Christine Jones says if you want to increase pasture productivity, look below the surface.
“Our whole production system relies on soil. We take soil tests to determine if the soil is deficient and if it doesn’t have a certain component, we will add it. If our animals have some sort of issue, we will add something to their pastures or the animals themselves. But what we really need to be looking at to deal with these issues is the creation of healthy, living soil,” Jones told a recent Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association (MFGA) workshop in Virden.
For the past few weeks, Jones, who hails from Australia, has been holding workshops throughout North America, discussing management techniques that will increase soil biological activity.
She is an internationally renowned ground cover and soil ecologist with a wealth of experience working with landholders to implement regenerative land-management practices.
“A lot of the soils around the world that appear to be deficient in nutrients actually have all of those nutrients there, but it is that they are not available because the sun’s rays and plants are not communicating with the microbes in the soil,” Jones said.
Many pasture problems stem from nutrient-depleted soil, including compaction, erosion and reduced water absorption.
“A lot of people wonder and are puzzled at how their soil has become compacted, and it is because the soil doesn’t have life in it anymore,” Jones said.
Soil with a lack of biological matter also has more difficulty withstanding bouts of extreme weather.
Focus on the roots
When attempting to build up nutrient-deficient fields, Jones encourages producers to move away from supplying nutrients through fertilizers, and instead focus on building root systems.
“Researchers are at a loss to explain why protein levels in grain are falling when the rate of nitrogen application has increased. But, I believe that it is because many have become overly dependent on fixing nutrient levels with chemicals and do little to improve biological matter.”
According to Jones, applying fertilizer may enhance the plant’s growth above ground but actually hinders the plant’s ability to absorb the soil’s natural nutrients.
She explained that by interfering and providing nitrogen and other nutrients, it disturbs the plant’s natural process of growing root systems, developing aggregates and enabling carbon compounds to humify and turn into humus — the dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant and animal matter decays.
“Humus is the compound that is going to improve soil structure and water-carrying capacity,” she said. “The goal is really to create humus within your soil by encouraging root growth. This will make an enormous difference in the soil’s structure as well as give plants the natural ability to defend against pests and disease.”
Applying fertilizer to supplement nutrient-deficient soils without addressing root, arrogate or microbe growth is a waste of money and product, Jones said.
“When you apply a fertilizer you are giving your plant nitrogen and phosphorus, which doesn’t support the biology in the soil that fixes nitrogen anymore, so it reduces its synthetic rate,” she said. “It also stops feeding a whole lot of other microbes and other nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and 85 to 90 per cent of plant nutrient acquisition is through microbial uptake.”
Enabling the growth of root systems and biological matter involves increasing photosynthetic activity in pastures.
“It doesn’t matter what you are producing, you are first and foremost a light farmer,” said Jones. “And, there are two rules to light farming — we need to build photosynthetic capacity and increase photosynthetic rate. Once you understand what those things are and think about ways that you can do that, then it becomes a whole lot easier to farm, build soil and produce nutritious feed at much lower input costs, increasing profitability.”
The rate at which plants are photosynthesizing will determine how fast they exude sugars and other compounds, as well as mineral uptake.
Jones urges producers to stop disturbing the natural process of root and soil growth through the use of chemicals and tillage and instead focus on increasing the photosynthetic activity.
“For photosynthetic capacity we want to look at leaf area — the height of the leaves, the width of the leaves and how many there are. As well as shape, if you have a variety of leaf shapes you will maximize the amount of light that is intercepted,” she said. “You want to think about how much of the light that is coming down and being intercepted by leaves.”
Manitoba grazing club co-ordinator Michael Thiele says that the first step in creating biological matter in soil and increasing photosynthetic capacity is to get the ground covered, as bare or exposed soil warms quickly, reduces soil moisture and shuts down soil biology.
“Start growing more grass, cover the soil and you will start seeing more bugs and then the whole system gets going,” said Thiele. “It doesn’t seem like a big thing, but when you are looking at trying to maximize the amount of solar panel, as soon as you have bare ground, you have loss of solar efficiency.”
As far as increasing how quickly plants photosynthesize, “there are a number of things you can try to increase the photosynthetic rate, such as dry milk powder and milk, any type of fish product, fish hydrolysate, seaweed extract or compost tea,” said Jones.
The MFGA will be hosting its next workshop on Sept. 1. Visit www.mfga.net for more information.