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Animal Health Notebook
Sandy soil and organic material Alan Newport
Regardless of your environment, your management can build organic matter or destroy it. You choose.

Six ways I build organic matter on my farm

Change the way you ranch and you'll build not only organic matter but healthier land, cattle and people.

My job for 40 years has been centered around animal health. Animal health is closely tied to human health. Eventually I was led to the facts that plant and soil health were the foundation for our wellness and longevity.

Soil organic matter and mineralization is a major key to our future and pulse grazed cattle are a key to all of the above. Yes, I believe that my job is as important today as it was four decades ago.

My focus has moved to the soil-plant-animal-human health complex. The system only functions well when all are playing their parts. I call this the natural model. Remember that the system is too complex for us to actually learn and comprehend. Our salvation comes from the fact that there are a handful of principles that are simple. Learn and apply the principles (rules) and everything gets healthier. Yes, most of us are forced to “unlearn” a bunch of our past teachings and practices. “Pride comes before destruction” and there is “No gain without pain” are good sayings to learn and remember.

As beef producers we need to build organic matter and new soil if we are going to increase our bottom line and enjoyment. This is what’s called regenerative agriculture.

First let’s steal some of North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown’s definition of organic matter: Organic matter is soil material that is high in carbon compounds that have come from living or recently living plant, animal or microbial organisms and/or their exudates and offal. Remember that carbon is being used when biology is in a less-than-frozen state.

The only place to actually store carbon is under water. Organo-mineral complexes coat the clay, silt and sand particles of the parent dirt. The flow of carbon through the organic and mineral complexes are the major means by which living organisms carry out their metabolic processes. I’m going to address organic matter and remember that 60% of organic matter is carbon that originated in the air and move through plants. Also remember that carbon is continually cycling and not being stored in any natural systems unless it is under water.

When we talk about organic matter we are referring to carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is the energy component and it all comes from the sun. Oxygen is expired by plants and comes from the air. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in different structures and chains form carbohydrates (CHO) and form the energy (sugars and starches) that creatures such as ourselves and our cattle ultimately depend on to live. The CHO molecule is the structure on which amino acids are formed after the addition of nitrogen (N). Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.

Soil organic matter is the sponge of the soil that we depend of for healthy life. Trouble is that it is in short supply and we have lost a bunch of it in the past. Things that decrease organic matter include:

  • Ground disturbances such as tillage to more than a slight degree.
  • Monoculture farming.
  • Soluble salt fertilizer that burns up OM.
  • Lack of ground cover (litter both alive and dead). Notice that litter is being digested by microbes while thatch is more static and inhibiting new growth or it is often signaling a lack of microbes.
  • Lack of plant diversity in high biomass.
  • Complete removal of animals (especially cattle and wildlife).
  • Lack of living roots on a year-around or nearly year-around round basis.
  • Lack of mineral availability (colloidal saturation).
  • Consistent travel by cattle or vehicles creates soil compaction.

On the other hand, examining the best soils in the world and using them as a goal for our area has given us answers as to the right principles concerning regeneration of organic matter.

The best soils have these attributes:

  • High in organic matter (4-10%).
  • Black in color, granular and well aggregated to depths of 30 or more inches.
  • Limestone base. Calcium is the No. 1 mineral driver.
  • Highly mineralized with ample levels of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, trace minerals and sodium chloride.
  • High mineralization and colloidal saturation.
  • Annual moisture levels of 20-35 inches.

Look at the best soils in the world. I am talking about growth and health. I’m talking about what those of us in other locations need to consistently mimic with our management. We can move in the right direction. This is our goal. Notice there are many variables.

A good question should come to mind concerning soil generation and new soil development in areas of the country where the soil is far from optimal. Increasing organic matter and mineralization should always be our goal.

Here in Tennessee the program we have built to avoid the problems and mimic the good soil-building techniques consists of these six principles:

  1. Regular application of lime and other needed minerals, including supplement to the cattle which they spread.
  2. Management for a highly diverse plant community that is high in biomass and root growth and root depth.
  3. Dissolving of any hardpan with boom-and-bust grazing followed by complete plant recovery.
  4. Fast and hard grazing of completely recovered pastures with cattle in densities exceeding 70,000 pounds per acre.
  5. Removal of chemicals and mechanical harvest from the system.
  6. Replace chronic stress of the soil with planned “shock grazing.”

Remember that chronic damage from farmers, ranchers and homeowners has removed our topsoil and its organic matter. Boom-bust grazing following complete plant recover is a key to system development.

Our focus should be directed to growing organic matter on a daily basis. It is money in the bank and Walt Davis calls this “biological capital.” Remember that 90% of soil function is controlled by organic matter and organic matter is controlled by carbon in large volumes that is cycling through our soils.

The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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