Conventional tilling of the land is preached by the government and its agricultural agencies as well as agricultural universities nationwide. Although this method has proved to work and support farmers throughout the years, it is supplemented by the high cost of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides & fungicides applied regularly throughout the growing process which is handed down to the consumer as a high cost of health problems. Thinking of the farm as part of the ecosystem, we must address not only the cash crop we are focused on growing, but also the by-products of the chemicals used in cultivation. Since these by-products are not naturally accepted in the breakdown of the microbial network of the soil, it causes the soil to degenerate and eventually deplete itself of all nutrients and life. When this happens, the farmer hooks up his harrow and tills the field, so the soil is loose and broken up and soft ready to plant…. creating an expensive downward spiral of soil health year after year. When you till the land, you are killing up to 75% of the microbial network containing the fungal and bacterial biology supporting the decay process and the transfer of nutrients to other plants. Also, when you till, you are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere at alarming rates, contributing to the abnormal temperature ranges from day to night. By not tilling, you create what is called a residue from past crops that covers the soil keeping it an ambient temperature and continues to feed the microbial network and keep the nutrient cycle alive. This also allows pests to focus on something other than your cash crop. By keeping living roots in the ground year-round, you release the least amount of carbon from the earth into the atmosphere contributing to environmental awareness by conscious agriculture practice.
Run-off issues in our rural and urban environments are abundant and caused by depleted soil not being able to let the precipitation infiltrate and clean it through the watersheds before evaporating back into the atmosphere. These run-off problems find their way into rivers, lakes, oceans & human water supplies and have a negative effect on the entire ecosystem. The topsoil carried away also contains bacteria that when deprived of oxygen creates anerobic bacteria that emits methane gas. A great example is the Chesapeake River in Virginia. Ray Archuleta is a Conservation Agronomist that teaches soil health, and he has some amazing visual demonstrations of how living soil works against depleted soil, they can be found here. Ray is part of an organization called Understanding Ag whose mission is to “Use our passion and experience to educate farmers, ranchers and communities in applying time-tested ecological principles to regenerate our living ecosystems, thereby restoring the health of all.” Ray and his colleagues distribute their information through a course/curriculum they developed called Soil Health Academy. Soil Health Academy partnered with the Nature Conservancy and the National Corn Growers Association with their goal of raising the percentage of active farms managed for soil health from 5% to 50% by 2025. BayGrown Farms is proud to be a farm managed by soil health contributing to overall health.
Having a living root in the ground at all times is the most beneficial agriculture method anyone can practice. The idea of keeping the carbon in the soil and feeding the plants rather than releasing it and having barren topsoil exposed to erosion in the forms of wind, sun, precipitation & animal traffic is one that sustains life rather than depleting resources. Cover crops add diversity to the microbial network in the soil encouraging elevated nutrient levels available to plants. As these cover crops grow up and then get terminated in the no till method, their residue also creates more beneficial and organic inputs for the biology in the soil. It is important to have a diverse cover crop mix along your cash crops as they replenish the nutrient levels in the soil after the cash crop has been harvested and hauled away. Cover crops come in the forms of grasses, forbes, legumes, broad leaves & brassicas. Did you know that legumes have the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant available nitrogen through its photosynthesis process? There is 32,000 TONS of atmospheric nitrogen above 1 acre of soil, and all you need is some beans to convert the nutrients to your cash crop. Radishes are known as the earthdrill due to their expansive tap root that stretches down and breaks up compacted soil. They also store nutrients over the winter and then release them in the spring when they start to thaw and decay, transferring nutrients to spring seedlings. Clover acts as a living mulch, keeping oxygen in the rootzone, soil temperatures more neutralized & nitrogen availability.
Gabe Brown is a rancher from North Dakota and he is the king of diverse cover crops. He has been testing different varieties and mixes in a no till environment for over 25 years on his 5,000 acre ranch. He too is a partner with Understanding Ag & Soil Health Academy and teaches the importance of cover crop diversity in commercial agriculture. He also supports Green Cover Seed company out of Nebraska as they specialize in cover crop seed production and special mixes. Steve Groff is another pioneer in cover crops especially regarding hemp. His Lancaster County, PA farm is pictured on the right with the cover crop coming up through the corn residue. The picture on the left is from a neighboring plot that does not use cover crops.
Livestock integration helps speed up the natural process of nutrients cycling. By manipulating when and where they relocate, they help keep the plants in a state of defense and regeneration. Eating the top half of the cover crop slows root growth for a certain length of time while in turn the cow is processing the nutrients through its body taking what it needs to remain healthy and dropping fertilizer on the ground feeding the fungal and bacterial network promoting new root growth. This process mimics natural herding animals that contributed to soil health in prairies of our nation’s past. Using livestock as a tool to improve our resources with free labor while gaining health benefits for the animals is a win, win, win ! Netflix documentary "Kiss The Ground" highlighted many farms using livestock integration in their ranching methods.