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The Grazier's Gazette

Check up on your biological bank account

Beef pasture cows
There’s more to raising cattle than that fiscal capital, just how is your soil-plant-animal complex holding up these days?

It is very easy to get so wrapped up in day to day operations that we lose sight of some very important things. One such factor is biological capital. Just as fiscal capital measures financial health, biological capital measures the health of the soil-plant-animal complex portion of an operation.

I defined biological capital in an article I wrote in 2005 as the following:"Biological capital is biodiversity plus the long-term effects of having biodiversity; it is soil with high organic content that has excellent tilth and structure and holds a lot of its’ mineral content in organic form, it is diverse and healthy populations of plants and animals both in and on the soil made up of healthy individuals. Biological capital is what allows the ecological processes; water cycle, nutrient cycle and energy flow to function properly and it provides a system of natural checks and balances that limits the populations of pest organisms. It is wealth in the truest form and is vital not only to agriculture but to society as a whole. When biodiversity is high throughout the entire soil-plant-animal complex, both productivity and stability will be high. Weeds, disease, parasites and pest organisms of all types will still be present but not in concentrations high enough to interfere with the functions of the local environment or those of the humans living in the environment."

Measuring your account
A biological bank account is an easy way to think about the status of the biological capital present in an area at a point in time. Every action we take as managers either adds to or subtracts from the biological capital of the area under management. Biological capital is created when healthy populations of plants and animals, made up of healthy individuals, are well supported by the mineral nutrient content and the physical structure of the soil.

Healthy, in this context, does not mean simply more numerous but rather in balance as to both the number of individuals and the number of species of organisms. Good graziers understand that an area will be most productive (convert the most solar energy to biological energy) if the numbers and kinds of grazing animals present fit the amounts and kinds of forage available; cattle like grass, sheep like forbs, and goats like browse.

The same concept applies to the whole soil-plant- animal complex. Every living organism has needs and the abilities to fulfill those needs that are different from the abilities and needs of even its close relatives. An area is most productive over time and most stable when the life present is made up of a wide variety of life forms (high biodiversity) both plant and animal.

Abundant biological capital is the result of an area having high biodiversity over a prolonged period of time. A properly grazed, healthy native grassland is an excellent example of such an area; it is home to billions of individual organisms all sharing mutually beneficial relationships. These complex relationships between organisms, each with different needs and abilities, insure that available resources (water, mineral nutrients, sunlight, and space) are fully utilized with no set of resources being over utilized.

A system in balance
Prior to human intervention, the grassland community was self regulating. When one species became too numerous (over-used their favored resources) a natural system of checks and balances kicked in to reduce the numbers of the over-grown population. A too numerous population, be it bison or grasshoppers, becomes subject to a catastrophic population crash from disease, parasites, and predators when its individuals are stressed because they have over-utilized the available resources.

Nature abhors waste and will try to replace the failed populations (plant, animal, or microbe) with organisms that are able to function in the degraded environment. These replacements will seldom, if ever, be as productive or as stable as the original species.

If we over draw our fiscal bank account, we will know it very rapidly; it is not always so easy to know when we have over drawn our biological capital account. Small reductions in soil organic matter content and in the soil life that depends on this material are seldom immediately apparent; lost plant and animal species are replaced with other species so that losses are less noticeable. Adding to the confusion, we have developed an arsenal of tools from tillage to pesticides to fertilizers to attempt to offset the damage done by losing biological capital; these tools mask the damage but do nothing to restore health.

The most effective way to build the true wealth of biological capital is to take only actions that will build biological capital by improving water cycle, increasing nutrient cycles, increasing energy flow, and increasing biological diversity.

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