Soil without Biology is simply Geology

Image - Nature.com

Image - USDA
Throughout human history, our relationship with the soil has affected our ability to cultivate crops and influenced the success or fall of civilizations. This relationship between humans, the earth, and food sources affirms soil as the foundation of agriculture. During the 1950s after World War II, science took the chemicals they used in war time bomb making and found they also could be used as synthetic fertilizers. As the advertizement stated, the earth was a harsh and unforgiving place and only science could bring it to it's full potential and they called this the, "Green Revolution" because their only altruistic motive was wanting to feed the world. Back then no one thought of practices like biomimicry, which is the research of how nature really works and replicating that in to responsible technological practices. Farmland became nothing but monocrops used only once or twice a year, eventually depleting the soils of available nutrients which had to be replaced through industrial application. The problem was major changes in soil structure. Runoffs, flooding and giant dust bowl storms became more common. Why ??? Because there were no longer soil aggregates to hold soil in place and soil became more sterile in the sense that less microbiology was available to create the open soil pore structure needed for good rainwater percolation and aeration. The photo on the left shows a typical farmland which will only percolate a half inch of rain an hour, but often times many storms provide torrential downpours. Notice the massive topsoil erosion in that picture ??? 😯

Image from Treehugger

Image - Gabe Brown

The photo on the right is North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown who stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement which concentrates on soil health first. He is best known for popularizing the concept of using multiple species of both annuals and especially perennials for cover crops and mycorrhizal cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil biology health and nourishing mycorrhizal fungi native communities. After a heavy downpour his District Conservation officer from NRCS came out and estimated his infiltration rate at over 8 inches an hour, where compared with most industrial ag run farms runoff occurs at 1/2 inch.

Image from Gabe Brown 
Gabe Brown had a third-party company he hired to test the soil's organic content. The company is called “Cedar Basin Crop Consulting in Decorah, IA” managed by Shannon Gomes. All his fields on the ranch ranged from 4.5 to 7.5 percent organic matter. He has one field with 11.1 percent. Not bad starting @ 1.9 percent organic matter. Gabe has said many times that his soils are degraded, but vastly improved after feeding the soil biology properly by replicating nature. Below is a chart he had made.
Image from Gabe Brown

Image- Stephen Zehetner
Gabe Brown is also a no-till farmer who in the past 20 years has seen his soil organic matter increase from 1.9 to 6.1% and water infiltration rates rise from 0.5 inches per hour in 1991 to 8 inches today. And all because of the soil aggreggates which act as a deep sponge and the vegetative armour he leaves on the top of the soil. In one of his video presentations he shows photos of a monsoonal thunderstorm which went through during one summer wiping out his neighbours land with major erosion and standing water, while Gabes land easy soaked in 8 inches of water in one hour and only really experienced some runoff at beyond 8 inches and the storm total itself was at 13.6 inches. He had some runoff, but no erosion. In the photo at right is an example of no tillage and seeding right into the cut residues. This photo is from Stephen Zehetner who is owner of Huron Cover crops. But there is more that happens with soil armour on the top of the soil which is what convinced me back in the 1980s
Importance of Soil Temperature & the effects on Plant Root Systems growth
  • 140 degrees, soil bacteria die
  • 130 degrees, 100% moisture lost through evaporation and transpiration
  • 100 degrees, 15% moisture is used for growth, 85% moisture lost through evaporation and transpiration
  • 70 degrees, 100% moisture used for growth 
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    My first hand experience with the bullet points listed above utilizing Mulch 😉
    Courtesy of Peter Smallidge
    From 1985 until 2002 I owned some acreage up in Anza California at elevation 4,500'. Summers could actually get up to the middle 90s Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). On bare soil with no cover the temperatures were more intense. At the end of the 1980s, I noticed many of the Counter and Jeffrey Pines had not put much growth & height despite having good rainfall totals. I had even inoculated then with Pisolithus tinctorius mycorrhizal fungi which is one of the best enhancers. What I noticed is that pines which clearly survied, often had limp needle bundles and tiny bud development for next seasons growth. I also knew that the mycorrhizal grid was healthy because I used to experiment over a wide 8 meters square planting plot of seedlings where I would slow water one pine within the 8 meter square grid which would develop resinous pitch beads on the buds. This phenomena would repeat itself on all the pines as the water made it's way throughout the entire grid. Yet these trees I had planted using forestry practices of stripping the ground bare of all other vegetation in the idea of eliminating the competition all were stuck in neutral as far as growth. I had noticed that tree seedling within thinned chaparral fared much better. Why ??? Aside from the abundance of water availability through hydraulic lift and redistribution within the Redshank, the trees were also surrounded by the thick heavy dander of the Chaparral shrubs. That was key, but I did not want to drive off the mountain to a Home Improvement store and pay a huge premium for shredded bark mulch. The cheapest Option I could think of was on a day trip to the resort town of Idyllwild to the north of me. And it was Pine Straw Mulch.
    Image from Mid-Atlantic Pine Straw Mulch

    Image by 44design
    I realized the product could be had for free. The town of Idyllwild has country fire code rules which demand all pine needles be raked and hauled to the county dump for disposal in a green recycle cargo container outside of town limits. It was a hassle and pain for most folks, but they were forced to do it. I had a Toyota 4X4 Pickup back then and drove around looking for people who had huge raked up piles of Pine straw needles. Never met a one who would turn me down for taking the needles for free if I hauled them away. Mixed in of course were also Incense Cedar foliage, etc. There are commercial compaies who harvest pine straw, mainly from Southern Long Needle pine varieties. They sell these in bales for about $13. In the west of course there are fire issues with pine straw which would burn like matches if embers hit them, but on my acreage, such pine straw would be well away from the home and any other buildings.

    Image - Josh Fecteau (May 2013)

    The most amazing response in the wide area mulched one foot and more thick with all the pines was not only the uprightness of the needles and their brighter green shiney color appearances, but also the continued growth and strong development of their central leader buds and branching tips in all Torrey, Jeffrey and Coulter Pines as a result of the pine straw mulch which cooled the ground considerably. The photo above is not mine, but illustrative of what I experienced when the root area runs a cool 70 degrees underground as opposed to 100+ Fahrenheit which cooks the system and forces all the plant resources going into emergency survival mode only. It made me realize why My plantings done at the same time as the US Forest service reforestation project was done 1000' higher in elevation on bare soil did so much better. And they actually had to use a small Ford Farm tractor pulling a water wagon to supplement moisture for survival.

    Photo is mine from 2014

    This final photo taken in 2014 is of a Torrey Pine which grew fast at a new landscape project at the San Diego Wild Animal Safari Park. Notice the absolutely need for staking. This was my problem up in Anza. Not because I overwatered, but after mulching the entire topsoil around all the trees, the central leader buds and side branching candle buds skyrocketed in growth. In fact the central leaders after initial 3'+ growth and new needles, grew another two foot more of central leader and side branch buds before going dormant for winter. One Torrey Pine without mulch the first year did nothing close to that until I mulched a foot of pine straw the following year like the rest and all because the cooler soil temperature made the root mechanisms work more efficiently. Too efficiently because staking was necessary when young and we had horrible high winds from the Santa Anas which blew through at 50 to 70 mph.
    "Soil without Biology is simply Geology" Gabe Brown




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