Starting / Enhancing Your Regenerative Agriculture Journey
Updated: May 11
Enhance Your Farm & Your Life in Many Ways
while Building Valuable, Beneficial Soil Carbon and Humus
Starting / Enhancing Regenerative Agriculture
Why this ‘Starter’
This 'starter' is put forward as something to provide fairly simple, mostly non-technical information for you to reflect on for possible incorporation into your approach to getting started in regenerative agriculture or enhancing / boosting your journey if you have already started. While I have not provided a 'Bibliography' showing the source of all information, I have opted to include a blog setting out actual links to over 100 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts & Webinars' that will allow you to explore further on many topics. As far as possible, I have tried to avoid material which is too technical, detailed or narrowly focussed, rather opting to provide you with more easily understood information enabling you to gain 'Broad Vision' and be able to exercise 'Balanced Judgement' in creating your very own 'Regenerative Agriculture Journey'.
Even though this 'Starter' mentions some product and people names, most definitely it will not attempt to sell you anything, I promise. Further, I have not sought, nor will I seek or accept, anything from any business, organisation or individual so as to maintain my independence, though I am happy for others to post a link to this website if they are interested in and wish to promote Regenerative Agriculture.
Please feel free to share this site with others by forwarding the link or adding a link to this website on your website.
Many farmers have already become aware of the numerous problems in agriculture and the environment due to how soils have been treated and managed under modern agriculture over the last 70 years or so. Without labouring the point, prolonged use of chemicals and chemical fertilisers, along with use of heavy machinery which causes excessive soil disturbance and contributes to compaction, have done much to remove valuable and important soil carbon, destroy the life in the soil and weaken its electrical current, thereby further contributing to soil compaction. This adversely impacts soil’s ability to infiltrate atmospheric nitrogen and moisture and uptake minerals in the soil to support plants and livestock as nature intended. The damage these practices have caused has required more and stronger chemicals to kill pests and stronger fertilisers to provide soluble minerals to feed plants (as minerals already in the soil have been locked up), while heavier machinery is required to work the tighter ground. With livestock often removed from farming operations, soil continues to deteriorate and lose its ability to readily absorb rainfall, especially heavy rain, resulting in loss of topsoil through erosion and later after drying out, in some areas, in dust storms. The problems and causes are numerous with many the result of following advice from companies with products to sell and big advertising budgets.
Some farmers, seeing problems on their farms, knew something wasn’t right and realised that something had to be done. Others, through various misfortunes in their lives, have been put in a position where they needed to find a way to farm without the substantive costs of modern agriculture. Some of these farmers, both here in Australia and overseas, have been pioneers in a new approach to farming now known as regenerative agriculture / 'regen ag' while others are following in their footsteps and making further advances building on that experience and knowledge. Charles 'Charlie' Massy, a grazier from the Monaro south of Canberra, Australia, has visited the farms of many of these people and written a wonderfully informative book, ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’, about their regenerative agriculture journeys. Not only has he personally been through hard times on the land but he has done a PhD in Human Ecology to help him on his regenerative agriculture journey which has also involved sharing his knowledge and experience with others, including myself, at seminars, in webinars and podcasts and on TV specials as well as his book.
Another farmer, Graeme Sait, is also an educator and entrepreneur. As well as having several farming operations in Queensland, Graeme, through his company NutriTech Solutions, has developed a range of products for farm use with a focus on soil health and now markets these in Australia and overseas. At the same time, Graeme has become an educator at farmer and government level with presentations in numerous countries and, since the start of the pandemic, has developed a podcast series which is being well received internationally. He has also given a TEDTalk on Humus.
After a farm chemical accident in the mid 1980’s, Graham Maddock and his family in northern Victoria set about finding a way to farm without chemicals and by the early 1990’s had started worm farming and formed NutriSoil to direct market their worm extract biological stimulant to apply to plants and soil. Not content with merely being a producer, the family has enhanced its operation by including farmer education to help those transitioning to regenerative agriculture.
Numerous other Australian farmers and people involved with rural land have also contributed in various ways to advance regenerative agriculture over 30 years or so. Some are noted herein while the attached links relate to some of their work.
In North America, another rancher and farmer, Gabe Brown, has shown what can be achieved by changing the way soil is managed with a focus on developing and maintaining plant diversity, minimal soil disturbance, maintaining soil coverage and more dynamic stock management with rotational grazing. He too has become an educator sharing his knowledge widely in a down to earth rancher fashion with many presentations uploaded to YouTube.
Also in America, Dr. David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chun Su have developed a way to develop a fungal dominant compost (in what is now known as a Johnson-Su Bioreactor) that is then used to produce a fungal extract to apply as a spray to re-introduce the important fungi to soil after years of chemical application and plowing have largely destroyed soil fungi. This has generated considerable interest around the world.
Many companies have developed and continue to develop products with a soil health focus.
Much has been written, presented and discussed about Regenerative Agriculture / 'Regen Ag', with a great deal of material including videos on a range of platforms available on the web. However few, if any, seem to pull together a comparatively short, simple 'starter package' that someone who wanted to get going with regenerating their property could use for initial guidance without being overwhelmed by too much information too soon and too much of an overly technical nature. I'm looking to remedy that.
Hi, my name is Bernie Hunt. That caricature is of a somewhat younger me (done for my 50th birthday in 1998) - the hair is fairly grey these days but at least it is still there - or most of it!
Soil health has been an interest of mine for 50 years during which time I have had the benefit of inspecting many farms in the Riverina area of southern New South Wales (Australia) in particular and seeing the emerging problems with soil health modern agriculture has created. Unfortunately in 1975 I took advice from a near neighbour, a Dr of Agriculture, who encouraged me to follow his approach by giving me a large bag of chemical fertiliser. While this produced very lush green growth initially, it was very watery, quickly deteriorated and then required successively heavier applications to get the same growth. Within 18 months the soil structure had changed to such a degree that moisture had difficulty penetrating the soil. This bad experience put me on the road to learning about soil health including reading ‘A Study of Earthworms’ by Charles Darwin and ‘An Agricultural Testament’ by Sir Albert Howard who pioneered composting. I also subscribed to a periodical from ‘Acres USA’ in its formative years and purchased one of its books, an ‘Agricultural Primer’ as I recall. I was so impressed by what this eco agriculture book put forward I loaned it to my learned neighbour (whose research was paid for by agricultural chemical companies) but he gave it back to me a week later saying “It’s all B.S. mate!”. Unfortunately I loaned that book some years later and lost track of it.
During the last decade in particular, I have spent considerable time reading, listening, watching, discussing and experimenting so as to increase my understanding of what is involved with regenerative agriculture and how to go about it. Some years ago before ‘retiring’, I wrote a paper on the impact of the emerging regenerative agriculture approach to farming for my profession's journal and had an extract from it reproduced by the ‘Soils for Life’ organisation. Regenerative Agriculture has now become my passion and I have decided to become a ‘volunteer researcher / publisher’ helping those interested without charge in the most practical way I can, primarily via this website. Over the last few years I have helped several people start their regenerative agriculture journey, however as this involved answering lots of questions, sending lots of links and putting down many thoughts on an ad hoc basis, I decided to attempt to package some basic information, a ‘starter pack’ or ‘primer’ if you like, that they can use for future reference. As one of those people has started having people ask what he is doing, I have decided to build this web site (a first for me - and still a work in progress!) to make it easy for him to share information with them and for it to be available to anyone else searching the web for information on getting started in 'Regen Ag' or if they have already started, enhancing or boosting what they are already doing.
This web site is NOT aimed at convincing farmers to start the regenerative agriculture journey but rather it aims to put some information together to help those who have already decided to do so or who realise something has to change, hopefully saving them duplicating a lot of time and effort in research and to be able to make a start while still keen. In a separate blog I have put links to some of the over 100 websites, podcasts and webinars where I have found helpful information. You can click on these to open them. There is also a reference to Charles Massy’s book.
In presenting information and material on this website, I acknowledge that I am 'standing on the shoulders of many others'. However there are elements I feel I am able to contribute, some of it coming from joint efforts with one Victorian farmer, lets just call him 'Tom', whom I have been assisting remotely and who has supplied many of the photos from early Regen Ag progress on his farm. We happily share as much as we can for 'the greater good'. 'Tom', for some 10 years, had been trying to follow what others in his area seemed to be doing and was taking 'advice' from agronomists and rural suppliers about what to do, however he was getting frustrated by adverse impacts, costs and use of chemicals as well as erosion risks. Per chance I sent him some information, from memory something I had received from Graeme Sait from NutriTech Solutions, which perked his interest in a different approach to farming. After a few months I suggested putting out some Liquid Sea Minerals on part of a paddock that was wet in what had been a wet year. About a month later as he was slashing / topping that area to try to control silver grass, he sent me a video from his tractor excitedly informing me "It's #*%-#* working mate!", that it was helping to open up the soil as he could feel from the way the tractor moved that the soil was softer. I think at this point he realised that he might be onto something. To his credit, 'Tom' has been prepared to try various things that I have progressively exposed him to and on several occasions has chosen to put aside advice and recommendations from those he had previously relied upon in the conventional agriculture realm to continue his new regenerative agriculture journey without compromise. It has been rewarding to share his journey, hearing his excitement as soil and pastures have started to change and his amazement at the improvement in his livestock. I will endeavour to weave some of his Regen Ag journey into information I put forward for your consideration. Also, following request from a reader, I have set up a separate blog for that story alone.
As regenerative agriculture is quite different to the 'modern' farming model, some broad fundamental information is essential so as to understand how to make a start and why certain things are important. Firstly however it must be said that there is no one way to do regenerative agriculture, nor can there be, given there are so many different forms of agriculture, so many soil types, so many climatic conditions, so many different farmers’ situations or circumstances. Secondly, it must be stressed that this is not intended as a scientific publication with the source of every bit of information referenced. It will however provide some names and links for those who want to further their own enquiry. Thirdly, this will note some business and product names for initial consideration, along with names of those who have already made significant contributions to the body of knowledge and information about regenerative agriculture. This is not an exhaustive list but just a 'starter'. There are likely lots of others and probably there will be many more to come as the regenerative agriculture ways of farming continue to gain momentum and develop further.
It must be stressed that no business or individual has been approached about including its name, product or website details and most certainly there are no existing or proposed arrangements for any financial or other reward or benefit for doing so. Indeed it is my intent for as long as possible to do what I can to help those interested without charge or reward.
I understand that some people have found it hard to believe that I am not charging for anything I do, that there are no PayWalls, that I am not selling anything or getting any kickbacks from any one or any organisation. As Sue S. from Victoria wrote: "Your site is genuinely free, the information is well presented and extensive ... I'm very glad I took the chance and clicked ... thank you for sharing your knowledge ...it's a fine legacy". And if you do 'Subscribe' (not compulsory), you will only get the occasional newsletter but no marketing to fill up your email. I promise!
A word of CAUTION: It is easy to get excited about regenerative agriculture and want to spread the ‘word’ to others. However can I suggest that as you get going you let others come to you and ask questions about what you are doing rather than you trying to convince them to make a change. People will change when they are ready. But by all means feel free to share the link to this site with them (it will also save you lots of time and give them something to refer to on their regenerative agriculture journey and in turn, share with others).
Table of Contents
Below, I'll cover:
Current Soil Status
Simple Soil Tests You Can Carry Out (also on separate blog)
Useful Testing / Monitoring Equipment
Fundamentals of Regenerative Agriculture
Gabe Brown's Five Fundaments of Regenerative Agriculture
Other Ways to Expedite Regeneration
Drive Your Regenerative Agriculture Journey into the 'Fast Lane' (if you want to)
Soil Compaction is the Most Limiting Factor to Successful Agriculture
Minerals in the Soil - Achieving Readily Available Full-Spectrum Nutrition
Earthworms Are Important Contributors to Soil Health
Inoculating Seed Provides a Strong Start for Growth
Foliar Sprays to Quickly Restore Minerals, Microbes and Fungi
Air in the Soil is Essential for Microbial Life
Soil Carbon and Humus Formation Can be a Lasting Benefit
Biochar's Potential to Enhance the Carbon Cycle
Increasing Brix Brings Many Rewards
Water / Moisture Best Stored in the Soil
Grazing a Diversified Species Pasture
Can Animals be Induced to Eat 'Weeds' - What 'Tom' Did for this to Happen
So what to Do after Testing to Move Forward
Glyphosate Use Only When Absolutely Essential
Due to blog size constraints, on a separate blog I've now listed:
Interesting Websites (over 100)
Podcasts and Webinars
So where do you start? In my view it is important to establish just where you, your team and your farm are right now and have some idea of where you would like you, your team and your farm to be over coming years.
Let's look at the second part of this first. In brief terms, those who have pioneered in regenerative agriculture and those who are following have shown that it is possible to transition away from past practices which have done lots of damage to the health of the soil and to help nature to steadily return life to the soil often without the huge costs they previously incurred. As the soil becomes healthier, plants and livestock benefit and can become tools for continual improvement under a more dynamic form of management. Unfortunately there is no quick fix or silver bullet that will quickly and totally overcome years of soil degradation though there are some things that can be done to lessen the time required. There is no one machine to use, no one product to apply, no one crop or pasture to grow and no one animal to graze to quickly put things right. Change requires time not just for the power and wonder of nature to re-emerge but for you to learn, observe, test, employ new techniques and to tailor things for your particular operation. There will be things that don’t initially work out as hoped or planned but these should not be seen as mistakes or failures but rather as learning opportunities. Neighbours may wonder what you are doing and give you strange looks but with more and more farmers going down the regenerative agriculture route, there will be support available and others will follow when they see what a difference you start to make. The web now provides so much learning opportunity through videos of presentations, webinars and published articles as some of the links to 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts and Webinars' (now set out in a separate blog) attest. Many regenerative agriculture farmers report they now get enjoyment out of farming!
Keep in mind too that regenerative agriculture is a journey, not a destination. The start of your journey will depend largely on the present condition of your farm as a result of past practices including application of chemicals and chemical fertilisers, how the soil has been disturbed and treated and how extensive compaction is. Where soils have had chemicals applied over a prolonged period, much of the soil life will have been destroyed or impaired so plants will not grow without some degree of the continuation of that program. Chemicals (including chemical fertilisers) need to be withdrawn steadily over two or three years. During this time your new practices will start to gradually return life to the soil and plants will again start to uptake what nature intended, some of which you will return to the soil or provide the stimulus for.
Current Soil Status
While what exists above the soil is readily apparent, the world below the surface is usually not well known and almost certainly not below plow depth. However the importance of knowing what is happening in the soil and sub-soil cannot be overemphasised.
Soil is not just dirt for holding and growing plants with NPK but rather it is the enabler of every function intended by nature to facilitate all the cycles of existence - the carbon, nitrogen, water and mineral cycles, the Soil Food Web, photosynthesis etc. If any of these is compromised, in due course all will be compromised. Similarly, enhancing one may well benefit the others eventually but enhancing ALL in a reasonably short time frame will lead to the greatest, fastest and most beneficial regeneration of your farm.
Traditionally, soil analysis starts with a soil test. These however have mostly been done in terms of chemical farming practices which have been detrimental to soil health and therefore would not be particularly helpful when the aim now is to regenerate the soil. In broad terms, chemical farming has helped to greatly diminish not only the abundant and important life forms in the soil (Soil Food Web - Dr. Elaine Ingham) but also to cause valuable and beneficial soil carbon to be released into the atmosphere. Further, such actions have caused soil to become more acidic, lose its structure, develop compacted layers and lessen its ability to absorb rain and/or irrigation, increasing run-off in heavy rain and increasing risk of erosion and contamination of waterways and oceans. Due to all this, the soil will have much less air and therefore be lacking in organic nitrogen while much of the valuable natural mineral supply in the soil will be locked up. Damaging and toxic minerals such as aluminium become more soluble as soil becomes more acidic (becomes a lower number like pH 4.5).
To be fair, there have been attempts since the mid 1970’s to restore soil structure such as by undertaking no till / minimum till farming however because these still required further use of herbicides and chemical fertilisers, soils have continued to deteriorate. Soil tests are still widely advocated to see what minerals are ‘available’ in the soil however these fail to show what minerals are already plentiful in the soil but merely ‘locked up’ by prior applications of chemical fertilisers which not only acidify the soil but also destroy soil biology including microbes and fungi. Many of the tests that are recommended by farm chemical companies are largely ways of helping to ensure farmers remain dependent upon them and their products, even stronger chemical fertilisers and an increasing array of farm chemicals.
Plowed Fallow and Hay Pasture in Conventional Farming - No Diversity, No Livestock, No Fencing, No Trees
So just what tests are worth getting and what things are worth establishing? As much as anything, the following tests and checks are beneficial from the outset to establish various base lines against which measurement of your regeneration efforts might be assessed.
Soil pH (acidity / alkalinity) is important and should be established, while at the same time an assessment of soil carbon could be made to establish a baseline against which to measure progress and may be important if you wish to earn carbon credits in the future as you regenerate your soil. These may need to be done by a suitable laboratory. As an adjunct to this, soil samples could be stored for later comparison of progress or as a minimum, photographs taken and retained, some of which might include a ruler to show the measurement of topsoil depth.
Soil acidity will give an indication of what minerals might be locked up in the soil and what minerals might be too soluble and become detrimental such as aluminium. Many soils with a history of chemical use, especially chemical fertilisers, will tend to be acidic as will those in higher rainfall areas. Measures outlined later will show you another way to improve soil pH other than using the traditional lime (which has its limitations and disadvantages).
Soil carbon seems to be largely overlooked yet it is so important. Carbon has received a bad wrap due to publicity about what it is doing to cause climate change. It is not just a case of fossil fuel burning, but lots of carbon has been released from the soil into the atmosphere by plowing and use of chemicals rather than keeping more in the soil. However carbon is the source of life. Without carbon there is no life. But more of it needs to be returned to the soil where it will be greatly beneficial. Industry and politicians talk about carbon capture and storage deep underground but this is expensive and probably futile. As will be explained later, having diverse types of plants growing in healthy soil will return carbon to the soil as plants photosynthesise and release liquid carbon deep into the soil where it not only improves soil structure but will help establish a stable form of carbon and eventually humus. This is a much faster way of removing excess carbon from the atmosphere and putting it where it will do great good including creating more topsoil (much faster than simply adding organic matter to the soil). And for every one percent increase in soil carbon, it is estimated that the soil will be able to store an additional 120,000 litres of water per hectare. Many traditional farms now have very little soil carbon but given that at the time of white settlement in Australia it seems that many soils had carbon levels up around 10%, there is tremendous potential for improvement to the soil as well as to the atmosphere.
Simple Soil Tests You Can Carry Out
Why wait for a lab, why pay for soil tests, when YOU can do tests on the spot that are more relevant to soil health. Whether you are just starting your regen ag journey or want to monitor your progress, see 15 tests YOU can do in the paddock.
The reasons for doing these 'tests' will become more evident as we progress. However, there is no one test that can be carried out or measurement taken to suddenly achieve soil health. Indeed many of the things advocated by the scientific community and agricultural authorities as well as chemical and some farm machinery companies in the past, even if well intended, have combined to cause much of the soil degradation that is so prevalent today.
There are however simple ‘tests’ that a farmer personally can readily carry out at various points on the farm without expensive equipment or having to send samples to a laboratory for ‘analysis’ to see if the soil is healthy or has any soil issues likely to contribute to ongoing soil degradation. It is strongly recommended that as many of the following tests as possible be carried out in the near future and the results recorded including photos where possible. These tests can be repeated periodically to monitor progress.
NOTE: Click the > to open up the content for each test the click again to close (or leave open).
Soil Structure Test:
Soil structure is important on so many fronts. Take a big shovelful of soil and look if the soil has a good crumb structure, that is, does it have lots of aggregate formations and air space. If not and it has lots of large hard clumps or clods, it is lacking in health.
Soil Smell Test:
A university in America undertook a study to try to establish if there was a simple test for soil health. What they found was that the smell of soil was the best single indicator if one is wanted. Take a handful of soil and smell it. If it is sweet smelling and has a beautiful earthy smell it is highly likely that it has something good going for it. If not or it smells ‘off’ or sour there is likely a problem.
Extent of Root Growth Test:
The extent of root growth will give some indication of how well the soil is affording the plant the opportunity to capture what the soil has to offer. Dig a hole about 300mm square and 300mm deep (but only inserting the shovel on 3 sides) and place the excavated soil on a ground sheet or in a large container. Check the amount and depth of roots. Look at the sides of the hole including the one where the shovel wasn’t inserted and see if there is abundant root growth and how deep the roots go. If the roots don’t go deep and / or there is not much root growth, the soil is likely lacking air and life.
Plant Root Structure and Depth Test:
Different plants have different growth habits including some that have masses of roots, some that have deep taproots and others that spread laterally. Having such a variety helps to condition the soil and access moisture and minerals etc in different parts of the soil profile. If there is limited variety, the extent of the soil profile being accessed and benefited by root growth will also be limited. Look at the root structure, depth and variety in the excavated soil to see if, as well as the main roots, there are lots of fine off-shoots and good depth for accessing moisture and minerals from deeper down. Very healthy soil will help plants establish a rhizosphere around roots (which look like ‘dreadlocks’) basically concealing the individual roots. Further, if mycorrhizal fungi are present (not visible to the naked eye) they will help to extend the area and volume of soil from which moisture and nutrients can be drawn. If the soil has a history of being periodically plowed and / or lots of chemicals have been used, it is highly unlikely that there will be any mycorrhizal fungi to enhance plant growth. If the amount of the plant growth (roots) below the surface is limited, the soil is likely limited. A greater volume of organic matter, especially of roots of a wide variety of growing plants, will help to build soil carbon that ultimately helps to increase the depth of topsoil by natural processes in much shorter time than previously thought possible.
Earthworm Count Test:
Earthworms are fundamental to the health of soil on so many fronts so the numbers of earthworms and the extent of their activity will give an indication of soil health. Break up the soil that has been removed and count how many earthworms there are. Take care to tease the roots apart as earthworms love being immediately under the crown of plants and high up in the root mass. If there aren’t about 20 – 30 worms, the soil is either too dry at present or is not as healthy as it could be (it is possible to improve soil so that earthworm numbers exceed 100). Is there any evidence of worms having tunnelled through the soil or having laid cocoons or deposited worm casts on the surface? This can be an indication of worms having been active in the recent past even if none are evident currently (in dry conditions worms will often roll themselves up in a ball and slowly release moisture from their bodies to keep them alive but once soil moisture returns they will ‘wake up’ again). If it is obvious that they have been active in more recent times, once conditions improve with moisture to hydrate them and organic matter for them to eat, cocoons will soon hatch, grow and multiply thereby aerating the soil and enhancing its mineral content as they move through the soil. Plant roots will tend to follow worm tunnels which will be lined with rich mucous from the worms. Worm casts deposited on the soil surface are the best natural fertiliser known and ultimately help to build soil humus. Earthworms have a gland that excretes small particles of calcium which help improve soil acidity. Earthworms also create humus 4 times more rapidly than normal decomposition. What comes out their rear ends is a fertiliser that is 10 times richer in potassium, contains 7 times more nitrogen, 5 times more phosphorus, 3 times more magnesium as well as beneficial organisms.
Don’t be concerned if you don’t find many or even any earthworms initially - once you start to do the things mentioned herein, it is amazing how they will start to appear. After you read some of the documents in the links provided about what earthworms do for the soil health, you will appreciate how important they are and why monitoring their numbers is such a good indication of where soil health is up to on your farm and where it is heading.
Earthworm Food Test:
There are various types of earthworms, some sourcing organic matter from the surface which they draw down into their tunnels to consume while others consume microbes and other organic matter in the soil. They serve different purposes and have different habits in the soil and on the surface. Healthy soil will have high numbers of earthworms. The more food they have to eat, the more they will reproduce and the more they will improve your soil. Select a representative 300mm x 300mm area and see how much dead organic matter there is on the surface. Now dig the soil below it out to a depth of 300mm. Does it contain much organic matter and plant roots? If not, there will be limited matter to be broken down to feed soil life such as worms and microbes and ultimately feed the plants.
Soil Colour Test:
Soil colour is partly an indication of its parent material and partly due to how the soil has been managed. Look at the colour of the soil. If it is light in colour it is very likely lacking in organic matter and / or minerals. As soil health improves, the soil will become darker. And conversely, soils that have been darker in colour will become a lighter shade if soil carbon is released into the atmosphere by plowing and use of chemicals.
Cow Pat Condition / Dung Beetle / Dung Worm Activity Test:
Cow dung (and urine) have potential to greatly benefit the soil if the cattle graze healthy plants grown without chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides as the dung will then start to attract dung beetles and dung worms to draw dung down into the soil. If cattle are run on the property, locate some fresh cow pats and look for signs of any current dung beetle activity (there are many species of dung beetles and having a good variety will help to ensure year round activity). If there are no fresh cow pats, do older ones look like they have been broken up by something? Or does it look like the surface has been undisturbed and set hard? Now break the cow pat up - do you see any earthworms in the dung? Now carefully remove the cow pat, completely exposing the soil below - do you see any holes in the surface of the soil? Smaller holes can be evidence of dung worm activity while larger holes could be where dung beetles have taken dung down into the soil to breed in. Such activity also takes organic matter into the soil and helps provide lots of tunnels for air and water to penetrate. If the cow pat is still intact and gone light grey and hard on the surface it likely means it is merely oxidising and will do little to help improve the soil. The healthier the soil and pasture, the more the resultant healthy dung will attract dung beetles and dung worms to quickly incorporate the residue into the soil as part of the carbon cycle.
Sub-soil Compaction Test:
If the sub-soil has developed a compacted layer, most roots will not be able to penetrate it as it will contain no airspaces for the roots to grow through thereby greatly limiting the amount of soil that roots can access and greatly increasing the chance of water-logging and surface erosion. Now check for sub-soil compaction or the existence of a hardpan just below plow depth. If you have a penetrometer use it (any reading above 300 PSI indicates compaction), otherwise take a metal rod about 10mm in diameter and hammer it into the soil with gentle to moderate blows. If it penetrates easily for say the first 50mm – 200mm but then takes considerable effort to drive it in the next 100mm – 200mm before becoming easier again, then it is highly likely there is a hardpan or compacted layer with very little or no air in it. This will prevent most plant roots from penetrating further than the first 50mm – 200mm to access moisture and minerals deeper down. While deep ripping can bring a short term improvement, it is expensive, probably won’t last and may even make things worse. Longer term improvement in soil health from a range of measures noted herein will eventually help to break up the hard pan and enable plant roots and moisture to penetrate much deeper. In due course this subsoil area will improve and become more like topsoil (this is a cheap way of accessing more soil without purchasing more land). If compaction is evident, it is not only important to work to overcome it but also to minimise further compaction by restricting wheeled traffic over soil especially when soil is wet and by moving animals before they cause any significant pugging in the soil. See further below and also access one of the attached links for ‘Soil Works’ company in America - ‘Correcting the Cause of Compaction’ which sheds new light on a fundamental cause. Soil Works considers soil compaction to be a major limitation on soil health and successful agriculture and outlines an interesting approach to overcome it. Later I will also set out another somewhat similar approach, but with further benefits, that we are trialling with encouraging early results.
Rainfall / Moisture Penetration Test:
If the soil has good structure it will be readily able to absorb rainfall / moisture rather than it running off. Take a metal or strong PVC pipe about 100mm-150mm diameter and a similar length and tap it about 50mm into the soil. Cover the top of the pipe loosely with Gladwrap and pour on to it about 500ml of water representing about 25mm of rain. Then slide the Gladwrap off the pipe and quickly let all the water go at once onto the soil within the pipe (or alternatively simply pour all the water in quickly in one go). Time how long it takes for the water to go completely into the soil. If it takes more than a minute or two it means there is not enough air in the soil and there will likely be run-off and waste in heavier rainfall and risk soil erosion. In a well-structured soil it will likely fully penetrate in less than 20 seconds. If it takes 10 minutes, or worse still over an hour, the soil lacks structure and will not be able to capture much moisture in heavier rainfall events and will be prone to erosion. As soil health improves, rain will penetrate more readily and eventually be able to capture even very heavy and prolonged rainfall. Further, healthy soil will not only enable you to capture more water but also to store it in the soil. As indicated earlier, it is estimated that for every one percent increase in soil carbon, soil will store an estimated extra 120,000 litres per hectare.
Soil Coverage and Plant Diversity Test:
There are many benefits in keeping the soil covered with a high diversity of growing plants and dead organic matter including protecting the soil during periods of heavy rainfall, helping to conserve moisture, keeping the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter as well as providing dead organic matter for earthworms to eat. Standing dry plant material (that has not significantly oxidised) will enable livestock to balance their food intake by including roughage. Bare soil is best avoided at all times. Growing plants and their living roots in the soil will ensure that plants can exude liquid carbon into the soil as plants photosynthesise. Further, these living roots help to ensure mycorrhizal fungi can continue to survive and expand. The greater the diversity of plants the greater the synergistic effect leading to greater diversity of microbes. Aim for at least 8 but preferably even many more types of plants taking in both broadleaf types and grasses as well as herbs and flowering plants to not only protect the soil surface but to capture sunlight and ensure good photosynthesis. Where possible have both warm and cool season varieties. In due course, seed lying dormant in the soil, perhaps for many years or even decades, will start to reappear as soil conditions favourable to their existence start to occur. Minimise bare soil exposure - check by looking straight down and into (rather than across) the pasture.
Soil Minerals Test:
Not all minerals are essential for a plant to ‘merely’ grow and indeed some will ‘grow’ with comparatively few minerals. Year by year however it is being discovered that more and more minerals, including many trace minerals, are required for a truly healthy plant. Further, nature intended that plants uptake many minerals, not just for their own benefit but also for the benefit of the creatures or people that eat them. It is difficult to detect minerals in the soil by eye however if the land has a history of traditional modern farming practices having been carried out, it is highly likely that a considerable number of minerals will be locked up and some ‘heavy’ metals such as aluminium, which has a toxic effect, will have become more soluble in a strongly acidic soil. If the soil has a poor structure, it is also likely that it will be lacking in trace minerals (as well as microbes). Further, because Australian soils are generally very ancient, many trace minerals will have been leached out especially in high rainfall areas. While soil tests can be carried out, they will usually only measure readily available soluble minerals and not those that are merely locked up because of soil acidity or mineral imbalance. Addition of individual minerals risks locking up other minerals because they create an imbalance. However, improving the soil by the various means outlined herein, especially adding a full range sea mineral product, will help to improve lots of things including the soil pH (acidity – alkalinity level) with various benefits as indicated below.
Soil Acidity Test:
Most soils will have a pH level between about pH 4.5 (acidic) and pH 9 (alkaline) with an ideal level for most agricultural purposes considered to be a slightly acidic level of pH 6.5. A pH 7.0 is regarded as neutral while the range is from pH 0 to pH 14. It should be noted that a pH 4.5 is ten times as acidic as pH 5.5 and 100 times more acidic than pH 6.5. Soil acidity itself is worth checking mainly as a means of measuring progress. It is highly likely that the soils will be quite acidic from the outset especially where chemical fertilisers have been used. By improving the issues suggested for testing, you will improve the soil pH. If you don’t actually do a soil pH test, some indication can be obtained by looking at the extent of worm activity – worms do not like soil pH below about 5.0 – 5.5. As measures are taken to increase worm numbers, the worms will help to improve soil pH due to how they improve soil mineralization, especially in how they secrete calcium from a gland in their body. The traditional way of making a soil less acidic is to apply lime. Applied on the soil surface however, it takes time to work into the soil. Further, it then tends to lock up sulfur which is required by plants. Lime unfortunately also tends to break up or destroy humus (humus is perhaps the holy grail for long term soil health and is something to preserve and strive to increase rather than risk destroying). Various sea mineral and kelp products are an effective way to amend the pH of a soil. Proper sea minerals provide a full range of 84 minerals all balanced as nature intended and help to bring an acidic soil up towards a more neutral level and a too alkaline soil down to a more neutral level. A cheap and effective way (but not well known) to add minerals to the soil is to apply Olsson’s Liquid Sea Minerals as part of a foliar spray at the same time as putting out worm or compost tea or products such as NutriSoil (which is understood to be made from the mucous of compost worms) and fungal extracts. A highly biologically active, mineralised, healthy soil will maintain a consistent electrical current. It is this current which drives plant growth and as noted later, helps overcome compaction.
Microbe Presence Test:
Microbes are extremely important in the soil food web but will likely be missing in a soil with a history of chemical use and low carbon in the soil. They are so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye but can be seen with a very powerful microscope or alternatively their presence measured with a Soil Microbiome / EC (Electrical Conductivity) Meter. While microbes only live for a matter of weeks, when they die they benefit the soil fertility. Fortunately however they do multiply rapidly if conditions are right, (apparently doubling in number every 20 minutes or so). There are many millions of microbes in just a teaspoon of healthy soil. Microbes do not like very low or very high temperatures. Just like how we use a fridge, which is at about 4 degrees to stop the bacteria growing on our food, the same happens in the soil. On a cold winter’s day when the soil temperature is lower than between 6-10 degrees, microbes are mostly inactive. Microbes’ sweet spot is said to be around 24C. This is why when you add a biological fertiliser like worm leachate or compost tea, it is best to work within the plants’ active growing time when the soil temperature is higher but not too hot. There are lots of soil predators and if microbes have no shelter to retreat to, such as in humus (completely broken-down compost or organic matter), biochar or diatomaceous earth, all of which contain thousands of microscopic cavities, they are prone to be attacked by other soil ‘creatures’. If the soil is not dark in colour it is likely that it is lacking humus that provides shelter for microbes. If biochar and / or diatomaceous earth (DE) are applied (both of which are full of microscopic size holes), they should be inoculated and mineralised first before being applied. Both these things can also be fed to animals mixed with molasses and they will be inoculated as they pass through the animal digestive system. Dung beetles and dung worms will then bury the dung and the biochar and / or diatomaceous earth and the microbes they then contain in the microscopic size holes will have a safe haven when needed and be in the soil to improve its health.
Brix is a measure of the natural sugar content of plants, vegetables and fruits. A plant functioning at its genetic potential will have high BRIX. The higher the Brix level, the healthier the plant, the more insect and pest resistant it will be and the more nutritious and filling the produce. Once the Brix reading is around 10 or 11 not only will the plant be more nutritious but also it will not be attractive to insect pests (which are basically there to get rid of weak plants). As the BRIX of the plant sap increases, the immunity of the plant increases. Nutrient density, carbon content, and quality have all been directly correlated with BRIX. When a crop is low in carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, the plant is open to disease, stress and insects. There is some great information about BRIX in a document to be found on one of the link sites attached - ‘Boots in the Dirt’. Brix is gauged with a Brix Meter or Refractometer which measures the degree to which the natural sugar content causes light to be bent as it passes through a small amount of the juice extracted from the plant, vegetable or fruit. See later for tips on taking effective brix readings.
Brix Meters can be purchased on the web including from suppliers like Nutri-Tech Solutions and Grazetech.
It is also worthwhile checking soil temperature as the seasons change not just to give you some idea of whether microbes are active as noted above in the 'Microbe Presence Test', but also to show the difference in temperature between soil which is bare or has little cover and soil which has a good soil armour - see 'Soil Coverage and Plant Diversity Test' above.
Armed with the results from these tests, you will now have an idea of how much potential there is to regenerate your farm and how long it might take. Later you will get an idea of what measures you could take to start bringing life back into your soil.
Useful Testing / Monitoring Equipment
The following equipment will be helpful to test / monitor the health of your soil. They are comparatively inexpensive. Most can be purchased on line or from a rural supplier near you.
Soil thermometer (Sub-soil temperature)
Refractometer (Brix Reading)
Penetrometer (Soil Compaction)
Soil Sampling Probe (Soil Profile)
Soil Microbiome Meter / EC meter (Electrical Conductivity, microbe presence)
Shovel (to check soil structure, root development, earthworms etc)
Metal / PVC tube about 100mm diameter and 100-150mm long (water infiltration)
Microscope / magnifying glass / camera (with zoom to view photos close up)
And a good nose to smell the soil!!!
Soil Sampling Probe and Soil Thermometer in Action during Early Phase of Regeneration
Fundamentals of Regenerative Agriculture
Gabe Brown from North Dakota in the US has been one of the pioneers in regenerative agriculture with about 30 years experience. In the numerous presentations and educational sessions he has done, not just in America but also overseas, he lists five fundamental practices to make a difference. These are:
Minimal Soil Disturbance - avoid plowing
Maintaining ‘Armour’ on the Soil Surface - no bare ground
Diversity of Growing Plants at Any One Time - no monoculture
Living Roots in the Soil as Long as Possible - support mycorrhizal fungi
Animal Impact and Diversity where Possible - rotational grazing
These will be addressed later along with a few other things but first a broad overview.
Improvements in soil health will steadily happen as these principles are followed. In the absence (or staged reduction) of plowing and use of chemicals, life will start to return to the soil, worms being one of the more obvious while various forms of fungi might be evident. However so much of soil biology is not visible to the naked eye and often hard to see even with significant magnification. Soil will start to form aggregates, worms will not only start to open up the soil as they tunnel through it but their worm castes will greatly improve the mineral content of the soil and improve soil structure and acidity towards being more neutral. Soil will start to darken in colour and rain will be more readily absorbed into the soil rather than running off. It will take time but it will happen.
All this activity will start to build soil organic matter and soil carbon. Returning organic matter to the soil will slowly build and improve the soil. However, an Australian Scientist, Dr Christine Jones, has found that topsoil can be built much more quickly by having a wide diversity of healthy growing plants which, through photosynthesis, can cause liquid carbon to be released from the roots into the soil where a sticky substance called glomalin is produced and helps soil particles to form into aggregates. This aggregate structure enables air and water to more quickly penetrate into the soil. Air in the soil enables atmospheric nitrogen to become available to plants provided the required microbes are present. And as exciting as this discovery is, there are several additional ways to help it to happen even quicker and more dramatically as will be noted later.
Soil carbon is the food of microbes. Having abundant types of microbes (achieved by having a broad diversity of pasture types) helps make minerals that are locked up in the soil available to plants. Much has been made of the need to reduce atmospheric carbon, however the many benefits of returning carbon to the soil to get the carbon cycle and soil health going again have not been well publicised. In addition to enhancing nutrient availability, carbon performs many other functions in soil, including the maintenance of soil porosity, aeration and water-holding capacity. Small amounts of humus will start to form and be retained in the soil provided there is minimal disturbance of soil, living roots are maintained in the soil as long as possible and bare soil is kept to a minimum. Humus is a major component of the best soils in the world.
Formation of humus is a slow process but can be expedited in several ways. By making sure the soil is kept covered, there will be food for earthworms whose activity is important in humus formation. The soil will be cooler and retain moisture better in summer while being warmer in winter helping to keep worms and microbes active for longer.
In more recent times, the importance of soil fungi has been re-discovered. Farm chemicals and plowing have largely been responsible for the disappearance of soil fungi from many farms. There are numerous forms of fungi performing many different functions but for the most part they help to break down tough lignin in some organic matter into a form that can be taken up, not just by healthy roots, but also by mycorrhizal fungi (which can be re-introduced if chemicals are no longer used and soil disturbance is minimised). Mycorrhizal fungi is so fine it is only visible with powerful microscopes. Whereas plant roots largely just penetrate between soil aggregates, mycorrhizal fungi which penetrate the roots, extend not just the effective reach of the roots, but they also then actually penetrate individual soil aggregates to access moisture and minerals within them making these available to the plant.
American Scientist Dr David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chun Su have pioneered a technique of making a fungal dominant compost (in a bioreactor) which can either be spread sparingly over the soil or better still, by extracting fungal spores from it then making a fungal extract, to either apply it to the soil or preferably to inoculate seed before sowing. The results have been amazing. From a once only application they have witnessed growth and the level of production increase significantly year by year over about 5 years. This is now being followed in many parts of the world and represents a major advance in the regenerative agriculture journey. A link to his presentation is included in the blog 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts & Webinars' and 'Beneficial Books'.
Unfortunately the Johnson-Su Bioreactor takes about 12 months for optimum results and while it is worthwhile doing, there is another much quicker way to at least get something happening if you don’t want to wait that long. This involves gathering suitable material, preferably from moist wooded areas (especially under deciduous trees) on your farm or in your locality where chemicals have not been used or from along fence lines where soil has not had chemicals applied nor the soil disturbed. Such material can be found rotting down on the soil surface, where white fungal material called mycelium might be observed, and also invisible spores in the soil below. Mushrooms are the flowers of fungi in the soil, so any areas where you see mushrooms may provide material. It is unlikely you will find mushrooms where chemicals have been used and / or the soil periodically plowed. From this gathered fungal material a fungal extract can be prepared by immersing the material in water and stirring briskly for 5 - 10 minutes or more to dislodge fungal spores before straining to remove organic matter. The coloured liquid is then mixed with a large quantity of water and perhaps other things such as liquid sea minerals or kelp extract products, worm extract products etc and sprayed onto pastures. Some of the web sites to which links are provided in the blog 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts & Webinars' will have directions and videos on the subject or simply Google directions for making a fungal extract.
Gabe Brown notes the increasing awareness of the importance of soil biology. He says soil without biology is just geology. Indeed, in America so much land is so degraded it is called 'dirt' rather than soil. If all or most of the five points are followed, the soil biology will steadily improve. While avoiding use of chemicals (including chemical fertiliser) is not specifically noted as one of those five points, he mentions it later as something to be weaned off as soon as possible. Indeed, Gabe cautions (as do others) that if a property has used chemical fertilisers for an extended period that it is important to not abruptly stop as the soil will have next to no 'life' and plants will be depending on soluble fertilisers. Rather, chemical use should be gradually decreased over a few years while the regenerative measures are introduced and life returned to the soil.
Gabe has put out lots of videos about his pioneering journey in Regenerative Agriculture. If you want to get an overview and see the amazing results he has achieved, you will find several links to his presentations in the blog 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts & Webinars' or simply Google his name or search on YouTube.
While Gabe is certainly in a different part of the world, these important principles plus a few others apply throughout much of the world, including Australia.
NOTE: This 'blog/manual' does not attempt to address the specific requirements of the many different rural land uses found in this country or elsewhere, but, if anything, there is some broad focus on grazing and cropping uses. The web however will contain regenerative agriculture material on so many other rural land uses. A Google Search for ‘regenerative agriculture’ + the particular use you are involved in will likely turn up much material. There may also be groups that you can access on line for support for your particular land use or interest area or other early adopters in your area you might be able to connect with.
Gabe Brown’s Five Fundamentals of Regenerative Agriculture
NOTE: If you are already familiar with what Gabe Brown has put out, feel free to skip ahead to the section headed 'Other Ways to Expedite Regeneration'.
These fundamentals will apply in many areas but in some areas there may also be others that are important. For example, Gabe lives in an area of generally mineral rich soil, but in many areas of Australia with its ancient soils, some minerals, especially trace minerals, may be missing or in too limited amounts (or locked up). For now however, here are some more detailed notes about my understanding of Gabe’s five fundamentals.
1. Minimal Soil Disturbance
Plowing soil has been part of the cause of soil deterioration as it not only helps to destroy any mycorrhizal fungi but also damages structure of the soil and leads to release of soil carbon into the atmosphere. It can kill off soil microbiology including earthworms and help to form a hardpan immediately below the level of plow penetration as fine soil particles fall to the bottom and bind together.
Some 40 odd years ago, minimum and no till farming were introduced after some of these issues were realised, however the techniques developed required use of herbicides to kill off vegetation and still involved use of chemical fertilisers to feed plants and pesticides to attempt to control pests. While this was some improvement, it meant that life in the soil was now being destroyed by chemical means alone rather than by both physical and chemical means. It seems that the use of chemicals has done more to destroy soil carbon and soil structure than soil disturbance, as chemicals cause carbon to oxidise and enter the atmosphere.
Gabe and others including Australians such as Colin Seis have developed ways to plant crops and pasture while retaining a cover on the soil, sowing through either growing organic matter or plants which have been terminated in various ways including use of crimp rollers. Others have heavily grazed areas and been able to sow through remaining material using coulters to slice between the material and into the soil with minimal disturbance.
Minimal soil disturbance however does not mean ‘no’ soil disturbance. Indeed, it has been shown that some very shallow, partial disturbance can be a good thing when there is good coverage with living plants, in that it can help to incorporate some green organic matter as a ‘green manure’ to stimulate microbial life. Animal hooves (cattle in particular) help to massage the soil surface incorporating some organic matter and placing seed that is on the surface of the soil into better contact for germination. Various machines have been designed to facilitate a low percentage of plant material being turned into the soil as a green manure while leaving the majority of plants still intact and growing. One such machine is an Australian invention, the Soilkee Renovator, whose inventor is said to be the first farmer to be paid in Australia from the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) for increasing soil carbon. This payment was facilitated by Matthew Warnken of Agriprove. The Soilkee Renovator fluffs up strips of soil to provide a seed bed for simultaneously sowing diverse pasture species disturbing only 15% of existing pasture while turning the disturbed green matter into the soil to enhance biology and provide food for microbes.
2. Maintaining ‘Armour’ on the Soil Surface - Protecting and Enhancing
Soil that is fully or even partly exposed is vulnerable on many fronts. If the soil structure is poor, it will be liable to erosion from rain and wind. Exposed soil will be much hotter in summer (and get colder quicker in winter) causing not only evaporation but also conditions that are adverse to soil biology. In heavy rain in particular, most rain falling on lots of bare soil will run off and any that does penetrate the soil will quickly evaporate. The explosive force of heavy rain drops will also destroy soil structure close to the surface. Soil crusting is quite possible.
Keeping the soil covered with growing and trampled or rolled dead organic matter in contact with or very close to the ground (armour) not only protects the soil, it helps to keep the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter, enhance infiltration and conserve moisture while helping to protect and enhance soil biology.
Significantly, it is the photosynthetic capacity of living plants (rather than the amount of dead biomass added to soil) that is the main driver for soil carbon accumulation. Mycorrhizal fungi differ quite significantly from decomposer type microbes in that they acquire their energy in a liquid form as soluble carbon directly from actively growing plant roots. By this process they are actively drawing down atmospheric carbon and turning it into humus, often quite deep in the soil profile, where it is protected from oxidation.
Soil also benefits from dead material in close contact with the ground, not just in the protection it provides to the soil surface, but also in the food it provides for those types of earthworms which may consume some on the surface and draw some down into their tunnels where it is consumed and turned into plant available material and humus. What is important is to get the dead material knocked over into close contact with the ground before it oxidises. Dead plants which remain standing merely oxidise and do very little to enhance soil health. Dead organic matter close to or under the surface is food for microbes provided there is an abundant microbial population as part of a very biologically active soil.
One of the forefathers of regenerative agriculture is a South African, Allan Savory, who discovered how dead plants left standing lead to desertification and showed that such plants need to be trampled by livestock to protect the soil microclimate so plants deteriorate biologically rather than merely oxidising. He developed techniques of holistic management and planned grazing which mimic the grazing by herds of wild beasts, bunched up and kept moving by predators, that created the rich plains in various countries. His TED Talk from 2013 is truly inspirational. You unlikely live in an area that is turning to desert, however if you watch his talk you will start to understand the important role of livestock and planned or rotational grazing that is behind some aspects of regenerative agriculture. A link to his TED talk is included in the blog 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts & Webinars'. It is highly recommended that you watch it as soon as possible. I have personally watched it quite a few times - you will see why!
3. Diversity of Growing Plants at Any One Time - No Monoculture
Most crops have traditionally been grown as monocultures while most pastures have comprised only one or two species. We are so used to this that anything else can look unusual or even untidy but this lack of diversity is behind some of the deterioration in soil health and the ongoing need for chemicals.
What farmers like Gabe Brown have shown is that the greater the plant diversity, the more diverse the soil microbes that will be attracted, the better plants will perform and be sustained and in time the greater the health of the soil, livestock and humans. In a very dry time, Gabe conducted an experiment on a research station with five different pasture species. Each of five blocks was sown with a single different species on its own while in a sixth block all 5 species were planted together. While all germinated, the single species block plantings all withered within a month while the block with all 5 species planted together flourished and grew very well even in the dry conditions. There is obviously a synergy that comes about from diversity. Gabe now generally sows many more species together looking to include in the mix plant types which will help improve some aspect of soil health that he thinks could be further improved.
Such is the recognition of the benefits of greater diversity of growing plants at any one time that farmers are finding ways to have pasture and crops growing at the same time, one assisting the other at various stages. Even where that may not be practical, some are finding benefits of sowing strips or rows of different crops in an alternating fashion.
But the benefits of a diverse range of healthy plants extends beyond what difference it makes to soil health. Animals benefit from having a diet of a diverse range of well mineralised plants, especially if rotational grazing is undertaken because each plant will bring differing combinations of vitamins and minerals, and with higher Brix levels, that will more quickly satisfy the animal and enhance gut health. Also, imagine how boring it would be if you had to eat just one or two things day after day, week after week, month after month, not to mention the adverse impact it would eventually have on your health - even if something is good for you, carrots for example, too much can actually be detrimental to health. It is the same for animals and I imagine also for soil microbial life. The greater the diversity the better for soil biology, plant growth and nutrients as well as livestock and us.
4. Living Roots in the Soil as Long as Possible - No Bare Ground
Nature dislikes bare ground and if there is adequate soil moisture, weed seeds will quickly germinate to cover the ground. To check for bare ground look down between plants, not just across a field. Traditional farming practice might see those weeds either plowed in or sprayed, however in regenerative agriculture weeds are often seen as something there to overcome some defect in the soil. They often have tap roots and help to bring minerals up from deeper down. As fertility improves through the various measures noted herein including planting multi species cover / forage crops, there will also be greater competition for weeds. The other possibility is that weeds will become more palatable and be grazed by livestock rather than left, especially after liquid sea minerals have been applied. Indeed, after the first application of Liquid Sea Minerals (LSM) to one of Tom's paddocks he noted, "cattle grazed the whole paddock" including weeds and have continued to do so (other than when some weeds form seed heads that cause problems for stock). Further, tightly bunched livestock in rotational grazing will be more competitive in their grazing and can be conditioned to eat many weeds.
Living roots require living plants to enable photosynthesis to occur and liquid carbon / glomalin to be deposited into the soil to improve its structure and health as already explained. Further, living roots are essential for the survival of mycorrhizal fungi. If there are no living roots for an extended period, any mycorrhizal fungi present will die off.
Glomalin, a polysaccharide (many carbons), acts as a lubricant during the growth of fungal hyphae. The fungi feeds off of carbon from the plant sap. As the fungi grows, it solubilises minerals making them plant available. The glomalin is then sloughed off the hyphae and acts as a “glue” assisting in soil aggregation. Along with mineral ratio balancing or full range mineral supply through sea mineral products, glomalin can further enhance the structure of the soil. It has been found that along with these structuring characteristics, this form of microbial derived organic matter is the foundation for building humus and the dominant form of soil carbon. It is said that carbon is more important than nitrogen.
5. Animal Impact and Diversity where Possible - Rotational Grazing
Many farms over recent decades have become solely cropping operations - no livestock, no fences and no shelter trees. While that may have seemed prudent when stock prices were low, the trend seems to have overlooked the benefits that livestock can bring to the health of the soil. In a chemical fertiliser regime, soil health may not have seemed important however the continuing adverse impacts of chemicals beyond just fertiliser have meant soil health has continued to deteriorate. This, and the recent dramatic increases in the prices of fertilisers means many farmers are now looking for answers and alternatives.
Livestock use about 60% of the protein they eat while the remaining 40% passes in their dung. If there are earthworms and dung beetles on the farm they will consume lots of this and take it into the soil where the carbon component will benefit microbes. What the worms consume and excrete will be significantly increased in mineral and microbial value for the soil and if the soil and plants are healthy, the microbes in the animal’s gut will help make them healthier and subsequently their dung will further enhance soil microbiology. Their urine will also have goodness in it. Further, if there is good armour on the soil, the dung (and its moisture component) falling on this organic matter will make an effective ‘mini compost pile’. While taller plants are sometimes topped mechanically, grazing them down instead stimulates growth due to the enzymes in the animal’s mouth stimulating growth in the plant.
Feeding Hay During Winter in Early Regeneration Phase
Some years ago in America a farmer purchased the adjoining property that had been heavily cropped for many years and was just bare soil having been ‘flogged out’ as we might say in Australia. He moved a large herd of his healthy cattle onto the paddock and put feed for them at one end and water at the other. By the end of a month there was lots of dung and urine deposited in between and soon after grass started to grow as soil biology was reintroduced.
On many farms in the past ‘set stocking’ has been used where a mob will be left in a paddock for many months. Animals are able to pick out the best grass and leave weeds. As new shoots appear on good grass already grazed they get eaten before they reach their peak and their potential to photosynthesise. Plant root mass diminishes to mirror the reduced amount of growth of leaves thereby reducing the potential to uptake minerals and moisture from the soil (and build soil carbon and humus) and then the pasture stand deteriorates. In the meantime, the weeds grow, set seed and spread and start to dominate.
In contrast, regenerative agriculture tends to utilise rotational / mob grazing, often using electric fences which are moved frequently to provide smaller grazing areas upon which a greater density of stock will graze for a short period. The idea is to have the stock eat about one-third of available grass, trample about one-third to provide increased soil armour and organic matter to feed biology and leave about one-third to provide photosynthesis to help keep the plant and its roots growing - NOTE: The one third left does not mean one third left untouched but rather one-third of the total plant mass, which may be just the lower 100-150mm (4 - 6 inches) or so of the plant which is where the greatest density of plant mass often is. In this time dung and urine will be deposited more densely. Stock are then moved on to another small area and the process repeated steadily moving them around the farm and not returning to that grazed area till it has had adequate time to recover which, depending on the season and location, may be anything from say four or five weeks to three or more months. In this way plants and the soil will become healthier (and in turn the animals), living plants and roots will flourish and the soil will develop a good ‘armour’ to protect it. Further, moving stock frequently like this helps to prevent intestinal worm re-infestation eventually enabling use of another chemical to be discontinued.
Tom's initial rotational grazing efforts were constrained by limited fencing and reticulated water, however, into his second spring season and he has now undertaken works to rectify both these limitations. Fortunately Tom's property has a very reliable spring providing good quality water and a very small watercourse on one side of the property. On another part of the property there is a dam however as this has likely been the source of some fluke issues, it has now been fenced off and that part of the property is now served by concrete troughs fed by the spring. With improved soil structure and organic matter, ground water should be greatly enhanced. With the benefit of this new infrastructure and some warmer weather, benefits from higher density, short duration grazing is quickly becoming evident.
Contractors Undertaking Electric Fencing and Water Reticulation Works Early in Second Spring
Flexible Electric Fencing Around Water Trough Facilitates Access from Four Grazes and Easy Movement of Stock
In the list of web sites set out in another blog you will see one ‘Varied Approach to Rotational Grazing - Recycling More Through Cattle’. This farmer has found good results getting the cattle to graze all pasture down to about 100mm or 4 inches (enough to cover their hooves) rather than leave one-third standing untouched. He considers there is more to be gained through having more dung on the soil than leaving part standing where it might go to waste. It may well be that in his case half or more has been eaten. This method may have more merit once good dung beetle / dung worm activity is established to make the most of the dung. It would seem pointless if dung just sits on the surface and oxidises. The sooner dung gets into the soil by way of dung beetles and / or dung worms the better. In much cooler weather when there is no evidence of their activity, it may be preferable to leave pasture a little taller. As the soil biology improves, it will facilitate much better use of trampled grass to further improve soil structure.
Last summer after Tom had applied Liquid Sea Minerals and various microbial products to the pastures, it was obviously having a beneficial impact on the quality of grass and cow dung. After a shower of rain, he was amazed and excited to see hundreds, if not thousands of dung beetles working over some fresh dung. He had never seen anything like it before.
Dung Beetle Activity in Dung from a Healthy Cow Grazing Nutritious Pasture - (part cow pat only shown)
Other Ways to Expedite Regeneration
Left to its own function, nature would eventually return depleted soil to health but it would be a very slow process indeed taking decades if not centuries. Further, until comparatively recently it was considered that it took around 100 years for 25mm (1 inch) of new topsoil to be created under natural conditions. Assuming you aren't prepared to wait that long, there are lots of things you can do in the short term to enhance nature and increase the depth of topsoil.
Drive Your Regenerative Agriculture Journey into the 'Fast Lane' (if you want to)
Gabe Brown’s Five Fundamentals as set out above are good overarching guidelines for steadily restoring soil health however there are some further comparatively simple and inexpensive techniques and applications you can undertake to greatly expedite regeneration on your farm.
Soil treated ‘right’ is the enabler of every function intended by nature to facilitate all the cycles of existence - the carbon, nitrogen, water and mineral cycles, the Soil Food Web, photosynthesis etc. If any of these is compromised, in due course all will be compromised. Similarly, enhancing one may eventually benefit the others however ‘simultaneously’ (or in short order) enhancing all will lead to the greatest, fastest and most beneficial regeneration of your farm.
Certainly you can pick and choose what regenerative practices you undertake, in what order and over whatever time frame you want (subject to seasonal conditions, rainfall and available resources), however the more elements you can undertake and the shorter the time frame you can manage, the more pronounced, quicker and more significant and beneficial will be your farm's regeneration. It's up to you. It's your regenerative agriculture journey so choose what you believe will work for you and how quickly you want to progress. It is not an 'instant' remedy or quick hit like chemical fertilisers (which cause chemical dependency and destruction of soil health however), but it is possible to make long-lasting change in a comparatively short time and to get to the point where chemicals and chemical fertilisers are seldom, if ever, used on your farm. The more of the 'natural' things you use and the more regenerative agriculture practices you adopt, the more you will enhance nature and the health of everything on your farm thereby enabling nature to facilitate the faster improvement in the functioning of those important cycles of existence. In just a few years you will be able to increase the 'land' you farm by increasing the depth of topsoil - increasing the volume of farmed topsoil on your existing area rather than increasing topsoil by purchasing more land area. That greater topsoil depth, well protected by soil armour from greater plant diversity and benefiting from improved soil biology, increased soil carbon and humus and greater capacity to store water in the soil, will make your farm more resilient, productive and profitable. What you see in a few months will be encouraging, what you witness year by year will have you excited and neighbours wanting to know what you are doing. Sure, somethings might need to be adapted or modified for your particular operation if they don't work as you hoped the first time. Indeed, some might turn out to be 'learning opportunities' as you discover an improved way to effect some element of the cycles of existence on your property. Just stick with it and it will happen.
Soil Compaction is the Most Limiting Factor to Successful Agriculture
While attention to lots of the matters raised above will steadily help to lessen soil compaction and reduce the chance of it happening, there are several steps that can be taken from the outset that will not only help those steps to happen quicker and better but also to start overcoming compaction right from the start of the regenerative process. The reason for this technique appears to be not well known and has only recently been uncovered in my on-going research.
In this site's blog 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts and Webinars etc', one of the links is for a site by ‘Soil Works’ with the title ‘Correcting the Cause of Compaction’. It puts forward some information which extends my understanding of the compaction problem. It states ‘The most limiting factor to successful agricultural production is soil compaction.’ It goes on to explain what it considers to be the major cause of compaction - a change in the electrical charge carried by soil particles and destruction of bonds around colloids and aggregates due to use of various chemicals and poisons. It states that ‘the soil colloids eventually become so weak that they collapse creating many dispersive soils.’ And later it continues, ‘the electrical charges which once held the soil colloids together into aggregates are lost and each individual colloid begins to collapse forcing all oxygen, the key building block of all life, out of the soil.’ Soil biology stops in the absence of oxygen.
It further states ‘Addressing the mineral balances surrounding the soil colloid is the first step to correcting the cause of compaction. Available calcium is king when it comes to balancing the soil colloid “cloud”. Why? Because available calcium is 40 times more electrical than copper.’ It acknowledges that some people argue that microbes are the key to correcting soil compaction and having plants producing glomalin, however it contends that addressing the mineral balance and the electrical charge of soil particles is the important first step so that process happens quicker and better. It goes on to explain about its product which contains a particular form of calcium extracted from limestone.
Early Evidence of Increased Root Mass and Improving Soil Aggregation
From the initial results that Tom has obtained with Olsson’s Australian Liquid Sea Minerals, we think it highly likely that the ionic form of calcium in it will achieve the same end as well as supplying the full range of minerals and trace elements to the soil. This expectation is in line with what has been achieved in America with MycorrPlus (which uses Australian Liquid Sea Minerals as its main component) and what our early experience with creating a similar ‘experimental product’ here in Australia is showing us (see below).
Many years ago, I had a farmer tell me that wheat is a shallow rooted plant. I strongly doubted this as just the week before I had seen wheat growing in a ‘root chamber’ at a research station where there was a glass wall extending down one side of the container so the roots could be seen. And what I saw was a wheat plant with great masses of roots going down more than one metre. I suspect that the farmer only ever saw wheat roots growing down as far as the hard pan / compaction layer, likely caused by plowing, use of heavy machinery and chemicals including chemical fertilisers. Another farmer informed me that compaction on his farm was so bad that even the strong tap root on lupin plants could not penetrate it and turned a right angle to travel along the top of the hard pan. At considerable expense he deep ripped the country and within weeks saw a great improvement in pasture, while his cattle, which had always been fairly flighty, settled right down as plant roots went deeper and picked up minerals from deeper down. While that was an improvement, I doubted at the time that this was a good long term solution and felt that there had to be better ways than deep ripping as it did not correct the likely underlying cause of the compaction.
Clearly, having high available calcium in the correct form, along with the full complement of minerals and trace minerals, will fill the soil colloid and produce a strong current in the soil environment. Further, strong earthworm activity will see ionic calcium secreted from a gland in their body to help keep calcium available and ensure a good electrical current to produce a deep aerobic zone for deep moisture storage and root penetration enabling robust, nutritious plant growth.
Fix the compaction and increase the aerobic zone depth in this way and be amazed at the multitude of improvements you will see.
Minerals in the Soil - Achieving Readily Available Full Spectrum Nutrition
The major soil minerals are generally well known but not so trace minerals. While trace minerals are in very minute amounts, they are nonetheless important to soil health, plant growth and animal health (and indeed our health). The actual role many minerals and trace minerals play is not known or well understood but year by year it seems more is being learned.
This is not to say that something won’t grow because some mineral is deficient or missing but it will impact on how strong and beneficial that plant is. In hydroponics for example, soil scientists have worked out how few minerals are needed for something to merely ‘grow’ and it seems often that is all that is added to the 'growing' solution. However, what nature intended is for a plant to uptake many more minerals and trace minerals, not just for the benefit of the plant but for the benefit of what eats the plant and / or what then eats what ate the plant (usually us at the end of the food chain).
Most conventional soil tests check for minerals which are soluble and recommendations are largely based on that. However in most tests no check is made for minerals which are present but simply locked up by some mineral imbalance or absence of microbes and fungi to make them available. When individual minerals or a combination of just a few minerals are added, unfortunately this can create further imbalances or lock up other minerals. Liming the soil to reduce soil acidity for example, typically locks up sulfur, a mineral which is not only important for plant growth, it is also essential for holding electrical conductivity in the soil as noted above. Sulfur’s absence or lack of availability is a surprising cause of compaction. A highly biologically active, mineralised, healthy soil will maintain a consistent electrical current. It is this current which drives plant growth and overcomes compaction. The interactions between minerals and microbes in the soil contribute to the current of the soil.
It can be a never-ending process trying to create a mineral balance in the soil by adding individual minerals. In any event however, many minerals are added in a soluble form which feeds the plant and not the soil, destroys life in the soil and makes the soil more acidic creating more and more problems. Even many salt licks made up for animals do not contain the full complement of minerals.
The reality is that much of what is needed is already in the soil but simply locked up because of a lack of biology in the soil and its acidity. Further, until recently it had been thought that a silica deficiency was unlikely to occur due to the sand component in most soils. However in recent years it was discovered that silica was being locked up by farm chemicals including chemical fertilisers. Silica is important for many things including the strength of cells. Due to deficiency, many plants were not as strong as they used to be and the silica was not being passed on in the food chain.
Sea water contains all 84 known minerals including trace minerals each in balance with its opposite. There are various sea mineral (sea salt) products on the market and things like kelp extracts which contain the full mineral goodness of the ocean as well as vitamins and enzymes - important for plant, animal and human health. It has been discovered that while there is lots of disease and illness in land based creatures, there is no evidence of disease in ocean creatures living in unpolluted ocean waters.
Here in Australia a company evaporates 100 litres of pure ocean water to the point where most of both the sodium and chloride settle out as crystals which can be removed leaving a concentrate of 1 litre of liquid with the full range of minerals including all trace minerals. It seems much of its product is used in manufacture of various products but comparatively little is used for agriculture. Perchance I discovered that an American company was importing this liquid sea mineral concentrate and adding a range of other things including humic and fulvic acid and various microbes and fungi to make something now called MycorrPlus which when applied to the soil just before a good rain event or irrigation helps to quickly change the structure of the soil, address mineral deficiencies and introduce microbial life. MycorrPlus is a product by AG-USA. There are several links to its web site attached where lots of information about how it works and its benefits can be found.
An interesting story helps to illustrate what a difference these minerals and the other components of its product make. An agronomist was helping some first nations’ people in the US or Canada (I can’t remember which) to enhance the land on which they were grazing bison. He miscalculated the amount required, putting something like five times the normal amount on the soil. When he came back some months later to check progress he was initially disappointed to see bare soil. However he was informed that the bison quickly realised how good was the grass growing on that part of the property that they grazed it down to the ground then started eating the soil, ignoring grass growing elsewhere!
Because of the bulk, cost to freight and limited shelf life (due to the biological content) of the American enhanced product, it has not been a proposition to import it back to Australia, however our very early and limited ‘amateur’ trials attempting to make something similar combining various products (also with Olsson’s Liquid Sea Minerals as the base) seem to be producing very encouraging results. Poorly drained soil opened up in a matter of weeks and it would seem vegetation (including weeds) also improved as cattle started grazing the whole paddock rather than just picking off their favourite plants. Those cattle have since been attracting high range prices at market. Those retained for breeding are now calving and the owner is reporting cows delivering easily without assistance and calves very quickly up and going, looking strong and healthy and performing amazingly well in the first few weeks like he has never seen before. It will be interesting to see the progeny of those animals when they get to breeding stage having had a mother grazing nutritious pastures and they themselves having their whole life grazing even healthier pastures as the farm continues to improve. (Update - the farmer has now stated that he has never seen heifers grow so well and considered that at 12-13 months they were big enough to be 'introduced' to the bull where previously it was more like 15 months). Indeed, after some months of grazing healthier pastures, their mother’s dung had obviously improved as evidenced by the huge numbers of dung beetles it started attracting with the surface erupting with dung beetle activity. Another benefit that has become apparent is that heavy and extended rainfall is going into the soil rather than running off. The only ponding is along frequently used vehicle tracks / laneways and tracks frequently used by livestock. Some water did pond in one small area for a short while where a tractor had recently been sowing a cool season diverse species forage crop, but even here there were signs of improvement with earthworm activity apparent. Elsewhere earthworm activity is evident in every shovel full of soil with one early dig revealing 10 worms in one shovel full without even pulling the soil apart while a more recent dig fully pulling the soil and plants apart revealed 50 worms. Soil generally is becoming spongy underfoot. Very encouraging indeed.
A benefit of liquid sea minerals (LSM) is that it is ionic which means that when diluted in water it will readily spread evenly through the entire solution making it very simple to spray over large areas by diluting in large volumes of water. It is preferable to apply liquid sea minerals before a good rainfall event so that it washes into the soil which is where it is intended to go. Further it is best applied well before or after the heat of the day. Minerals in ionic form are readily available to plants and well incorporated to enhance cell structure. Further, ionic minerals possess an electrical charge and based on what Soil Works has noted, it is likely that having calcium in an ionic form in the LSM is what brings the electrical charge into the soil and helps to restructure the soil and begin overcoming compaction.
The key to achieving excellent quality crops with very high yield is to have a reserve of pre-digested minerals ready for plant uptake. These minerals have already gone through microbial digestion. Not only do you need the right quantity you also need the right spectrum. Plants and all biology do best when given full-spectrum nutrition. This means major minerals, secondary minerals, trace minerals and rare earth elements. Same applies to animal nutrition. While these can be given as supplements, it is highly likely that animals will fare better by eating plants which have first had the benefit of this full-spectrum nutrition. The 'residue' after animal consumption then continues the mineral and nutrition cycles as dung gets taken into the soil by dung beetles and dung worms effectively enhancing the microbial life of the soil as well.
Adequate soil biology is needed for the uptake of many minerals. Plants’ health and resilience, optimal growth and thus production are affected by biology. However, soil biology appears to need a much wider range of minerals to thrive than plants need to merely ‘survive’.
Sea minerals provide that full range and, in the ionic form, are readily taken up by plants. As related earlier, when 'Tom' applied LSM the first time on a wet paddock, a month later he noted much softer, more open soil the first time he drove the tractor over it. The next time this paddock was grazed he was amazed to see that the cows "grazed the whole paddock". It seems that plants (and weeds) they had previously ignored had become more palatable. This situation has continued over the whole farm where it has now had not only LSM but also a range of microbial extracts and in part at this stage, some fungal extracts sprayed out using material largely sourced on Tom's farm and neighbourhood.
Nicely Grazed Paddock in Foreground. Cows Now on Fresh Pasture at the Bottom End of the Paddock. NOTE: This paddock has not yet had the benefit of the addition of a very diverse pasture mix.
Where soil biology is low to very low (especially after a history of chemical fertiliser and other chemical use), restoring fungi is essential to gain full benefits from sea minerals. So it would seem a good idea to include a range of microbial and fungal components as well as humic and fulvic acids and molasses (as a carbon source of food for the microbes) when spraying out liquid sea minerals.
A very quick story about sea water and its mineral content. The tsunami which struck Aceh in 2004 not only claimed many lives and destroyed much property but the sea water inundated lots of rice fields. It was considered that this would result in failed crops for several years; however, surprisingly, record yields were achieved for the next few crops. Eventually this was put down to the fact that the sea water had replenished minerals in the soil. Certainly too much sodium and chloride will eventually be a problem if straight sea water were to be used for many years however the good aspect of the liquid sea minerals produced in Australia is that most of the sodium and chloride are removed as salt crystals by evaporation leaving just a little of each along with all the other minerals, 84 in total in solution. 100 litres of sea water produces 1 litre of the concentrate making its transport within Australia practical and its use highly beneficial. Olsson’s Liquid Sea Minerals is understood to be available in 20 litre drums and 1000 litre shuttles. Six litres of the concentrate will cover one hectare when it is diluted with lots of water. If you live in an area where you are unable to access this product or something like it, you should be able to find various sea mineral type products such as sea solids and kelp extract products and perhaps others. The important thing is to find something that provides the full range of minerals and trace minerals in balance as nature intended.
Balancing the soil mineral ratios one way or another improves the soil’s structure which through the increased soil air increases the natural carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen levels in the soil. Soil mineral availability is dependent upon the interactions between and among minerals. Mineral availability begins with calcium. It has been said that calcium is the trucker of all minerals and the ‘mother’ of the soil. Phosphorus is said to be the ‘father’ of the soil and the catalyst and carrier of all nutrients to the plant.
Balancing soil minerals will help to balance soil pH and improve biological activity in the soil. While individual mineral ratio balancing might be considered by some to be the goal - liquid sea minerals provides all 84 minerals and might be a more efficient and cost-effective way of improving soil acidity and health.
Based on the ratio of soil minerals, the soil will either be compacted or flocculated. Compacted soil will have lots of problems but these can be overcome by recharging the soil with minerals in an ionic form to bring back the electrical charge required for flocculation. Flocculated soil is healthy soil and provides the soil environment necessary for the proliferation of soil microbes. Liquid Sea Minerals helps to flocculate the soil. Flocculated soil with ample pore space and a crumb structure will be full of solutes, microbes and air and is characterised by soil high in available calcium and carbon storage. It will be spongy with good tilth and produce high Brix growth.
Earthworms Are Important Contributors to Soil Health
Earthworms are fundamental to the health of soil on so many fronts so the numbers of earthworms and the extent of their activity will give an indication of soil health.
If there aren’t about 20 – 30 worms in a 300mm x 300mm x 300mm (or one cubic foot) of soil, the soil is either too dry or too cold at present or is not as healthy as it could be (it is possible to improve soil so that earthworm numbers exceed 100). Periodic testing for earthworm presence is one of the recommended tests for assessing soil health - see above.
As earthworms multiply they aerate the soil and enhance its mineral content as they move through the soil. Plant roots will tend to follow worm tunnels which will be lined with rich mucous from the worms. Worm casts deposited on the soil surface are the best natural fertiliser known and ultimately help to build soil humus. Earthworms have a gland that excretes small particles of calcium which help improve soil acidity. Earthworms also create humus 4 times more rapidly than normal decomposition. What comes out their rear ends is a fertiliser that is 10 times richer in potassium, contains 7 times more nitrogen, 5 times more phosphorus, 3 times more magnesium as well as beneficial organisms.
If you follow the 5 fundamentals or regenerative agriculture you will create the right conditions for earthworms to start to become active in your soil (and on the surface at night) and steadily increase in numbers, working 24/7 to improve the health of your soil.
After you read some of the documents in the links provided about what earthworms do for the soil health, you will appreciate how important they are and why monitoring their numbers is such a good indication of where soil health is up to on your farm and where it is heading.
Inoculating Seed Provides a Strong Start for Growth
Many legumes require inoculation with the correct microbial material to achieve their potential. However it has now been found that just about all seeds will germinate and grow better if they are ‘inoculated’ with microbial and fungal material as well as from having minerals added to their surface. Seed sown without inoculation tends to put its initial growth into shoots before developing good roots and can be subject to stress in difficult conditions. Inoculated seed however puts its initial growth into roots before shoots and therefore is better able to support the emerging shoots when they do appear. A minute amount of microbial and fungal inoculant is all that is required to inoculate seed, and along with a small amount of liquid sea mineral solution, it ensures that the seed gets a good start and produces strong healthy growth.
There are various commercial products available for this purpose such as NutriSoil, QuadShot, BioCast, MicroStart Liquid Microbe Mix and Best TM and no doubt many others (including in other countries). NutriSoil was an early entrant into that market in Australia with its worm extract liquid product. Others have a range of components and tend to have a shelf life of just a few months before they ‘go off’ (smell bad and then should not be used). It is possible however to make your own inoculant if you have the time and the right equipment and ‘raw’ materials. It requires extracting microbes from well made compost and fungi from either a fungal dominant compost such as made by the Johnson-Su method or by sourcing fungal material from wooded areas or from under large deciduous trees where chemicals have not been applied. This process is described above. The extract can then be diluted with non-chlorinated water to increase its volume and have such things as raw milk, molasses and liquid sea minerals added.
For small quantities of seed, a small amount of the mix can be added to the seed in a bucket to provide a very light coating. In slightly larger quantities a cement mixer can be used. However in large quantities it will be necessary to spray the material as it goes through a seed auger at time of loading. Grant Sims of Down Under Covers has provided me with the following advice:
“to inoculate larger quantities of seed we do this as it is going up the auger. If the auger does 1t/min we get a little 12v pump that you might use spot spraying and select a nozzle that does 5-10lts/min then spray it on the seed as it is running up the auger. This mixes it on well we can go up to 12lts/t before it gets too wet. Then we let it sit for an hour before we calibrate the machine so the seed has time to absorb it and dry out a bit.”
Ian and Di Haggerty in Western Australia who farm very large areas of low rainfall, mostly sandy country were early adopters of seed inoculation using NutriSoil and, when they have time to make compost, they include their own compost extract as well or otherwise they buy in compost extracts. Some material is applied in the auger and some in the drill row at sowing. Using these techniques, they have achieved amazing results including stimulating the dormant seed bank. They have noted changes to the soil structure including very little dust rising when crops are being sown while neighbours continue to cause lots of dust to rise. The Haggertys also use healthy sheep to add microbial matter in their dung to get the soil going in the first year.
It is very important when purchasing seed to avoid seed pre-treated with various ‘cides’ - herbicides, fungicides, pesticides etc. as these will negate what you are trying to achieve.
Foliar Sprays to Quickly Restore Minerals, Microbes and Fungi
It has been found that many plants will uptake material in sprays applied to their leaves. There are many convenient products on the market that can be diluted and sprayed out.
It is also possible to make some of these using some commercial products and adding various microbial and fungal extracts from your own resources much as indicated above for making solutions to use to inoculate seeds.
Well fed soil microbes will rapidly reproduce, grow, eat, breathe, and die. During a microbe’s comparatively short life cycle, solutes and ions are released into the root zone of the soil (rhizosphere). THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SOIL MICROBES IS A MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR TO THE ELECTRICAL CURRENT OF THE SOIL AND DRIVES PLANT GROWTH. By measuring electrical current you are measuring the biological activity of the soil. Soil microbes feed off of the carbon from root exudates creating a network of electrical energy throughout the soil. In times when a plant cannot support the microbes it is possible to support them with a diverse range of carbon sources. This can include crop residues, old straw and hay, cover crops, humic and fulvic acids, molasses, compost and humates as well as things like leaves and wood chips (which may not be feasible over large areas). Soil microorganisms are the creator and controller of electrical conductivity in soil provided there are available minerals to support and sustain the electrical current.
There are numerous types of microbes and fungi which perform many different functions and under varying conditions. It is therefore beneficial to have as many different types of each as you can so that your soil will perform under all sorts of conditions. Microbial diversity will be greatest in well mineralised soil without chemical use where a great diversity of plant types are growing as different plants attract different microbes. While some fungal diversity can be achieved by purchasing proprietary products, by far the greatest diversity will be achieved by sourcing fungal material from suitable areas on your farm and / or in your surrounding area as noted earlier. Using this technique some time after applying liquid sea minerals (LSM) to start restructuring soil and correcting pH, Tom found large quantities of mushrooms popping up especially on and around cow dung. We are unsure at this stage if it is due to what cows have introduced or perhaps more likely due to the fungal extract falling on a very good substrate to get it going, or perhaps both these things. This first happened towards the end of the first year of regeneration so we will continue to watch with interest. The mushrooms are the fruit of fungi in the soil and are evidence of good things happening below the surface.
Very Early Evidence of Improving Soil Biology
Some environmentalists have been expressing concern about the amount of methane emitted by cows, stating that it is much worse than carbon dioxide, and that is probably true if it does get into the upper atmosphere, but there is more to the story. New Zealand is introducing a charge or tax on emissions by farms so this is something to watch. Anyway, this is where microbes come to the rescue. Cows belch methane as they graze with their heads down. With a wide diversity and high numbers of microbes, there will be some that will thrive on consuming the methane and will largely be able to deal with the emissions while still close to the ground and before getting a chance to go into the upper atmosphere. Unfortunately this can't happen in feed lot situations however it seems that other possible solutions are being worked on including feeding various kelp products and biochar.
Air in the Soil is Essential for Microbial Life
Feeding microbes is only half of their survival story. Beneficial soil microbes require air to breathe. No different to humans, these tiny creatures need air to survive. The air we breathe, however, is different to the air in the soil. While both contain nitrogen, oxygen, argon and other gases, soil air contains approximately ten times as much carbon dioxide as atmospheric air. The high concentration of carbon dioxide is necessary for plant production. While it might be thought air going into the soil is a passive thing, in reality it is an active process. If there are air spaces in the soil, when an atmospheric high pressure system comes along it forces air into the soil to the extent of the aerobic zone. Further, when it rains, the falling droplets pick up atmospheric gases and if the soil is flocculated, these water droplets will readily penetrate deep into the soil if there is no compaction.
Early Evidence of Improving Soil - Good Root Mass and Some Rhizosphere even on Newly Germinated Seed
The higher concentration of carbon dioxide comes from the soil microbial respiration. Soil microbes breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide (this is the reverse of photosynthesis and is an important part of the global carbon cycle). Soil air containing ten times more carbon dioxide than atmospheric air is a testament to just how many soil microbes exist in a “healthy” soil. A healthy soil will have a deep aerobic zone, ample biological activity, and diverse forms of carbon ‘food’. This is the soil environment necessary to grow high quality, high BRIX crops. Once a penetrometer reading is over 300 PSI you are beyond the aerobic zone and into compaction territory where feeder roots cannot penetrate. If your aerobic zone is only 100mm or less you are greatly limited. Improve that to 300mm or 400mm or more and you will greatly improve the productive capacity of your soil. Pore space in the soil is the home for soil microbes.
Strong Early Spring Growth First Year of Multi-species Forage Crop (early into the second year of regeneration)
Approximately 80% of a growing plant is water - H2O. Approximately 97% of the dry weight of a plant comprises carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, all of which are ‘free’ and in the air. So it is easy to see how important it is to have the good open structure of the soil, not only so water can easily penetrate and provide a good reserve of water for plants to draw on, but also so plenty of air can enter the soil to enable carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen to be available to assist the soil life and growing plants to be healthy.
Soil Carbon and Humus Formation Can be a Lasting Benefit
At various points above there are comments about soil carbon formation and its benefits for lasting soil health. It is important to understand this because it is integral to humus formation, the ultimate ingredient of very long lasting soil health.
Nature works on cycling many things such as water, minerals, nitrogen and carbon through the wonders of the soil food web and photosynthesis etc., but to enable this cycling to happen requires the soil to be treated 'right'. If any of these is compromised, in due course all will be compromised.
Carbon is essential to life yet these days it is often spoken of in terms that might seem to suggest carbon is something bad. What is bad however is when the cycle is out of balance such as too much in the atmosphere and not leaving enough in the soil. Modern agricultural techniques such as plowing and use of chemicals including chemical fertilisers, have allowed a significant amount of carbon that has been in healthy soil to be released into the atmosphere, where, combined with carbon released from burning fossil fuels, it has been changing climate dynamics especially volatility.
Fortunately, regenerative agriculture techniques developed over the last few decades have shown that carbon can be returned to the soil by ceasing or minimising soil disturbance and use of chemicals while enhancing soil biology, returning beneficial fungi to the soil and increasing plant diversity. Healthier soil will result in healthier plants that convert sunlight into sugars by photosynthesis and in turn releasing a liquid form of carbon called glomalin into the soil to feed biology and improve soil structure and build new soil. At the same time if there is mycorrhizal fungi in the soil it will start to form highly desirable soil carbon and humus as it breaks down organic matter, particularly lignin. This can all be achieved at the same time as soil is still actively used for pasture and cropping. It does not require land to be taken out of 'production' by planting trees, though trees do still have a valuable role in the carbon cycle.
Humus is a complex 'thing' or 'condition' that has defied attempts to fully understand and define it. Keeping it as simple as possible, it is black-brown matter in soil produced after matter of plant origin is, as far as can readily be perceived, completely broken down to its most basic components and is rich in carbon. It contains the finest of clay particles and minerals. It is found in the best soils in the world, with those in Ukraine considered to be among the best.
Humus will be scarce in conventionally farmed soils due to tillage and use of chemicals, however it is the ‘holy grail’ of lasting soil health. Fortunately, regenerative farming practices can start to re-establish humus.
While materials that contain a large percentage of lignin, cellulose or other biologically resistant components have less to offer plants in the way of recyclable nutrients, they can contribute significantly more to the formation of humus IF the soil biology is right.
Biologically resistant components such as lignin, fats and waxes are structurally and chemically changed by microbial processing. Other biologically resistant carbon compounds are created by microorganisms as by-products of their decay activities. These decay resistant compounds are what humus is made of. This is not to say that humus is immune from further decay, but its resistance to decomposition is at a level that enables it to exist for decades, if not centuries, as a soil conditioner, a habitat for microbial life, and a vast reservoir of plant and microbial nutrients and moisture.
Crop residue is not soil carbon until it is broken down by soil microbes. Once crop residues are broken down they become soil organic matter if there is adequate pore space in the soil. The crop residues in compacted soils will mostly just ferment, pickle, and not decompose. Increasing the soil organic matter is dependent on more than just the crop and pasture residue. Soil structure, biological activity, and electrical conductivity all influence the storage of soil organic matter and building humus. Along with mineral ratio balancing, glomalin from the roots of photosynthesising plants can further enhance the structure of the soil. It has been found that along with these structuring characteristics, this form of microbial derived organic matter is the foundation for building humus and the dominant form of soil carbon. Glomalin however can only be formed when plants have enough carbon / higher Brix to support fungal growth.
Glomalin binds crucial elements such as iron and other ions and is essential in starting aggregate formation. Aggregates facilitate better water infiltration, water holding capacity, gas exchange and increased soil fertility by providing organic carbon to feed soil organisms which use this food as energy to release plant nutrients from the soil. Importantly, glomalin helps protect fungal hyphae and allows soil aggregates to store nitrogen and carbon deep inside the aggregates.
The humates that make up humus contain humic and fulvic acids. These are so valuable because they promote the growth of beneficial fungi which help to make crucial elements such as phosphorus available. Being powerful organic electrolytes which are soluble in water, they promote electrochemical balance in plant and animal cells. They are active in dissolving minerals and nutrients, making those more readily available to plants and therefore animals and humans.
Humus also has a buffering effect in soil helping to only give plants nutrients that are required so that over-dosing (as can happen with chemical fertilisers) is impossible. In this way, it helps to conserve energy and nutrients.
Humus also functions to improve the soil’s water holding capacity. Indeed, the most important function of humic substances within the soil is their ability to hold water. From a quantitative standpoint water is the most important substance derived by plants from the soil. Humic substances help create a desirable soil structure that facilitates water infiltration and helps hold water within the root zone. Because of their large surface area and internal electrical charges, humic substances function as water sponges. These sponge-like substances have the ability to hold seven times their volume in water, a greater water holding capacity than soil clays. Water stored within the top-soil, when needed, provides a carrier medium for nutrients required by soil organisms and plant roots. Increasing the depth of topsoil then has great benefit and is a cheap way of acquiring additional productive land.
Available water is without doubt the most important component of a fertile soil. Soils which contain high concentrations of humic substances hold water for crop use during periods of drought. Soil water also acts as a buffer for temperature changes, keeping the much needed heat level for microbial activity at a minimum.
Clay can also assist in forming and stabilising humus. Clay-humus complexes formed in soil can further inhibit bacterial decomposition and increase the lifespan of humus to over a thousand years. Adding clay to compost piles is therefore worthwhile.
Excessive applications of lime can significantly accelerate the decomposition process of humus. The low pH in acid soils inhibit the activities of bacteria. As the pH is raised by applications of lime, bacteria populations grow and a relative increase in decomposition occurs. This would seem a good reason to avoid applying lime. The other measures suggested herein, especially application of sea mineral products such as Liquid Sea Minerals will not only achieve the desired pH level much quicker and better than lime but it will also supply the full complement of minerals including all trace minerals and all in balance while enhancing the important electrical current to overcome compaction. It will be quickly available in the soil if applied just before a good rainfall event or irrigation (about 25mm or one inch)
The effect of adding too much nitrogen to the soil is very similar to what happens when it is added to a pile of slowly composting carbonaceous organic matter such as dry leaves or saw dust. The temperature of the pile is raised immediately, large volumes of carbon dioxide are released and the whole process of decomposition is accelerated exponentially. The reaction occurs regardless of the type of nitrogen added (i.e. organic or inorganic). This might be one reason that the Johnson-Su Bioreactor compost is so beneficial in that it uses mainly brown matter and does not generate the heat of a conventional 'green and brown' mix compost. A well made and finished Johnson-Su compost has a texture much like plasticine and may well be a form of humus, though no authority for such a conclusion has been found.
While gradually reducing dependence on chemical fertilisers as well as other farm chemicals was not individually one of Gabe Brown's Five Fundamentals of Regenerative Agriculture, it was something he did note. If you are fortunate not to have used much in the way of farm chemicals, your regenerative improvement may well be much quicker and help you start to rebuild humus in your soil sooner.
Biochar's Potential to Enhance the Carbon Cycle
Biochar (charcoal) has engendered a lot of interest in recent years after it was found to be a significant contributor to the famous 'Terra Preta' soils of the Amazon Basin which have amazing, very long lasting fertility. There have been many attempts around the world to duplicate those rich soils by making and adding biochar. Many of these attempts have been unsuccessful partly because some have thought that biochar is a sort of fertiliser. In reality however it is inert in its natural state, but what it does do because of its numerous cavities or micropores, is provide a safe haven for microbes as well as providing an amazing amount of surface area for moisture and minerals to cling to and for mycorrhizal fungi to penetrate and access these things for the benefit of plants whose roots it has also penetrated. If biochar is applied 'raw' it can actually detract from soil productivity initially as microbes will tend to move out of the soil and into the biochar during the first few years. So any attempt to use biochar should ensure that it is first micronised, moisturised, mineralised and inoculated with microbes and fungi before it is applied. Mycorrhizal fungi is associated with production of glomalin which in turn is a major influencer on formation of humus.
Unfortunately biochar can be expensive at the rates it is recommended to be applied however one farmer in Western Australia, Doug Pow, who has had access to a cheap source of biochar, has fed it to his cattle mixed with molasses. As it passes through the cows, it gets inoculated. Dung beetles then take the biochar with the dung into the soil.
Apparently what also happens when cows consume biochar is that it reacts chemically with gut acidity, altering the process which makes methane. By altering the chemistry, it also makes the environment within the gut inhospitable to the bad gut flora while allowing the good flora to process the stomach contents, free from worms. In this way, animals can self medicate by consuming feed enhanced with biochar.
The biochar will also bind with excess nitrogen in the gut get deposited onto the ground for dung beetles to bury and process and where further work is done by soil microbes.
While putting biochar into the soil is of itself a way of sequestering carbon, I believe if it is done properly, it will enhance the soil biology, help plants to grow healthier, photosynthesise and secrete glomalin deep in the soil which leads to formation of soil carbon in a very long-lasting form eventually producing a cycle that puts even more carbon in the soil. An interesting story from the Amazon where some people have been 'mining' the rich terra preta soil and selling it off, but leaving about 300mm (1 foot) of the soil on the surface, helps to illustrate partly how it works. What has been found is that leaves and other organic matter falling on that surface from surrounding jungle has quickly broken down to form more rich terra preta soil and comparatively quickly building up the soil level again. To my way of thinking, I feel the biochar benefit is that in harbouring microbial life and holding moisture and minerals, it acts as a catalyst for more soil carbon to be deposited. Biochar done properly is something which can start and enhance a carbon cycle in the soil.
Interestingly, humus will provide similar benefits to biochar, so if biochar doesn't fit into your farming regime, doing the things outlined in this website will help to build humus in your soil and bring long lasting benefits as well.
Increasing Brix Brings Many Rewards
Brix has been mentioned quite a few times so far as it is important in many ways. We often rely on blood tests to check human health. In plants, sap is effectively their blood. A Brix test measures a plant’s health and quality by measuring the sugar level in the sap, effectively a measure of the plant’s carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.
Just as there are many factors that can influence results of blood tests, there are many factors that can influence the accuracy / variability of Brix readings such as time of day, amount of sunlight, level of hydration, temperature, stage of maturity, environmental stresses and management.
High Brix not only helps to make plants resistant to pest attack but it also makes for much healthier, nutritious plants which will be of much greater benefit to animals and humans. It also helps plant resilience including greater resistance to damage from frost giving up to six to eight degrees extra protection. Gabe Brown records Brix readings of 20 and above which no doubt helps in his cold climate. He now leaves his cattle out in the snow during winter and reports they seem to enjoy it!
Higher Brix plants will tend to have much wider leaves and narrower stems, be stronger and more palatable and digestible. Animals will seek out higher Brix plants which are much tastier, nutritious and more fulfilling requiring less to produce a feeling of fullness. Humans will similarly benefit.
Low Brix on the other hand is the leading cause of death in stressed plants. Low Brix plants will tend to be very watery and have hollow stems. Force feeding with chemical fertilisers fills plants tissues with water thereby diluting the sugar content of plant sap. They will have low palatability and digestibility. Such poor quality food will not satisfy humans or animals and will result in hunger. The produce will not keep well. In one area of NSW potatoes grown on sand hills are heavily fertilised three times in 12 weeks. Very clean small potatoes are produced which look good but if not consumed within about a week or so they will go soft and collapse. Chemical fertiliser induced growth is produced by cell expansion meaning larger but weaker cells and as these collapse a bigger percentage of the whole potato collapses. Elsewhere, potatoes grown in deep, rich volcanic soil without fertiliser grow by cell multiplication with numerous small, strong cells. In contrast, these potatoes are large, firm and will keep for up to a year if stored properly.
Animals and humans will perform better on more nutritious, higher Brix food while low Brix food can result in odd performance and behaviour and a wide range of deficiency symptoms.
Cows Starting to Show Benefits of More Nutritious Grazing in Early Phase Regeneration
At calving time in the second year, 'Tom' reported that the cows were all calving easily with none having to be assisted and that calves were quickly up and going. He has been amazed by how well they have grown and anticipates they will do even better than the previous lot which are now 13-14 months old. He noted that "on good feed cattle start to grow out in the frame, their bone structure, they just get bigger all over - good seasons and good minerals in the soil", while earlier noting that they had been big enough to 'meet the bull' several months earlier than normal. He also earlier noted stronger and quicker heats in the cows after the last calving. It will interesting to see the next lot of calves as their mothers have several more seasons of grazing nutritious multi-species forage crops growing on soil enhanced with sea minerals and the activities of improved soil microbiology and fungi.
Healthy Cows and Calves Enjoying Early Phase Nutritious Multi-Species Forage
Higher Brix plants will make better quality hay with much less shrinkage due to lower moisture content and higher carbon content (allowing plant tissues to retain more nutrients).
Human and animal performance ultimately comes down to nutrition. Many sick domestic animals could be healed with good nutrition. High quality forage and crops start when the plant is at least 10 °BRIX or 10% sugar.
Brix is normally measured using a Refractometer or Brix meter. There are several 'tricks' to getting an accurate reading. Brix varies through the day and with atmospheric conditions and will be best late in the day after good sun exposure for photosynthesis. Plant material should be taken from just above the height cows normally graze down to (about 100mm) but selecting plants which have not recently been grazed. Take a small quantity of material and roll it between your hands for up to 60 seconds as this helps to better release the fluid containing the plant sap etc. Then put this into a garlic press and squeeze several drops onto the glass of the refractometer before closing the lid down on it ensuring full coverage and no air pockets. Then facing in the general direction of the sun, hold it up to the light and view the reading (adjusting the focus of the eyepiece if necessary). This ideally will be in a fuzzy area of transition between clear and blue. If the line is sharp it usually is indicative of calcium deficiency. Repeat for a range of plants and in different parts of the farm.
Plant sugar is the universal energy source. It is the fuel for all life. Input choices and management decisions will produce one of two results. They will either support the continuation of life, or they will result in death. Life cannot and will not run without sugar (carbon).
Achieving and maintaining high Brix requires that microbes are well fed. This can be achieved by having a diversity of growing plants releasing root exudates which provide a source of carbon for the microbes. Diverse forms of carbon are required to support a diverse range of microbes. Crop and pasture residues are not soil carbon until they are broken down by soil microbes. These potential sources of carbon need to be protected by minimising tillage and greatly restricting use of chemicals and chemical fertilisers. Sea minerals help to increase Brix.
A microbiome / EC (Electrical Conductivity) meter can be used to check the level of microbe activity in the root zone.
Water / Moisture Best Stored in the Soil
I have mentioned earlier the importance of building soil carbon by having growing plants photosynthesising to create liquid carbon releasing deep in the soil and how every one percent increase in soil carbon will help soil store an extra 120,000 litres of water per hectare. Firstly of course, the soil structure has to be improved to enable rainfall (and irrigation) to penetrate readily and deeply into the air spaces in the soil. Soil carbon is important for helping the soil to hang onto the moisture while soil armour is important to prevent it easily evaporating out again. If the air space in the soil is limited, the amount of water that will enter the soil will be limited and the more readily the soil will give up any water it does contain and dry out.
With rainfall in many areas becoming less frequent but more intense, danger of runoff is greater and the importance of being able to capture even heavy rain is even more important. Without adequate moisture, soil biology does not work well and in extremely dry soil, biology can even ‘go to sleep’ or die off and therefore plants will suffer greatly.
Traditionally a lot of on farm water has been stored in dams and earthen tanks (as they are called out west) but this is less than ideal due to evaporation and water fouling by livestock and ducks. Ideally, if a good underground source is available for livestock, then it is much better to store the rainfall in the ground. Indeed, one farmer of the year a decade or so ago, adopted a strategy of making sure a mulch layer (soil armour) was maintained at all times so heavy rainfall did not run off but went into the ground. He knew he had good underground water so he removed all dams but one. That was retained as a way to check if what they were doing was working - if it had water in it, he knew that not all rainfall was being absorbed into the ground.
Second Year - Spring Water Fully Reticulated, Cows Grazed More Densely (though on pasture with limited diversity)
Grazing a Diversified Species Pasture
As a diversified species pasture is established, its dynamic grazing management becomes very important for its longevity and improved health of livestock and soil microbiology as well as soil carbon and humus formation. Rotational grazing with good rest periods to allow grass to fully recover is fundamental. The idea is to stock comparatively small areas densely for short periods - this makes stock graze competitively so they eat part of all or most available plants rather than being selective and just seeking out the very best and leaving untouched what are fundamentally good nutritious plants. Grass left untouched does not get the stimulation benefits of enzymes from the cow's mouth / tongue nor will it thicken up after grazing (and slough off part of its roots for the benefit of soil microbiology - roots then growing back more extensively as the plant gets new leaf growth after grazing). Then by the time that pasture area is grazed again, those previously untouched plants will likely have passed their maximum nutrition phase and be in decline or senescence (and possibly not touched yet again unless trampled).
There are various opinions on how far plants should be grazed down, some say 150 - 250mm (6 -10 inches) while others will go down as low as 100mm or 4 inches. In the early phase of regeneration it may be that the more conservative approach would be better until it is obvious that life is returning to the soil and helping plants to grow back quickly and for there to be good evidence of dung beetles and dung worms quickly taking fresh dung into the soil. What should be avoided is overgrazing to the point of exposing soil and removing 'armour' on the soil surface or even to the point where plants take a long time to regrow. Experiment and see what works for your farm. It may be that in warmer weather there will be benefits in leaving the grass more in the 150 - 250mm (6 -10 inch) range.
Where stock can graze diverse pastures grown in well mineralised soil with good biology, the dung they produce will provide an amazing boost to the soil and enhance the recycling of minerals and nutrients through dung beetle and dung worm activity as well as that of other deeper burrowing creatures. Such soil stimulation is highly likely to help bring long-buried seeds (often native grasses) into the zone near the surface where they can germinate.
Diverse Pasture Doing Well in its First Spring with Natural Inputs Only - Note Size of Clover Leaves
Can Animals be Induced to Eat 'Weeds' - What 'Tom' Did for this to Happen
In conventional farming weeds are usually seen as a problem to be plowed out or sprayed with poison. Regenerative agriculture however, as noted above, tries to minimise soil disturbance and avoid poisons. So what to do?
The first thing to be understood is the role that weeds play in nature's management of soil health. Nature abhors bare ground and uses weeds as a quick ground cover and coloniser to change the micro environment to make conditions suitable for other plants, then shrubs and eventually trees. Many of these weeds have deep tap roots that penetrate deeper into the soil to access minerals not available in the topsoil and help to bring these up to the surface to be recycled one way or another. To help in these roles, many weeds are 'broadleaf' to provide greater soil surface protection and to produce lots of seeds very quickly to assist their spread. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years just waiting for their 'call to action' from nature to overcome either a bare soil problem or a mineral deficiency issue. Nature can deal with the bare soil issue in short order as weeds quickly germinate and spread. The mineral deficiency usually takes much longer to be overcome by nature's processes alone. Weeds can persist to get the job done.
The second thing to be understood is why don't animals seem to like to eat weeds. Well, it seems there could be various issues with taste and texture. Texture can be many different aspects such as coarseness and irritation caused by seed heads. Taste can be that weeds are likely dominant in one or more minerals giving a taste that might be bitter and less attractive especially when there are sweeter grasses on offer.
When weeds appear in a pasture, grazing animals can readily identify the softer, sweeter, more palatable grasses and will continue to graze them leaving the 'weeds' alone. In time under conventional grazing management, the pasture deteriorates from too much pressure and not getting to set seed for regeneration and spread. Weeds however, left alone, quickly go to seed and spread and out-compete the weakened pasture plants.
In regenerative agriculture, rotational grazing techniques using high stocking density on small areas for very short periods (followed by long rest recovery), hopes to create greater grazing competition between animals and denying them the opportunity to be 'selective' in what they choose to eat, but rather make them feel the need to eat anything and everything available before another animal does. In time, it seems animals can be re-educated to eat most weeds (though some seed heads will still present problems if weeds get to that stage).
However, there may be another strategy. If you have read all the blog up until this point you will already be aware of this, but just in case you have come straight to this part, I will repeat what happened on Tom's farm. In a wet year and at the very start of Tom's regen ag journey, he mentioned how wet the front of the dam paddock was. I was aware of results that had been achieved opening up heavy soil in the US using a product called 'MycorrPlus' produced by AG-USA. As it turned out, this used an Australian product called Liquid Sea Minerals as its base to which was added humic and fulvic acid along with various microbial and fungal extracts. However because of the bulk of the liquid sea minerals component making freight expensive, and because of the limited shelf life once the extracts had been added, it was not a proposition to import it to Australia. However we decided to simply add Olsson's Liquid Sea Minerals as a starting point. Not only did it add the full range of 84 minerals and trace minerals to the soil but it also flocculated the soil opening it up and improving drainage. But the other thing that happened was also significant and interesting. When the cattle were next grazed on this area they "grazed the whole paddock" as Tom reported, weeds included! Why was this? Was it the improved drainage and aeration of the soil or was it that the weeds were now accessing minerals not previously available? I feel maybe both but more especially the availability of the full suite of 84 minerals and trace minerals in balance making the weeds more palatable.
When you think of it, what do we do with some of our food to enhance the flavour - add salt (preferably 'sea' salt with all 84 minerals)! And animals instinctively, somehow, know what is good for them and will seek it out even eating what they have avoided previously apparently aware it has changed. Pretty amazing really!
In later applications of liquid sea minerals, various worm extract products were also added and eventually fungal extracts Tom produced from material sourced from treed parts of the farm and nearby. At all of these points he found the same, the stock grazed the whole paddock (with the exception of a few thistles and blackberries).
I would be extremely interested to hear from you if you attempt a similar trial. You could use Liquid Sea Minerals or some other sea minerals product or kelp extract. Well worth a trial.
So What to Do After Testing to Move Forward
The reality on farms with a long history of use of chemicals and chemical fertilisers and lots of significant soil disturbance is likely to be soil compaction, a soil which is acidic, lacks structure, has minerals locked up, low soil carbon and has lots of bare soil with very little, if any, biology. It will likely absorb and retain limited moisture. Your initial testing will likely show up many of these issues.
So the challenge is to start the regenerative agriculture journey by overcoming these things progressively. As cautioned previously, chemicals need to be reduced gradually over a few years as there won’t be enough 'life' in the soil to sustain plants so some soluble fertiliser feeding will be necessary initially but on a reducing basis.
As soil compaction will likely be an issue, it is important early on to get liquid sea minerals (or some other sea mineral / kelp product) into the soil by either putting it into the soil or spraying on the surface when a good rainfall is pending. This will help to bring back an electrical charge to soil particles and start flocculation as well as adding the full range of minerals in balance to start feeding soil life and plants.
While there has been emphasis above on minimal soil disturbance, this is probably a time when it is worthwhile to disturb soil one more time to get some good things into the soil. I earlier mentioned a product called WormHit pellets. These comprise a pelletised mix basically of composted materials and worm casts containing microbes in a dormant state. When these pellets are placed in the soil and become moist, the microbes wake up and then immediately have a carbon food source from the carbon material in the compost component of the pellets. These pellets can be inserted into the soil at the same time as a diverse forage / cover crop is sown preferably using seed which has been inoculated with microbial and fungal extracts as outlined above. To this inoculation extract can be added a small amount of liquid sea minerals or other ocean derived product such as Seasol, Nutri-TechTri-Kelp or other kelp extract liquid and some NutriSoil worm extract or similar. These can ideally be sown into a moist soil or sown dry when good rainfall is anticipated in the very near future. On-going, once there is some ground cover, seed can be broadcast preferably just prior to moving stock onto the area. Keeping them tightly bunched will see their hooves massage the soil surface to effect adequate seed / soil contact for germination. Certain types of hard outer coating seed can be fed to livestock where a significant percentage will survive and be deposited in cow dung where germination could take place and plants grow provided stock are kept off the area until these seedlings grow to an adequate size.
As the cover crop gets going providing ground cover, the area can be sprayed with microbial and fungal extracts along with liquid sea minerals or some other sea mineral product which contains the full range of sea minerals especially if seed was not inoculated. The extracts can be taken in through plant leaves while the sea mineral component needs to get into the soil. This spraying should be carried out when a significant rain event is coming. Further, the plants are best sprayed early morning or late afternoon when stomata on the leaves are open and when it is not too hot. Also, as microbes start to go dormant as soil temperatures drop below about 10 degrees and can also perish if exposed to very hot temperatures, it is probably best if these activities are undertaken away from the peak of winter and summer.
New Cool Season Multi-Species Forage Crop Second Spring of Regeneration Phase
This combination will get minerals into the soil in a form which can be readily taken up by plants and start to get the electrical energy back into soil particles to enable soil restructuring and make a start on remediating soil compaction. Microbes and fungi will then have an environment in which they can start to multiply and expand bringing life back into the soil through biology. The plants will not only start to photosynthesise and protect the soil but the roots will start to exude liquid carbon to feed microbes and enable them to start unlocking minerals previously tied up in the soil by chemical use. As soon as plants have a good enough root system going to hold them firmly in the soil, animals can be brought in for a brief period to bring the benefit of manure and urine as well as gentle soil surface disturbance, preferably using rotational grazing techniques. Further, it seems that enzymes in the animal's mouth get on the plants and help to further stimulate regrowth. As the animals start to get the benefits of grazing healthier, more nutritious grass, their dung and urine will be enhanced and bring much greater benefit to the soil. Better cow dung will be more attractive to dung beetles and eventually dung worms will appear as well. As the soil biology improves, the soil seed bank will steadily start to emerge adding greater diversity and attracting a greater variety of microbes. By steadily introducing more dynamic management as Gabe Brown outlines including minimal soil disturbance, the soil will continue to improve as soil biology multiplies. This will expand the reach of plants to take in minerals and moisture and start to improve their Brix level and make them more resilient.
Cattle Enjoying an Early Morning Graze on a New Multi-Species Forage Crop
Enjoying Taller Pasture in an Earlier High Dung Concentration Area
Introducing a very diverse cover forage crop will assist in getting soil biology working, especially greater microbial diversity) and will protect the soil surface. If cropping is part of the farming operation, eventually the forage crop can be heavily grazed (if stock are carried), crimp rolled or if absolutely necessary, chemically terminated (see below). The crop can then be sowed into the cover. Some farming operations set up a crimp roller at the front of the tractor and have the seed sowing implement at rear. There are many variations on this, some using live plants as cover.
It may be worth starting with an experimental paddock or two or even running several experiments in one paddock to see how things go.
As regeneration starts you will notice things begin to change as you make a habit of undertaking closer observations - this will require you to walk into paddocks and look down rather than just simply looking across the top of an area. Doing this many years ago enabled Allan Savory to notice that the ground between taller plants was covered with a dried out crust of algae on the soil which came about because material failed to decay biologically (due to lack of soil biology) and instead oxidised and smothered the soil surface preventing regrowth. This, he said, was the start of desertification.
Cows Performing Well on New Multi-Species Forage Crop - Soil Improved with LSM and Microbial / Fungal Sprays
The changes on your farm will be more obvious if you periodically repeat some of the initial testing that you did. And, even as Gabe Brown still does after all these years, he always takes his shovel with him when he goes into a paddock. While you will see lots of good things happening above the soil surface, you will be really excited when you start to see the improvements below the surface, especially earthworms, greater root mass and root depth, darker soil with deeper aerobic zone and lessening soil compaction.
After any heavy or significant rainfall event, make a habit of going into the paddocks (preferably on foot) to check for water penetration and any areas where water is still ponding so that you will know where to pay more attention to soil compaction. Looking closely at nature's signals will show you what you need to do more of without having to get a soil test. For example, weeds in one area may be a good sign that the soil is still compacted there, that soil is acidic and lacking in air.
There will be more things you can do such as rehydrating the soil by slowing watercourse movement across the farm and planting suitable trees and shrubs to improve landscape resilience and attract nature’s workforce, however doing the things set out above from the outset will provide a solid foundation for building your ‘new’ regenerated farm.
There are so many elements involved in regenerating your farm both above and below ground. You may well wonder how it all fits together. Well, the beauty of this is you don't need to know the full complexity of nature on your farm, rather, having a basic understanding of the things outlined above supplemented by reference to appropriate links in the ‘Helpful Websites, Podcasts and Webinars’ and Beneficial Books blog in due course, it will be adequate for you to make amazing progress on your regenerative agriculture journey. Remember, soil is not just dirt for holding and growing plants with NPK but rather it is the enabler of every function intended by nature to facilitate all the cycles of existence - the carbon, nitrogen, water and mineral cycles, the Soil Food Web, photosynthesis etc. If any of these is compromised, in due course all will be compromised. Similarly, enhancing one may well benefit the others but enhancing all in a short time frame will lead to the greatest, fastest and most beneficial regeneration of your farm.
What is important is to make a start and keep going while learning and observing, steadily reducing reliance on the old chemical and mechanical ways of farming while putting a greater focus on a new way of doing things to enhance nature. Nature is a great self organiser / healer and if you do things to hasten the process you should see quicker results and improvement as the many factors interact.
Remember, regenerative agriculture is a journey, not a destination. Some things will work surprisingly well from the outset while other things might require several attempts to find what works for you and the condition of the soil you initially have to work with. But you will make a difference, a big difference as time goes on. Your farm will become more resilient and better cope with risks thereby taking much of the stress out of farming. Soon you will be able to source from your farm or surrounding areas many of the inputs to improve biology meaning your outlays will be less and your bottom line greater. You will spend more time creating life and next to no time killing things. And as those who have started their journey before you report, farming will become enjoyable.
Tom is Certainly Enjoying Having Nourishing Diverse Pasture to Graze his Livestock On
Dense Pasture Growth in Spite of Cool Spring Weather
Introducing Cows to Hay Enhanced with Diatomaceous Earth (DE) and Molasses
Cows Resting, Well Satisfied after a Morning Graze
Tighter Short Grazing with Good Rest Periods Now Underway
Enjoy your regenerative agriculture journey!
Please Note: I appreciate that you could well have questions arising from what has been presented above however unfortunately I do not have the resources or time to handle lots of queries. What I would suggest however is that you look at the abundant web site links at the end of this and I am sure it will provide the answers to most of your queries. As I develop my web site skills I hope to add an area where you can post any suggestions for improvement or elaboration. And as more of 'Tom' and my experiments produce results or we learn more, I hope to be able to add more blogs to bring you up to date.
Glyphosate Use Only When Absolutely Essential - Tip for Minimal Use
Glyphosate based products such as ‘Roundup’ are understood to be the most widely used agricultural products in the world. While it has been very ‘effective’, more weeds are becoming Roundup resistant requiring greater concentrations.
One of the things that has not been well publicised is that glyphosate works best when added to very acidic water and that the less acidic the water is the more chemical needs to be used. Ideally, such products would not be used but the reality is that sometimes during the transition from 'conventional' agriculture to regenerative agriculture it may still be required. If it is used, vinegar or such should be added to the water to achieve the required acidity and this should limit the amount of glyphosate required.
Certainly, I do not advocate the use of glyphosate, however I am a realist and recognise the challenges faced by farmers during the transition phase. It might be easy for those not 'at the coal face' to be critical of such use and say it has no part in regenerative agriculture, however if there is greater understanding of the journey they are on rather than criticising or condemning, the more likely they are to continue their transition and the less that others will be deterred from starting.
Where glyphosate has been, or has to be used, the harmful effects of the residue in the soil can apparently be diminished greatly if the microbial health of the soil is improved. Microbes are amazing creatures, many and varied, performing many different functions including cleaning up poisons and toxic substances.
One use of glyphosate over recent decades has been to spray grain crops with a weak solution as plants start to set seed. The reason was to stress the plant so it put most of its energy into setting seed so as to increase yields. It has now been found that because of this, glyphosate has been coming through in the food chain. Apparently, the increased use of this technique parallels the rise in gluten intolerance and celiac disease.
It should be noted that considerable concern has been raised about glyphosate’s safety and there have been big damages awards in America over its adverse impact on human health. An American organisation ‘Earth Conscious Life’ in mid 2022 reported as follows:
On June 17th, courts sided with farmers and conservationists to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling that glyphosate is "safe".
More specifically, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of an organisation called Center for Food Safety, when they sued the EPA for ignoring the data which demonstrates glyphosate causes cancer and is a massive risk to endangered wildlife, and all species on this planet.
"EPA did not adequately consider whether glyphosate causes cancer and shirked its duties under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).” Apparently Bayer (which purchased Monsanto) did announce it will end residential and garden centre sales of Roundup by 2023.
As of October 2022, Bayer has changed its court strategy and has now won several cases.
Clearly, caution is prudent if dealing with any chemicals, vapours, sprays or dusts.
NOTE: Limiting Conditions
The information contained in this document is provided free of charge without any obligation for you to use it and is intended merely as something for you to start thinking about how you might begin your regenerative agriculture journey and as a way to begin conducting your own research, inquiry and learning.
While various people and product names and websites links are included, this should not be seen as endorsing or promoting any organisation, anyone, anything or any product.
No responsibility or liability is accepted by the author (or anyone passing this document on to you) for its accuracy, completeness or appropriateness for your situation or for your decision to act or not to act on any part of it. Ultimately you need to undertake you own research and enquiry, make your own decisions and be responsible for them.
Having said that however, it is sincerely hoped that you get a lot out of this information and your further learning and that you have an amazing and enjoyable regenerative agriculture journey.
Please feel free to pass this document on to others and / or put a link on your website.
Helpful Websites, Podcasts and Webinars plus Beneficial Books
NOTE: Because of the length of this blog, it has been necessary to start a separate blog to show 'Helpful Websites, Podcasts and Webinars plus Beneficial Books'.