Will our world ever be the same again after COVID-19? What next?
After all is said and done will the realisation of what we have done – our destruction of the environment and where we have gone wrong – be enough to motivate us to actually change our actions, our relationships, and ourselves?
Nature is resilient if we just look at the various disasters that have affected humanity over the last couple of decades:
- The wildfires in Australia
- The tsunami in 2004
- The floods in both North and South America in 2019
Nature always creates life again, even after the most horrific natural disasters.
Regardless of how severe the storm was, a bird will always sing the next morning.
How can we change our agricultural systems in order for soil, plant, animal and human health to become more resilient against the ever changing environment and the ever increasing threat of disease? We have seen the writing on the wall for a while now and we have been warned numerous times in publications like the following:
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962
- Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Meyers in 1997
We know what the unforeseen negative effects are when we use conventional agricultural and management systems:
- Increased input costs
- Decreased profit
- Decreased water infiltration, and retention
- Topsoil erosion – South Africa loses 13 tons of topsoil pa. on agricultural land alone
- Nutrient deficient food
- Loss of diversity – Insects and predator prey relationship
- Decreased soil health
- Increase in pathogen resistance – Human and animal pathogens, weeds, internal and external pathogen control
We don’t use our biological services that nature provides for free – we have destroyed these.
Rebuilding resilience into our food system again
Will we reflect deep enough so that we see that we can build resilience into our food system again?
Small farmers, and not factory farms, produce 70% of the world’s food supply
Have you seen how fickle our human society is when disaster struck, toilet paper was sold out, as if that will give us a sense of security?
Can we reverse our chemical dependence in the agricultural production system, so that we don’t have to have minimum chemical allowance in our food? Our greed has caused this pandemic, the droughts, and chronic diseases.
What is needed?
We must realise that we have lost the war against Mother Nature when we changed over form a biological system to a chemical system. She is fighting back in all aspects. We must reflect and change our management systems so that we build more resilient soils, which will result in more resilient plants, which will result in more resilient animals and ultimately in more resilient humans.
The 5 principles of soil health have been discussed numerous times in previous articles and blogs. The negative effects of all the various pesticides, herbicides, external and internal parasite controls, and various inorganic fertilisers on nature, are well documented.
We cannot continue to turn a blind eye and play innocent.
Talking about the five principles of soil health. We cannot adopt only one of these principles and think we are now doing regenerative agriculture. On the other hand, we cannot implement all five principles at once and think that we will survive economically. As far as the principles go, nobody can give you a recipe and tell you this is how it’s done. It is not a one size fits all, it is also more management intensive than conventional farming, but it is more rewarding, and sustainable.
Mega farms must plant or produce more animals or cash crop produce every year, because their profits are declining. Their risk for producing more food produce is increasing every year. It is only a matter of time before the bubble bursts. They must hide their inefficiencies by volume and that is not sustainable.
Starting off with the Five Principles of Soil Health – these are taken form the book “Dirt to Soil” by G.Brown
• Minimum disturbance – Mechanically and chemically
• Armour – don’t leave the soil bare
• Living root – cover crops
• Integrating animals
We must work with the end goal of the implementation of these five principles in mind. By applying the five principles of soil health you improve the robustness of the soil and you activate the biological services that evolved over centuries and are provided for free. These are symbiotic relationships between the inorganic materials, elements in the soil, the micro-organisms, the root exudates and the plants where each species relies on the other to supply specific needs of each other on an on-demand basis.
Our soils are degraded even if we have done no tillage for years. Although water infiltration has improved and your soil is more resilient, this is only the first step. Everybody that has read about, or seen any YouTube videos on regenerative agriculture, knows that we must establish Mycorrhizal fungi. What is not explained in detail, is how, and why it is not possible in degraded tilled soil.
Mycorrhizal fungi is a network of hyphae that extend from a living root to increase the root zone of the living root. The hyphae are much smaller than a root hair and can penetrate much smaller cracks and holes between soil particles to get access to water and various minerals and elements needed by the plant.
The Mycorrhizal fungi is destroyed with tillage. They also cannot survive without a living root – that’s why cover crops are so important. When the cash crop starts ripening the root exudates don’t get excreted anymore, because the plant does not need nutrients anymore. This causes the mycorrhizal fungi to start using its own energy reserves to survive. It can survive for about one month after the root exudates are shut down. For the next cash crop to have Mycorrhizal fungi again, you have to have Mycorrhizal spores in your soil to start the production of Mycorrhizal hyphae again. With the continued tillage, and due to our long dry seasons, where we do not have any living roots in the soil, and doing this year after year, we probably don’t have any spores left in our soil. Even if we started using no-till, we still don’t have spores left in the soil.
If we don’t plant cover crops to keep a living root in the soil for the Mycorrhizal hyphae to survive, we can inoculate with Mycorrhizal fungi spores for each cash crop planting, but we will have to inoculate every new planting.
If we can only keep a living root in the soil for a period of 18 months, because this is typically when the Mycorrhizal hyphae have developed to such an extent that they start producing spores. To establish the Mycorrhizal population in our soils again, the easiest way will be with a perennial pasture that is grazed by animals. The other microbial life will explode because of the inoculation from the fresh dung that is deposited on the field.
If we can build a perennial pasture rotation into our cash crop system to re-establish Mycorrhizal fungi, you will have gone a long way to drought proof your farm.
Farming with the Sun
Energy cannot be created or destroyed; this is the first law of thermodynamics.
It is often said that beef farmers farm with grass! Cash crop farmers think they are at the pinnacle of science and food production, and farm with external inputs, ignoring the biological inputs that they could get for free.
We get free energy from the sun constantly, and if we don’t have a living plant that can photosynthesize, we are wasting energy. We are also losing out on feeding our soil biology.
If we have bare ground however, the energy is transferred to the soil as heat. Not only does this not feed the soil biology, it also kills it with the heat, if the soil gets hot enough.
That is where the second and third rule of soil health are so important. We should change our mindset of seeing bare ground, fallow fields, and think of all the energy that is not used optimally, due to agricultural management practices. We would benefit from utilising the energy in the form of root exudates to stimulate our soil microbiology, making our soils more resilient against pests and drought.
Beef farmers don’t only farm with grass, they farm with the sun, the soil microorganisms, then the grass and finally with the animals. The animals produce what we as humans need so desperately to survive like meat, milk, leather, wool and all the various other animal products. If we however constantly destroy our soils with our advancements, we will ultimately pay the price and lose the war against Mother Nature.
Enhancing our biological systems
Earlier I have mentioned that we have tried to change our biological systems to chemical systems over the last several decades. The effects of these have been documented and described, not only by me, but by people that have a much better understanding of all the negative unforeseen consequences that occur when trying to change the various biological systems, including soil health, plant health, animal health and ultimately human health.
It all starts with the soil health. The rise of chronic diseases is not a coincidence but rather a result of modern living. Since Kellogg’s started the saying, ”Breakfast is the most important meal”, animal protein and animal fats were given the raw deal.
It is a well-known fact that every time a scientific journal peer reviewed and published what does not suit a certain industry, a scientific paper will be peer reviewed and published that states the exact opposite. Greed wins in the end, the one with the most money pays the advertising and sells the product. Just take the butter versus margarine reviews or animal products versus carbohydrates. The list carries on and on, even with chemicals and auto makers, everybody is trying to prove that they are the victims, and they are being bullied. We have lost our sanity long ago.
Bringing back our soil life, and our soil robustness will go a long way towards healing our land and our people. Why is diversity, the fourth principle of soil health, so important? It brings everything together, as diversity is the epitome of the whole principle of regenerative agriculture, including:
- Soil biology (the whole soil food web)
- Bird life
- Production animals
If we start with a multi species perennial pasture, which is inoculated with the various nitrogen fixing bacteria, mycorrhizal spores and we integrate production animals to harvest the perennial pasture, our soil biology will start doing the magic for us.
Once the soil biology reaches a certain threshold, and we have reached a quorum of various bacterial species, the magic really beings. This is when the microbes have the ability to stimulate gene expressions in the host plants. The same happens in the digestive tract of animals. This gene expression is mostly related to a better immune system and immune responses, to various chronic diseases like asthma, allergies, and certain intolerances.
By disrupting our soil or gut microbiome we destroy the ability of the symbiotic relationship between all the different living organisms in the soil and in our gut. If we can boost our immune system by strengthen our probiotic bacteria in the gut and in the soil, we have enhanced one of our primary defense systems against pathogens, be they viruses, mycoplasma, bacteria, yeasts or fungi.
One of the best ways of improving your soil health, be they pasture or cash crop fields, is with the integration of animals. The animal production usually outperforms the input costs of the cover crop or the perennial pasture. In the long run it will also outperform the risk of a cash crop especially in the more brittle areas. Animal numbers and a diversity of animals however play a big role in the profitability of the cover crop. You must have enough animals to graze the cover crop.
The symbiotic relationship between ruminants and plants is also well documented, that when a plant is grazed, there is an increase in root exudates, and a boost in carbon sequestration in the soil. This in turn causes an increase of biomass, if the plant has enough rest period before it is grazed again. This is true for both the cover crop and pasture. An important aspect of animal integration is that the pasture is grazed non-selectively, and rested adequately.
What have we done for efficiency – if we look at beef lots? Let’s do a cooperative analysis.
To plant a cash crop, we need the following:
- Disk – if we not doing no-till
- Plough – if we not doing no-till
- Crop Sprayer
- Top dressing
- Combine Harvester
- On farm Silo’s
- Truck and trailer or more tractors to transport the cash crop from the field to the silo.
- Weighbridge (this is becoming a necessity with corporate corruption)
How many times we till spray and top dress depends on the on-farm management – every time this happens though the CO2 footprint increases.
If we plant Silage, we need:
- Top dressing
- Disk – if we not doing no-till
- Plough – if not doing no-till
- Silage cutter
- Tractors and trailers for removal of silage or
- Truck and trailer for the removal of silage
- Frontend loader to remove silage from pit
When we cut hay, we need:
For a feed factory, we need:
- Feed mixer
- Hammer Mill
- Feed store
- Mineral packs
- Cash crop
For a feed lot, we need:
- Water troughs
- Processing infrastructure
- Truck and trailer
- Transport steers
- Feeding wagon
- Trailer for slurry or manure removal (to spray onto cash crop fields)
We have done all this in the name of efficiency, but what would the alternative be?
Perennial warm and cold season cover crop pasture that is grazed in rotation under UHDG with veld when the veld is at the optimum nutritional level. When the veld is in a dormant state during winter the veld cannot be overgrazed and can be grazed using UHDG management system to improve the regrowth and the diversity of the veld once the rainy season starts.
For finishing off the cattle we could fatten them on a multispecies cash crop, where the nutritional needs of the animal are met, with a lick supplement and the various cash crops that are normally harvested are inter seeded, and the animals do the harvesting for you. There is no need for all the capital equipment that is described at the top.
If we inter seed with, what the Native Americans called the three sisters, maize, cow peas, and pumpkin we could fatten our steers cheaper and more effectively. We build our soils as we are doing this, instead of mining all the nutrients every year and removing everything for the cattle in the feedlot.
We could also do it with perennial pastures, where we inter seed the warm season grasses for the summer period, to fatten the animals on warm season grasses. We have then reduced our oil dependency, and we are producing a much safer product, where the biological services are constantly enhanced by the various symbiotic relationships between the soil microbes and the root exudates, the plant and the herbivore. The animal is in its natural surroundings, and all the biological services to remove the dung are enhanced, completing the circle where dung beetles bury the dung again and stimulate the soil biology again.
Our list of capital equipment has been reduced somewhat, we still need some mechanical equipment, but our input costs have been reduced, and our risk of producing food has decreased.
This is just one example, the sheep, dairy, pig and poultry systems could all be integrated onto pasture, where all the various biological services that nature provides for free can be utilised optimally. It is only the human mind that thought it could outperform nature, but we are fighting a losing battle. Our input costs are rising and the risk of producing food is becoming a bigger challenge.
A lot will have to change for us to succeed, and it is not only the agricultural system that will have to change, the financial services supporting agriculture will have to change as well, where they finance farmers that actually farm with nature rather than against it.
Why is the integration of animals onto our cash crop fields so important, not only for the health of the soil but also for the animals? We have reduced our nutrition of most of our production animals, and have tried to supplement the various diets with minerals and vitamin. We cannot comprehend the symbiotic effect the soil and the soil microbiology has on the gut health of the animals. Taking micro-minerals into account, we analyse certain amino acids, minerals and organic acids, and a feed gets formulated – yes the animals perform well and above the genetic potential of yester year, but why aren’t the various animal products not as nutrient dense as before? Are we missing certain biological symbiotic functions between the soil and the host animal on all levels, specifically on the immunological side? The same goes for humans, are we so sterile that our immune system is not primed to handle a certain disease?
We should find a way to improve our nutrient density of our food, for both production animals and humans. We must also find a way to enhance the symbiotic biological systems between humans and animals and between humans and plants, and between humans and soil.
We are part of the system, and we must enhance the systems rather than destroy them.
Photographer: Gerhard Weber