My Love Affair with Soil

June 9th, 2016

by Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont

Butterworks Farm Cattle on Pasture

We celebrate forty years on our farm this summer. Four decades of Earth stewardship has taught us many lessons—some easy and obvious, others more difficult and involved. Originally, we bought our farm because we wanted to be self-sufficient homesteaders producing everything we needed to sustain ourselves.

We soon found out that we needed some income to provide for the other necessities required by the modern world. This meant off-farm jobs and some kitchen stovetop milk processing of the milk from our two family cows. We began selling a variety of homemade dairy products to our friends and neighbors in 1979. All of a sudden, we were real farmers.

We began cutting hay and growing wheat and barley in 1977. It was also right about this time that I became acquainted with Fred Franklin, a self-proclaimed soils guru and soil fertility expert. Fred encouraged me to do some soil testing and much to our surprise, our soils were somewhat balanced and stocked up with essential minerals all left over from the dairy farmer who had used the land until the year before we bought it. Our first crops were adequate and satisfactory, especially for a couple of beginners who had never farmed on any scale before.

I remember that my first concepts of soil fertility management were quite limited and rather simplistic. Having grown up with a father who used 5-10-10 and manure on his garden, it all seemed like a depleted bank account to me. How was I going to get enough nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to meet the needs of my crops when all that I had were a bunch of cow manure paddies scattered throughout our pasture? We wanted to be using organic practices, but were pretty clueless on how to make it happen.

Fred Franklin recommended that I begin subscribing to Acres USA, and that I get myself a copy of the Albrecht Papers, which I did. Acres was full of stories about larger-scale farmers who were successfully using natural practices and no chemicals on their farms. I began to learn about the wonders of soils by reading the essays of William Albrecht.

Albrecht was an agronomist and soil scientist at the University of Missouri from the 1920s to late the 1950s.  He noticed that the most abundant, highly nutritious crops came primarily from the prairies that stretched from the panhandle of Texas to the Dakotas. This is where the huge herds of bison had roamed north to south and where wheat crops with highest protein levels were produced. It was also where rainfall and evaporation/transpiration were balanced equally. Soil pHs were in the 6.5 to 7.0 range.

Albrecht explained that when one travelled eastward from this area, rainfall began to exceed evaporation and soils became more acid. The reverse happened when one went westward. Evaporation increased as rainfall declined and soils became much more alkaline. Albrecht conducted thousands of soil tests in this high fertility region and determined that these soils had cation (positively charged elements) balances that were all pretty similar. A typical negatively charged soil colloid (particle) was usually “saturated” with 65 to 70% calcium, 15 to 20% magnesium, 5% potassium and much smaller amounts of sodium and hydrogen. He also explained that the soil’s acidity, or pH, depended on how much hydrogen was present on the soil colloid.

This information was all brand-new to me and it was the beginning of my quest to balance the minerals in the soils on our farm. I bought my own soil testing kit and began using soil testing labs that used the base saturation method of soil testing. I found that our soils here on our hill top farm were low in magnesium and potassium. I also discovered a commercially available mineral called langbenite, or sulfate of potash magnesia, commonly known as sul-po-mag. With a chemical formula of 0-0-22-11, this crystalline mineral fertilizer from Carlsbad, New Mexico provided potassium, magnesium and sulfur to my soils and crops.

Of course, cost was an issue. Soil tests indicated that we needed about 500 pounds to the acre of the material to achieve the proper balance. In our early days on the farm, cash was tight and we could only afford 100 pounds to the acre.

Things changed once we got a Vermont milk handlers license in 1984. All of a sudden, we had more disposable income from selling our yogurt in stores statewide. We invested heavily in minerals for our land and the payback was almost immediate. Clovers and other legumes increased in our hayfields along with the yields. The health and general well-being of our tiny herd of cows increased as well. All of a sudden, animals were being bred on time. Milk production increased. This was such a revelation to me.  I very quickly realized that balanced mineral inputs do not cost—they actually pay.

Thus began my love affair with soil. All I needed to do was to take care of it, and it took care of us.  Shortly after this, we bought and applied an entire hopper train car load of hard rock phosphate from Florida. Our farm was stocked up on minerals. As legumes increased in our pastures and hay fields, the accompanying grasses began to thrive from the surplus nitrogen fixed by the clovers and vetch. Our fields had tripled in feed quality and output.

As a result, we were able to grow our herd. Cow numbers began to climb because reproduction was improved along with increased forage quantity and quality. The resulting milk from our cows had a high brix level and was naturally sweet tasting. This, in turn, was transformed into wonderful yogurt loved by all of our customers. Income from yogurt sales bought us more fertility and improved our farm. All in all, it was a win-win situation.

We laid the foundations of our soil improvement program back in the 80s. Since then, we have practiced the power of observation along with resulting management tweaks. This is the beauty of farming a piece of ground over an extended period of time. We try new things based on what we notice going on out there. Some experiments are successful and become standard operating practices for us, while others are not.

Over the years, we have begun to learn about other aspects of soil health and fertility. Physical properties like soil structure have improved along with a more diverse soil biology. The three main aspects of soil—the chemical, the physical, and the biological—are all intertwined and mutually dependent. Better structure means less compaction and better drainage.

Humus and organic matter have increased to the 9% level here on our farm, which means that we can sustain a drought much better these days. High and diverse levels of microbes, fungi, bacteria, and millions of other organisms have created an on-farm nitrogen cycle that has eliminated the need for nitrogen inputs of any sort. We simply provide the microbes with the right amount and balance of minerals and they take care of the rest.

These basic tenets of soil care have stood by us for three decades or more. As the years and seasons have passed by, we continue to learn more about the nuances of Earth care and soil health. We have refined our animal housing situation into a straw-based bedding pack that has allowed us to compost our entire winter’s worth of manure. We have learned the importance of carbon in the equation by using what many others would consider an inordinate amount of bedding under our cows. Hardwood bark has been added to the bedding pack to promote the fungal side of our compost mix. Compost is spread in September when the ground is good and firm and there is still time for the earth below to assimilate its goodness.

Soluble minerals like sul-po-mag, potassium sulfate, copper, zinc, manganese, and boron are spread in the early spring and are buffered by the presence of soil carbon from the previous year’s compost. At times, we have added soluble calcium to the mix in the form of gypsum or cement kiln dust. And last but not least, we have begun a crop spraying program with fish, sea minerals, molasses, humates, and minor essential minerals like cobalt, molybdenum, and selenium. Miniscule doses of these trace minerals promote increased photosynthesis because they are all enzyme cofactors in the process.

I find that I may have taken my love of soils, crops, and animals to a level well beyond where others would feel comfortable. My manic behavior is certainly not for everyone, but I will say that everything that I have done and achieved has been worth it.

The payback has been immense.  I see it every time I walk in a forage field or feed hay to my cows. We have diversity of species, high energy, and high protein. We have been able to stop feeding grain to our cows because we have attained these high levels of forage quality. Having been both a dairy and a grain farmer for the past forty years, I have also come to realize that we have done a much better job building soil carbon and health on our forage fields as opposed to our distant grain fields which have seen a lot of tillage. This opens doors into developing organic no-till grain systems that we hope will work for us in the future.

Organic agriculture is all about soil first and foremost. Thankfully, I’ve had a continuing relationship with the Earth that I steward for the last forty years. I hope that I get a few more years “on the land” and having fun farming. The greatest lesson that I have learned in all this time is that the Earth comes first.  Be generous in your dealings with Mother Earth. Be a giver instead of a taker. You will be paid back in interest many times over if you love the land and do right by it.

Everyone’s situation is different. However, we all need to do whatever we can to build our own farm organism, and remove as much carbon from the sky as we can and lock it up in the ground as soil humus. This will help everyone in a world whose climate seems to be much more fickle than ever before in our living memories. Good luck in your pursuits of regenerative agriculture.

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