Monday, February 9, 2015

Lessons in Farming V - Don't Step in Number 2

Part 1 - Every Morning is the Dawn of a New Error
Part 2 -  I Don't Have a Solution, but I Admire the Problem

Part 3 - If at First You DO Succeed
Part 4 - Synchronized Swimming

Look out for Number 1.  Don't step in Number 2 either!

The fun thing about some of the sayings I am using in this series is the ability to take each saying in more than one direction.  This one is no exception - so buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Ah, Poo!  How we love thee.
I have to admit that on our farm, we've only recently gotten to the point where we can really take advantage of the bedding and natural soil amendments that chickens, turkeys, ducks and straw bedding can provide.  Part of the issue is the matter of scale.  It wouldn't have been a big deal to us if we 'only' had 50 birds and our composting piles were smaller.  But, it wasn't really until we added Rosie to the farm that we had all the tools we need to really take advantage of having animals on the farm for soil fertility.

But, even without Rosie, we've used poultry bedding for numerous projects in soil quality and fertility.  the case in point are our asparagus beds.  We try to put poultry bedding on just after our last picking of asparagus in the late Spring.  It helps keep the weeds down and provides a nice boost for these perennial plants.  We have also placed birds in certain fields (when the vegetable crop is done) to clean up and spread their poo in the 'natural way.'  At least we don't have to shovel it!

Bedding from the hens on the asparagus
Synthesized Poo?
A sad trend that has been supported by the movement to 'factory' or 'specialized' farming is the reduced role of poo on farms.  If a farm concentrates only on a couple of commodity crops and concludes that having some hogs, beef cattle or other animals are a money loser, they remove from their system a critical part of a cycle that helps to maintain soil health/fertility and the long-term viability of the farm.
A darned healthy patch of asparagus!
It is true that some farms still acquire or use manure on their fields, but the vast majority of farmed acres in the US rely on synthetic fertilizers.  And, it is this reliance that has us, the human race, stepping in "number 2" in a big way.  Instead of using a mutually beneficial combination of livestock and crops, much of our ag systems work to separate the two, using synthetics to take the place of the role each might have in the others' production.  It's no wonder many people make the argument that beef is a poor choice for environmentally conscious consumers.  But, would that be the case if farms weren't so one-dimensional?  I don't think so.

It's not that we don't know about the shortcomings of our ag systems.
In fact, you can read numerous well-researched articles and studies that confirm for us that much of our current practices are not likely the best options.

I recently found a very interesting GIS study with respect to some of South Carolina's coastal region.  This project got my attention because it is an intensive study that was attempting to determine how past, current and future land use will impact the area.  The work is thoroughly done, in my opinion, and reports facts rather than conjectures.  After all, their goal is to determine how they must react to prevailing land uses, so they need to know what they are and how they change things.  It looks like specific facts may be a bit dated as most of the literature cited is from the 1990's.  But, the accuracy of what is depicted and analysis is still useful.  Here is the executive summary of this study if you want to see what they were trying to do.
There is a section on agricultural impacts.  I ran across a couple of paragraphs that very nicely summarized what I wanted to say:

"Until the industrial revolution of the early to mid-1900's, farming practices were relatively environmentally friendly. Traditional farms were small-scale, used biological controls of pests and diseases, used crop rotation to maintain soil nutrients, included buffer zones at field edges, and involved little or no heavy machinery. The modernization of farming practices around the 1950's, resulted in extreme increases in productivity often to the detriment of environmental quality.
Modern, or conventional, agricultural practices use intensive tillage, monoculture, irrigation, application of inorganic fertilizers, chemical pest control, and plant genome modification to maximize profit and production (Gliessman 1998). These practices greatly increased crop yields, and agricultural production rose steadily after World War II. These conventional agricultural practices, however, have numerous long-term ecological impacts such as soil degradation, habitat alteration, water quality impacts, species composition impacts, and adverse effects of irrigation."

Here is what I really like about this summary.
1. It does not claim that old farming practices were perfect.  But, instead points out that prior approaches were "relatively" more friendly to the environment.
2. It shows us that some of our "new" techniques that sustainable farms use are not all that new.  Biological controls.  Crop rotations.  Buffer zones.  So, I guess we're not so cutting edge as we want to think we are at our farm.
3. It admits that many of our current ag practices have had an effect in increasing yields of the focused upon commodity crops.  Thus, reminding us what the motivator is for the practices in use.
4. It does not pull punches about the long term effects that we will eventually have to pay for.

With that summary - it sure sounds like we've stepped into a sizable pile of number 2.

Then, I noticed this USDA report that discusses the use of synthetic fertilizers in the United States.  Some of the trends I noted were that single nutrient fertilizers are being used more than multiple nutrient fertilizers (have you all seen a bag of fertilizer at the store with three numbers?  Like 8-3-3?  These numbers represent N-P-K - Nitrogen Phosphorous and Potassium).  Well, here is part of the rub - much of these resources are now being imported and many of the synthetics require fossil fuels (especially the nitrogen) to create them.

And then, there is this study (note, this link is only a report about the study, not a link to the study) that points out a nitrogen use imbalance in the world, with the US using so much more synthetic nitrogen than it needs - resulting in pollution issues.

Keep on pooing hens!
So, what's my take-away after I read all of this?

I'm willing to step in some number 2 on our farm in an effort to look out for number 1 - the health of our farm, our environment and all of the people and critters that have anything to do with it.

1 comment:

Thank you for your input! We appreciate hearing what you have to say.