Biology: The “X” Factor
Posted by Dani Kusner on September 21, 2017
What’s the biggest difference between farming conventionally and farming organically? While there are several differentiators such as allowable inputs and weed control methods, my answer to this question is biology. Successful organic farming requires allowing soil microbiology to go to work for you. Crop rotation, cover crops, soil balancing, manure, compost blends, shallow tillage, and cultivation are important tools to maximize the benefits of an abundant soil food web.
Measure Soil Biology in Earthworms
When the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a story on earthworms on July 1, 2017, I had to smile – the mighty earthworm’s long overdue claim to fame has arrived! Earthworms are excellent nutrient cyclers. As they plow through the soil, they eat smaller microbes (like bacteria and fungi), and excrete a rich blend of humus which contains nutrients held in plant-available forms for efficient root uptake. More available, stable nutrition in your soil means less fertilizer dollars you need to spend on your field. Earthworms also create an underground highway of tunnels that serve as pathways for oxygen aeration and water infiltration, promoting strong root growth and mitigating the impact of weather extremes in times of drought or heavy rainfall.
As the top predator in the soil food chain that is also visible to the human eye, the earthworm is the farmer’s best measure of soil health. To put it simply, if you have a lot of earthworms, then you also have lots of the bacteria and fungi that earthworms need to sustain their populations (meaning you have an overall well-functioning soil biological system in your field).
The $0 Shovel Test
Measuring earthworms is completely free!
1. Dig up a shovelful of soil (about 1 cubic foot).
2. Flip the soil into a pile and start digging for earthworms.
3. Count them as you go.
If you have 20 or more earthworms in your shovelful of soil, congrats! If you have fewer than 20, you’re likely missing out on the monetary benefits of thriving soil microbiology. According to Matthew Wallenstein, Associate Professor and Director of the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Colorado State University, “Without a healthy microbial community, nutrients are no longer recycled, opportunistic pests can invade and farmers rely increasingly on chemicals to replace biological soil functions.” To read more about the biological functions of soil microbes, you can find a helpful synopsis by Wallenstein here: http://theconversation.com/to-restore-our-soils-feed-the-microbes-79616
How Are You Going to Farm Biologically?
Are you thinking about long-term soil health? The WSJ article I mentioned above argues that the long-term, generational productivity of your soil, which determines the financial viability of your farm, depends on how well you care for its microbiology (i.e. earthworms).
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