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The Grazier's Gazette
Close picture of plant roots. Alan Newport
Healthy soil and health plants are the basis of biological capital.

Biological capital may be your most valuable asset

Biological capital such as healthy soil and plants can save expenses, make more production, make livestock healthier, and more.

As farmers and ranchers, we deal with three kinds of capital: Fiscal capital (money) intellectual capital (knowledge) and biological capital (life and the conditions that promote life).

The first two of these are well understood by most people. It is not hard to tell when you don’t know what you are doing or when you are out of money.

Biological capital, which is at least as valuable as the first two, is not nearly so well understood. This is unfortunate because biological capital is real wealth that can be generated solely with well-thought-out management.

For example, biological capital is what renders much of the money, time and effort we spend fighting pests not only unnecessary but counterproductive. It is the healthy soil that grows nutrient-balanced forage that produces healthy and productive animals. It is the animals, bred and raised on this healthy forage and selected to perform under the present management. It is low levels of pathogens, parasites, and pests of both plants and animals, kept under control by the multitude of mutually beneficial relationships that form between all members of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex we call a ranch -- if we give them a chance.

These good things happen when management is directed toward promoting what we want rather than fighting what we don’t want. Biological capital is formed when management – whether natural or human-designed – promotes rather than destroys life. This sounds a little sophomoric but is actually profound. Amazing things happen when management fosters wellbeing of all parts of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex.

I can feel waves of disbelief wafting through the ionosphere: “What do you mean? I should not kill weeds in the corn patch or bugs in the orchard? If I don’t control the pests, they will put me out of business.” The last statement is true. Pests, from horn flies to ox warbles to locoweed and mesquite must be controlled if we are to have viable agriculture. The secret is in how that control is achieved.

Much of modern agricultural practice is not terribly different from burning down the barn because it is infested with fleas. Too often, the cure is worse than the disease. Several years ago, one of the land grant universities set up a demonstration to test “organic agriculture against conventional.” They took a piece of ground that had been in cultivation for years and divided it in half. One half was cropped using all the modern practices: Fertilizer was applied as per soil test, herbicides, insecticides, and so forth. The second half was cropped using nothing but some cow manure. To no one’s surprise, the “organic” plot failed, and the university put out a paper saying organic agriculture does not work.

In reality, organic agriculture works quite well from all standpoints: Productivity, profitability, ecologically, provided that biological capital is in good supply. Building biological capital under conventional management is extremely difficult since most conventional practices such as tillage, fallow and chemicals of all sorts destroy biological capital and the conditions that build it. Rejuvenation must start with the soil, most importantly, with the life in the soil. The organic farmers’ advantage starts when robust and diverse soil life becomes the norm for his operation.

It is this soil life that spoon feeds mineral nutrients to plants in available forms and proper amounts. Well-nourished plants growing in life-filled soil are remarkably resistant to disease and to insect damage. Abundant and healthy soil life is the factor that creates the conditions that control pests of all kinds. Contrary to what the poison peddlers tell us, most soil life forms -- from fungi to bacteria -- are beneficial. Problems arise when our management interferes with natural balance. Soil life also promotes the physical conditions that allow soils to take in and hold both water and air. Life-filled soils, and the plants grown in them, tolerate both drought and flooding much better than soils short of life.

Nutrient-rich forage, when presented with good stockmanship at the proper stage of growth, rules out the need for many of the inputs that reduce the profit margins of most operations. Balanced nutrition, with all essential nutrients present in proper proportions and proper availability forms, builds robust immune systems and healthy animals.

Healthy soils grow healthy plants which grow healthy animals which grow healthy bank accounts. Having ample biological capital is a requirement for creating a ranch that runs on sunshine, rainfall and management.

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