I recently received a negative comment about a piece I did on biological capital and its importance to agriculture. The reader opinioned, “The real-world deals with money, not theories.” This attitude – only hard assets have value – is one of the things wrong with agriculture today.
There is nothing theoretical about biological capital. It is just as real and just as valuable as fiscal capital (money) or intellectual capital (knowledge). The level of abundance of biological capital is the major factor determining financial health of agricultural operations. This condition determines the productivity, the stability, and the profitability of an undertaking. Benefits accrue from increased production and from decreased expenditure. Well-managed healthy animals grazing healthy forage growing on healthy soil need much less supplement, parasite control, or disease control. A pound of prevention truly is worth a ton of cure.
To illustrate, we can examine the biological capital of a cow-calf operation with good-case versus bad-case scenarios:
High biological capital ranch – Good soil organic content, robust soil life, full ground cover, high biodiversity (plants, animals, microbes), good soil structure, livestock suited to the environment, management functioning to promote life.
Low biological capital ranch – Low soil organic content, scant and weak soil life, insufficient ground cover, low biodiversity, poor soil structure, poorly adapted livestock, much mineral content in form unavailable to plants, management designed to kill pests.
All factors that determine the health of an operation are affected positively by high biological capital and negatively by low biological capital.
To understand the effects of biological capital, it is important to appreciate that anything which affects one part of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex that we call a farm/ranch, affects all parts of the complex.
A serious fault in modern agriculture, and indeed in all human endeavors, is our failure see that it is impossible to kill weeds, or select for heavier weaning weights, or add fertilizer to raise forage amounts without having effects on all parts of the complex. Those effects can range from slight to overwhelming on biological, financial, and/or human conditions.
Some of these effects are easy to see and some require close examination to discover. Big cattle have big calves but require more feed, and fewer can be maintained on a given amount of grass. Moving regularly to fresh pasture can improve pasture while increasing animal performance if correctly managed. If poorly managed, the practice will do the opposite of what is desired. Some of the first scientific research into rotational grazing produced very poor results on all fronts because decisions on when to move cattle were made solely on the protein content of the grazed forage.
Good management becomes much easier to achieve if it is tailored to produce the conditions we need to promote the desired results, rather than focusing on the results themselves. For instance, one of the most valuable benefits of good grazing management is increased soil organic content. For each 1% of soil organic content -- for example if we move up from 2% to 3% -- the soil can take in and hold against the forces of gravity and osmosis about another 22,000 gallons of water per acre.
This increase in organic content also will include an increase the amount of life present in the soil. This soil life that plays a vital role in soil structure and in mineral nutrients available to plants. The more kinds of soil life, and the larger the amounts of soil life, the more productive and stable the soil. Sadly, the reverse is also true and most of the commonly used practices of industrial agriculture reduce rather than increase soil organic content and soil life. This reduction of life is the prime reason we are so dependent on purchased inputs of all kinds. A grazing operation on well-managed permanent pasture with high biological capital neither needs nor benefits in the long term from nitrogen fertilizer or weed sprays.
We don’t need more powerful tools to control nature so much as we need better understanding of how nature functions and how our actions interfere with these functions.
A major problem in designing management that works with nature rather than against it is the concept of “invasive species.” When weeds proliferate in pasture, this does not mean that the weeds have invasive powers. It means that growing conditions – the status of the ecological processes – in that pasture favor the weeds more than they do the forage plants. If you don’t like what is growing, change the growing conditions.
And build that biological capital so you can earn more fiscal capital.