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What does this soil test mean for a no-till vegetable garden?

 
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Hey guys.  I just got my soil test results back, and I am having a hard time understanding some of these results.  History - last summer I laid down cardboard and straw in an old horse pasture that had not been used for anything for several years.  Lots of various broadleaf weeds and grasses had been growing in the location where I created this garden.  I sent in my soil, which is sandy loam to loam, to have it tested by the VA Tech extension office a while back and just got my results.  

First of all, why would my phosphorous and magnesium levels be very high, being that this was previously neglected pasture?  Are these very high levels fairly common?  Do I need to be worried and how would I amend if at all?

The bottom of the sheet gives me a lime recommendation.  Why would I add lime if the pH is 6?  Also, if I do want to add lime to a no-till garden, how does that work?  Just sprinkle some lime on top of the soil and let it work it's way in?  My soil is currently mulched heavily so I'm not sure how that would work.

The bottom of the sheet also gives me a fertilizer recommendation.  Being that I am fertillizing with my own compost, mushroom compost, and mulching with straw and shredded leaves, how do I compare these recommendations to the types of organic fertizlizers that I'm using?  Being that I'm high in P and a little high in K, what options for fertilizer do I have that are organic?

Thanks in advance for any sound feedback!

InkedSOIL-TEST-RESULTS_LI.jpg
soil test report
soil test report
 
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Hey, I have a a few answers for you. Your phosphorus and magnesium levels are high because of the horse manure that was left there. This is a normal result of overapplication of manures. Usually the biggest issue with manure overapplication is runoff into waterways. At this point I think the only thing to do would be add carbon, which you are doing with the mulch.

If you want to add lime then, yes, just sprinkle it on top. It will work its way down whenever it rains.

For fertilizer you want just nitrogen. You could get that through inorganic applications, or I would suggest a cover crop of nitrogen fixing legumes; clover, alfalfa, and vetch would all be good.
 
Joshua LeDuc
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Thanks for that Leora.  So even several years later I will still see the results of prior horse manure?  Interesting.  I also read somewhere since this post that soil compaction as a result of horses and machinery might have something to do with the high levels.

How about bone meal?  I'm really not into cover cropping for a small vegetable garden.  Especially since I'm not tilling.
 
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You mentioned that you added compost? Does your compost have manure in it? That would explain the P.
It will leach away just like nitrates even a some time.
Cation exchange complex is 65% Ca : 10% Mg : 5% K : 20% H.
Your soil could just naturally have high levels of Mg, but the ratio of Ca to Mg should be closer to 6:1
So by adding more lime you will more toward 6:1 vs the current 3:1
 
Joshua LeDuc
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Thanks for your advise S Bengi!  I did not add manure, only my own green/brown compost and a few loads of mushroom compost.  This may be residual from years of this area being a horse pasture.  I read somewhere that compacted soils can contribute to high P as well.  Not sure if this is true.  I don't even know whether or not the high P adversely affects the garden.  What's your take?  I do plan on adding some lime, but I'm not very keen on stopping the addition of compost due to high P and only adding bone meal or other N only fertilizer.  Without the constant addition of organic matter, I won't be able to build deep, fluffy soils.  
 
S Bengi
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Bone meal is very high in P, so if you are adding that, then the numbers could be reflecting this, esp if the cardboad/compacted soil is preventing it from leaching out, given that it doesn't leach as easily as nitrates, esp once the mushrooms binds it up. In fact mushroom bind Lead to Phosphate to make the lead less bio-available. They will readily bind P with most metals/mineral. So I would not worry about the P-level.

As far as I can tell as long as you have 2X more Ca than Mg, it does not affect most plants (Do check your tomatoes though), esp if you have the soil life/organic, to keep the minerals bio-available.

So, I encourage you to keep on adding carbon to your soil, and as much microbes as possible.
 
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An additional question to this thread -

Would worms and or growing a specific cover crop that would be left to decompose under the cardboard help in anyway? I'm planning to use the same no till method at some point.
 
Joshua LeDuc
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Andy, having put down cardboard and straw last summer (2019) and letting it sit all winter, this spring there were tons of worms under the cardboard.  I assume they were loving all of the decomposing grass and weeds in this layer.  I would say if you are planning on growing in an area that is currently lawn, just mow the grass short and put down the cardboard.  There will be plenty of organic material here that will start to decompose
 
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Keep doing what you described you are doing and all will be well.  No lime or fertilizer is needed, just living plants as much of the time as possible.  The high P is from historic horse manure deposition.  
 
Joshua LeDuc
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Jon Stika wrote:Keep doing what you described you are doing and all will be well.  No lime or fertilizer is needed, just living plants as much of the time as possible.  The high P is from historic horse manure deposition.  



So Jon, since I posted this, another angle has developed.  My neighbor, who has a lot of beef cattle, has been cutting my 2 pastures for hay.  This fall he remarked that I have a lot of broom straw grass (which I do) which is not a good grass for hay.  He told me I need to get my fields limed and that will help to eliminate the broom straw.  Can you or anybody else comment on the validity of this?  I'm trying to get my fields back in shape for grazing, as I want to get a couple of cows or sheep in a few years.
 
Jon Stika
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Josh,

I am not very familiar with Broomsedge, but there has been some research (https://warren.ces.ncsu.edu/2019/03/how-to-get-rid-of-broomsedge-broomstraw/)  showing that application of lime and/or phosphorous can temporarily change the soil chemistry enough so Broomsedge has less of an advantage on a given site.  With that said, application of lime and/or fertilizer treats the symptom of invading Broomsedge but will not solve the problem.  Repeatedly cutting a field for hay and exporting the bales from the field does not allow for proper stimulation of the plants by grazing, exports a great deal of carbon from the soil system, and leaves the soil with little cover.  Occasionally cutting a field for hay and exporting the hay to another location is not usually an issue, but doing so year after year will typically result in a decline in soil health and plant species composition.  

Plant species composition in a pasture can be permanently improved and maintained by proper grazing.  Proper grazing involves the grazing animals removing no more than half of what has grown at the time they graze and then allowing the plants to fully recover before being grazed again.  This means the animals must be confined to a small enough area at a time so they bite ALL of the plants, but do not remove more than half of what is there at the time of grazing.  To do this, the animals must only be allowed access to a small area at a time, usually only for a few days and then moved to a new area.  Portable electric fencing is a great tool to accomplish this.  If the livestock are allowed access to the whole pasture for an extended period of time they will only bite the plants they like and return to bite them again and again.  This results in plants that die out from not being grazed (and stimulated) and plants that die out from being grazed to death without time to recover.  What is left are undesirable plants (such as Broomsedge).  By properly grazing, the plants will all be stimulated to exude sugars into the soil to feed the soil biology and the plants that have been grazed are not bitten again until they have recovered.  This results in stimulated, healthy plants and well fed soil that has cover on it all the time.  You may never totally get rid of Broomsedge, but it will become a minor component as the species diversity increases.  The livestock only really want the top third or so of the plants for their nutrition, so the livestock benefit as well.  All the manure and urine are returned to the soil to be cycled again.  

Once you can start properly grazing your pastures, they can recover and become populated with desirable plants.  If you want to apply some lime and or phosphorous to help speed that process along it's your money, but proper grazing can restore things if you are patient and diligent.
 
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Joshua LeDuc wrote:  My neighbor, who has a lot of beef cattle, has been cutting my 2 pastures for hay.  This fall he remarked that I have a lot of broom straw grass (which I do) which is not a good grass for hay.  He told me I need to get my fields limed and that will help to eliminate the broom straw.  Can you or anybody else comment on the validity of this?  I'm trying to get my fields back in shape for grazing, as I want to get a couple of cows or sheep in a few years.



Jon Stika beat me to it with his excellent post above, but I'd like to also offer a little input. Broom sedge/broom sage/broom straw, having different names in different regions, is a native warm season grass, native that is to our region of North America. I see you're in Virginia, and I'm in Tennessee, and I have broom sage on my farm as well, but less than I did when I bought the place three years ago. It will not ever be "eliminated" having pastures 100% free from broom sage or any plant that wants to grow, as nature doesn't work that way, but what we can do is greatly reduce its presence. This can be done by making conditions favorable for other grasses and forbs to dominate, and "choke out" the broom sage. Broom sage's preferred soil conditions are acidic, and low in phosphorous, and this is where it thrives, and it has its place in nature, doing its job. If we, through management such as using the excellent techniques Jon noted above, and also if one chooses, by modifying the soil a little bit, the soil becomes favorable for other grasses and forbs to grow, thrive and dominate.

I graze cows, and when I bought my farm, it had been neglected and the soil pH was 5.2 and soil phosphorous was very low. It had a herd of cows on it for the previous twenty years, but those cows had free run of the entire almost 60 acres. Unmanaged grazing does not improve soil, and it reduces the palatable grasses and forbs. This happens by way of cows choosing to only eat their favorite plants, allowing the unfavorable plants to grow with less competition from grasses and go to seed each season, thus the unfavorable plants spread. When cows are unmanaged, they begin grazing grasses early in the spring, as soon as they begin to grow. All this early grass growth comes from stored carbohydrate energy in the grasses roots. When cows come along and eat this early spring growth, it depletes the stored energy, and the grass keeps trying to grow blades of grass to gather sunlight to gain energy, and cows keep coming back and eating this, over and over. This depletes grass vigor, and can kill grasses as all their energy becomes exhausted and can never grow enough blades of grass to gain sunlight, and with grasses becoming weak or dying altogether, unfavorable plants take their place.

I have reduced my broom sage and improved my grasses using two techniques. The herd of cows that had free reign over the farm were removed as they belonged to someone else who was leasing the land for grazing from the landowner. I've limed my farm twice, once within a few months of purchasing the land, and again two years later after a soil analysis revealed it still had a pH under 6. Now my soil pH ranges from 6.2 to 6.6 (I have about 7 different types of soil on my farm). I also introduced cows back onto the farm earlier this year, and I do managed grazing using portable poly wire electric fence, and I make new paddocks and move my cows every three days. (It takes three days for a grass to start regrowing after being grazed). My cows end up back at the first paddock about 5 weeks since being first grazed. This allows ample time for grass regrowth and perhaps too much time for spring cool season grasses which grow incredibly fast, but seems good for slower growing warm season grasses. But I'm new to this, and learning as I go. Getting the soil pH to favor other grasses and forbs which is unfavorable for broom sage, rotational grazing, and going back over grazed paddocks with the tractor mower set 12 to 15 inches high to clip ungrazed plants and prevent them from going to seed, I have seen rapid improvement of my pastures in the quantity of palatable grasses, legumes, and forbs, and a significant reduction in broom sage, and other unpalatable plants such as iron weed for example. I am confident that as I continue managed grazing, the grass and forb quality & quantity will improve as the years go forward.

If you choose to add phosphorous, may I suggest looking into rock phosphates. It's rock dust, works slow like lime does, and will gently increase the phosphorous in your soil by way of gentle soil chemistry and biology. I do not recommend any synthetic phosphorous, or any synthetic fertilizers for that matter. They do more harm to a soil than any benefit ever gained.

Hope this helps!


 
Joshua LeDuc
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James and Jon, thanks so much for the very well-written responses.  I do want to eventually get livestock to graze the fields, but we just purchased this land a year and a half ago and I'm not quite ready for that yet.  James, I'm very familiar with paddocks and rotational grazing, and that is what I eventually want to do.  When you talk about your cows being in portable fencing, are you saying that you don't have any permanent fencing around your pasture either?  I was always under the assumption that you need a permanent fence around the pasture and then one would create paddocks inside the permanent fence.  If you are saying that temp fencing is sufficient that would save me a lot of time and money on infrastructure.  
 
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Joshua LeDuc wrote: When you talk about your cows being in portable fencing, are you saying that you don't have any permanent fencing around your pasture either?  I was always under the assumption that you need a permanent fence around the pasture and then one would create paddocks inside the permanent fence.  If you are saying that temp fencing is sufficient that would save me a lot of time and money on infrastructure.  



So I have several "pastures", some being divided by a ditch which starts on a neighboring tract of land and runs through my farm and empties into a creek. To help clarify, I do have four strand barbed wire fence running the perimeter of my entire farm. I then use only temporary step-in posts and reels of poly wire to make paddocks. Twice since I've had the cows I've looked out the window and one or more has somehow managed to get past the poly wire and out of their paddock roaming free and my best guess is something spooked them and I think, to them, the other side of the poly wire was safer. Besides those two incidences, they know the poly wire hurts, and respect it. I think poly wire works great, especially when powered by a high joule energizer with lots of ground rods, but I am glad I have a second line of security with the perimeter fence, making it much more difficult for them to leave the farm and do something like, for example, causing expensive damages by way of crop loss to the guy row cropping corn next door. By the time the first escape happened, I already had the cows bucket trained, so all I had to do was mix up a little molasses treat, walk out in the field and shake the bucket, and they came to me and I just led them back into their paddock. Did that both times.

 
Joshua LeDuc
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James, that's good to know, and an interesting post.  I assume you are raising beef cattle?  How many cattle do you have on how many acres? Are you using the Gallagher portable fencing, or something else?  Also are you following your cows with chickens to cut down on fly larvae? That's a great tip to get your cows bucket trained!
 
James Freyr
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Joshua LeDuc wrote:James, that's good to know, and an interesting post.  I assume you are raising beef cattle?  How many cattle do you have on how many acres? Are you using the Gallagher portable fencing, or something else?  Also are you following your cows with chickens to cut down on fly larvae? That's a great tip to get your cows bucket trained!



Yes we raise beef cattle, Murray Grey's to be exact. My wife and I are just starting, having moved to our farm last year. We have 3 heifers as that was all we could afford, and it's possible that three can turn into 21 in 4 years of successful breeding if I did my math right. I think that come the second half of the decade we could be scrambling to prevent having more cattle than the farms carrying capacity can safely handle. So we have about 60 acres, and approximately 33 or 34 of that is in pasture. The part of the farm the the cattle have been on this year contains about 10 grazeable acres and the other side of the ditch I mentioned earlier contains the balance of pasture, which was cut for hay this season. I don't precisely measure a paddock when I make a new one, I just eyeball it so they vary in size somewhat. After three days there is what appears to be, to some eyes, a lot of ungrazed grass left behind which is what I want and is part of the strategy of managed grazing. I'm not using Gallagher brand fence products, I chose Kencove over competitors. The prices are competitive, and they will repair their products. While I do have about 40 chickens, I am currently not running them behind the cows. I have to keep my chickens inside portable electric net fence to prevent four-legged predation by foxes, coyotes and neighborhood dogs that run loose, sometimes in packs, and I am just not ready to have the chickens going behind the cows. We do have plans for livestock guardian dogs, and when we get to that point, I will be ready to take down the electric net and rely on the LGD's to look after the chickens.  


 
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Whatever you do, do not add more nitrogen.  It is a calcium uptake problem.  Microbes have to break down the minerals before the plants can uptake them, but you are already addressing that with the compost and mulch you are adding which will help build the microbe population.  Excess nitrogen can give your plants and you nitrate poisoning as well as make the vegetables grown there taste bitter,  The compost has nitrogen, and all rainwater has enough.  Actinomycetes (beneficial bacteria) help uptake it as well or convert it so plants can use it.  With no till you are making that soil fungal dominant which is great for blueberries or fruit trees; however, vegetables don’t like it and won’t grow properly.  If you disturb the soil when planting, or have adequate earthworm population, or even take a broad fork and just loosen the soil every few inches, that is enough to get the oxygen and other gases in so the Soil becomes bacteria dominant, which makes vegetables thrive.  Don’t have to add much calcium, a little goes a long way.  Should be lightly mixed into the top 4 inches of soil to do the most good.  Or mix into water and spray on plants, If it clogs your sprayer, let the particles settle out, pour off the almost clear water on top, it still has calcium in it and just spray on crops or soil.  Works better and faster that way.  Soil has to have humates, or the humic acid found in composted organic matter to work with minerals too.  All the ingredients are necessary, just like baking a cake.  If you leave something out, can have disastrous results.  So live microbes, adequate minerals (all trace plus more of the major minerals like calcium/phosphorus and potash, humic acid from compost or humates.  
 
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With no till you are making that soil fungal dominant which is great for blueberries or fruit trees; however, vegetables don’t like it and won’t grow properly.  If you disturb the soil when planting, or have an adequate earthworm population, or even take a broad fork and just loosen the soil every few inches, that is enough to get the oxygen and other gases in so the Soil becomes bacteria dominant, which makes vegetables thrive.

 Apart from your mentioning earthworms, I respectfully disagree with this thinking, Faye Streiff.  There are many examples of no-till veggie production with high fungal soils and without the need to further aerate the soil or tilt it toward bacterial dominance.  It is my understanding that most modern sol science is strongly favouring no-till (and promoting fungal relationships) and amending soil only with a diversity of plants, leaving plant waste in or on the soil, and ensuring that the soil is not left bare of living plants or decomposing residues.  Legendary Market Gardeners like Charles Dowding and Huw Richards can be found on Youtube demonstrating their results.
 
Faye Streiff
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Roberto,
   I think we are actually both agreeing without realizing it.  If vegetation is put on the soil to break down, it feeds bacteria, so that soil might be fungal dominant but plenty of beneficial bacterial microbes too.   Also a lot of difference in east coast and west coast soils.  I’m on the east coast and it is very different here.  I actually do a no till in most of my garden, but when I move mulch to plant it allows some movement of soil to allow those gases in.  Any vegetation on the surface will attract earthworms and they are the best tillers in the world.  They have an exudate in their gut that kills all harmful human pathogens, including E.Coli, staph and strep.  
 
Joshua LeDuc
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James Freyr wrote:

Joshua LeDuc wrote:James, that's good to know, and an interesting post.  I assume you are raising beef cattle?  How many cattle do you have on how many acres? Are you using the Gallagher portable fencing, or something else?  Also are you following your cows with chickens to cut down on fly larvae? That's a great tip to get your cows bucket trained!



Yes we raise beef cattle, Murray Grey's to be exact. My wife and I are just starting, having moved to our farm last year. We have 3 heifers as that was all we could afford, and it's possible that three can turn into 21 in 4 years of successful breeding if I did my math right. I think that come the second half of the decade we could be scrambling to prevent having more cattle than the farms carrying capacity can safely handle. So we have about 60 acres, and approximately 33 or 34 of that is in pasture. The part of the farm the the cattle have been on this year contains about 10 grazeable acres and the other side of the ditch I mentioned earlier contains the balance of pasture, which was cut for hay this season. I don't precisely measure a paddock when I make a new one, I just eyeball it so they vary in size somewhat. After three days there is what appears to be, to some eyes, a lot of ungrazed grass left behind which is what I want and is part of the strategy of managed grazing. I'm not using Gallagher brand fence products, I chose Kencove over competitors. The prices are competitive, and they will repair their products. While I do have about 40 chickens, I am currently not running them behind the cows. I have to keep my chickens inside portable electric net fence to prevent four-legged predation by foxes, coyotes and neighborhood dogs that run loose, sometimes in packs, and I am just not ready to have the chickens going behind the cows. We do have plans for livestock guardian dogs, and when we get to that point, I will be ready to take down the electric net and rely on the LGD's to look after the chickens.

James, that is all very exciting!  It sounds like you're off to a great start with your cattle operation.  Nice talking.  


 
Joshua LeDuc
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Faye and Roberto, I appreciate you input here.  Sounds like I'm doing the right thing in the garden anyway.  The pastures are a different story.  Apart from getting ruminants, which I'm not quite ready to do, I don't think I have much choice except to have my neighbor mow hay for his cows or to bush hog it myself.  
 
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The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon was the most helpful book for me on understanding soil tests and how to amend them without chemicals.
 
Derek Carter
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The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon was the most helpful book for me on understanding soil tests and how to amend them without chemicals.
 
Joshua LeDuc
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Thanks for that Derek.  I'll check it out!
 
Faye Streiff
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My husband, Allan, is an international organic/biodynamic ag consultant.  One of his favorite books is When Weeds Talk by Jay McCaman.  You can tell by observation a lot of nutrient deficiencies and what is going on in on our soils by observation of what grows on it.  Broomsedge, along with most other weeds,  is on land deficient in AVAILABLE calcium and phosphorus and high in potash.  Calcium and phosphate have a lot to do with uptake of other nutrients.  They both build cell strength in a plant and a lot of other factors, protect from insect damage, and phosphorus has to do with uptake of sugars in the plant as well.  Don’t worry about the potash being too high, just bring up levels of other nutrients.  Compost tea sprayed on will boost microbes.  Earthworms like the calcium also and it will attract them if there is sufficient organic matter also.  Mowing in place and leaving the residue can mulch down and protect microbes.  A lot of soils are high in calcitic rock but it is not available due to low microbes.  We spray all our pastures with compost tea with cal/phos plus the trace minerals and most of the noxious weeds are gone by the next season.  We also mow it now and then if not rotationally grazed, to top off any weeds that do get through before they seed out.  Every time grass is cut or mowed, it root prunes, which is why rotational grazing is so good.  I think you already know all of that or you would not be doing the rotational grazing you are doing.  Mineralized pastures are higher in nutrients and protein and keep stock healthy.  Cows get out because grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, the heifers might be in heat, or sometimes they just seem to like going on an adventure so a little jaunt is in order.  Good luck with fencing, we’ve had the same problems here.  I once had a jumping cow and it was impossible to keep her in, but she always came home.  Somehow she could figure out how to jump out, but never how to jump back in and ended up at the gate bellowing for us to let her in.  
 
Joshua LeDuc
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Faye Streiff wrote:My husband, Allan, is an international organic/biodynamic ag consultant.  One of his favorite books is When Weeds Talk by Jay McCaman.  You can tell by observation a lot of nutrient deficiencies and what is going on in on our soils by observation of what grows on it.  Broomsedge, along with most other weeds,  is on land deficient in AVAILABLE calcium and phosphorus and high in potash.  Calcium and phosphate have a lot to do with uptake of other nutrients.  They both build cell strength in a plant and a lot of other factors, protect from insect damage, and phosphorus has to do with uptake of sugars in the plant as well.  Don’t worry about the potash being too high, just bring up levels of other nutrients.  Compost tea sprayed on will boost microbes.  Earthworms like the calcium also and it will attract them if there is sufficient organic matter also.  Mowing in place and leaving the residue can mulch down and protect microbes.  A lot of soils are high in calcitic rock but it is not available due to low microbes.  We spray all our pastures with compost tea with cal/phos plus the trace minerals and most of the noxious weeds are gone by the next season.  We also mow it now and then if not rotationally grazed, to top off any weeds that do get through before they seed out.  Every time grass is cut or mowed, it root prunes, which is why rotational grazing is so good.  I think you already know all of that or you would not be doing the rotational grazing you are doing.  Mineralized pastures are higher in nutrients and protein and keep stock healthy.  Cows get out because grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, the heifers might be in heat, or sometimes they just seem to like going on an adventure so a little jaunt is in order.  Good luck with fencing, we’ve had the same problems here.  I once had a jumping cow and it was impossible to keep her in, but she always came home.  Somehow she could figure out how to jump out, but never how to jump back in and ended up at the gate bellowing for us to let her in.  



That's a lot of useful information.  I'm so glad that this will be archived on Permies forever!  the compost tea idea sounds wonderful!
 
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