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!!!! the quest for super soil  RSS feed

 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Soil is a living entity.
Soil contains a microcosm comprised of bacteria, fungi, amoeba, protozoa (flagellates and ciliates), arthropods which include springtails and nematodes, earthworms, various insects and near the surface animals such as moles, voles, etc..
If you look at any life form, its life is dependent upon soil, even if it is a creature living in water, some part of that life is dependent upon soil that has washed into the lake, stream or ocean, giving up the bacteria that flourished where that soil came from.
Land animals are even more dependent on soil for their lives since their foods start in the soil and the plants that grow there.
Soil is not only important, it is everything, for without soil, there can be no higher life forms than those that make soil what it is, the cradle of life.

Since life is totally dependent on soil or more precisely the organisms that make the mineral dust on the surface of the crust of planet earth usable by all other life forms.
Is it possible to make soil better than the best of it we can find?
What attributes would the perfect soil have?
We are still learning the answers to these questions.

All life can be considered electric, brain cells communicate through electric charges, without electron exchanges cells can’t do anything.
In the world of plants, roots need to be able to communicate with each other and then to the soil organisms in order to get the food items they need.
This is done by exudates, chemical messages, in order to actually make and expel these exudates the root cells have to communicate and that is done by electron exchanges.
One way we could make soil better would be to increase the electric conductivity capacity of the soil.
Carbon is the primary conductor in soil, adding carbon to soil will increase the conductivity, bio char is one simple way to do this.
Another way would be to increase the numbers of cations and anions by increasing mineralization. 

The “standard” is to till the soil, breaking up the matrix of life forms there, then adding synthetic, chemical fertilizers to add nutrients to the newly created dirt.
All the needed basic nutrients might be in that fertilizer but these compounds will not be in best usable form for the plants to take in.
These raw compounds won’t be processed because the life forms that do that job just got disrupted, broken down or buried far too deep to be able to survive.
Long chain molecules need to be broken into “bite size” chunks so the plant cells can use them to make the long chain molecules needed by the plant.
Since only the big three (N, P, K) fall into the “ready to use” form, it isn’t long before the plant looks nice and large and green and even puts off lots of fruits but,
where is the real nutrition that comes from the complex sugars that are used to make the proteins, carbohydrates and bind the vitamins in usable chain molecules?
They aren’t there because the microbiome was disrupted and then poisoned by the act of “farming”.

Plants that grow in an environment full of synthetic nutrients do not acquire the nutritional values that same species plants grown in the presence of natural, mineralized soils, mostly because it is the soil life forms that break down the nutrient packets into a form the plants can use best.
Synthetic nutrients (fertilizers) tend to either kill off soil life forms or are in such high concentrations that the organisms are overwhelmed and thus unable to do their job of breaking down nutrients before the plant roots suck them in.
This leads to the plant having a glut of improper nutrients which, like a human who ingests too much vitamin C, passes the excess as excrement.
The problem with this dependence on synthetic nutrients is that because they are not broken down prior to plant use, they are not in the correct form for the plant to use them well.
Which leads to plants deficient in nutrition.
These nutrient deficient plants are then used either as animal feeds or consumed directly by humans, the animal doesn’t receive the nutrients they need.
This method has brought with it the concept of empty calories.
You eat and feel full, but the nutrition simply isn’t there, resulting in cells not getting what they really need and end up substituting other items to complete the molecules needed for life.
The organism then uses these wrong component molecules which results in all manner of health issues.

There are other methods to make improvements, which would be far more beneficial and help the soil microbiome organisms thrive.
We can increase the numbers of the micro-biosphere organisms that creates soil.
This population increase can be accomplished through several methods; aerated compost teas, which contain living rhizosphere organisms, using finished compost as a mulch layer, which contains organisms of the rhizosphere, or through a combination of the two.
You can also increase the quantity of minerals and the variety of minerals by applications of finely ground rock dust, sea weed or even naturally evaporated sea water (sea salt).
The more varied we make our amendments to soil, the better the soil will become because life thrives in diversity.
This is in direct opposition to what has become the “standard” thinking of farmers and gardeners.

When any organism can’t get the nutrition it needs to be fully healthy, diseases can grow rapidly.
Diseases are usually caused by organisms (bacteria and viruses and most “pest” insects) which are unable to digest complete nutrients, they want incomplete items such as simple sugars and when these are in abundance, they have found their ideal breeding grounds.
This is why infestations occur in fields, the pest insects are attracted to the incomplete energies the deficient plants put off.
The plants are “sick” and the pest insects can literally see this, so they come in to eat the sick plant.
This is the point where the farmer resorts to poisons so there will be a crop to harvest.
This cycle is repeated, year after year.
The result of this method is resistant insects and diseases, and we intensify the toxicity or we find new toxins to apply to keep the pest under control.
This is an unsustainable method, both from a nutrient and pest control point of view.
You can only do this sort of thing for a short time before you have killed everything beneficial and thus increased the numbers of the pathogenic organisms.
We can find this is the case just by looking at farms all over the world.
Everywhere that has followed this non-sustainable methodology has vast tracts of waste lands that used to be productive farm land.
China is perhaps one of the best places to use as an example, simply because they have been farming longer than most other countries.

To be continued

Redhawk

 
Dale Hodgins
garden master
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Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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I understand that you are going to keep going with this. I could see this being a good thread to send new members to. They often ask questions that could be answered if they read a comprehensive, Layman's guide to soil. If this thread develops that way, feel free to eliminate my comments so that it flows better.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 2590
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Here we go, second installment

So, what is soil? Soil has two components, the mineral or geological component and the biological component. On the geological end, we are talking about ground up rocks or the dirt as I like to call it. Dirt is made up of; sand, silt and clay. These are different “grinds” of the base rocks in any area. Sand is small particles of ground up rock, large enough to be seen as individual grains with the naked eye. Silt is even smaller particles, not discernable as individual grains with the naked eye, but if you were to rub this material on your teeth, you would feel them. Clay is rocks that have been ground to a paste, these are particles so fine they feel smooth when given the “tooth test”. Let’s build some dirt. 35% sand, 20% silt and 15% clay, yes that doesn’t equal 100%, it comprises the dirt component though which is 70% of soil. The last 30% will be some rocks along with at least 15% and preferably closer to 23% being the biological component. The rocks allow for larger pockets of air which will fill with water during a rain event, thus adding moisture to the conglomerate we call soil. The water is necessary for life to thrive and turn the dirt into soil, without it all the microbiology of soil has to go dormant or die. To make up the biological component we need organic matter, tree litter, roots, grasses, etc. are the way Mother Nature does it, she has lots of time and she uses all those years very well. We don’t really have that amount of time, we only live for 1/100th of the amount of time Nature uses to build soil, so we need to be able to speed up her processes so we can build soil and be around to make use of it.

If you were to go searching, it is doubtful you would be able to locate any soil that was even close to nearly perfect, component wise. You will be able to locate fertile soils though, in many places, usually where humans have not used the soil for anything. We can take the soil we find and make it much better very quickly or we can grow things in it and let it get better slower, even though it will get better faster than Nature would do it. The limiting factor is how much effort and money we desire to spend to build this perfect or close to perfect soil. For humans to improve soil we make amendments to it or we apply artificial nutrients so it will produce bigger crops. The second method has been shown to actually speed up the depletion of soils and because of those findings, that method is not what we want to use.

First we want to have an idea of what is already there. This is where a soil tests becomes a valuable asset, it gives us information on our starting point and usually we are also given recommendations on how to put back what the soil test found missing. Unfortunately, the recommendations will be for artificial products, or natural products that are not the best choice but just a good choice, in order to bring the soil to “quality”. Thus we need our own arsenal of amendments so we aren’t just throwing chemicals at the soil organisms.

Gypsum is a natural rock that is ground up and used to make a material usually found in houses called drywall. Gypsum is a wonderful item to add to soils. It lasts a long time, helps adjust pH just like lime and you can add wood ash along with gypsum to bring acidic soils up in pH to get to that magical 6.5 to 6.8 that most plants love to live in. An added benefit is that since it is a calcium carbonate product, you are giving those soil organisms goodness without harshness.   Rock dust is one way to add trace minerals naturally, after all we are just using one of the dirt components, ground up rocks.  For different minerals we just use a different rock dust product. If we need more sand in our base then we can add it. If we have high clay content then we want to first give those clay particles something other than sand to cling to so we don’t end up with something that resembles cement. That means we fist would increase the humus (organic materials) content then add silt and finally we would add the sand. We have two ways to do these basic amendments, tillage and seepage. Tillage sounds counterproductive but in the real world it is part of disruption, just like fire or trees being blown down or herds of large animalone to two at a time s coming through. We are not talking about a yearly event but rather single disruptive event in most cases.  While we would indeed destroy much if not all of the life in that soil, it is probable that most of the life there would not be the organisms we really want to flourish there. So we gather our basic amendments, lay them down one to two at a time to keep track of quantity and quality of the spread, till them in, so that our base dirt has the quantities and make up that we need for our superior soil goal. It is a onetime event if we have done our homework prior to making the base amendments.

To get those all-important microbes, bacteria, fungi and the larger microbes such as springtails, amoeba and nematodes we need a source that already has them, so we can seed our new soil. Forest soil, especially from the drip line area of deciduous trees like oak, hickory and aspen is a great place to borrow some great microbes from. These trees, when growing robustly, will have mycorrhizal fungi growing around and even inside the roots, taking a shovel full or two from this area will provide many of those desirable microbes. Mycorrhizal fungi are one of those must have fungi so if you get hold of that type of soil, you are well ahead in the soil building game. This same tree soil will have bacteria along with the larger microorganisms we want too. Bacteria are easier, they are everywhere you look so just by making some compost we can grow most of the bacteria we need. Once we have the compost going well we can even extract some of the microbiota that we have grown and install that into our dirt simply by watering with the extract. We can also grow more of these microorganisms by brewing an aerated tea with a portion of our compost and we can feed those guys with easy to dissolve nutrients while we are brewing the tea. Teas are normally good for up to 48 hours of maximum bacterial growth so once we start the brewing we want to be ready to pour it on within that time period. 

And this will be continued of course

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 2590
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
216
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Nature loves to use variety in every aspect of life so it should be no surprise that this also applies to building soil. We already know that nature is not in a hurry and that we need to be in a hurry simply because of the short period we get to be inhabitants. It is also important to understand that what we do today will have effects on everyone who comes after we are long gone. We must build and create with the idea that what we do is for our great, great, great grandchildren and their great, great, great grandchildren. Humans forgot this back before the Industrial Revolution and we are now seeing those effects from that period. Soil is the first line of rejuvenation and regeneration of the planet. Now that we have some tools for improving our soil it is time to take a look at some of the methods to achieve this goal.

The simple act of growing plants in the soil will improve the soil, roots open air and water channels which become home for bacteria, fungi and the other important microorganisms of great soil. So just by growing our foods we are improving the soil, especially when we harvest the tops of the plants and leave the roots to rot in place.  This method works best when you also use animals to come through occasionally, they get some food, stomp up some soil and leave manure deposits. There is really only one drawback of this method and that is the time needed to reach high improvement levels. As long as you have 10 to 20 years, then this is the most economical method for soil improvement.

If we need to add a lot of humus (organic matter) to an area we can plant deep, large root crops, daikon radish, rape, and turnip are good choices, daikon will grow up to two or three feet long, a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to adding humus. Those huge roots also open up the soil to let lots of air and water in. Rape works the same way but the roots are a bit shorter and thinner and turnip works well for the top 8 inches of soil. Nitrogen fixing plants with long root systems like alfalfa (also called Lucerne) can send roots down 4 feet and they will draw minerals from those depths. This means that when you cut the top off and let it decompose in place, you are adding minerals from the depths to the surface. Clovers will store up Nitrogen and then release it into the soil as it dies and decomposes. All of the above mentioned plants are also fodder plants and work really well when you are moving animals through every so often for disturbance and manuring.

All green plants will add carbon to soil, but if you need a large carbon boost incorporate some kelp powder, kelp is one of the largest carbon sequestering plants on earth. It will also give your soil a nearly complete mineral boost and it is one of the best sources of Iodine you can find. Rock dusts are also good for increasing mineral content you find out which minerals you need to increase quantitatively and choose your rock dust amendment accordingly. Fish meal and Bone meal are always good amendments, especially when you are planting established plants either in a garden or orchard. You can simply sprinkle the meal on the surface around the plant and they will leach down to the root systems where they will feed the microbes and thus feed your plants, trees and bushes.

Since around 1980 there has been a push towards “No-Till” farming, this has been extrapolated to no-till gardening. However, there are times when you need to look at this method from the farm Point of View, which is what it was designed for initially. Standard farm practice is to disturb the soil every time you want to plant a crop and we aren’t talking about one pass with a plow. A farmer will break the soil up into “clods” with a ripper, then he will change to the harrow plow then to a disk plow break up the soil into smaller and smaller pieces of clod. Next he will put on another implement and break the soil down to small, pieces for planting, the seeder comes with row shapers, the actual seeder, and ends with a seed coverer for a one pass system of planting. Notice that this soil has been disturbed at least 5 times for one planting. If they made PTO Tillers as wide as they do plowing devices, the farmer could do all his damage to his soil in one pass and save tons of fuel. Tilling kills or forces microorganisms to go dormant and that is why No-Till came into being. Another effect of all that disturbance is that it lays open the top soil, allowing winds to blow it away. Disturbance has its role in crop growing but it doesn’t need to be so through that it prepares soil to get wind borne every planting time. Say I have 5 or even 5 thousand acres I want to plant and the soil is pretty good already, All I need to do is come through with a properly set up seed drill and plant my crop seeds at the right depth. I don’t need to work the soil to death, this is no-till planting.

Now let’s look at an example of when you might want to disturb the soil one time. Your soil test came back and says you are low or totally missing many of the important minerals for good plant growth. At the same time it tells you your soil pH is way off towards the acidic (or basic) end of the pH scale. The crop (s) you want or need to plant need all of this to be in place before you plant. Well, you have some choices to make; 1) you can top dress the soil (takes a while to actually get down to where your organisms live and so takes longer to show the effects of soil improvement), 2) you can top dress the soil and come through with a harrow to work the top dressing into the top few inches of soil so those amendments won’t blow away so readily, 3) you can decide to use put down the pH adjuster by sprayer then follow that with a mineral spray or dry application and wait a while for those to incorporate into the soil before you plant your seed.  Each method works quite well, time and expense are the factors to be considered.

In a small garden (under 5 acres) you also have some other methods to consider; 1) sheet mulching for weed control and mineral inoculation, 2) spread the amendments and cover with a loose mulch layer to prevent winds from blowing the amendments away. These are just some of the methods we can use to make improvements to our soil. What we need to be able to do is choose the best fit method for our situation. There is no one right method, just about any method you can come up with that won’t allow wind or water to remove those amendment items we are trying to put into our soil will work. The crucial things are time and costs, how much time are you willing to use up and how much money do you have to spend, those are limiting factors.

There are also problems with simply following the recommendations generated by your soil test. First, how did you create that sample you had tested? Second, how large an area did that sample represent?  Third, How homogeneous did you make that sample? These are huge in the world of soil science, to small a sample set and you only know about the soil represented in and around those few holes you dug up to send in. In a garden space of 100 feet by 50 feet there can be large differences in soil makeup. If you take five or even ten pieces to create your sample for the lab, how much of that space did you not get a sample from? When I am asked about how to get the best sample to me for testing, I recommend they use string and lay out a 1 foot square grid before they start lifting soil for their sample. This is so they can properly label each portion they will lift to create their sample. I also recommend that they use a horizon type sampling method. In this method you take a sample at the surface down to 6 inches, then you take a sample from 6 inches deep to 12 inches deep, then you take a sample from 12 inches deep to 18 inches deep. What this does is give you a series of tests to show what minerals are in each level that roots are going to be using, it forms a complete picture of the normal grow zone. This type of testing will also show you what changes to expect should you decide to till up or disrupt the current soil composition. You don’t need to do this on a regular basis either, if you are very serious about your soil you would do one at the beginning and then one a year later so your amendments have had time to come to equalization in the soil layers.

And this will be continued of course

Redhawk
 
Tj Jefferson
pollinator
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This encapsulates so many good tradeoff decisions. All of this is just gold for people starting out. I have come to the same place but gracious I could have saved hours of research reading this years ago!!! Thank you my brother!
 
Travis Johnson
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I look at things a bit abstract I guess, and such is the case here. To me, sustainable agriculture means a farm is viable, as how can a farm be truly rooted in permanent agriculture if it does not make money and has to be sold off...possibly to a new owner that does not care about ethical ways to farm? So to that end I do not see fiscal viability as any thing else but essential.

So to me, the quest for super soil is not so much about how I can manipulate the soil to make it better, but rather what can I do to grow crops that are more in line with what I have here. That does not mean ignoring depleted soil, it means knowing that where I live for instance, where the soil is low in PH, but contains gravelly loam, we can grow certain crops well like potatoes and broccoli.

Today that does not happen. Today there are two kinds of farmers here; the smaller farms that tend to grow veggies for farmers markets, and larger dairy farms. Both are struggling, and why shouldn't they be, they both are trying to farm against the soil. I say that because both require crops that require 6.8 PH levels and we have 5.2. So they are investing heavily with lime and other additives to sweeten the soil. This costs money and robs from the bottom line...both of them.

What should be happening is that they grow the crops that do well in highly acidic soil which is what used to happen. Potatoes farmers, working with low PH soil would grow crops every other year on a field, then in between they would grow cover crops like oats, barley and other small grains. This would enrich the soil, protect it, and give it nitrogen. Then the area chicken farmers would have to have a place for their high ammonia manure to be spread that the potato farmers desperately wanted. The local grain that was produced went into making grain for the chickens, along with the fish processing plants (we are on the coast) to fortify the chicken grains with protein. It was not 100% perfect granted, but for the most part we had vibrant communities.

Now its all gone. The chicken industry is closed up and has since 1988, and the last potato farm stopped growing potatoes in 1998. Heck we don't even fish here anymore...

My biggest gripe is that current soil testing is woefully inadequate; it is like saying your child is healthy based on a height and weight chart, when in reality we should be looking at their teeth, gums, fat to body weight content, etc and not just height and weight. In other words, we should have a way to test for things well beyond NPK, micro nutrients, PH levels and organic matter. That would be a better baseline.

Still...testing is only going to get you so far. Like my neurologist says, "I don't test to see if your seizure medicines are working, because the dose we have you at is working, and that is far more important". The reason I bring that up is, by observing we should be able to tell if what we are doing is working. Plants tell you if you are willing to look and taste. Yes taste, as the sweetness or lack thereof indicates PH levels. So does cutting apart nodules on nitrogen fixing plants to see how well they are converting nitrogen.

So to me, spending money, time and effort on making a super soil is rather silly as it is just a lot of time and effort wasted, when the reality is limiting a farms products to what is best matched to the farms soil would be a far better approach. Limit the inputs needed and the profit margin will automatically rise. In fact a lot, because savings goes 100% to the bottom line.

So why do I raise sheep instead of potatoes or broccoli? Because grass grows well at about 6.0 PH levels and do not require such high inputs of nitrogen. With  algeafiber (seaweed byproduct from a local plant here) at $1.90 per ton, I can get the PH levels where I need them to be, and get the nitrogen required through the right plants, right grazing plan, and sheep manure. I make money on this farm, not so much from what I make income wise, by what I do not spend. With the best pastures in the world due to topography, rainfall, jet stream and other factors, the question is not so much why I am raising sheep, its why others in New England are not.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Travis, I do agree with your thoughts but it seems you have missed the point of this thread. I have other threads that address exactly what you are pointing out.

It is true and sad that many people do seem to just throw money at a situation instead of looking at alternatives that would fit their circumstances.

With a 5.2 pH I'd be thinking Blueberries and Service berries for a crop.

In this thread I am attempting to show what perfect soil would contain and share methods that would allow near the goal results without resorting to chemical amendments.
pH is an interesting part of soil science because soil pH is affected by plants, they can actually make some adjustment to the pH of the soil they find themselves growing in through exudates.
We aren't talking about plants doing this to a broad area but rather they affect the pH in the immediate area around their roots, as the plants grow they will affect a broader area as their roots extend out and down.
Plants do this to help their companion bacteria and fungi.

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 2590
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
216
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installment 4

In the interest of sustainable, carbon sequestering speed the one crop that wins, hands down, is grass.
No other plant grows as fast, provides as much soil cover, gathers in as much CO2 nor is capable of providing as much cut mulch.
If we were to create a carbon farm, grass in the form of pasture or prairie land would be what our farm consisted of.
This does have some advantages if for an example you add ruminant animals.
You plant vast amounts of acers in a well varied blend of grasses, both tall and short rooted ones and intermingle other plants to increase the palatability of the pasture for the animals you choose.
Then you move them along every day so they don’t over graze any spot but they do their trampling, grazing and pooping and peeing just as if they were wild, free ranging bison.
You now have soil that is being improved every time those animals come around and you are giving the land the time it needs to incorporate all the nutrients left behind by those animals as well as time for it to grow tall for that next feeding pass.
The land is never bare, it is never tilled and it sucks up water like a sponge.
The best part is that this soil will improve every year without a lot of effort on the farmer’s part.
If this soil needs extra minerals, they are spread in solid form and allowed to work their way down in the soil on their own.
This is a very sustainable model and it works very well.
The soil, regardless of how good it was to start with, improves in humus content, water holding ability, microorganism density, friability and this goes on continually as long as those animals keep moving along.
Gabe Brown and Joel Salatin are two of the best known proponents of this model.
It is difficult to argue with success that is proven year after year.

However there are many people who are looking at owning, or already own, a smaller plot of land and only want to provide food for their own use.
This means they are more gardener than rancher archetypes.
They have an entirely different set of issues or at least that is what they perceive.
The issues are actually mostly the same; sustainability, maximum benefit with least input of money and time are the goals.
So how do they best emulate the Gabe Brown or Joel Salatin models when vegetables are what they grow?
These folks can utilize other, smaller animals for similar effects and even though those animals affect the land differently than the large ruminants.
They will get many similar benefits such as manure, even though this group will need to use composting of those manures so the N levels come down to useable levels to prevent Nitrogen burn of their crops.
Since they are farming vegetables in garden beds, this is less a problem than it might seem.
If we feel the need to categorize this model it would be best described as the Homesteading model or the self-sufficient farm model.
Those working this model are in the best position to reach the perfect soil or get very close to it over time.
These folks might have chickens, a few goats, perhaps some hogs and even rabbits and sheep.
Any or all of these animals can be used to emulate the sustainable large farm model by moving their animals around their land.
Goats (small ruminant) can be used to clear underbrush and prune up low branches of trees.
Chickens can be used as bug control and compost turners as well as producing eggs and meat once they have lived past their productive life.
Rabbits provide meat and ready to use fertilizer as do goats.
Sheep (small ruminant) are great lawnmowers and they, along with goats can do some of the trampling that heavy ruminants can do, they are just lighter in weight and so their feet won’t do as much localized disruption as an 800 lb. cow.
Horses and donkeys are good trampling animals and they will also do disruption by creating dust bath areas similar to chickens.
The manure from these single stomached animals is quicker to compost but you do have to compost it (or let it age naturally) because it is nitrogen rich coming from a non-cud chewing animal.
Goat manure is wonderful stuff, easier to handle than cow dung but very much like it in bacterial content, all ruminants provide ready to use manures or it can be composted for better bacterial content.
If you are not giving them store bought feed, there is little concern of bad bacteria being in their manure.
Sheep manure is very hot nitrogen wise it is comparable to chicken manure. 

Next we will explore some options for developing such a site specific model that will provide food and build the soil at the same time.

Redhawk
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