Rebuilding Soil

Plants and animals exist in a symbiotic relationship with soil.

Soil isn't dirt, it's a ecosystem humans generally ignore, because they can't see it. More than the oceans, we're ignorant of the very place that provides for our existance. In our apparent sophistication we're blind to what's under our feet.

How we interact with soil determines how it provides; over generations it's possible to see how e.g. the Egyptians or the Greeks abused soil and changed landscapes, and lives.

Today, soils have been degraded across the globe. It may look as if we have a bounty beyond imagination, but the food system is propped up by chemicals. Many arable farms have dead soil.

Our grazing lands can be equally denuded; over grazing of plants reduces their ability to photosynthesise, develop deep roots and store carbon and water under the surface. The scourge of chemicals is also at play, in poisoning the biological communities below ground.

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What to do..?

Grow a diversity of plants and let them thrive.

As a farmer one key question to ask; what kind of farmer am I..? A livestock farmer? Or, would I be better described as the steward of part of our eco-system, or at least the eco-system on this farm..?

The latter is a better way of understanding how to consider the whole: the soil, plants, water, air and animals. With that in mind management becomes the task of mimicking nature and understanding how animals do/did interact with their surroundings.

Big Leaf

On all parts of the farm I aim to have as broad a diversity of plants as possible. That diversity will change over time, even from season to season, as animals interact with the land.

In two areas of the farm I've accelerated plant diversity by borrowing a technique from regenerative arable farming, the 'cover crop'.

 

The clip shows a small scale version of the equipment normally used to 'drill' or sow the seeds.
 

Preperation prior to drilling is important, for one thing I don't want to contribute in any way to damaging the machinery, so all big stones have to go.

Before all of that let's go back a few steps.

Back to soil

This field was the site for a large DIY cattle shed, a yard and several small metal/timber buildings. All of that had to be removed before I could achieve the goal of maximum plant diversity. The big shed involved working at height to take off the sheet metal covering, which then allowed access to the metal/timber framework.

Later on my helpers in crime were the pig herd.

They do a good job of highlighting the tops of large stones for later removal, rooting out small pieces and leaving behind fertiliser. On the other hand they do enjoy making large holes and shifting soil about with their snouts. Bucket after bucket of stones were removed and several larger stones dug out by hand; I was fortunate to be able to enlist a neighbour to break up and remove one long slab of sandstone with a mini-digger.

A key aspect of regenerative farming is leaving the soil undisturbed. Obviously I was smashing that 'rule' to bits; the next step of power harrowing was the final disturbance, albeit an essential one that would create a level seed bed. Any subsequent sowing would be into the remains of the previous cover.

It's worth noting that at this point that I didn't spray any form of weedkiller, I used the power harrow to till any grass, dock and thistle into the surface soil, aiming eventually for the worms to break up the dead material.

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Growth

This is the fun bit.

In this context each plant type I choose has a set of characteristics, each one is selected as a tool e.g. to grow deep roots that will break through compact soil layers. There's also a balance to strike in terms of annual and perennial plants, the soil has to be covered through winter but there are benefits to fast growing annuals like 'tilage radish'.

The seed list is shown in the picture below; click here to see a sample choice from the catalogue. Note the picture of the roots; makes my job easier! The early growth is also useful to my in-expert eye.

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