bit more exacting, preferring edges of fields, growing unmolested’. Come again? Not the giant ragweed I know.

Other growers and agronomists with longer than five decades of experience have shared stories of how giant ragweed behavior changed. One farmer related “When we started spraying it with herbicides it was like pouring gasoline on a fire, now it grows everywhere and completely differently than it used to.

Mother Nature always bats last and laughs last. Trying to dominate natural systems with un-natural substances never seems to be a win in the end for some reason.

2020-03-16T13:57:57-05:00January 23rd, 2020|Tags: , , |

Disease suppression of wheat take-all disease

The presence of soil-borne disease infection is not correlated to the presence of an infectious organism, but to the absence of suppressive microbes.

Here is an example from Paul Syltie1 on wheat take-all disease: 

It is well documented that the fungus responsible for the take all of wheat Gaeumannomyces graminis var. tritici is attacked by soil bacteria, in particular by the bacteria in what are called take-all suppressive soils. These soils are unique in that the severity of the disease becomes progressively less as the cropping season continues. In some cases the disease may not even express itself whatsoever despite being present.

It is concluded by soil microbiologists that most soils express some degree of natural pathogen suppression. This occurs generally in soils by the mass of beneficial organisms overwhelming the pathogens at a critical time in their life cycle, robbing critical nutrients from them. Specific suppression occurs when select species or groups of beneficial organisms antagonize the pathogen at some stage of its life cycle.

Take-all in wheat or barley becomes less and less of a problem if the crop is grown in consecutive years. Both fungi and bacteria, such as friendly saprophytic Fusarium species, reduce pathogen numbers by competing for food supplies, and at the same time specific antagonistic microbes like fluorescent pseudomonads attack the G. graminis. The pseudomonads are especially effective when ammonium rather than nitrate fertilizer is used, resulting in a lower rhizosphere pH. This suppression likely occurs mostly in the rhizosphere, but also throughout the soil mass.

1. Syltie, P. W. How Soils Work. (Xulon Press, 2002). Page 111

2020-03-16T13:50:36-05:00January 6th, 2020|Tags: , , , , , |

Foliars as a tool of soil regeneration

Without the contribution of plants, ‘soil’ is only decomposed rock particles.  

Plants contribute sugars, organic matter, carbon, the energy that sustains microbial populations. 

Plants, through photosynthesis, are the only way we have of bringing new energy into the system.

The photosynthetic engine of most crops is only running at 15%-20% efficiency. (Charles Tsai, et al.) It makes sense to increase the efficiency of this engine as much as we are able.

The first priority of a successful foliar application is to increase photosynthetic efficiency. A foliar application that only addresses nutrient deficiencies and does not increase photosynthesis will not be nearly as effective as a foliar which does both. In fact, a foliar which does not increase photosynthesis can facilitate more efficient extraction of soil nutrients and increase soil degradation. Foliar design matters.

The nutrients which need to be present in adequate supply to increase photosynthesis are nitrogen, manganese, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. Obviously, many others are also important, but these are key.

We can use foliars as a tool for soil regeneration when we use them to increase photosynthetic efficiency and transfer a larger portion of plant photosynthates to the roots to feed soil biology. 

When a well designed foliar is applied, the spike in photosynthesis can be observed in sap sugar content and dissolved solids, or brix. (Measured actual sugars on a plant sap analysis is best by far. Brix can be highly variable because of environmental conditions.)

After a successful foliar application, the photosynthetic rate will gradually drop back down, but not quite down to the previous baseline. With each successive application spike, and return to baseline, the baseline level increases. When photosynthetic efficiency baseline improves to a high enough plateau plants contribute more carbon energy to the soil than they withdraw mineral energy and the entire ecosystem becomes self-sustaining.

The drop back to the new baseline can occur quickly or slowly, depending on the level of ecosystem health. In a compromised and degraded ecosystem, the spike may last for as little as 3-5 days before it drops back down. In a healthy soil, with good biology, the elevated spike may last for as long as 5-6 weeks or even longer. 

The healthier soils and plants become the fewer foliars are needed until the point is reached where they are completely unnecessary to sustain a level of health where plants are completely resistant to diseases and insects.

While on the pathway to this point, we can still use the photosynthetic efficiency spikes to produce interesting and valuable effects. If we have the presence of larval or sucking insects,  a spike in photosynthesis is often successful in giving them a dose of sugar they can’t tolerate.

A slide from an academy presentation. Academy.regen.ag

2020-03-16T13:49:53-05:00January 4th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

Spring applied planter solution products influence end of season cover crops

This is a field in Pennsylvania in December 2019.

It appears the section on the left has less residue, and possibly more cover crop growth.

The only difference is that the planter solution used for planting the corn crop in the spring was a product blend (AEA) that enhanced biology (left), as compared to a ‘conventional’ ionic planter solution that suppresses soil biology (right).

2020-03-16T13:48:25-05:00January 2nd, 2020|Tags: , |

The bulls-eye of the wrong target

We have become masterful at hitting the bull’s eye of the wrong target.

A colleague sent me a recent article1 describing the discovery of a master gene that regulates iron absorption in plants. You can read a journalist’s popularized version here.

Just so we are clear, iron absorption is not a genetics problem. This is a soil redox and microbial problem.

There is abundant iron in the earth’s crust and in our soils, around 4% or so. Most soil analysis results report excessive iron.

The iron that is in our soils, and that is measured on our soil analysis is often not physiologically active in plants because it is in the oxidized form that is unavailable for absorption. 

It is largely in the oxidized form because of how our soils have been mismanaged. We have shifted the microbial population and the general soil environment in the direction of excessive oxidation, and inadequate reduction. 

It is the function of beneficial microbial populations in the soil to convert iron and other elements from the oxidized to the reduced form and improve their plant availability. This only happens when we have a soil environment that can support the right biology and allow this transition to occur. 

When you change soil biology and redox status, crops will have an abundant supply of iron. And manganese. And cobalt. And copper.

Changing plant genetics to improve absorption of the wrong form of an abundant mineral completely misses the obvious.

Kim, S. A., LaCroix, I. S., Gerber, S. A. & Guerinot, M. L. The iron deficiency response in Arabidopsis thaliana requires the phosphorylated transcription factor URI. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 116, 24933–24942 (2019).

2020-03-16T13:48:05-05:00December 31st, 2019|Tags: , , |

Redox as a driver of soil/plant/microorganism systems

Contemporary mechanistic agriculture has been based largely on the development of genetics and chemistry. 

The regenerative agriculture systems emphasize the development of biology and biophysics.

All the evidence points to an emerging agricultural revolution that will supersede the so-called “green revolution”, and exceed it in terms of crop quality and yield and economic returns to the producer. 

Since I first started working in this space I have been fascinated by the volume and integrity of high-quality science in the biophysics space that has not been utilized by mainstream agriculture, yet holds so much promise. 

One such topic is the role of soil redox in developing disease suppressive soils and regulating nutrient availability. Redox has at least as big an impact on nutrient availability as pH does.

Here is an important and foundational review paper1 that will get you started on this important topic.  Look for a more on this in the coming months. 

  1. Husson, O. Redox potential (Eh) and pH as drivers of soil/plant/microorganism systems: a transdisciplinary overview pointing to integrative opportunities for agronomy. Plant Soil 362, 389–417 (2013).

 

2020-05-05T08:57:27-05:00December 30th, 2019|Tags: , , , , |

Manage-able data for soil nutrients

Data collection is only useful if you can use it to make management decisions. ‘Manage-able’ data in other words.

Soil analysis is still somewhat of an imprecise science. If you disagree, split a soil sample, send it to different labs and observe the results. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t conduct soil analysis. It does mean we should understand what we are getting, and know the difference between the various extraction methods. 

I credit much of our success in our agronomy work at Advancing Eco Agriculture to the fact that we avoid guessing about anything we have the capacity to measure. We look at soil nutritional profiles, irrigation water quality where that is relevant, and actual plant absorbed nutrients through sap analysis. 

Our approach to soil analysis has continued to evolve. A decade ago, we would run an ammonium acetate extraction in early fall, August – September time frame, and saturated paste extraction every two weeks during the crop production season. You get an education really quickly about fertilizer performance when you measure what is happening in the soil with plant available nutrients every two weeks. 

After the development of reliable plant sap analysis in the lab, we replaced the biweekly saturated paste samples with biweekly sap analysis. After all, the plant is the final report card, and it can tell us precisely what it is finding abundant or missing, regardless of the soil levels. 

Sap analysis informed us rapidly that there is very little correlation between the presence of nutrients in the soil and actual absorption by the crop. In fact, in the case of some nutrients such as iron and manganese, there is zero correlation. (for reasons of soil redox, dysfunctional biology, and more.)

As a result of constantly learning and improving our understanding of what is happening with the soil’s nutritional profile, I would suggest that growers should collect at least three different types of soil samples to understand what is happening with soil nutrients.

  1. A ‘geochemical assay’ type soil analysis that measures the total mineral content within the profile. This will be the assay that shows in black and white the tens of thousands of pounds of phosphorus and potassium, and the hundreds of pounds of manganese and other trace minerals contained within many soils. Minerals that biology can tap into over time. Several samples should be pulled at different depths. One sample should be as deep as the A horizon, the topsoil layer, or as deep as the upper mass of roots generally reach. Usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-12 inches. A second sample should be collected immediately below the first, down to a depth of 24-36 inches, the B horizon. These samples only need to be collected once, to give us evidence of what reserves we have to work with, or not. If there is no molybdenum, selenium, cobalt, vanadium, or some of the other ultra trace elements showing up, crops will benefit from adding some. This type of sample can be run through AGAT Labs, and possibly others.
  2. A more familiar ‘CEC’ analysis with ammonium acetate or Mehlich III extraction. Mehlich III or Olsen extraction are preferred for phosphorus, Bray extraction can be unreliable in some soil types. We typically use a Mehlich III extraction for all the nutrients across the board. With this analysis it is also valuable, I would suggest necessary, to measure cobalt, selenium, molybdenum, and nickel as a standard, at least on some fields. We typically conduct this analysis in late summer/early fall, every year on high value crops, and every few years on broad acre commodity crops. 
  3. An organic acid, ‘H3A’ or Haney analysis to identify the nutrients the soil is capable of releasing in the coming growing season. We have just begun including this test as a standard, and are still learning it’s ins and outs. We are experimenting with both spring and fall samples, but it makes sense to me to collect these samples in the spring to most accurately identify what is happening closest to the crop season. 

When you collect all three of these samples, you can form an accurate perception of what is really going on with your soils mineral profile, and the resources you have available to work with. Now you can make informed decisions about nutrients actually need to be applied, and what you can tap into from the soil reserves. 

Saturated paste tests are still a very useful tool for special situations. Very sandy soil, a fast-growing crop such as spinach, muck soils, and in artificial media are all places where saturated paste tests give us valuable information. They are not the right decision-making tool to determine soil amendments though. Their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. Their strength is they show you what is available the next few weeks. Their weakness is that they only show you what is available the next few weeks. 

I am still looking for a microbial assay that gives us ‘manage-able’ data. This is a bit of a challenge, because we need an assay that both identifies the presence of a species or group, AND the degree of presence. It is not enough to know that we have both pseudomonas and fusarium species. We need to know that we have enough of the right pseudomonads to suppress possibly infectious fusarium.

PFLA tests are ‘interesting’ but we haven’t figured out yet how to make the data manage-able. Non-actionable means we don’t run them very often. 

A topic for another post is the importance and usefulness of qualitative in field soil analysis such as water infiltration and agreggate stability tests.

 

2020-03-16T13:44:36-05:00December 27th, 2019|Tags: , , |

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