6 step soil life check

Any healthy farming enterprise depends on the capacity of  soils to keep the mineral cycles in motion. And this motion is propelled by life in and on the soil.  Each living organism takes nutrients to transform and pass them to other species when they got eaten, they give them away or release them when they die. This complex exchange of nutrients is called the food web.

Since soil life is so important to estimate soil fertility, we aim to see how good is the soil life of our farm and the conditions that enable it.

Here we have 6 basic methods anyone can do anywhere:

Go to  Step 1->


 

From crop calendar to business planning

Tanzanian farmers plan the application of organic fertilizers with a simple form of crop calendar. Together with the farmers we created a graphic that integrates all the activities of a season. This allows farmers to match their treatments and cultural activities as pruning and applications of mineral additives to rain season, crop development stages, and other periods of mayor incidences of pests and diseases. The photo shows a calendar for coffee (kahawa in Suahili)

Based upon this simple tool for planning activities we are able to start talking business with the farmers. this is because with this planning farmers build the bridge to start thinking in quantities of materials and ingredients and labor needed.

In june 2014, 25 farmers started a business planning course at coffee cooperative of Mbinga, Tanzania. The outcome of this course was a draft of a business plan that would allow farmers to join efforts to produce organic fertilizers and offer them to other farmers within their cooperative.

One year later, this business plan turned into real business as farmers are now producing  organic fertilizers for the first 100 customers and have a potential market of 1500 farmers and near 4000 hectares.

 

And the root said: Now I can breath!

You can plow in a grassland. There is a new generation of super plows that build fertile soils increase the performance of pastures on the short term. Promising results of aeration plows show in compacted heavy clay soils.

Plant health is directly related to access of roots to air, water and nutrients, specifically in this order. Lack of air in the soil, means stress if not death. For this reason, roots do not go in to blue areas of the soil (blue color indicates lack of oxygen). Air in the roots is too often forgotten.  When looking at the crop, agronomists and consultants pay more attention to water (irrigation) and nutrients (fertilization) than to  air (aereation). Maybe because the air is for free.CIMG5012

Aereation is approached from two perspectives, each of them with a instrument: The physical  (a plow) and the chemical, (calcium). Analyzing the physical tools, we find many plows in the market, some with specific functions.

  • Moldboard and turning plows have been designed to turn the soil and incorporate crop rests.
  • Rippers have been built to break the hard pan. They do that but they only tackle the symptom as hard pan is the consequence of bad soil management.
  • Mole plows are specific to make underground channels and drain water (and nutrients)

In our agricultural schools we learned that conventional plows aerate, though this effect do not last  long and increase the compaction in the long run. In fact, conventional agricultural systems increase compaction of agricultural soils. The larger the plows, the larger the tractors. The larger the tractors, the larger the loans, the risk, the scale…

The ultimate plow is the not the one that aerate for this season and makes you dependent for the rest of ages.  The ultimate plow is the one that build fertile soils. How? by enhancing the natural process of forming structure: (1) leading roots to to their jog and go deeper and (2) allow gentle aeration but limiting the oxidation of the humus in formation to allow accumulation of organic soil matter.

Bringing air in the soil with minimal soil disturbance is a challenge for farmers. In 1960’s Australian, P.A. Yeomans developed a plow specific to restore grassland. The Yeomans plow  brings air in the root system without disturbing the grassland. This plow has been used for 4 decades years in thousands of hectares, continuously improved and the results in regenerating grassland are just spectacular. It is designed in such a way that light machinery can pull it. (see video)

In Germany, the company Evers developed a similar plow (see photo).  A few weeks Rockin soils visited an innovative Dutch company leading the technique of soil aeration of Dutch pastures in heavy clay soils. The use of this type of plow in Europe is not widespread. First results in the province of Friesland are promising.  and new tests are coming this year.

Rockin soils participates actively in these trials, to exchange experiences from farmers in Europe and outside and get the best of this tool of fertility in our pastures. From Australia we know that we can bring roots down to 60 cm in 3 year time in poor soils. The question is: can we do it here in the rich soils here?

 

 

Assessing Soil’s microscopic work force

biodiversity in soils

test of biodiversity in soils

Life in the soil is the engine that moves nutrients. Resilient soils are living soils. Plants are at the highest levels of the soils trophic pyramid and depend on the soil food web to survive. Farmers quest to gain security on their harvest drive their attention to soil life.

For nutrient cycling and the crop resilience, soils with biodiversity perform better than soils with domination of one particular “beneficial” specie.  Still industry sells inoculates with specific functions. These specific inoculations tend to create imbalances in the soil and difficult  the natural nutrient cycling. Resilient healthy soils have great diversity in life in all its forms.

How to assess life in the soil?

In Rockin Soils we strive to provide farmers with quick-cheap-easy methods to assess the soils conditions

Indirectly these are the most common indicators:

  • Root density
  • Holes and signs of life.
  • Diversity in plants potential “hosts” of different forms of life.

Directly here we have a list of indicators to assess macro-live in the soil:

  • Macro-life in the soil as birds, moles that feed themselves with worms and insects.
  • Earthworms, type and quantity

To assess microscopic-life

  • Observation of fungal micelium in the crop rests
  • Rice-trap test gives an idea of the diversity of the fungi and bacteria of the soil. (photo)
  • Water peroxide test
  • Tea bag decomposition rate
  • Cow dung decomposition rate

Rockin Soils assists farmers to assess the soil life and to implement measures that enhance it. Rockinsoils helped to adapt the Visual soil assessment for the Netherlands. for more info look at http://mijnbodemconditie.nl/  (sorry, this site is only in Dutch)

Zinc scarcity for who?

baby volcanosUS Geologists are warning that we may face scarcity of traze-elements. They say reserves of Zinc will be the first to be emptied within only 21 years (USGS). Zinc is scarcer than phosphorous.

Zinc is an essentiatrace element, necessary for plants, animals, and microorganismsZinc is found in hundreds of specific enzymes... It is “typically the second most abundant transition metal in organisms” after iron and it is the only metal which appears in all enzyme classes.” Wikipedia,18/10/2013. In other words, Zinc is quite important for life in the planet as we know it now. 

Agricultural experts point to the dangers of scarcity of this element for agriculture and public health. After 60 years of green revolution agricultural soils lack zinc among other trace-elements. Crops, animals and humans are more than ever sensitive to new diseases. Public opinion is sensitive and decision makers at top levels mobilize resources to tackle this new threat. 

Scarcity or abundance?

 

Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg

Source: Infographic by Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg and Tom Graedel of Yale University.

Zinc as all other elements do not go anywhere after plants, animals and humans use them. They stay in the planet, normally accumulated in land fields , mixed in toxic concentrations or lixiviated. The Canadian Geologist Peter van Straaten, shows that Zinc is abundant in many rocks and soils in the earth. Zinc is actually the 24th most abundant element on the earth crust (Wikipedia,18/10/2013)

Scarcity refers to the difficulty of the industry to isolate a element with their current resources (money and technology). Isolation of micro nutrients is only interesting for industry (mainly for galvanizing processes, for batteries or making many alloys). Scarcity affects also to the fertilizer industry is also interested in isolated zinc to bottle it and sell it.

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On the contrary, isolation is not desirable for the farmers. Therefore, scarcity for industry is not the same as scarcity for agriculture. Farmers prefer to have low concentrations of micro nutrients in the soil and well balanced proportions to avoid toxicity. Hence for agriculture there is not such scarcity of Zinc. Basalt rocks and Shale have on the average 100 mg/kg of zinc. Granite has 40 mg/kg. Farmers can apply zinc only adding rock dust to the soil (van Straten, 2007). This zinc might not be bio-available to plants but it can be easily extracted by soil microorganisms. The scarcity is in the educational programs that do not train farmers nor engineers to make abundant agro-minerals available to plants.

Rocking soils support farmers to develop their own strategies with simple technology to achieve self-supply of nutrients and water. Technology affordable to all pockets of all countries. A farmer who spread rock dust in a living soil (with air, water and organic matter) will have no problems with Zinc.

Lab-less soil check

Farmers that keep their soils fit require less inputs and assume less financial risks. Visual Soil Assessment (VSA) help farmers to determine the condition of their soils without lab.

When it comes to farming, Improving soil has the highest return on investment. Knowing the soil and how to interact with it has top priority for the farmer of the future.

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Knowledge is out there…

Nowadays practical knowledge of the soil is int in the farm. It is segmented among a cloud of consultants. These consultants are linked to commercial firms that sell agricultural inputs. They never get the hands dirty but they know how to link soil analysis to the products they sell. Independent consultants have little place in this market of free advice and expensive products. After 60 years of industrial agriculture knowledge is gone it only remains sales. As consequence, farmers do not have objective information. Visual Soil Analysis (VSA) provide direct and objective information to farmers about the soil and help to make integrated decissions to improve the farmer’s natural capital.

Farming or paperwork?

To know about soil, modern farmers rely on lab analysis. They put the soil sample in a bag, fill a form and send both things to the lab by post. It is easy.Lab soil analysis reports contain a long list of parameters. These parameters mean nothing if they aren’t are interpreted by consultants that know that is normal and what not. These consultants live far away from the farm and have never seen it. They work for farmers but spend more than 90% of their time in the lab among computers and coffee dispensers.

With these soil analysis other consultants and fertilizer re-sellers make fertilization schedules. This second type of consultants know more about products. they see chemical deficiencies and put a combination of commercial product behind to solve the problem. They also live far away from the farm. They do not even see the soil samples. It is just paperwork. At the end farmers get a pile of papers, numbers invoice and no recomendations but a shopping list to put some tons/ha of this and many other tons/ha of that. They buy the products and contract laborers to apply them. Nobody knows what happen in the soil until the next season time farmer goes to the lab with another bag, and gets the next shopping list. If the soil would get any better, we might expect that the shopping list shorter is or the costs go down but the experience tell us that during the last 60 years the inputs only go up and yields only go down.

The European “modern” farmer is so busy paying bills and applying for subsidies, that he/she has little time to farm. He/She has little time to have a look in the soil and to realize that mainly bad soil is a synonymous of a hole in the pocket. The main productive factor of agriculture is forgotten.

Farmers can do it themselves

Any farmer that work close to their land know when a soil is good or when it is in trouble. They perceive the tinniest differences in performance. But often, they cannot point to the causes and rely on external expertise.CIMG3866

The VSA was developed in New Zealand by Mr Graham Shepherd. With a Shovel and a field guide, they can survey the soil tehmselves with their own eyes. VSA gives insight about:

  • Soil Organic content
  • Structure
  • Soil life
  • Root development
  • Hard pan
  • Land cover
  • pH
  • Redox

Rockin Soils works to test this method in the Dutch dairy farms. In the Netherlands VSA is called Bodem Contitie Score (BCS). At this moment VSA helps Duth dairy farmers to assess the condition of grass and maize in the area of the Beemster to improve the soils.

Be the first to know your soil

If you want to learn to asses your soil, to start improving the natural fertility, you can contact rockinsoils.

More about VSA, visit

Rocks 4 Life

The art of dissolving rocks to feed plants is a basic skill any farmer must have to produce a lot healthy crops for a long time. Volcanic rock dust is the source of many minerals that most of our soils are missing.  Because the soils miss the minerals, the plants miss them too and so do our cattle and so do we.

If we put rock dust directly in the soils it works as soil amendment but it has slow results on plant nutrition.  Before rocks can feed plants, they need to be transformed by the microbiology of the soils. They have to be made bio-available.   DSCN1047

How to get rocks:

Many rock mixtures can be bought at special agricultural stores. When a mineral has good potential application for agriculture it is labelled as agro-mineral. Rock dust suppliers take the best agro-minerals and mix them in different proportions to create their commercial recipes. What make a rock good for the crops?

The most fertile soils on earth are volcanic soils. they have the highest mineral diversity. Basically the most important factor of a rock to improve soils is the diversity of minerals, in the right proportions in a way that they allow they support the development of life in the soil. The more mineral diversity in the rocks we use, the more elements of the periodic table will be able to be embodied in a bacteria or fungi, passing to the soil food web the more fertile the soil is.  One of the rocks with more mineral diversity are the basaltic rocks.

How to dissolve minerals:

Rocks in soils undergo a serie of processes before they release minerals. The first process is erosion, then it comes the bio-assimilation. The process of erosion and bio-assimilation take thousands of years. We can mimic this process and accelerate the mineral release and take advantage of it (biomimicry). We mimic erosion when we crush rocks.

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We mimic the natural bio assimilation in the soils when we put soil microorganisms in contact with rock dust. Bacteria, fungi and yeasts use organic acids and enzymes that extract minerals from rocks. 

Dissolving rocks with microorganisms in own farm does not require high investments nor complicated technology. Small Bio-digesters can be mounted in reduced spaces where experimenting is easy and affordable to any farmer.

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The art of reproducing microorganisms to dissolve minerals from rocks is a simple but powerful tool in hands of farmers. It can bring fertility to soils an accelerate the chemical and biological rehabilitation of exhausted soils.

It is a strategy that any farmer can experience. In my vegetable garden, I produce and test my fertilizers on a small scale. I test them in vegetables and fruit trees. If I like the results, scaling-up is always possible.

Thousands of farmers in South America know how to make their own rock dust based fertilizers and are able to feed their crops. They do not depend from external inputs but they increase production and quality of their products and leave better soils for their children.