Our long awaited soil analysis results came back this week.
Our samples were taken in two different areas on the farm. The first sample was collected from our alluvial flat. This paddock has been previously used to crop lucerne, however has been left fallow for several years.
The other sample was taken from our slopes. This paddock has a very thin topsoil, on a base of Ordovician Shale. This has quite a different mineral analysis, indicating that it requires different treatment.
Why is it important to have a look at the minerals present in our soil?
“You can trace every sickness, every disease, and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.”
– Dr. Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner
This message has been reinforced by Pat Coleby, who believes that modern farming with its huge chemical inputs is not only unsustainable, but it intrinsically damages soils heath. If your soil is unhealthy, animals will be unable to access the minerals in it, and they will get sick.
Now the trick is for us to work out what we need to do.
And this is where it gets really difficult. I am open to all ideas. Please have a look at the results in the attached pdf document and let me know what you think. Page 1 is the alluvial flat, and Page 2 is the shale slope.
The good news is there are plenty of options available to us.
1. Lime / Dolomite
In Europe, animals were traditionally yarded over winter, and their manure spread as fertilizer in spring. In autumn, lime was spread to maintain the soil balance, and to release the phosphorous.
In Australia, with milder winters, stock are grazed year round. Artificial phosphorus as in superphosphate is commonly used as a fertilizer, in lieu of animal manure. A long history of using superphosphate, without addressing the calcium or magnesium balance through lime or dolomite, locks up a large range of minerals, rending them unavailable to livestock.
I think the quickest course of action on our slopes will be to spread lime (Calcium Carbonate) or dolomite (Calcium and Magnesium Carbonate). This will help address the release the phosphorus. It will also increase the pH of the soil, and this will allow other trace elements to be available to the livestock.
2. Aerate the soil
Pat Coleby has said that “an aerator is one of the most valuable aids to soil regeneration that we have” (Natural Farming, Pat Coleby). One way to do this is by using a Yeoman’s plow or Wallace aerator to aerate the soil. This will allow rainfall to penetrate into the sub-soil. P.A. Yeomans developed what we now call the Keyline System which places great emphasis “on the creation of a soil environment that rapidly accelerates soil biological activity”
Properties that have followed the Yeoman’s principles have been more drought resilient, and have eliminated soil erosion. The name Keyline was given to a particular contour that is found in all headwater valleys. This provides the basis for farm layout or design, in our case we will have to work within existing infrastructure to make it work for us.
Interestingly as an aside, healthy soil should absorb the first 80% of rainfall. One wonders if part of the reason we get such devastating floods is because our soil is compacted and hydrophobic.
3. Grazing Management
Another technique we can use to improve our soil is through our grazing management. If paddocks are intensively grazed for a short period of time, and then rested for a much longer period, many benefits can be observed. We hope to implement a form of cell grazing on the Rock Farm, pioneered by André Voisin in France, and further developed by Allan Savory after observing the effect of migrating animals on the grasslands of Africa.
When a paddock is heavily grazed, several things happen. The top soil is disturbed by the action of the stock’s hooves or feet. The tall grasses are eaten, and long roots of the plants retreat. The animal’s manure releases much of the nutrients held in the grasses back to the soil.
When the paddock is rested, the seed bank that is in the soil is activated, encouraging new growth in the disturbed soil. As the long grass roots retreat, they provide access for water and air to penetrate the soil and avenues for earthworms to pass through the soil. Dung beetles and earth worms process the manure, turning it into a valuable fertilizer for the soil.
Whilst optimum rates for stocking are around 60 head of cattle per hectare or 450 sheep per hectare during the intensive grazing period, a long rest period of 6-12 months mean the overall stocking rate is much lower. This will also require a much greater investment in fencing, however with the benefit of several small paddocks on the Rock Farm, we should be able to utilise parts of this technique.
4. Planting Trees
Trees – importantly the right trees – can help remineralise soil. The most effective trees are deciduous, as they draw minerals from deep in the ground and return them to the soil as their leaves mulch after falling to the ground. Deciduous trees can also help reduce the fire risk to a property. Our property has some magnificent old Elm trees, with glorious lush green grass growing underneath them. Unfortunately our trees are English Elms, which tend to sucker, and in a couple of places have formed dense thickets. Scottish Elms are just as beautiful and don’t sucker.
Eucalyptus trees are important habitat for native birds and have their place too, however they tend to draw moisture and minerals from the surrounding soil. They also have a nasty habit of dropping branches, especially on fences!
We will continue to plant trees on the Rock Farm. It is an extremely satisfying activity and we hope that one of our legacies will be the trees that will continue to grow for future generations.
Research, Research, Research
In the meantime I will continue to research what is the best possible outcome for our property with respect to its mineral requirements. I acknowledge that I am extremely fortunate in that my main objective is in learning as much as I can, without the burden of trying to support my family with my farming enterprise.
If anyone has any more ideas on how to increase the soil fertility on the Rock Farm, or has any insights into our soil analysis, I would gratefully accept your views in the comment section below.