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Lack of poop endangers soil

 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I think we are, but I'm not convinced deep-rooted prairie grasses developed first, I think they evolved with the action of bison and humans. Certainly grasses established in the loess grit at some point, but, I don't think the tall grasses of the prairie could have developed without the action of grazing and fire. And the tall grasses with the action of the bison and humans are what built the deep fertile soils of the prairies, as I understand it. But since we can't probably determine exactly when tall grasses (such as Big Bluestem) evolved, who can say? I guess my personal beef is that I don't like to see the interaction of the bison and the first peoples sort of shoved aside as an unimportant aspect of the development of this special ecosystem, when, as I understand it, the prairies might be the only ecosystem created with the action of humans in the role of apex predator, and as one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth, proof that human activity is not necessarily detrimental, as some people very strongly believe.



Yeh, my timeline is pretty cut and dried which pretty certainly makes it wrong. About the only thing that's certain is that the grazing animals ate plants. Perhaps the mineral rich plants produced larger herds and the eat and poop/pee loop produced increasing amounts of organic matter and the plants grew taller with deeper roots and the herds grew larger. If the herds were as large as they appear to have been, then first peoples weren't having much of an impact on them. Their numbers and their technology weren't such that they could have much impact. They took what they needed and that was that.

I certainly wasn't diminishing the role of first humans or pushing them aside. All that I was doing was adding a foundational element. I might also have tossed in climate. Grasslands tend to be away from coastal areas, tend to be in the centres of continents, tend to have more extremes of precipitation and temperature. The Tallgrass Prairie is a really informative explanation of the ecosystem. There's also a fair bit of Hhhmmm material in it. I've always heard that it was fire whether from lightening or man-made that kept the grasslands free of trees but this article says:

The Tallgrass Prairie wrote:The nature of trees and shrubs is such that their long taproot systems allow them to access deep, permanent sources of groundwater. This is easy to accomplish in areas with shallow groundwater and regular rainfall. Neither of those conditions are present in a prairie. Because of the irregular rainfall, a tree or shrub rarely lives long enough in a prairie to grow their taproots down to deep permanent water. That is why a normal, healthy prairie will typically only have trees near a creek or pond, not out in the open field.



So why were humans burning? Perhaps they observed what happened from fires caused by lightening. The following quote suggests that bison herds would have thrived after a fire.

The Tallgrass Prairie wrote:The most important effects of fire on the prairie ecosystem occur through the removal of dead plant material (litter). A thick litter layer reduces light availability to shoots, ties up nutrients, and keeps the soil cool in the spring, delaying plant growth. Removal of the litter layer increases spring soil temperature, which increases both microbe and root activity in the soil. These changes favor the growth of the dominant warm-season grasses.



There are other prairie-like ecosystems globally - the Pampas in South America, the steppes of Russia and Mongolia. I know little about them but it seems that they did not have an equivalent of the bison which means no apex predator. And yet they are as productive an ecosystem as the North American prairies.

Perhaps we have misspecified the place of first peoples in this system. We tend to see them as managing the system. When we say that I think we are jumbling to together recognition of our messed up management with a view of a system that was functionally in balance and thus healthy and permanent, all other things being equal. And so we say we should be aspiring to manage the way they did. I don't think that first peoples "managed" the system; I think that first peoples simply co-existed with and were part of the ecosystem. They took what they needed but little more since there was no point to taking more. This is the first peoples model that we should be aspiring to.

Many environmentalists see humans, any humans, as a blight on the planet, when the prairies at least are evidence that humans needn't be a blight, but can be a significant asset.



Yeh, that particular flavour of environmentalist isn't very constructive at all. LOL

Thanks for the discussion. It's been thought provoking and educational.
 
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There actually was, and is a European species of bison. They were rediscovered in an obscure part of Poland a few years ago. It's very possible that they had the same role in their grassland biome as the American bison did here. The traditional soil quality in the American grasslands has often been described as among the best in the world. Despite the relative lack of precipitiation, places such as the Dakotas and Montana benefit from a lack of evaporation as well. In some of these locales, the depth of the soil is maintained by very deep rooted native grasses, which maintained that soil quality for eons before mostly white pioneers planted more familiar and less deeply rooted grasses such as corn and wheat, leading to a gradual destruction of the soil quality and depth. I would imagine that the microbiology that lives in symbiosis with the deep rooted grasses must have contributed to that abundance in the soil.
John S
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From what I remember Allan Savory wrote about fragile grasslands which he defined as places getting a 3 month rainy season or less (aka savannah/dry steppe). His advice was aimed mainly at these types of grasslands. He mentions parts of Texas but further north the prairie would get more rain than this. I interpret his ideas as : wet grassland turns to forest without herbivores, dry grassland turns to desert without herbivores.

The ability of native Americans to hunt buffalo was greatly improved post columbus because they got horses which allowed them to be more nomadic and follow the herds. Before this, many more of the tribes were settled farmers. The Navajo and Apache if I remember right seem to have migrated south from Canada within the last 600 years, which is likely connected IMO. So the main predators of buffalo would, I guess have been wolves not humans for most of the last few thousand years. The human ecology is a little more complicated than some of the posters realise.

Pragmatism says that on a hungry planet cattle could be a good substitute for buffalo in the ecosystem...unless we domesticated buffalo or went back to hunting them.

@Rebecca Norman, I suspect the human nutrient cycle (or lack of it) is at least as big an issue as the flows discussed in the article, but they are interesting nonetheless. I am always puzzled why more sea life isn't utilising all the nutrients we pump into the sea annually. It seems we are fishing very systematically.

As regards poop versus no poop, I am firmly on the side of poop. Michael Vormwald is right in theory, but I suspect the theory is wrong, because practical experience confirms what John Seymour said on the subject: There is a kind of magic which happens when vegetable matter passes through the guts of an animal.

IMO, it is a combination of the plant material being pulped and broken down, taken well on the way to becoming compost, and probably also the microbes added from the animal's gut. It's true that the animal is taking something out. But dump a load of fresh plant material on the soil around annual vegetables and it will sit around for months releasing nitrogen back to the air and releasing a soup of fresh organic compounds into the soil some of which may actually be harmful, to young seedlings especially. By the time the vegetation has really composted and is releasing nutrients in a form which plants want to use, it might well be winter when there is lots of rain and fewer vegetables growing (unless you have a lot of hardy perennials).

I have wanted for a while to measure nutrient leaching under deep mulched vegetable beds, I suspect it is slightly less than what you would get from bare cultivated soil, but still pretty high. I still mulch pretty deep and assume that deep mulched beds will leach, that mulch is not a perfect substitute for dense vegetation. The colour of my meadow below my garden seems to bear that out. When I have done rough calculations on the quantities of greenstuff which are needed to mulch beds this way, they strongly suggest that I should only mulch/compost stuff which animals cannot or will not eat, because I could produce significant quantities of meat, milk and manure by feeding it to animals, and only slightly improve the yield of my vegetables by mulching it, (as opposed to greatly improving the yield of my vegetables with the resulting manure).

Another consideration is that animals can be induced to drop much of their manure in one place, which is less labour than gathering up vegetation from a wide area
 
pollinator
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To the best of my knowledge there weren't any settled farmers in my part of the prairie. If anyone knows of farming tribes here on the Edwards Plateau, I would love to know about them.

Edited: After searching more about native peoples of Texas, I learned some groups of Apaches did limited farming near the Nueces River.

Also learned more about the Bison here, that they inhabited this region (the southernmost part of their range) intermittently, which seemed to be climate-dependent, corresponding with wetter periods, and were hunted by the peoples here, most dramatically by being driven off cliffs.


 
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Peter Ingot wrote:F

As regards poop versus no poop, I am firmly on the side of poop. Michael Vormwald is right in theory, but I suspect the theory is wrong, because practical experience confirms what John Seymour said on the subject: There is a kind of magic which happens when vegetable matter passes through the guts of an animal.



I do not have livestock so the 'animal' I use is the worm. I've made truckloads of compost and vermicompost in the past. I am currently working to eliminate the pre-process through sheet composting to turn my garden into a pseudo worm bed which will lead to effective no-till.
I built my home on land my grandfather pastured his work horses 50+ years ago. Up on a hill the soil was like subsoil and tilling it was like tilling a parking lot. One fall many, many years ago, I took a 12 foot ring of snow fence in the garden and filled it with leaves. I removed the leaves that remained in the spring and tilled. It was tough going until I hit the spot where the leaves had been and the tiller sank effortlessly to it's maximum depth. Worms had tilled the soil for me! Mulch the soil and culture worms....oh you can haul animal manures if you choose, but green materials/manures and leaves are much easier to deal with.

"To understand permaculture is simply to look at how nature has been growing things for thousands of years. The 'secret' is simply to keep the soil covered with plants or mulch."
 
John Suavecito
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Worms are animals. So are insects. Besides, it depends on if you like milk, eggs, yogurt, kefir, meat, leather, or animal companions. It is kind of actively unnatural to keep animals out of an area that they naturally would go into and fertilize. You can decide which animals work better with your esthetics. Rudolf Steiner talked about a natural fertility in the soil when the right mix of plant, animal and soil constituents made a harmonious and nutritious source of the earth's bounty.
John S
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Tyler Ludens
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In moist woodland climates the big challenge when one doesn't keep herbivores is how to keep trees from encroaching on open areas. One will have to do the work of the animals, or get machines ($$, CO2) to do their work. Most people probably won't be willing to set fire to their fields in order to keep back the trees.

I missed addressing some of the points Mike brought up:

Native people "managing" the grasslands. I don't claim they were managing them in a conscious way, I claim they were doing two things - behaving as apex predators (along with wolves) which kept the herds moving, and setting periodic fires, the purpose of which was to create improved conditions for game and also to drive bison over cliffs. The behavior of the native folks in this instance happened to be beneficial, proving humans are not always a liability in the ecology. Would the prairies have developed to the historic degree of productivity without the humans? We just can't know. We can only compare their behavior with that of some other humans somewhere else. Human behavior has not been uniformly beneficial or detrimental, though we can make some broad generalizations (for instance plow agriculture has been detrimental in most places).

Regarding grasslands such as the Pampas, etc, I don't agree they are as productive as the North American prairies were. The prairies weren't just any old grassland, they were one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth. Posting this again:

"Prairies began appearing in the mid-continent from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago and have developed into one of the most complicated and diverse ecosystems in the world, surpassed only by the rainforest of Brazil."

http://www.nps.gov/tapr/learn/nature/a-complex-prairie-ecosystem.htm

 
Mike Haych
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Regarding grasslands such as the Pampas, etc, I don't agree they are as productive as the North American prairies were. The prairies weren't just any old grassland, they were one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth.



You may be right. I wouldn't know where to begin to compare the various grasslands - American Prairies, Canadian Prairies, South African Veldt, Russian Steppe, Mongolian Steppe. All are described as productive breadbaskets but beyond that who knows? Most of the comparative statements that I have come across are extremely vague.
 
Tyler Ludens
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We'd have to get deeply into studying grassland ecology to know for sure! For me personally it's sort of irrelevant anyway since I don't intend to restore the parts of our land that were Tallgrass Prairie. At one point I thought I did, but it seemed so difficult with having to keep grazing animals and have controlled burns*, I gave up the idea. So we'll be letting our grassland turn to woodland. There's a Tallgrass Prairie restoration in the area that periodically brings in a small herd of bison!

* we call them "out of control burns"
 
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Michael Vormwald wrote:

... if I'm not just robbing Peter to pay Paul. I'm taking away the material that would otherwise enrich the soil beneath the trees that dropped the leaves.




This is very important to me, and something I battle with. I use wood chips extensively. I largely bring them in from elsewhere. I couldn't possibly grow enough trees to cover the ground with as many woodchips as I need in any kind of timely manner. I grow cover crops, I have chickens and use their manure, I compost, but the bottom line is, I have to import materials to create soil at a faster rate than it would be created otherwise.

I am enjoying this thread and the thought you are all putting into it very much.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Todd, can you plant woody support plants to coppice for woody mulch as seen in Geoff Lawton's food foresting? He plants something like 90% support species initially, many of them woody, and then cuts them out as the productive plants take over, leaving only a very few support trees at the end.


If you can get wood chips that would have gone to landfill otherwise, then you can probably feel better about using them.
 
Todd Parr
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Hi Tyler. I am doing that, but I really just started. I am coppicing some Mulberry trees that the birds planted for me, as well as chipping Poplar trees that spring up everywhere of their own accord and need to be thinned.

My woodchips mainly come from the city. They have a collection point for people to drop off yard waste and they chip it. I don't feel bad about picking chips up there, that is stuff that would be wasted, but the idea that what I'm doing isn't really sustainable does.

Edited to add, I've also planted quite a few Autumn Olives and other trees that I hope to be able to coppice someday, as well as willows.
 
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I think animals contribute more than just poop. The mechanical action of their feet/hooves on the soil, whether chickens scratching for insects or bison trampling dead stalks into soil contact, has unmeasured value in soil-building that just can't be replicated by piling up leaves and wood chips. I saw it the first spring after we put chickens into a one acre fenced and newly planted orchard. We didn't strip the orchard of the pasture that was there before, so on either side of the fence it was basically the same derelict pasture. The orchard greened up 2 weeks earlier, and that was after only 7 chickens foraging for 3 months the previous fall. I attribute much of it to the hens scuffling up the surface in their relentless hunt for grasshoppers. I can't wait to see what happens this spring, now that we've had a dozen turkeys in with the hens.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I think we have to cut ourselves some slack if what we're doing is leading us to become more sustainable. Otherwise we might end up wallowing in guilt, which is helping no-one. It is a challenge to do anything that is "really sustainable."
 
Michael Vormwald
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Todd Parr wrote:

Michael Vormwald wrote:

... if I'm not just robbing Peter to pay Paul. I'm taking away the material that would otherwise enrich the soil beneath the trees that dropped the leaves.




This is very important to me, and something I battle with. I use wood chips extensively. I largely bring them in from elsewhere. I couldn't possibly grow enough trees to cover the ground with as many woodchips as I need in any kind of timely manner. I grow cover crops, I have chickens and use their manure, I compost, but the bottom line is, I have to import materials to create soil at a faster rate than it would be created otherwise.

I am enjoying this thread and the thought you are all putting into it very much.



I've resolved this issue really. In the future, I will harvest less leaves from the corners of my property. The municipal site accepts leaves, wood chips and horse manure for the purpose of making it available to those that can use it. Since it's just a couple of miles away, I see it as taking advantage of a local resource that might otherwise just go to waste. For most residential areas (w/o gardens), the leaves are just litter that they are happy to have removed. I brought home 4 or 5 truckloads of leaves this fall and ran them through my chipper/vac to shred and put a good layer in the garden. I'll be going back for more leaves in the spring to mix with grass clippings for compost. I use the wood chips around trees, shrubs, foundation plantings, etc...
'One man's trash is another man's treasure'. It's great recycling to use materials that might otherwise just be thrown away....AND IT'S FREE FOR THE TAKING.
 
John Suavecito
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Tyler,
THe area that I live in was an oak savannah prairie managed by the Native Americans for thousands of years. This was done mainly by burning the valley floor, which enabled their preferred plants to grow better, and made the deer easier to see (and kill/eat). The native oaks withstood the fires, but most of the rest of the plants burned on a rotating basis. There is a lot of interesting material in 1491, I believe it's called, in which the author talks about how the Native Americans managed the forests of the Eastern US for producation, with chestnut, persimmon, pawpaw and other productive species providing food.
JohN S
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Mike Haych
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Michael Vormwald wrote:I've resolved this issue really. In the future, I will harvest less leaves from the corners of my property. The municipal site accepts leaves, wood chips and horse manure for the purpose of making it available to those that can use it. Since it's just a couple of miles away, I see it as taking advantage of a local resource that might otherwise just go to waste. For most residential areas (w/o gardens), the leaves are just litter that they are happy to have removed. I brought home 4 or 5 truckloads of leaves this fall and ran them through my chipper/vac to shred and put a good layer in the garden. I'll be going back for more leaves in the spring to mix with grass clippings for compost. I use the wood chips around trees, shrubs, foundation plantings, etc...
'One man's trash is another man's treasure'. It's great recycling to use materials that might otherwise just be thrown away....AND IT'S FREE FOR THE TAKING.



Our property is such that it's difficult to harvest the leaves - the grey dogwood understory makes it impossible to get at the ash, maple, oak, butternut leaves. So we were using straw bales from a farmer friend who doesn't use a pre-harvest dessicant such as Roundup, Eragon, or Reglone. He does use Roundup before seeding so I wasn't comfortable using his straw. Whenever we go to town in the fall, we take bags of leaves from the curbside but that's always a crapshoot with folks putting all kinds of things in the bad that are quite nasty. We have a friend who brings us a pickup truck of leaves in exchange for a couple of jars of rosehip jelly. So I looked at sources of growing our own mulch/compost biomass. We settled on Miscanthus giganteus. Its flowers set no seed and its rhizomes spread very slowly. And we get 12 feet of growth each year before it winter kills to the ground. I mostly harvest brown in the early fall before the leaves are blown off by the wind but I could harvest green earlier if I needed green material. It goes through wood chipper really quickly but a small electric chipper would handle it too although more slowly. My mulch/compost problem is solved. My planting is 30'x30' and will get larger as we experiment with it as a replacement for woodchips.

Anyone who decides to try Miscanthus giganteus should start on a precautionary basis. We planted a small 3' x 10' area to see if the rhizomes did in fact spread slowly. I did not want to find out that our conditions were such that I had a very aggressive spreader that would have required much effort to be rid of. Make sure that you get Miscanthus giganteus not Miscanthus sacchariflorus or Miscanthus sinensis or some other aggressive spreader.
 
Michael Vormwald
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Mike Haych wrote:Our property is such that it's difficult to harvest the leaves - the grey dogwood understory makes it impossible to get at the ash, maple, oak, butternut leaves. So we were using straw bales from a farmer friend who doesn't use a pre-harvest dessicant such as Roundup, Eragon, or Reglone. He does use Roundup before seeding so I wasn't comfortable using his straw. Whenever we go to town in the fall, we take bags of leaves from the curbside but that's always a crapshoot with folks putting all kinds of things in the bad that are quite nasty. We have a friend who brings us a pickup truck of leaves in exchange for a couple of jars of rosehip jelly. So I looked at sources of growing our own mulch/compost biomass. We settled on Miscanthus giganteus. Its flowers set no seed and its rhizomes spread very slowly. And we get 12 feet of growth each year before it winter kills to the ground. I mostly harvest brown in the early fall before the leaves are blown off by the wind but I could harvest green earlier if I needed green material. It goes through wood chipper really quickly but a small electric chipper would handle it too although more slowly. My mulch/compost problem is solved. My planting is 30'x30' and will get larger as we experiment with it as a replacement for woodchips.

Anyone who decides to try Miscanthus giganteus should start on a precautionary basis. We planted a small 3' x 10' area to see if the rhizomes did in fact spread slowly. I did not want to find out that our conditions were such that I had a very aggressive spreader that would have required much effort to be rid of. Make sure that you get Miscanthus giganteus not Miscanthus sacchariflorus or Miscanthus sinensis or some other aggressive spreader.



I used a leaf blower to blow the leaves in windrows to an open area for easy pickup, then I'd haul them near the garden for shredding. Most went on the garden, then covered with mulch hay.
But, it's much easier to drive the pickup to the center and load up (mostly maple leaves)! <g>
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