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Animal Health Notebook

Funny protein as a management issue, Part 2

Alan Newport Cattle on fescue pasture
Author says inorganic nitrogen destroys organic matter, which often leaves the plants nitrogen deficient, even though it also leaves the plant high in non-protein nitrogen.
Here's a review of what our dependency on inorganic nitrogen costs us, our pastures and our cattle.

Almost 20 years ago the late, great Gordon Hazard penned and published his best- selling book, Thoughts and Advice From An Old Cattleman.

For a bunch of years I have recommended his book for a read and reread to anyone who is serious about beef production. "Doc" Hazard’s book is like Hazard in that it is non-exhaustive and easy to read. But each time you study the contents there is new and pertinent information.

Hazard makes the statement in his book that nitrogen is what makes grass grow. He was speaking about the application of chemical nitrogen. He was correct in that nitrogen does make grass grow if there is sufficient moisture, temperature and sunlight. There are times in the spring around here that I claim you can hear plants growing.

Back in 2015 Hazard told me that he would likely never spread any more ammonium nitrate because he had documented his cattle doing better (weight gains and profits) per acre since he had quit using it. He had been working with this for 11 years. Allen Williams of Mississippi had explained the deal to him from a soil microbe standpoint back in 2014. Hazard who had become friends with Williams in 2009 realized that Williams knew what he was talking about. I had met and listened to Williams as well as Gabe Brown, Terry Gompert, Doug Peterson and others several years before Hazard had and was on board maybe a little in front.

A bunch of what Hazard proved toward the end of his career was also or at least almost noted by veterinarians including Hazard years ago. They saw that producers who did not use salt fertilizer did not have grass tetany and most other severe metabolic diseases. Nitrates and high potassium levels in plants and forages have been shown to be the major culprits. They also reduce health and daily weight gains.

The R.P. Cooke take of what Hazard learned and what Christine Jones, the Australian soil ecologist, calls “funny protein" is as follows:

  • Inorganic nitrogen (ammonium nitrate,ammonium sulfate, urea, etc.) screws up carbon flow, especially liquid carbon flow from plant roots and reduces carbon and organic matter, particularly humus, in the soil by dramatically shifting the soil toward chemically dependent bacteria that can process the nitrogen salts. Other bacteria and fungi are depressed and organic matter (carbon) is burnt (oxidized) as the inorganic salts of nitrogen carry carbon with them away from the soil.
  • Inorganic (salt) nitrogen destroys organic matter 5-7% of which is nitrogen. This often leaves the plants nitrogen deficient.
  • Inorganic nitrogen quickly becomes addictive to the soil due to the loss of soil life and microbial diversity.
  • Inorganic nitrogen applications result in the plants taking up nitrates in the free form from the soil rather than taking up nitrogen in the form of amino acids.
  • In the ruminants and people consuming the salt-nitrated plants there is a lack of amino acids (true protein) and an increased level of non-protein nitrogen (NPN). In ruminants there is an increase in blood ammonia levels that destroys health. In humans, nitrates are inflammatory and destructive. Nitrates are not only inflammatory but are also carcinogenic. Remember that cancer is an inflammatory disease. Cancer is likely the third fastest growing disease in America. Obesity, type II diabetes and cancer all have a very close relationship. Rejuvenation of soil and crop and cattle management will be required to stop these epidemics.
  • Nonprotein nitrogen and other nitrates create and add to energy deficiencies and loss of nutrient density which are already enemy No. 1 out in the field.
  • Pale-colored plants are a consistent sign of nitrogen deficiency and are nearly never viewed on the roadside where chemical nitrogen has not been applied and complete recovery is practiced. In this ground you very seldom find evidence of a nitrogen shortage.
  • Profitability decreasers are the norm with inorganic nitrogen application, especially when recorded for three or more years.
  • Profitability per acre decreases with salt nitrogen application. The increase in plant growth does not net an increase in plant energy for the cattle. Remember that plant energy per acre is what we are actually offering for sale.

One of the new rules we are forced to adopt to increase profitability is to wean our ground from chemical nitrogen applications. I recommend a 30-50% cutback the first year and to dissolve the ranch from purchased nitrogen in three to four years. In my area this can increase profits by a minimum of $25 per acre.

This requires grazing management. With what I like to call "boom and bust" planned grazing the goals and outcomes include these things:

  • Increase in soil microbes and their diversity.
  • Increase in soil organic matter.
  • Increase in plant diversity and biomass production.
  • Increase in gains per acre and cattle health.
  • Water holding cycling and usage that is much improved, therfore dry places get wetter and wet places get drier.
  • Mineral cycle and plant energy cycles get a big shot of improvement.
  • “Funny protein” (plant NPN) is drastically reduced.
  • The biology of the soil quickly begins healing and increases can continue for decades.
  • We shortly start making new soil.

Ten years ago I thought there would be a plateau of the plant increasers as we instituted complete plant recovery followed by high-density grazing followed by complete plant recovery. The results have been that the land continues to get better and better. Truth is that one ranch can become two in terms of profitability. And the doubling effect is normally a two- to five-year miracle. This is not status quo.

My take-home message is real. We now have a near lock and key methodology to regenerate our land and our profession while nutritionally healing ourselves and our neighbors.

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