Chasing the Disease

Chasing the disease

Salespeople can be very convincing that our production is at risk of various production losses due to threats if we do not use their products. Therefore, we often blanket treat our production herds before a threat has even emerged. This management practice is one of the biggest drivers of increased production cost. The question is, “How do we build resilience into our herd so that we do not have to blanket treat our herds annually or even weekly as is the case in some intensive production systems?”

Is it possible to produce animal protein without the use of antibiotics, antibiotic growth promoters, internal and external parasite control? When will the consumer demand it? When will we realise what unforeseen effects we cause with our chemical controls that we continually use?

Chemicals

Chemicals work, and they are a tool in the management toolbox that is available to the producer to achieve his goal of producing healthy nutrient dense food. However, where the environment is regenerated, the animals become more resilient. This ultimately enhances human health rather than causing harm if managed correctly.
Chemicals are fortunately not the only tool. Chemicals should not be used indiscriminately. We must determine what management practices increase our risk of disease, and really enhance those that promote health. Unfortunately, those that promote health are very seldom a quick fix. It takes time to reverse years of chemical abuse – be this in animal or crop production.

Genetics

You might think I am mad for saying this, because genetic advancements are what keeps us in business. If it were not for our yield, be it piglets/sow/year, or the number of tons per hectare or liters of milk per cow per day, we would not be in business anymore.
Banks do not bank yields.

We cannot run our production systems on a knife’s edge. We must build resilience and robustness into our food production systems. This means that we will have to build up our biological services that nature has provided for centuries already in the following areas:

  • Soil biology
  • Diversity
  • Immune system

Soil

One of the most devastating effects of conventional agriculture, is that we try and control everything with chemistry. Soil has three main attributes namely biological, chemical, and structural. Regrettably, until recently, we have ignored the biological attributes of soil, probably because we did not understand it. It is not like chemistry, where the elements that were present before the reaction, are still there after the reaction, in whatever form these may be present.

Biology is the only science where multiplication and division give you the same result. We cannot and will probably never be able to simulate every pathway and biological interaction within soil, the rumen, the small intestine or even between the various predator prey relationships or copy the immune system reaction to all the beneficial bacteria and pathogens in and around us.

By the time research is published it is already outdated. Research is about pushing the knowledge frontier. You can never be on “the other” side of the knowledge frontier, only on the known side of the frontier. So, when research is published, it is already outdated since the frontier was moved, you are now “this side” of the frontier, and new opportunities have emerged as a result of the increase in knowledge. These are not always good or benign opportunities.

The complexity of nature

We cannot comprehend the complexity of nature, and the biological services nature provides. Instead of trying to improve nature with a reductive mindset, we should rather enhance it with biological principles that have been shown, even if only anecdotally, to be true – where farming practices have reduced the input costs on cash crops and even animal production units. Just because we cannot prove something, or the instrumentation is not accurate enough to give us a result, this does not nullify the observations of the farmer, who has the best local knowledge about his area, and his farm.

A simple example is a penetrometer. After a certain hardness is measured, it states that roots will not grow in such hard soil. However, when a profile pit is dug, there are roots deeper than the penetrometer indicated. Why?

How can two neighboring farms have a disease profile that is so different that the one farmer must dip his cattle every 14 days during the peak tick season and the second farmer has not dipped for the last 15 years?
Why are some animals more resistant to internal parasites than others? How can we breed more resilient animals? How can we make sure that the newborn animals get the right profile of antibodies through the mother’s colostrum, from all the pathogens that are present on the farm?

Antibiotics

Antibiotics, anthelminthic, tick remedies and other chemicals are part of the management toolbox any farmer should be able to use. The problem is that it is used indiscriminately or as the only tool. The principle of “the bigger the doubt, the bigger the hammer” is then applied. This is not sustainable, and only increases your input costs.
Everything in nature is about survival and this is also true for the pathogens. Through the indiscriminate use of antibiotic growth promoters, and the incorrect use of antibiotics when a disease does breakout, we have created resistant pathogens in all aspects of animal production.

The problem is also experienced in human health where many doctors still prescribe antibiotics at the slightest aliment. Producing food ethically and with integrity is something to strive for. This should be the role of the consultants; they should provide management solutions. Selling a product for every problem is not a solution. This only turns consultants into salesmen and not somebody that has the farmer’s best interest at heart.

We should view the solution of the production system holistically, and not only at a product level to solve our problems caused by pathogens. This principle does not only apply to animal production, but is also applicable to cash crops, vegetables, and fruit production.
If we only look at a short-term solution, and a cure for the problem now, but do not change anything in our management systems to try and prevent the disease outbreak for the next year, we will have the same disease challenge again and again.

If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

So how do we build a more resilient food system? The short answer is: Enhance your soil biology. If you understand that fact and pull the value chain from the soil through to plant health, animal health and ultimately human health, you will understand how important it is to become a custodian of the land again. Enhancing the soil biology, improving the predator prey relationship, in order to use natural predators instead of killing the food for the predators, and even the predators themselves. That way we will not have to wonder why we have an antibiotic, pesticide or herbicide resistance problem. We must enhance our soil biology, and the biological and immunological systems in our plants, production animals and ourselves.

Immune systems

Allergies, food intolerances, asthma and other disorders like ADD and ADHD, are on the increase. This is the result of how we produce our food, how we raise our children and how we have been raised.
The convenience of ready-made meals, our obsession to keep up with the Joneses and trying to keep everything sterilised, just out of fear that we might catch a disease, has resulted in our immune systems never being triggered – not even by probiotics – to function properly. Our immune system must be primed to withstand pathogens. If we always kill everything, our immune system will not be triggered nor will it develop to withstand the various antigens that is all around us constantly.

Dr. Christine Jones of Australia often talks about enhancing the biological service to such an extent that you get quorum sensing. When this happens, the bacteria (probiotic bacteria, normal flora) can trigger certain gene expressions in the host animal, or plant. This is directly related to the immune system as well. Where the immune system is triggered to perform optimally. If the immune system is primed optimally as an infant, a lot of the food allergies and food intolerances would not be recorded.

There are more and more reports and scientific articles being published where the relationship between soil bacteria, the mental state and a healthy gut system are described as being part of a whole. We have lost our relationship with soil.
When was the last time you walked barefoot on healthy nutrient rich soil? When was the last time you got your hands “dirty” planting or seeding your own vegetables or fruit trees?
We are part of nature, and not above it. The biological systems that enhance our immune system are neglected.

Animal production

How do we produce robust, more resilient production animals, where we can rely on the immune system of the animal to protect themselves and their offspring against various diseases? Can we chase the disease and make our mother animals produce better colostrum for their newborn? The answer is yes.
How often do we hear farmers say that a camp is infected, when animals give birth in the camp and the newborn animals get sick?

One of the most critical defense mechanisms of the newborn animal is the antibodies produced by the mother animal and passed on via the colostrum to the newborn. It is critical that every newborn animal gets its share of colostrum as soon as possible. The shorter the time from birth until the first sip of colostrum, the better protected the newborn animal is. After a certain time frame the small intestine of the newborn “shuts down” and no IgG antibodies can pass through the villi. It is useless to feed colostrum after that time. Six hours after birth is already pushing the boundary of inefficiency.

Commercial colostrum can be used for very specific diseases. For diarrhea and other gut related ailments, it is better to prime the mother animals so that their colostrum is of such a nature, that the various pathogenic antigens are covered by her antibodies produced in her colostrum.

There is a fine balance of controlling the pathogenic load on the farm and keeping the production animals healthy. Disease outbreak, and your management practices are crucial to keep the balance between production and disease. The various production systems also determine what kind of animal management system you should follow. When comparing a TMR system and a pasture dairy system, the pasture system is more robust and resilient to price fluctuation than a TMR system. Any intensive system is more prone to disease.

As far as the proximity of the animals are concerned, it should be determined whether the proximity of the animals causes the disease or whether it is the animal management system that causes the disease. We are working with life systems from the soil, to the gut and what we produce is organic material on which bacteria and other pathogens can thrive. If we sterilize everything every day, we destroy the immunes system’s ability to react to a pathogen. What if the pathogen becomes resistant to the antibiotic or the disinfectant that we try and kill it with daily?

Parasites

How often have farmers’ problems started as soon as they started dipping for ticks? We will not be able to farm without ticks. They are part of the system. The important question is: How can we minimise our losses due to tick-borne diseases? At the beginning of the article I mentioned that neighboring farms, at the peak of the tick season, one farmer dips every 10 – 14 days, whereas the neighbor has not dipped in 15 years. Does the neighbor not have red water? The answer is no, far from it. True, some of his animals do succumb to red water every year, and sure, it is a loss, but it is never more than 10 animals on a herd of 1300 animals.

The production loss of walking the herd to a dip every 10 – 14 days, is probably greater than the 10 animals lost annually. The other advantage of losing the 10 animals is that they did not adapt to the specific disease on the farm. If they did, they would keep the ticks alive and therefore the disease alive.

The same happens with sheep and internal parasites. If you constantly blanket treat you animals for internal parasites, all you are doing is weakening their defense system. Once again, you cannot farm without internal parasites. They will always be part of the system. Doing the FAMCHA test before dosing sheep and only treating those that need to be treated is already a step in the right direction. If an ewe or mother animal must be treated constantly, discarding that animal from you farm is probably the better option, as she will only produce resistant parasites for you.

Mother animal vs baby animal

As far as diarrhea related diseases are concerned, it is often the mother animal that is the host of such diseases or pathogens. She is the carrier of the disease and the baby animal is then infected and the multiplier of the disease. This is part of the life cycle of the pathogen. It will not kill the mother animal, but the young animal. Something will eat the carcass of the young animal and this way the pathogen will find a new host.
It is therefore crucial to breed animals that can withstand the onslaught of the various pathogens on the farm. Priming the mother animal to produce effective colostrum is essential in your overall disease management system.

There are various factors that influence colostrum production. Heat-stress has a huge negative effect on colostrum. Nutrition can influence the colostrum either negatively or positively. Always ensure that your feed is toxin free. If there are toxins in the feed it will have a huge negative effect on the colostrum production. Do not ever think that it is only one bale, or only one bucket of silage that is contaminated. Toxins affect everything in your production system negatively and weaken your whole breeding herd.

Water

Always make sure that the animals have access to clean, fresh drinking water. It is, after clean fresh air, the most important mineral that has huge effects on the overall health of your production unit.

Vaccinations

There are certain diseases where we cannot protect the animals through management systems – be they the production animals or the newborn animals. Vaccinations must be a crucial and integral part of every farm’s management healthcare system. In South Africa we must vaccinate against certain diseases annually. The vaccination program for each farm must be developed in co-operation with the local vet. Never think that you do not have to vaccinate if you have not had a specific disease problem before. Many of the diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can infect humans as well. You do not want to be the reason for disease infected humans, because of your lack of understanding of the disease.

Conclusion

At Green Bio we specifically look at management practices where we enhance the production of colostrum. With our various natural products, we aim at giving the mother animal the best chance to produce effectively, improving the gut health and reducing the pathogenic load on the farm. We strongly suggest implementation of management systems. Through effective management systems, the young animals are given the best chance for survival.

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The Emperor’s Clothes

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.

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…

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.”

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?

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.

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. We 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

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. 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.

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.

Photography: Gerry Weber

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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 protable and long-lasting agricultural business models. Having a short-sighted approach leaves us with inefficient practices that are 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 and increasing the amount of carbon retained in our soils, this defeats the object of the practice and is not sustainable.

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 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
  • Improved 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.

Conclusion

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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