Rebuilding Soil

"My irrigation used to run off my fields and back into my dam, it no longer does." - Farmer Danie Slabbert on improved infiltration with no-till and cover crops.

"[The] Rhizosphere may be the only site in the universe where the death is transformed to life." - Professor Rattan Lal

When it comes to rebuilding soil the results that have been achieved by Regenerative Agriculture around the world are phenomenal and indeed in a world of constant negative news about soil loss and climate change this is something we can take significant encouragement from.

No-till planting and the use of multi species cover crops, especially when grazed by ruminants, have resulted in soil organic matter returning to levels that haven't been seen since the plough was introduced and in just a few years inches of sub soil being have been converted into rich, productive topsoil.   This almost magical returning of the carbon to the soil is not restricted to croplands it has also been recorded in grasslands where cattle and sheep have been managed using planned rotational grazing with high animal intensity followed by long rests to allow the grass to recover.

"Sustainable management of soil implies the use of modern innovations built upon traditional knowledge." - Professor Rattan Lal

Cover Crops

As you can see below cover crops provide multiple positive inputs on the route to rebuilding soils.  The effective use of cover crops assists farmers with various soil resource concerns (organic matter, carbon, nitrogen, compaction, micro nutrients) and ultimately improved yields with a reduced reliance on expensive synthetic inputs. 

Advantages of Cover Crops

  • Green manure - organic matter
  • Multiple species (diversity)
  • Living root in the ground - feed soil microbes
  • Armour from rain, wind and sun
  • Suppress weeds
  • Build soil structure
  • Improve water infiltration
  • Increase water holding capacity
  • Forage for livestock
  • An opportunity to introduce livestock into your crop rotation

Look at this list of advantages of cover crops and count how many tick the 5 Principals of Soil Health - Armour, Living root, Diversity, Animals. The only one missing is No Disturbance and when you plant them with no-till that box is also ticked. No-till cover crops equal a 5 out of 5.

With cover crops working for you you can rapidly build topsoil and produce nutrient dense crops. As Dr. Christine Jones says in "The formation of fertile topsoil can be breathtakingly rapid once the biological dots have been joined and the sequestration/ mineralisation/ humification pathway has been activated."

The sun's energy is captured by the plant and transferred into the soil as liquid carbon. This fuels the soil microbial activity which in turn makes minerals available in a soluble form. The fungi in the soil uses the carbon sugars to build humus and the soluble minerals go to the plant, this enables more photosynthesis which in turn produces more liquid carbon to be channelled to the soil.  In the words of Dr Christine Jones "The positive feedback loops render the liquid carbon pathway somewhat akin to perpetual motion." 

Soil that is rich in humus also has an amazing capacity to hold water and to hold it where our food and we need it. It is simply a remarkable water management tool. A 1% increase in soil organic matter means that a single hectare of land can hold an addition 170 000 lt of water.  Thats 170 000 lt that is available to the next crop rather than carrying topsoil to the sea.

Link: National Resource Defence Council (NRDC) article on Climate Ready Soil 

The power of using cover crops is shown in this table comparing 4 neighbouring farms using 4 different management systems and the impact on the minerals in their soil. The highlighted one is Gabe Brown's farm where he used No-Till, High Diversity Cover Crop Rotations, Zero Synthetics (Fertiliser and Pesticides) and Livestock. (WEOC = water-extractable organic carbon)

Video:  Gabe Brown - How to save money on fertilisers // Learning from Nature

Video:  Cover Crops 


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