Farm with mother nature

The Emperor’s Clothes

Farm with Mother Nature. By: Gerry Weber

“The right to search for the truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true” – Albert Einstein

How can we as humans get it so wrong, so often? And when people warn us about the consequences of our actions – we still want to defend our right to make money and to further destroy and harm the environment along with ourselves? Humans cannot function without nature or the natural systems that support all living organisms, from the tiny bacteria in the soil through to the largest mammals. Everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent on other species for survival. Let’s talk about how to farm with mother nature.

There is a meme that showcases a pristine beach, captioned “Animals were here.

The second picture shows rubbish in all forms: plastic bottles, bags, cigarette butts – basically a mess. It states “Humans were here.” Let’s behave like animals…

Farmers and consumers

We live in a disconnected world where the number of friends we have, are counted as a figure on social media and the number of likes a post gets, determines our popularity. It’s a world where the farmer produces food for somebody he doesn’t know, and the consumer buys food – even ready-made food – that is mass-produced and has a list of ingredients that nobody cares to read because they are not comprehensible.

In much the same way, the farmer has become disconnected from the soil and uses management practices that inherently harm the soil. He is locked into a system where, if he continues with the various management practices, he will have to continue buying the various products that destroy the soil biology. This makes him more dependent on the use of chemicals and mass-produced seeds. In the end, he has no control over his input costs, nor over his selling price.

Farmers know this already and gripe about it, but do not necessarily know what to do about it. Their fear of change eclipses possible solutions, often right at their doorstep. Will Rogers once said: “If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”

Farm with mother nature

The Emperor’s Clothes

There’s a classic yet fitting fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson called The Emperor’s Clothes. In this tale two weavers conned the emperor into believing that they make the best clothes. Only people who  really appreciated their work, could see the clothes. The Emperor paid large amounts of money to the two weavers for his new wardrobe.

He wanted to parade his new wardrobe to his subjects, so he got dressed in his magnificent ‘’invisible” clothes. Everybody praised the emperor for how wonderful he looked. That is, until a small boy in the crowd mentioned the obvious: The emperor had no clothes on – leaving him embarrassed and knowing that he had been taken for a ride.

Is this what has happened in the agricultural sector? That science thought they can produce crops with chemical usage, the various herbicides, pesticides, and GMO crops better than what the natural, evolved system can – with all its diversity?

How do we farm with mother nature?

We must stop fooling ourselves and start realising the unfavourable effects we have on the natural ecosystems through our modern, destructive agricultural systems. We are destroying our soil and are becoming more and more reliant on a handful of companies for the answer. Like the weavers in our story, these are the companies who are making the farmer more and more dependent on their products whilst convincing them that without their products, they cannot feed the world.

No single farmer can feed the world. It’s not happening now, and it will never happen. We are already producing enough food – it’s just that 33% of all produced food is wasted.

The consumer must reconnect with his/her food source, and the farmer with the soil.

Our human minds are always reductive. When we see a pest, we want to kill or destroy it, but in the natural world, there is always a stable predator-prey relationship. When we kill the pest, we also indirectly kill the predator. However, we then only replant food for the pest and we must, once again, apply a pesticide to kill the pest. Subsequently the pest becomes resistant and we must change to a different, much harsher pesticide or start applying more than the recommended dose onto our crops. Ultimately, the predator will not return because we always take away its food source.

We are already applying neonicotinoids to the seeds, while the pesticide and herbicide cocktails are becoming harsher for the crop to withstand the onslaught of pests and weeds. The neonicotinoids and various other chemicals we use in agriculture are destroying our insects and specifically the pollinators which will have a catastrophic effect in the long run.

Chemical manufacturing companies have no answer to the weed, pest or disease resistance which is so evident in all modern agriculture. Think of the chemical cocktails used for various diseases, pests, and weeds. It is only a matter of time before resistance builds up again… what then?

What about GMOs?

They have been heralded as the epitome of agricultural science. Anybody who has ever spoken out against GMOs and its safety risks, has been criticised as ‘not for science’ and that they have no idea what they are talking about (similar to the  weavers’ influencing of the emperor). The method of inserting a gene code from a different species to achieve a certain result is not accurate and will never be, due to the makeup of the double-stranded DNA helix.

Scientists have sold it as though there is no difference between this unnatural gene manipulation and what happens in nature. Like when DNA matter is interchanged between certain organisms or when an egg gets manually fertilised by a sperm.

There are checks and balances in the natural world that prevent certain DNA combinations from surviving or certain gene sequences from expressing what they are coded for – unlike the GMOs we produce in a lab. We cannot correctly determine where the inclusion of a specific code will be inserted. No GMO has been tested or trialled for a long enough period to be recognised as safe.

Let’s take the BT gene for example, a GMO corn plant engineered to withstand army worms. In nature the toxin is expressed when there is a threat, which is normal. The toxin is denatured when it encounters UV light, and when the threat passes, the bacillus spores stop excreting the toxin. This means a genetic code is in place to stop the excretion of the toxin.

What happens in a GMO plant?

In the GMO plant, however, this does not happen. The gene is encoded into the plant’s genetic makeup so that the plant continuously excretes the toxin – even if there is no threat – not so normal. Scientists could not have predicted the unforeseen consequences : not only do we have army worm that is resistant to the BT toxin, but the energy consumption of the plant is higher because every cell of the plant excretes the toxin continuously. The other unforeseen consequence is environmental contamination via the continued excretion of the BT gene, in both aquatic and soil biology.

Another unforeseen consequence GMOs have, is that plant roots are losing their relationship to the soil. We already face problems with the nutrient density of various cash crops. This decline in nutrient density has been well documented, in both plant and meat harvests.

The soil biology provides a plethora of micronutrients on an on-demand basis. We must believe in the ability of nature which has provided these nutrients over millennia, to carry on doing so. We must not destroy these systems that sustain all living creatures.

How often do farmers say “we cannot farm without GMOs or the use of glyphosate; how would we make money?” The chemical agriculture industry has managed to lock farmers into a cycle where they do not see any alternative other than chemical agricultural management systems, where yields are the only determining factor.

Banks do not bank yields!

Why, in the 21st century should we have laws that monitor chemicals in our food? Have we regressed with modern science to such an extent that we now feed chemicals to all our production animals and ourselves? The argument is always “we must manage the risk” – that’s no argument! The environmental, social and economic cost is so distorted, that the price we pay for a few companies to profit from an industry they are exploiting far exceeds the benefits we receive from their products.

We know what the consequences are when consuming these chemicals and what result they have on all living systems, from the bacteria in the soil to the most isolated individuals and predators in the world. Carcinogens and endocrine disruptors have affected all of us; diseases like diabetes and auto-immune diseases are on the increase. How far must we contaminate the environment, and all in the name of science?

The chemicals affect the fertility and the gut systems of our production animals, pollinators and in the end, us humans. We must stop thinking that our conventional farming management systems have no effect on the environment.

Jane Goodall once said: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

The price we pay for our human actions:

Environmental costs

  • Air
  • Water
  • Soil
  • Diversity decline in the form of wildlife, birds and insects

Social costs

  • Human health issues like chronic conditions, auto-immune diseases, cancer

Economical costs

  • Wasted tax money
  • Subsidies
  • Increased input costs

Soil erosion

There is a lot of talk in South Africa about soil erosion and the detrimental impact it has on land and water resources. It is critical to understand that although soil erosion is a naturally occurring process, humans have the potential to accelerate or counteract soil erosion through land management practices. For example, vegetation clearing, overgrazing and soil tillage will accelerate erosion, whilst using cover crops, rotational grazing and no-till practices can halt soil erosion.

Soil is a critical resource to all land-based practices, particularly agriculture. It is important to realise that soil is a finite and non-renewable resource, with soil formation a very slow process. Estimates show that the soil formation rate in South Africa is around 5 tons/ha/year, while the average soil loss rate is around 12.5-13tons/ha/year on agricultural land. Clearly, this is unsustainable.

The impact of soil erosion is large and far-reaching. The loss of fertile topsoil not only results in an increase in food production costs and loss of arable land; it also pollutes water resources through sedimentation and contaminants, such as herbicides and pesticides. To grasp how much of an issue this is, consider the Welbedacht dam. Siltation resulted in the storage capacity of the dam dropping from 115 million cubic meters to 16 million cubic meters between 1973 and 1993.A horrifying decrease of around 86%. Considering our reliance on dams during the dry season and droughts, it is crucial that we are able to store as much water as possible when we receive good rains.

Soil Compaction

Have you ever tested soil compaction due to tillage? In simple terms, the first rainwater penetrates the soil but depending on the rain, the surface is sealed, and the next rain event cannot penetrate as effectively, causing run-off and further erosion. There are many videos and examples where it is shown that water penetration and water retention are improved when using no-till and minimal disturbance both mechanically and chemically. How often are animals blamed for soil compaction, and left out of a cash crop field? Yet the compaction caused around the drinking and feeding troughs is mitigated by the biological processes that the animals stimulate when grazing either cover crops or harvest rests on the cash crop field.

Our dependence on fossil fuels and chemicals is at an all-time high. When will the system collapse? Every time we try and control nature, our input costs increase. This is true in all spheres of life. Chemical agriculture also tried to control nature with its whole arsenal and lost. Yes, farmers’ yields have improved, and it is mind boggling to see by how much. Worldwide the yields have probably doubled. But, have the farmers profited? No, they have not. No matter how TV shows like Mega Boere paint a picture of the effectiveness of these farmers, their risk of producing a crop increases yearly with every rising input cost and the decline in profit margins. Furthermore, if we take the changing weather patterns such as prolonged droughts and less (but stronger) rainfall events into account, we are conning ourselves into thinking that we have food security.

Can we farm with mother nature rather than against her?

The short answer is yes. But, to get there will be a lengthy process as we would need to turn around years of destruction and plundering that are so evident in conventional agriculture. We cannot expect to heal the land within one season, nor can we only implement no-till and think we’ve arrived.

Nature is a wickedly complex system. We must maximise the biological processes that she supplies with our limited knowledge of the soil and the effects, relationships, and interactions that all living species have with (and on) each other. From the soil microbes, interactions with various plants, the symbiotic relationships of its exudates and which bacteria they stimulate, to the effect that the largest mammals have on the soil microbiome. We as humans with our finite thinking don’t know everything; and we cannot control what we don’t know. Besides, if you want to control it, you still cannot predict the unforeseen consequences that your actions might have.

Changing over to a biological farming system takes time – you really cannot think that everything will change in a year. Changing over is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a lifelong commitment that revolves around the understanding of soil health and how to increase the carbon levels. There is no end game. Don’t stagnate, and never think you’ve arrived or “I’m now at the pinnacle”. We don’t yet know what the pinnacle is, and I doubt we ever will.

What are our tools and what management practices can we use?

Let’s take the five principles of soil health as described in Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil:

  1. Minimum disturbance both chemically and mechanically
  2. Armour through soil cover
  3. Build diversity
  4. Living roots
  5. Integrate animals

To achieve these five principles will take time. Management systems must be improved gradually, so that all five components can be achieved and implemented successfully. Doing everything at once will lead to a disaster. You will blame the system and not your application of the principles. There is no silver bullet in any business – especially not in a system that we don’t fully comprehend or understand.

We have to start somewhere and understanding why we must change is far more important than how we apply it.

Farmers need to fully comprehend what effects conventional agriculture has alongside all the unforeseen consequences. We also need to acknowledge the fact that we can improve soil health and find out what the benefits and biological advantages are.

One of the quickest ways of improving soil health on a cash crop field is through cover crops and animal integration. Just planting a cover crop for the sake of a cover crop will simply lead to frustration. You also need to know what you want to achieve with that cover crop.

Benefits a cover crop should offer:

  • Increase soil organic matter
  • Parasite control – nematodes
  • Fodder
  • Cover
  • Recuperate mineral deficiency
  • Improve predator-prey relationship

This can be achieved by looking at how many hectares of cover crops can be planted during the normal cash crop period, followed by another cover crop in the off season. If this is done over a period of two years, it can break the parasite cycle for the next cash crop. The cash crop can then be harvested with animals, in turn justifying the cost through their growth.

When changing over, realise that your management system will intensify. There is no program or a chart that you can implement from your neighbour. You have to build your own unique management system and see how your management style affects your implementation and rate thereof. Continuously educate yourself. Nobody’s education stops when they finish school, university or college; we must learn something every day to improve on what we knew yesterday.

Regenerative Agriculture – Farm with mother nature

Regenerative agriculture is nothing new – it has been done for centuries. Finding information nowadays is the easiest it has ever been. If you just take to Google, YouTube or social media, it’s easy to find people sharing their experiences on rebuilding their soil. There are many fascinating books written about this topic. It is amazing how much farmers love to tell stories about how they rebuilt the soil and their profitability, how they heal the land, their relationships, their community and their people.

Your mindset must change to see that everything you do agriculturally, has an influence on soil health. The healthier your soil becomes, the lower your input costs will be, ultimately driving your profitability. Most farmers get stuck in the fear that their yields will drop. Yield has nothing to do with profitability, but we have swindled ourselves into thinking it is the measure of success or effectiveness.

Dr. James Blignaut mentioned at the Reitz Landbou Weekblad conference in 2019, that the west of South Africa will have to change over to regenerative agriculture, or their profit margins will decrease over time. The sooner you start with your own education process to see what has been done in certain areas and, more importantly, what must be done in your area to improve soil health, the better for you and the future of your farm.

It does not matter what farming enterprise you run- you are dependent on soil health.

We should view the five principles of soil health collectively and not as five individual points implemented independently.

Minimal disturbance

This is probably the most self-explanatory; certain farmers have successfully implemented the no-till practice years already. Where they do fail is that they don’t realise chemical inputs are also part of this equation. Inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have a huge detrimental effect both on the soil microbes and the environment at large. Inorganic fertilisers have an enormous effect on agricultural water contamination. The use of inorganic nitrogen when planting, shuts down the root exudates that are vital to the soil bacteria. Basically, your all-round effort must be aimed towards soil health and water retention.

Armour

Keep your soil covered with organic matter. This cools it down, so that the microbial life has a better chance of survival. Fallow fields that are ploughed or disked for weed control are detrimental to both the soil microbiology and water retention.

Building diversity

This is relevant in all aspects from plants, animals, insects to birds and wildlife. Life creates life, we should embrace this instead of following our destructive habits. Soil and the environment are living beings which are destroyed by killing everything other than the cash crop or the production animal. The unforeseen consequences that have been unleashed by the use of chemical agriculture, as is evident today, are frightening.

Diversifying farming operations where crop rotation, intercropping or inter-seeding, pollinator strips, cover crops and a variety of animals are integrated to control both weeds and pests, will result in minimal input costs and healthier food for the consumer.

Predator-prey relationships in a microbial world

Importantly, we must also sustain and regenerate the predator-prey relationship on farms. We have tried to destroy our pests with chemicals for far too long, yet we have failed. How many resistant pests (weeds, fungal, bacterial) have we created in crop production, animal production and in human health? We have lost the war against the microbial world.

Through building diversity, the whole system becomes more robust and the immune systems of plants, production animals and ultimately human health, will improve. The water harvesting capability of soil improves, along with water retention, so that cash crops can withstand the droughts and increased temperatures.

Furthermore, building diversity among animals through a stacking technique will improve resilience  by having ruminants which are followed by monogastric animals for pest control. This can be used to achieve more than one income stream, but also uses animals to contain certain pests. It kills two flies with one swat (pardon the pun).

The biological processes that are activated when combining animals, cover crops and cash crops in various rotations on a cash crop field are incredible. Several farmers have already implemented the five principles of soil health and have successfully reduced their diesel usage per hectare by a massive 70% – all without dropping their yields!

Living roots (cover crops)

These are probably the cheapest and easiest way to improve soil health. Simply plant and give them a fair chance to grow, so they can reach their full potential. Planting the cover crop only in the off season and hoping for a game changer is not the answer. Plant a section of your cash crop fields in the rainy season so that the soil can start regenerating. Remember – keep a mindset of what is beneficial to soil health.

Employing a multi-species cover crop onto the field is also more beneficial than just adding a mono-cover crop. The various root exudates stimulate a larger diversity of micro-organisms. In the long run, it increases soil carbon, organic matter, various mineral cycles and, most importantly, the water cycle (both water retention and penetration).

Integrating animals

Nature doesn’t work without animals. To really appreciate the biological benefits that the appropriate animal impact provides both on the natural veld and on cash crop fields, it must be experienced. Using grazing methods where cattle forage non-selectively has a very positive impact on the veld, increasing species diversity both in grasses and forbs. Many farmers whom have seen natural legumes return to their veld just applied the correct grazing method.

One of the biggest mistakes in the South African beef industry is to understock and overgraze. Why is beef farming not as profitable as it should be? The answer is simple: we have bred animals according to the “you must feed to breed” mantra. Because of the long history of mismanagement like understocking and overgrazing, the natural veld has lost its vigour. Biological processes have declined to such an extent that farmers now have to feed their animals to produce any offspring.

What about cash crop farming?

Cash crop farmers also use cattle as a bank. When the cash crop fails, they then sell cattle to make up the short fall. Stocking rate is the number one profit driver for profitability in cattle. Cattle get sold to make up the short fall, of the cash crop income. An alternative option: Increase your herd, combine cover crops for spring and autumn grazing, natural veld for summer grazing. In winter either use the harvest remains, or natural veld again. The risk of cattle farming is lower than cash crop farming, and the rewards are larger. Cash crop farming must be the only business where money is loaned from the bank every year before planting. Is this really sustainable?

Conclusion

It sounds like a tall order, but we need to change our mindsets, management systems and the way we farm. We need to revive nature’s biological processes that have evolved over centuries to sustain all living beings. We have destroyed and ignored these biological systems – and only we can bring them back to life again. Let’s start by implementing the five principles of soil health because in the end, “Restoration pays” – Dr. James Blignaut.

Let us farm with mother nature and not against her.

Photography: Gerry Weber

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The Importance of Fertility in Ultra High Density Grazing

The Importance of Fertility in Ultra High Density Grazing

More and more farmers are seeing the benefit of using Ultra High-Density Grazing (UHDG) to rejuvenate their veld and to increase their stocking rate at the same time. There is no doubt that when applying this management system, the veld is rejuvenated.  The diversity in all aspects increases, from grasses, legumes, forbes, insect life and bird life. We focus on the importance of fertility in Ultra High Density Grazing in this article.

So why is not everybody doing it? Don’t we all want improved soil on our farms with improved water penetration and improved water holding capacity? We all want improved diversity including insect life, bird life and life in the soil, from dung beetles, earthworms, and microbial life. Don’t we all want to improve our predator-prey relationships, where the natural predators and the animal immune system provide the self-defense system for the internal and external parasites? It is not that there are no parasites, but rather that the animal can actually produce, regardless of them.

Farmers who have not managed UHDG, mob grazing or high density grazing correctly or their expectations were different to what the results were, often say it does not work. One negative result is a decrease in conception rate. One cannot expect to change grazing management without it influencing conception rate.

Why do we have to breed for fertility?

Why do we have to breed for fertility if we want to increase our stocking rate, and increase the number of kilograms of meat sold per hectare (or profit per hectare)?

Everything in cattle breeding and management revolves around body condition.

ALL breeding and management decisions affect body condition.

Body condition affects ALL breeding and management decisions.

How to start with UHDG

Starting with UHDG on your farm sounds easy. The only thing you need to do is go to a farmer who is already doing it and copy what he does and apply the same principle to your own farm… Will this work? Probably not. The conception rate will drop, because animals are not used to utilising all the various grasses and forbes. That is if there were any forbes and legumes in your system.

Utilising smaller camps without adding any animal numbers to your farm does not increase your stocking rate. You will still have the same number of animals on your farm. You are just utilising your grass better. This, however, will probably result in having too much grass after one year and result in you having to burn it if you are in the sour-veldt region.  All this is to ensure that you have any form of nutrition for the animals.

Buying in animals can be done, but adaption takes time, and this will not necessarily address your fertility problem.

Building your herd organically, and correcting genetics so that the mother animals can give you a calve from the age of two years and then annually after that, and wean that calve between 42% and 50% of her body weight, will be more profitable in the long run.

Selling a cow only needs to be done because of age and for cash flow reasons. Alternatively her calves can be used to increase the stocking rate. There are, however, certain criteria that the cow must fulfil for you to use her bull calves for your herd improvement, and weaning weight is not one of them.

As far as the profit drivers of beef farming is concerned, stocking rate is the highest profit driver, then fertility and then growth. Both stocking rate and growth have a negative influence on fertility. It is always a balance between these three components to become profitable. It does not help to have a high stocking rate and a low conception rate, nor having a high conception rate but not enough animals. The problem with weaning weight is that they are no indication of profitability either.

Bull breeding and selection

Using the wrong bull does more damage to your herd than using the wrong cow.

Let’s look at the veld-master principles for bull selection:

From the cow side – she must calve the first time at two years of age and reconceive to give the second calf at 36 months and every year after that.

Only bulls that have been reared by such a cow should be considered as breeding bulls in your herd. The bulls that have the highest maturity index, hip height to weight ratio at a corrected 12 months age in their age group, should be used for breeding for the next 14 – 15-month heifer breeding season. DNA testing can be used to determine which calve was from which bull and which bull breeds the most calves. This bull should be used for AI on the rest of the cow herd the following year.

The most crucial factors for the bull selection are hormonal balance, masculinity, and his testis. The bull should have the largest testis circumference proportionate to his maturity index in his age group (class the bulls in monthly age groups, don’t use the whole breeding season).

Factors that determine hormonal balance are:

  • Shiny coat
  • Bull-like head and neck
  • Well-developed epididymis should be visible from at least 25 meters
  • Avoid thin cylindrical scrotums with long hair
  • A tight sheath in the South African veld context is advantageous
  • The bull must be able to control his scrotum

Give your heifers the better veld, let the bulls work for their condition and score the bulls at the end of the dry season in order for you to choose bulls that can maintain their condition through the most challenging times.

Changing the genetics of your animals in order to have proper veld adapted animals, takes time, but the results achieved by the farmers who have taken the time to do this, are priceless. Some farmers have increased their stocking rate through probably the worst recorded draught in history. It also does not make a difference what breed you use. Some farmers have crossbred certain breeds to suit their environment. Others have done it with breed specific animals with the same success rate. The type of animal is far more important than the breed of animal.

Case Study

In 1987, Ben Fyfer, the father of DF Fyfer, of the Bhejane Cattle Company, started using the principles of only using cows in his herd for bull rearing that calved at 24 and 36 months.

DF shifted his focus from production per animal to profit per hectare and subsequently changed his production system by deregistering his stud, moving to UHDG and started to breed a composite that fitted in with his management, and environmental goals.

To ensure that the final animals had 75% African blood and 25% Beefmaster blood, DF used four breeds as the basis of his composite:

  • Nguni x Boran
  • Beefmaster x Mashona

This animal is a highly functional animal with the various benefits of all the different breeds for the specific needs of the African veld.

This composite is named the Adaptor as his main focus is to breed a veld adapted animal that is early maturing, fertile, tick and heat resistant, has good carcass qualities and is able to fatten on grass only.

He breeds this composite specifically to suit his low input ultra high density grazing, where through the non-selective utilisation of all the grass, coupled with an adequate rest period, his soil biology will improve. This in turn will increase grass production and aid him in his goal of maximum sustainable profit per hectare.

Case Study

Gerrit Van Zyl of Hanzyl Bonsmara’s has, over the years, improved the fertility of his herd by applying the principles of only using bulls where the mother calved at 24 and 36 months. It is fascinating that by doing this he has consistently bred mother animals that can produce a calf from the age of 24 months. Gerrit also started changing his grazing management where he now has daily moves. As a result this has doubled his stocking rate per hectare, compared to the conventional norm.

Fertility in Ultra High Density Grazing

To see the effect of this breeding management, you should visit the Mid-Vrystaat Bonsmara production sale. Most of the bulls sold by Hanzyl Bonsmara’s are bred from mother animals whose ICP is around 365 days. That is the role of the cow, to give you a calf annually from age 24 months.

I want to re-emphasize the fact that it is not about what breed must be used, but rather what type of animal must be used. The mother animal must be a grass efficient animal. Ideally, with a huge rumen capacity, that is capable of giving you a calf from 24 months and every year after that. And wean a calf of 42%– 50% of her body weight.

When changing over to UHDG, you must consider what effect the lower conception will have on your cash-flow. If managed incorrectly, UHDG is one of the easiest ways to lose money. If manged correctly, it is the only way to increase your profits, through increasing your stocking rate. You must work with a system. There is no one size fits all approach, nor is there a silver bullet that corrects every wrong management decision.  You can change between the various grazing management systems. This depends on the nutritional needs of your mother animals and your veld conditions as well as the use of cover crops or harvest rests. All this must also be incorporated into your management system.

Conclusion

Improving your soil health should be the goal, but this must fit into a system where you don’t compromise your profitability of your farm. Changing management systems is a marathon not a sprint, and you must understand why you are doing it before you implement the how.

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What Next?

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:

  • Chernobyl
  • 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.

Birds will sing after a storm

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
• Diversity
• 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)
  • Insects
  • Bird life
  • Wildlife
  • Production animals
  • Trees
  • Grasses
  • Forbes
  • Legumes

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:

  • Tractor
  • Planter
  • Disk – if we not doing no-till
  • Plough – if we not doing no-till
  • Crop Sprayer
  • Top dressing
  • Trailers
  • Combine Harvester
  • On farm Silo’s
  • Dryer
  • 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:

  • Tractor
  • Planter
  • 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:

  • Tractor
  • Mower
  • Rake
  • Baler
  • Trailer

For a feed factory, we need:

  • Tractor
  • Feed mixer
  • Hammer Mill
  • Feed store
  • Mineral packs
  • Hay
  • Cash crop

For a feed lot, we need:

  • Pens
  • Water troughs
  • Processing infrastructure
  • Truck and trailer
  • Transport steers
  • Tractor
  • Feeding wagon
  • Tractor
  • 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

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What Now?

The COVID -19 pandemic has unearthed many questions. How will 2020 play out? Has the world changed forever as we know it? Will we get through this pandemic sanely? What will the end result be and what will the death tally be before we get our freedom of movement back? Will we ever be able to explore, travel and see so much of the world as we did before COVID-19 struck?

In my opinion, the most important questions are, “Will humanity learn anything from this, or will we try to eliminate the past, and not reflect on it once everything has passed?” Chances are that history will repeat itself again and again in the future. Most importantly, “What can we learn and what can we change to improve our current situation?” and “Can we work with Mother Nature rather than against her?” Fact is, nature will always win!

The other nagging questions are: Have our modern systems destroyed our ability to function with nature? As a human race we assume that we are the pinnacle of evolution, or from a Christian point of view, we were created to be the custodians of the land. Have we failed in this task? The interesting thing is that Buddhists see the destruction of the nature as thé original sin. Do we as humans fit this description and constantly sin against the creation, or Mother Nature, depending on your religious beliefs? The ultimate question is, Can we change or will greed overwhelm us once again?

We do not realise how much we sacrifice for humanity’s greed and convenience. Not only have we sacrificed our freedom long before the various COVID-19 lockdowns occurred but also sacrificed our health long before COVID-19 struck. The younger generation in the US has a shorter lifespan than the previous generations. We naïvely believe that politicians care about the next generation. Their only goal is to be re-elected. No political party has the courage to do what is really necessary. They all play popularity politics.

We have also sacrificed our ability to think long before COVID-19 was even on the horizon – everything we wanted was for our convenience and ease of use, regardless of what it did to our wellbeing or the wellbeing of others.

What now?

Can we now already reflect of what went wrong before COVID-19 struck?

On 20 February 2020 Dr. J Blignaut wrote an article in Daily Maverick titled Meat, messiness and management: “Our planet is a disaster waiting to happen. We know that our systems are broken, be it in politics, in our policies or in our economy. This is a time to reflect and see how we can do it better than in the past, how we can improve and regenerate. A time to be inclusive in our economy regardless of race, religious belief or background. A time where the poorest of the poor have the same opportunity as the richest of the rich.

We were warned numerous times that if a pandemic strikes, Africa would be hardest hit – so we are playing Russian Roulette with our future, waiting for the everything to crash, not necessarily as a pandemic, but the economy as a whole. The banks were bailed out in 2008 already, but has anything changed? How many more farmers must go bankrupt until we notice that our agricultural system is broken and dysfunctional, in contradiction with various TV programs that show industrial farms as successful?

Can we reflect on how to change and get our house in order again? First on a personal level, then in the family, the community, the country and finally the world. How will my actions affect me, my environment, my partner, my family my community the country and the world? Do we ever take our thought process that far or are we all just narcissists where everything is all about our wealth and wellbeing, without any thought spared for anything or anyone else?

What now?

Have we lost the ability to work with nature? With all the various lockdowns, the decreased movement of people and transportation, we hear daily how the CO2 levels are dropping. Is agriculture really the big pollutant that all the vegans, and various celebrities make it out to be? Does it justify our use of all our chemical inputs in the various agricultural systems?
Probably not, but remember, you are what you eat. Now in the time where everybody has time to reflect on what they have done to create this mess. On how we can improve and work with Mother Nature rather than against her, regardless of profession. The agriculture sector will have to reflect on their actions and the role they play in harming nature.

What was?

How often do you see nostalgic memes where kids play outside and then it says “Share if you remember playing in the mud” or whatever. The question is, who changed this?

We were led to believe that everything dirty, was wrong.

How has advertising affected us?

Our whole mindset is reductive and focused on how to kill everything that we don’t want.
Bacteria, other microscopic organism, ants, insects, be it a pest or beneficial. The problem is that we don’t want to see them as beneficial and useful.
We are destroying our world with chemicals. We have to change our thought process to where we would rather regenerate the biological services that nature provides for free, instead of trying to reduce it to something that we understand. We can never comprehend the unforeseen consequences of our actions. How often have our actions been proven to be negative rather than beneficial to the natural process?

We must reflect on our food production services – what will happen if, due to the various lockdowns, we cannot produce mangos or strawberries or any other fruit for that matter, throughout the year? Our food system has evolved into such a logistical food web that it is astounding how we have developed a system so that Europe can get any exotic fruit throughout the year, and this without blemishes. The question is, What has the impact on the environment been? Can we even put a price to the biological services that have been destroyed by conventional agriculture to achieve this goal? South Africa loses 13 tons of topsoil per hectare on its agricultural land per year. This is not sustainable, and it is no wonder that so many farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy – They are wasting or disregarding all their biological services that had been provided for free by Mother Nature, services that would reduce their input costs, and all this just in the name of science and greed.

Biology trumps Chemistry

Soil health, the digestive system, and organic waste disposal systems are all biological, but we have tried to convert all three systems to a chemical system and are only now looking at how we can enhance our biological systems again to function optimally.

If we take the various systems that have evolved in nature, where plants and animals protect themselves from pathogens, we realise that we have ignored the role micro-organisms play in the health of all living creatures. We must use management systems where we enhance these biological systems.

The 5 principles of soil health have been described before, all these principles are designed to enhance the microbial life in the soil. The healthier your soil, the more drought resilient it becomes and the lower your input costs will become. How many farmers are already planting test plots, where they are reducing the inorganic fertiliser amounts? The plants also become more resilient against pests. We must get our predator prey relationship in order again, we cannot just kill everything, and think we will improve our end-product.
There is enough knowledge and information available regarding cover crops and that certain crops, feed various microorganisms that make certain minerals and elements more bio-available to the next crop. Thus resulting in a more nutrient dense cash crops, which will benefit both the animal production and human health.
We know that our food is not as nutrient dense as it used to be – we also know that with the correct application of the five principles of soil health, we can get more nutrient dense food again.

Can we comprehend this – or must nature throw us another curveball, until we finally realise that we might win a battle, but we will never win the war.

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The Future of Agriculture

The Future of Agriculture

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it”

– Verdas, Sanskrit Scripture 1500 B.C.

Where are we now?

As professionals in the agriculture industry, we need our thinking to go further than sustainability when considering the future generations of farmers and consumers alike.
We need to look towards regenerative practices that nourish our land and society while at the same time develop more profitable and long-lasting agricultural business models. A short-sighted approach leaves us with inefficient practices detrimental to both the soil and the crops we yield.
It all becomes quite simple when we look at the core building blocks of our land – the rst being the soil that allows for life to grow. We are a planet that is comprised of carbon-based life, the simple idea, is; the more carbon we retain in our soil, the more life we get from it. The regeneration of land and producing higher yield crops begins when we do everything we can to nurture our soil.

One example of the resulting damage of unsustainable farming methods is desertification, defined as the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation, or inappropriate agriculture. We can really see the harsh realities that await us if we don’t change this.

This is the unfortunate reality that we are living in right now, with much of our fertile land being used unsustainably.
The use of tillage equipment, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and GMO crops have degraded our soils to such an extent that some experts predict another mass extinction of life on the planet. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about organic farming, as they use tillage for weed control. Tillage breaks the topsoil and disturbs the bacteria cultures that are critical to nurturing healthy soil. This increasing the amount of carbon retained in our soils, this defeats the object of the practice and is not sustainable.

The Solution?

If a farmer increases the amount of carbon per hectare of land by 1%, that hectare of land is capable of holding 250 000 more litres of water. Why are we not promoting practices that encourage the strengthening of the foundations of healthy agriculture?
The conventional farming practice of planting cash crops is probably one of the biggest reasons for desertification. Cash crops are where the lands are prepared using ploughs and disks, spraying with herbicides and pesticides before planting to eliminate all the competition that might compete for moisture. In the process, many of the life forms that increase water retention and soil nutrition are killed at the same time.
There is no blunt object solution to farming – that much is clear. Agriculture is a commercial activity but the success of
farming does not rely on a commercial mindset. We are not developing a product, we are working within systems that
nature has developed over millions of years.
We cannot control nature, which is something big agriculture companies fail to understand as they continue to destroy soil in the name of science. The only way forward is to farm with nature.

The effects are starting to show

The effects of this are starting to show up more and more often. For example, in the United States alone, 1 in 4 people have 2,4-D (Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid – a systemic herbicide) in their bodies.

This side effects of which can be:
Reproductive system
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
Parkinson’s disease
Endocrine system
Immune system

How much money is spent annually in marketing to convince the consumer that the food that is produced is healthy and wholesome? Are we starting to believe our own lies for the sake of profits?
Do we really want to use management practices that are detrimental to our whole being, from soil, animal, insect and human health?
Regardless of all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

What we can change

Regenerative agriculture is probably a term which is currently being used to describe many farming practices that build up topsoil and improve various aspects that are destroyed using conventional farming management practices.
The question to ask here is – can I do something better than yesterday that will improve the chances of my dependence to farm my land, without inheriting a farm that has such poor degraded soils that they don’t want to come back to the farm?

According to Gabe Brown, author of Dirt to Soil, he lists the 5 principles of soil health as being:

Limited Disturbance

Mechanical and Chemical tillage destroys soil structure and kills microbes, specifically mycorrhizal fungi

Armour

Always keep your soils covered
• Cover crops
• Green planting

Diversity

Strive for diversity in both plant and animal species

Living Roots

Maintain a living root system in the soil as long as possible

Integrate Animals

Nature does not function without animals,

There is no recipe for regenerative agriculture – we’ve tried to do it in the past with conventional methods and have failed dismally.

The fact that we don’t have a recipe for regenerative agriculture, is probably the main reason why farmers say it won’t work on their farm.
Change is the only constant and all change is hard.
But what happens if you start applying the 5 principles of soil health on your farm?

Your soil biology improves

  • Water penetration
  • Water retention
  • Improved mineral cycle
  • Better pest resistance
  • Improved weed control

Your soil carbon increases

  • This is especially true when animals are integrated.

Your soil organic matter increases

  • Every 1% increase on the organic matter you store between 160 000 – 233 000 litres of water more per hectare.

The living root is vital for the soil biology – as the sugars excreted by the plant on the root tip, are used by the various bacteria to multiply. The larger the diversity of the plants, the larger the diversity of bacteria in the soil.
The healthier the soil the more resilient the plants are against pests, and because of the improved water retention of the soil, the plants also become more drought resistant.
Improving the diversity and getting a living root in the soil for as long as possible, is a program. This must be a rotational planting program over a period of 4 – 6 years and depends on where the farm is situated and the climate of the farm.

Adding animals to harvest the cover crops is fundamental to the success of improving soil health.

If you treat your cover crop like a cash crop you can harvest twice in a year instead of once.
Depending on the meat price – the returns with beef and sheep on cover crops equals the return of a cash crop, with less risk, and you are improving your soil health.
Stacking, which is to diversify the animals on the cover crop or the veld, also helps with parasite control, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, beef etc, all have a positive effect on the soil biology.

The Future of Agriculture

Farmers that are already using the 5 principles of soil health can cut back on the use of synthetic fertiliser – one farmer has decreased his input costs by R1000.00/hectare, on 2000 hectares, this is when it starts making sense.
If we look at the benefits of regenerative agriculture, from human health to soil health, it is only a matter of when rather than if I must change.

We have to start producing food that is beneficial to the consumer before they start demanding it.

Biology Trumps Chemistry
Vigorous biology can overcome imbalanced chemistry.
Perfect Chemistry cannot deliver optimal results in the absence of biology.

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Technology Is Not The Enemy (Part Two)

In part one of our article, we looked into the initial concepts people talk about when technology is being blamed for halting or interfering with processes.

In part two, we move on to what must be done for which the short answer is diversity, in all aspects of your farming industry such as:

  • Microorganisms
    • Soil 
    • Plant
    • Gut 
  • Insects
    • Pollinators
    • Predators
    • Prey
  • Plants 
    • Cash crops
    • Cover crops
    • Trees
    • Flowers
  • Animals
    • Production animals
    • Wild-life
  • Birds
    • Wild
    • Domesticated – free range and pasture raised

Nowhere in nature is there a monocrop, a single species animal, no insects and no diversity of bird life.

The goal we’re all after is to run a profitable business and make money. There isn’t much point in improving your farm and not reaping the rewards from it, which means only your buyers benefit from your work.

Let this be a warning though, with the effects of our changing weather patterns, where the storms are becoming more violent, the droughts longer and hotter, you cannot think you don’t have to change because it was always done this way. Be warned you won’t be profitable long enough so that your children can inherit your farm. 

How often do we hear the argument – don’t reinvent the wheel. If the wheel was not reinvented from the first time it was made, we would not have formula one racing cars. The idea here is that we need to build up and develop these simple concepts to fit the times we’re currently living in.

I will once again use the 5 Principles of Soil Health – as mentioned in the book Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown.

  1. No disturbance – mechanically or chemically

The effects of ploughing and soil disturbance is not conducive to building up your soil biology. The surface bacteria need oxygen to grow while the bacteria deeper in the soil need carbon dioxide to grow. When tilling the soil, the surface bacteria’s environment is all of a sudden oxygen deprived and this kills the bacteria, the same thing happens to the bacteria that use CO2 to multiply – there is too much oxygen all of a sudden and they die.

The other disadvantage is that the organic matter is broken down to quickly and the last stage of any organic breakdown process is carbon dioxide and water.

When we use pesticides and herbicides – we normally target a pest or a weed – the problem with these chemicals is that they are not selective in what they kill, and they have certain pathways in which they inhibit weed or pest growth. These pathways are shared between various living organisms and destroy normal flora as well – this can either be the soil biology or insects that are predators for various pests.

We must start building a robust biological environment, so that we can get the predator prey relationship in equilibrium. We will always live with diseases and if we always try to eliminate everything our plants and animals are more vulnerable to diseases.

One advantage of building robust biology that if we get our soil life to a state where the roots aggregates have been formed. These bacteria have the ability of gene manipulation in the plant, this is normally directly related to the immune system of the plant and the host animal, if our gut bacteria are functioning properly, there is a direct improvement on the lung immunology.

There was a study in the UK that showed that infants that were treated with antibiotics in the first year of life, had a 95% higher chance of getting asthma as teenagers, this was only due to the bacterial disturbance of the normal flora in the gut.

If we are serious in lowering our input costs, we will have to start looking at our microbiology in the soil, we must make our environment more resilient against drought pests and weeds.

  1. Soil Cover

We must keep our soil covered with organic matter all the time. The African sun is just too hot on our topsoil not to have cover on the soil. The difference in soil temperature can be as much as 20˚C and that is detrimental to the soil health. The bacteria cannot withstand these high temperatures. It also helps protect the soil against evaporation and wind erosion. We must be jealous about our topsoil it must not blow away, the cost of maintaining your topsoil is too high to give it to your neighbor. The other effect of cover is that it breaks the speed of the rain falling, this also prevents runoff. 

  1. Diversity 

We have mentioned it before already, we need to have a diversity in all aspects of the environment. We cannot exclude a species or group and think it is beneficial. We really must follow the moto – life creates life. If we wake up every morning and think about what we are going to kill today, we are doing more harm than good. We must create a robust environment, where the predator prey relationship is stable.  We can only do this with diversity. Plant pollinator strips, with so many flowers and various grasses and legumes so that the soil health in that strip does improve. If you can graze the strip the bigger your impact on the soil health will be.

  1. Living root

“We owe our existence to 6 inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” 

You must take your environment into account if you plant cover crops, in the last couple of years the east of the country did not get any winter rain, to then establish a cover crop to build up your soil is very difficult. The next cash crop will struggle if the summer rains are late and with the rising temperatures. What we must realise is that we are trying to build up soil and planting cover crops into degraded soil, there is no biology that can help the cover crop with minerals and water. We have taken the ability of the biology to make the soil environment more robust.

This will take time and we will have to look at rotations of our cash and cover crops so that we can build our soils biologically robustness before we try and challenge the environment and hope for the best. 

You must also consider once again that we need a diversity of cover crops, and the more species you plant the bigger the impact is on the soil health. The Jena project in Germany has clearly shown that a plant species diversity of 8 – 16 different plants has a greater effect on soil health than a smaller number of species.

  1. Animal impact

This is probably one of the hardest mind shifts for a cash crop farmer, to put animals on his fields, because animals compact the soil too much. Depending on the grazing management system we can loosen the soil with hoof action. UHDG will have a much better hoof action, urine and dung distribution than if the cattle can graze selectively.  Depending on the regrowth, it is possible to graze the cover crop again. 

With animals on a cash crop field we must see how we can make the money that is lost to the crop with animals. The animal must pay for the loss of income of the cash crop. 

Stacking – this is a concept where more than one animal species is used to graze the cover crop, cows can be used to graze first, a couple of weeks later, sheep, and then chickens. This has a huge effect on parasite control and you get more than one income stream from the same plot of land.

The same with pollinator strips. The flowers attract pollinators, making your own honey from the stirps is beneficial, especially for people with allergies, to the various grasses. 

We must look how can we integrate all the above principles so that we can make this function on our farm.

How do we start?

  1. Awareness

The first step in knowing there is a problem is to recognise the problem. If you don’t get affected by drought, all your chemical inputs are effective, the chemicals don’t harm the environment nor animal and human health, and you are producing a nutrient dense food. Then you don’t have to change.

  1. Understanding 

We have to fully understand why we must change, this is far more important than how we must change. If you fully understand the why, the how becomes easier to comprehend.

  1. Buy-in

You as the farm owner must make it your own. It is nobodies project; it is not an idea that the consumer can implement on your farm. You must fully buy into the process where you understand the why and how – what is in it for me.

  1. Ownership

This is your farm you have to make it happen, you are the jockey. Nobody is going to do it for you on your farm, you must apply it, there are people doing it already and we must see how can we build a community to help each other, but at the end it is you that has to drive the process, on your farm.

  1. Action

Make it happen, at this stage you are convinced that what must be done is correct and to the benefit of everyone around you and the environment at large. Now you just must take action and make it happen.

The biggest challenge however still is how do we start.

One of the most important aspects of starting is the understanding of your environment. We must take your rainfall into consideration. The lower the rainfall the longer the time will be to build up soil carbon.

We often have the idea that if we want to change something, we must change everything. Changing over to regenerative agriculture can be a process, remember you want to make the biggest impact on your soil, but you must also make money.

The growth and vigour of your cover crop is directly related to the rainfall that you will receive. The longer you have your cover crop and animal impact on the land the bigger the response will be in relationship to your soil carbon, and the disease profile of the land.

You must start with a rotation of cash and cover crops and animal impact to have a rotational system to build your soil. We need time, and remember that we are starting from a very low base and we want to build up the soil carbon to levels that we don’t know where the end point is. 

Please refer to our podcast episode on cover crops for more information on the topic.

To have an effect on the soil, the minimum period to plant cover crops rather than cash crops should be 24 months, this is taken from farmers that sell potato seeds, they cannot grow seed potatoes in the same field for 24 months. After 24 months the disease cycle has been broken.

If we plant a summer cover crop, with a variety of species grazing the cover crop, followed by a winter cover crop that can be planted earlier, into the summer cover crop. You should not use chemicals to kill of the summer cover crop, either plant green, slash or crimp the summer cover crop.  The next summer cover crop can be planted after the winter cover crop after the first rains have been received, and you follow the same cycle as the previous year.

The cover crop must be diverse, with legumes, flowers, grasses, and brassicas for example.

In terms of rotation, this table below provides a view on what you should be aiming for:

20% of Cash Crop Fields – A 20% of Cash Crop Fields – B 20% of Cash Crop Fields – C 20% of Cash Crop Fields – D 20% of Cash Crop Fields – E
Season 1 SCC SCC Cash Crop Cash Crop Cash Crop
WCC WCC HRC HRC HRC
Season 2 Cash Crop SCC SCC Cash Crop Cash Crop
HRC WCC WCC HRC HRC
Season 3 Cash Crop Cash Crop SCC SCC Cash Crop
HRC HRC WCC WCC HRC
Season 4 Cash Crop Cash Crop Cash Crop SCC SCC
HRC HRC HRC WCC WCC
Season 5 SCC Cash Crop Cash Crop Cash Crop SCC
WCC HRC HRC HRC WCC

SCC – Summer Cover Crop

WCC – Winter Cover Crop

HRC – Harvest Rest Cover

The cash crop can be any crop of choice, planted with pollinator strips.

This is only an example, it can obviously done slower where only 20 % of the fields are used as summer cover crops. The above example is 40% of the farm is being used to build up the soil. The more often the diversity of cover crops are on the fields the quicker the soil will be rehabilitated. 

I would plant the cover crops without any inorganic fertiliser so that the soil biology can recover optimally. It must be noted that some bacteria can multiply every 20 minutes in the optimal environment, so the build up of bacterial mass is phenomenal.

We must have animal impact on both the Summer and Winter cover crop. If we can have a diversity of animals on the fields the better the recovery of the soil will be. Pigs can also be used for animal impact but beware they are destructive.

If you can have stacking on your field, that you can vary beef, sheep and chicken, your impact on the soil is even bigger.

Before planting the first summer cover crop on a field correct the pH of your soil – know what was your ground zero, so that you can measure progress. 

What we want to achieve with a diverse cover crop is firstly to stimulate a diversity of microbial life in the soil. Secondly – we must feed our pollinators and various insects so that the predator prey relationship in the insect world can be restored. So a variety of flowers is crucial in a cover crop mix. Bees and honey are another source of income – the yield improvement of a soya crop has been documented already, if the bee population is healthy.

We want to put down biomass as cover so that the soil is covered,

Thirdly trees – planting trees even if they are production trees, for example pecan nuts, or even legumes for nitrogen binding. Trees create a habitat for birds and game, it also helps with the micro-climate and a windbreak. We must be creative in building our farm so that we can diversify our income from various sources.

If the diversity of game birds becomes to large, these can be harvested and sold as game birds. To niche markets. 

Nobody said this would be easy and nobody has all the answers. We as GreenBio hope to simply provide you with a playbook that you should make your own and shape to your goals and objectives.

This is most probably the most exciting time in farming, where the notion of becoming custodians of the land, really does have a meaning again. 

Thank you for joining us on this journey to fully understand and provide solutions to what we need to do as an industry to truly make a meaningful change that will impact future generations in a positive light.

If you would like to download the PDF version of both articles, please click here.

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Technology Is Not The Enemy (Part One)

Technology is often used as a scapegoat when we need someone to blame for either economic factors or declining qualities in our day-to-day lives. However, that is often not the case, and we should be digging deeper to truly discover the root of the problem.

Over the last century humans have made numerous technological advancements that have impacted our lives in many positive and not so positive way. 

Looking through the progress we as humans have made to enhance our quality of life brings up a number of key points. For example, our life expectancy is at its highest, communication is instant regardless of where your loved ones are. We are wealthier than ever before, (on a global scale). The opportunities that young people have are mind-blowing, and everyday advances are so rapid that it is impossible to keep up.

The same has happened in the world of food production. Theoretically, we produce enough food to feed the world, as 33% of the world food production is either wasted, thrown away or lost. Less than 1Bn people starve and new scientific articles now predict that the world population won’t be more than 9Bn people because of the low birth rate experienced in the developed world and developing world. This trend will also be seen in Africa that currently still has population growth.

Agriculture has not been left behind when using technology either. What we have achieved with chemistry, pesticides and herbicides has resulted in our yields having more than doubled. We can farm with animals in areas where the disease profile was so bad that the production animals could not survive. Animals have been cloned and improved to such an extent that we believe we can do everything. 

What Is The Cost of Using Technology?

Has technology failed our food production system? How often do we hear from vets that all the antibiograms that they do show that there are no effective antibiotics to treat diarrhea in baby animals? 

This is not only in production animals but also in dairies, where the daily struggle with mastitis, lung diseases in calves plays havoc with the profitability of the farmer.

What about the crop farmers that have now got resistant weeds where no herbicide works anymore? 

The race is on to find new molecules that will kill the pathogens, at what cost and for how long? Will we be able to use it in the food production system or will such a molecule be reserved for human health only, to fight the superbugs that also have antibiotic resistance to all antibiotics.

Or have we failed ourselves as food producers where we have believed everything that industry has given us for the sake of convenience and profit or even the belief that the chemical companies had the interest of the farmer at heart. What has this cost us. Even if our yields have doubled, has our profitability?

Has the industry failed us for the sake of profits? It must be at least 20 years already that people have sounded the warning signals regarding the overuse of antibiotics and antibiotic growth promoters in production animals. 

Why did we not heed the warning, or was it just too easy and we did not want to find an alternative? Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, predicted in 1962 what the effects of pesticides would be on wildlife, livestock, pets and humans. 

How many of our loved ones must get cancer, chronic diseases or reproductive issues, before we accept the fact that we have polluted our food system and the environment to such an extent that environmental scientists are warning about a 6th mass extinction.

We always have the choice, but we can never control the consequence – what is the consequence of our actions? 

  • Cost of production is increasing
  • Soil is degraded – Biology has been ignored
  • Human and animal health has declined
  • Corrupt science in the name of profit
  • Antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides that don’t work anymore.
  • Air, water and soil pollution
  • Wildlife – decline in populations, or extinctions due to fertility problems

What must happen when we finally get to the point that we cannot produce food, where chemicals dominate the system, we cannot ignore the fact anymore that we are destroying our soils, the air, our water supplies, and the environment.

Are humans designed to destruct only and for what – money?

When speaking to farmers about pesticides and herbicides its common to hear about their use of the least destructive product, however this is still destructive and we set a bad precedent by thinking it is less serious.

Chemistry Has Destroyed Soil Biology

It is interesting that the chemical and GMO seed companies have worked out that tillage is bad for the soil. And they now recommend no-till or minimal till, but what they fail to tell you is that, the application of inorganic fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and the use of GMO crops, will never build your soil. 

You are wasting your time if you think a living root makes a difference, if any of the recommended chemical practices are used. 

Its doubtful there are any farms left that farm with chemicals, GMO crops, herbicides and pesticides, even if they are no-till that have healthy biologically active soil. This will never happen, with our current chemical farming practices.

We must realise that food security is paramount in any nations development and success, but it is also paramount that the food that we produce is nutrient-dense and does not harm the environment, nor the wildlife or human health and quality of life. 

Why should we even have minimal concentrations of pesticides or herbicides in our food, have we regressed so much in food production, that the minimal standards are even raised so that we can apply more chemicals?

What is the problem with determining if a chemical is non-toxic or not harmful? This is always determined what was used before, so DDT was believed to be safe for the environment and to human health because it did not kill the farmer after application. It did, however, kill the pests that it meant to control. The reality is that it is now banned in most countries, but there are still traces of the product worldwide, and the by-product DDE is even worse than the active.

The same with the various PCB chemicals, these were used in electrical devices, PCB does not ignite in transformers. PCB however does not breakdown – and they are found in the most remote areas of the world – the interesting thing is the top predators have the highest level of PCB’s and it is stored in their fat. 

This is then passed on to the next generation through breastfeeding, causing major hormonal and fertility disruptions. CFC is another product that was heralded as a new invention that is not harmful – 40 years later, after the ozone hole over Antarctica – the product is once again banned, the company has made its profit, the environmental damage has been done, but there is no recourse for the company, 

The way forward is to change our mindset and find solutions, so that we can carry on farming in the future, not only for us but for our children and grandchildren. We cannot as food producers think we are using something better or less harmful than before. With some of the products mentioned above it took up to 20 – 30 years to see the full destruction of these products. 

As farmers, we cannot afford to do chemical experiments for the chemical companies, on a global scale where the results are only seen when the next generation is born or even worse when the grandchildren are being born. Everything is being affected from the quality of air, water, soil, the survival of the various species, from microorganisms to mammals. 

The safety of a product cannot be determined by the fact that it is not carcinogenic. This is an outdated mindset and the sooner that changes the better. We must also broaden our mindset that we don’t only look at what effect the chemical has on DNA manipulation.

The biggest problem with most chemicals is that they have endocrine-disrupting properties. What is so sad with this chemical property is that the adult that is exposed, is sometimes not harmed, but the offspring is. This can result in dysfunctional genitals for both men and women, infertility, and cancers. Depending on what is affected this can also result in lower IQ and increase hyperactivity. 

The rise in chronic diseases, auto-immune diseases, can also be attributed to endocrine disruptors.

One of the scariest characteristics of endocrine disruptors, is that it affects all species that have an endocrine system. If we use a pesticide, herbicide or any other form of chemical, we must make sure that it is safe, and don’t take the word of the company for it. The measure of safe cannot be it is better than the chemical used before.

The other problem with endocrine disruptors is that they are not dose-dependent, even at very low levels they can disrupt the hormonal development of the fetus and later the child. The disruption can sometimes only be seen when the child reaches puberty.

Do We Need To Stop Farming? 

This is not the answer – we must however stop relying on chemicals and external inputs. Nature has developed such complex systems, that fight diseases, and pest for free. Everything we do must be aimed at building up – life creates life, be better than yesterday. 

We cannot have a mindset of what am I going to kill today. Nature is so complex that we can never comprehend the damage that we do if we use a chemical to kill one pest. 

The solution as always lies in soil health!

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it”

Vedas, Sanskrit Scripture, 1500 B.C.

It is mind-blowing that this was said over three and a half thousand years ago, and we think we can improve on the natural system. 

How do we build our topsoil that is so robust that the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides are not required? 

That they use management systems where the use of chemicals for external and internal parasites control become redundant? 

There are commercial farmers that are doing this already, it is not a hippy dream, but a solution to produce healthy nutrient-dense food.

Listen to our podcast episode with Landbou Radio on Topsoil for a deeper dive into the topic.

This has been the first part of our foray into the topic explaining why technology is not the enemy. 

Join us next week as we wrap up the conversation and expand on some of the concepts we’ve spoken about today.

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