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Podcast 344 - Keys To Building a Healthy Soil - Part 1  RSS feed

 
Adrien Lapointe
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Summary

Credit: Kevin Murphy

Paul and friends at wheaton labs give a group review of Gabe Browns 58 minute video entitled "Gabe Brown: Keys To Building a Healthy Soil" which includes lots of permaculture. Paul begins the podcast with a talk about non-native vs native plants. Natives are typically better adapted and people are worried about invasive species pushing native species out. Paul gives an example using the Russian Olive. Paul feels that there are several schools of thought on this. Paul thinks that Russian Olive could be used and harvested to make hugel beds. With modern tools like the ax or chainsaw it can be easily managed. If we allow permaculture folks to manage the land they can keep the Russian Olive in check and invasion will not be a problem. However, if one person tries to manage 20,000 acres it will be difficult if not impossible. Paul wanted to touch next on the profound points he came across in the video. Gabe Brown is dah man. He has 5000 acres in North Dakota near Bismarck. Gabe is doing well on his property. He does not use pesticides or fertilizers or tilling. He loves his no till drill. Gabe also says he no longer uses government subsidies. Gabe does not use crop insurance or bankers. He starts off showing forest soil with 4.3% organic matter and compares it to the conventionally tilled soil that only has 1.6% organic matter. Paul thinks a big part of Gabes video message was no till mixed with polyculture. Gabe listed a few dates when he started no till along his various fields. Paul mentions how he worked many years ago harvesting crops and how moving equipment took a long time because fields are spread out. Because Brown's fields are close to each other this may not be a big problem for him. Gabe explains the symbiotic relationship and how they need less water due to the hyphae. Paul goes over the soil structure and how tilling destroys the structure. In Gabe's video he calls the good soil black cottage cheese. Paul liked what Brown showed how earthworms and critters can open up lots of trails in the soil. Aggregate within the soil helps with the structure. During the video Gabe explains how water crossing his land is absorbed and makes the soil less compactable. The mycorrhiza are killed by tilling. Each time you till you lose 30% of your organic matter. When you till you bring in air that gives the surviving mycorrhiza material to consume however you have lost a good amount of the organic matter. Fungi need to bring nutrients to the plant to trade for sugar during the exchange. The fungi bring many things to trade. Janet explains her reasoning and Fred shares his opinion too. Gabe says his plants need less water because he is using no till methods along with mulching. Paul discusses how much water the plant needs versus how much it can consume. There is a discussion about the water needs of plants. Paul drops the topic but says he will return to this topic. Gabe claims that plants that are healthier are less susceptible to pest problems. Mycorrhiza take up space and act like white blood cells in a way. Paul reviews what Kai has planted i.e. A tall fescue. Paul thinks that the tall fescue he sees around Wheaton labs have endophytes. These act as antibiotics that can catch nematodes and consume them. These endophytes help the tall fescue grow like mad. Paul reviews the corn trial that Gabe performed. Gabe compared a half field he applied fertilizer to vs a half field he applied no fertilizer. Gabe shows how he got nearly identical yields. Gabe claims that if we stop abusing the soil and plant legumes along with the corn to provide ample nitrogen. Paul feels this has a lot to do with aged soils that were not tilled. Gabe claims his yields are 40 % higher than conventionally farmed fields. Gabe takes the crops he wants then brings cattle in. In a one foot x one foot area he has over sixty worms. Gabe says part of the key is to minimize the bare soil. Gabe companion plants multiple crops simultaneously. Paul mentions that Brown uses a 2 or 3 species mix for cover crop but has better results when there are 7 species and the best mix contains 20 species. There is a discussion about using as many as 140-200 different species to help diversify the field. Gabe does not detail the plants and shrubs but mixes plants with different crops to really include low to medium and taller crops. Paul says one of the most profound issues is where Gabe discusses the monocrop study where he varies the density along with a number of types of crop. Gabe shows the amount of organic matter when there is lots of diversity. Paul explains how the plants work together in diverse fields versus a monocrop field. Brown tries to model what nature does. Paul gives examples of natural systems where there is monoculture. Paul uses cedar trees as an example and how they tend to push out other species and become a monocrop naturally. Paul discusses knapweed on Wheaton labs and how they manage the knapweed. Around Missoula, people will actually pay to buy the bugs that eat the knapweed. Paul thinks he has two of the six bugs that consume knapweed at the Lab. Paul talks about the berm just outside his window and how the berm has evolved over time. This spring the rabbits were eating lots of crocus but once the cats showed up the rabbits became very scarce.

Relevant Threads

Gabe Brown: Keys To Building a Healthy Soil
Keys To Building a Healthy Soil thread at permies
Turning sand into soil thread at permies
understanding knapweed thread at permies
permaculture, sustainability and polyculture thread at permies
giant hugelkultur (12 feet tall) at basecamp thread at permies
Soil Forum at permies

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Rudy Valvano
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Excellent summary. As for the confusion about water, I refer to "rainfall" when I mean how much water a plant needs. Techniques like mulch or planting from seed reduce the needed rainfall but don't change the plant's individual needs. Similarly, I don't see anything magical coming from no-till or poly culture that changes a plant's intake. Maybe with more research
 
Julia Winter
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Well, since the plant receives nutrients in solution, either artificially provided nutrients (aka "fertilizer") delivered via rain or irrigation or naturally provided nutrients from adjacent (or not so adjacent, via mycelium networks) plants or soil organisms, then it's possible that a plant growing in a wel balanced polyculture will be able to get its metabolic needs met with less water when it is growing in polyculture.

If a plant has various micronutrients served up to it in delicious little bites in exchange for sugar-filled exudates, versus having to search the soil and subsoil for what it needs with just its own roots, the increased efficiency of nutrient acquisition that comes from effective polycultures could lead to equivalent growth despite diminished water intake. If the polyculture includes deep rooted plants, those plants may be able to access groundwater the crop plants are not able to access. Either of those situations could lead to "more growth with less water."

When lots of plants share a space, abundance can occur. The plants with great solar collectors concentrate on photosynthesizing, and as long as there is CO2 in the air and sunlight from the sky coming in, the total amount of biological material can just increase and increase. It seems like magic, but it's the same old magic that's been delivering abundance for eons.
 
Julia Winter
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Due to a miscommunication, I also wrote up a summary for this podcast. I'll share it here, in case someone finds it useful. It will be interesting to compare what two people get out of the same audio!

In this podcast, Sarah, Sean, Janet, Kai, Fred, and Paul all talk about Gabe Brown’s video about soil. It’s called “Keys to Building a Healthy Soil - Permaculture and Polyculture”

But first!! Paul wants to put in a word about hating non-native plants. For example Russian Olive is hated and some would like to make selling it (or its seeds) illegal. However, sometimes Russian Olives are about the only thing that will grow in a degraded dry place. Yes, they can become rampant in wetter areas, but the solution for that is more people on the land, to manage it. The problem is when one person is trying to manage massive areas of land. The solution tends to be mass quantities of herbicides.

On the lab, the primary invasive plant is knapweed. When they arrived, there was a lot more of it. Just recently Fred and Sarah grabbed a bunch of knapweed and used it for their “hot shower” compost pile.

The great thing about Gabe Brown’s videos is that he’s got some hard numbers and illustrative pictures. He’s got proof that what he does works.

Game is on 5000 acres and he’s doing well with no fertilizers and no pesticides and no plowing. He does have a really cool no-till drill planter that Paul thinks might be a half million dollar machine.

He shows some soil with 1.6% organic matter, some messed up soil after 17 years of tillage. This looks like dead dirt. Then he shows his soil, after years of no-till and polyculture, and it’s awesome. It’s not clear if the poor soil is from his land, or if it’s from somebody else’s land.

He went into a lot of detail about the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi in the soil. It seems that having both plants and fungal rhizomes in the soil allows the plants to do well with less water.

The critters in the soil make all these tunnels that are helpful for everything to move around, like water, and oxygen. The bacteria in the soil make soil aggregates, and the fungi make a glue substance that helps the soil structure. When you till, you lose 30% of the organic matter in the soil.

Now Paul explains why tilling seems like a good idea, at least at first. The first time you till soil, you kill a bunch of what’s there, and you supercharge the bacteria that survive, and thus free up extra nutrients for the plants to take up. Your first season, everything looks great. It’s just that over time, you keep destroying more than is able to regenerate. Now you’ve got to add fertilizer, and synthetic fertilizers kill the fungi and other life. It’s a death spiral.

In healthy soil, the fungi (and bacteria) trade nutrient to the plants in exchange for sugar. The plants have leaves and they can photosynthesize to create carbohydrates out of CO2 - this is their currency.

There are fungi that grow inside plants - endophytes. On the lab, they’ve planted special tall fescue with ruminant-friendly endophyte inside (the most common commensal with tall fescue is toxic to ruminants). There are also lots of fungi that grow outside the plant, but right alongside. These can apparently help the plants defend themselves against diseases and pathological nematodes.

Gabe describes an experiment he did with growing corn with and without fertilizer. He’s found that when his soil is full of life, there is no need for adding fertilizer. His yields are 40% higher than average in his county. Does he have the highest yields? No, but he has the highest profits, since he doesn’t have to fertilize.

He uses cattle to help manage his land as well, he calls their manure “armor on the soil.” Paul figures his many, many earthworms are moving that manure into the soil. Gabe feels its very important to never have bare soil.

Polyculture: he started by just doing two or three species, like vetch under corn. Now he’s using many more species, so that there’s always something growing. Primary crops are things like corn or oats or sunflowers. He said that 7 was the minimum number of species, and 20 was ideal.

In the video he had lists of the species he was using. He had a different recipe for every field. Kai remembers he talked about bringing in scientists to check out a field that had never been plowed, because it was too rocky. There were 140 species (or so) in that field, grasses and legumes and broadleaf plants. He says maybe someday he’ll have a mix of over a hundred plant seeds to use on his crop fields.

Sarah points out that he talked about many different levels of plants to grow in his field, it was sort of like the layers of a food forest. Paul remembers running a combine, and how you can set the cutting blade at a particular height above the soil when you harvest. Fred remembers him describing how the “undergrowth” of an oat field has a growth explosion after the harvest. Then the field is harvested a second time by running cattle through it.

He did an experiment with mono crops versus polyculture. It’s broadly believed that the plants will compete with each other for water and nutrients, but it turned out they did a lot better all mixed together. “This whole video is worth (watching) just to see these images.”

He would say “we’re just doing what Nature does.” Polycultures are the norm, out in nature. OK, Paul points out that some plants can create monocultures of themselves. Knapweed can just about create a pure stand, because it poisons its neighbors. Douglas Fir is also good at killing its competition.

Paul recalls how he wasn’t bothered by seeing knapweed on the lab, since at least that means the ground wasn’t blanketed with persistent herbicides. There are lots of things that eat knapweed out in Russia, it’s not a problem there.

If you just wait, the predators will show up. They saw this happen down at basecamp. First they planted, then the turkeys ate everything. Then, they fenced and replanted, and then the chipmunks ate everything. That’s when the stoat arrived. This year there have been a lot of rabbits, and then the neighbor’s cats came to visit.
 
John Weiland
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@Julia W: "He went into a lot of detail about the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi in the soil. It seems that having both plants and fungal rhizomes in the soil allows the plants to do well with less water. ... The bacteria in the soil make soil aggregates, and the fungi make a glue substance that helps the soil structure. When you till, you lose 30% of the organic matter in the soil."

Just an opinion, but having read a few more topical abstracts ever since the microbial tea threads started appearing, I think these interactions represent only the tip of the iceberg. Because of where we literally stand...above ground....we are far more sensitive to appreciating what's happening on leaves, stems, trunks, etc. We see sun, rain, fog, insects, fungi, and all kinds of things interacting in the crown (above ground) of plants, but until very recently have viewed the below-ground story as roots residing in mud, water, minerals....and not much else. When I think about aggregation, I think about the concept in biochemistry of "cooperativity"...where, for example, the binding of one molecule of oxygen to hemoglobin allows the other 3 molecules to bind more easily. This is true as well in DNA strand (zipper) binding where once the first several bases of DNA bind to each other, the remaining zipper effect of forming the double-helix occurs 'cooperatively'....much easier, energetically speaking, than the initial nucleation. So I could see where the aggregation occuring below the soil is participating in a much greater amount of signalling and interaction and ...'cooperativity'... than we've previously considered.
 
Julia Winter
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I think you're right - the complexity is immense. It's both competitive and cooperative underground, I would guess.
 
Bryan de Valdivia
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Is there a good resource, website or book, to figure out what cover crops do what, when, and where?

I found this, Cornell University - Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers, but they've only got 17 species listed, not 200.
 
James Smartt
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Bryan de Valdivia wrote:Is there a good resource, website or book, to figure out what cover crops do what, when, and where?

I found this, Cornell University - Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers, but they've only got 17 species listed, not 200.


This one is good...

http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition (download or view online for free)

also https://smartmix.greencoverseed.com/ create an account or just use the guest option to look at their unique cover crop seed mix builder.

 
Bryan de Valdivia
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Thanks James!
 
jim bledsoe
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On the subject of plants water needs, what i heard was the amount of rainfall is more efficiently processed resulting in lower inputs over all.  Recall the segment where Gabe showed us the several plots he monocropped with ground cover (i forget the term he used) and then the plot where he polycropped and for the same rain input the polycrop growth was much greater.  I concluded from this that polyculture results in better use of available resources.  This maybe semantic,  i thought you were saying the plants need less water whereas Gabe is saying the system uses available water to much greater advantage.  
 
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