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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care October 2013

Hi Folks,

A long time ago I majored in soil science during college at the University of New Hampshire, 1980 -1984 to be exact. As many already know, UNH is now the first university in the US to have a certified organic dairy farm. The organic farm is just two farms down the road from where I started working with cows, mucking out stalls and doing general farm work the summer after college. The soil science I learned at UNH was mostly soil air and soil water oriented: measuring soil erosion, surveying for sub-surface drainage to improve soil aeration, re-grading fields for contour cropping, helping design farm ponds, setting grade stakes for woodland access roads, soil surveying and classification – all really fun construction projects for a non-farm kid like me. Regrettably, one area I never learned was soil biology but I’m not sure if UNH even offered a course in it.

A lot has happened since then, from mucking out cow stalls and soil surveying to being a herdsman and eventually becoming a veterinarian to become immersed in the organic world as I have. But all along the way, I’ve always been aware that I never got to really learn about the biological living dimension of soil. And because we can’t see what’s happening without a microscope it generally doesn’t get the attention it should. This is a pity since the biological life in the soil is vital for plant health and it’s active all year round: spring, summer, fall and winter.

I recently joined the Rodale Institute as the Institute Veterinarian. Rodale is world famous for its pioneering research on organic soil and crop management. I’ve been quietly hoping over the years to see if the Institute would add livestock to the farm. Lo and behold, in the last two years they’ve added livestock! So I inquired to see if I could make Rodale my “home base” from which to continue to teach organic veterinary medicine while developing their organic animal husbandry program and do applied research with organic cows, pigs and poultry. The staff at Rodale, especially Coach Mark Smallwood and Jeff Moyer, was enthusiastic about my proposal and I now have an office at the Rodale Institute. I’m very happy to be part of their team. It’s been great so far, even early on, as I get my feet on the ground and come up with a framework for animal care and consider study projects. I still see select cow cases while in low key part-time veterinary practice in Lancaster County since Rodale is close by.
And I’ve finally been able to start learning soil biology, as Rodale’s prime specialty is soil health - of which soil biology is the foundation. For a long time I’ve pretty much heard people at organic conferences talk on and on about soil chemistry being the key to fertility. Perhaps this is because soil testing is easily carried out and the people talking about it have minerals to sell. The intentions are good but I’ve always felt there’s simply too much emphasis placed on minerals (N, P, K, Mg, Ca, S, B, etc), unending discussion about lime/pH and the precise percentages for correct base saturation (K, Mg, and Ca).

Coming from my initial entry into soil science of improving air and water movement through the soil profile, I’ve always thought the air and moisture in soil should be talked about more at organic conferences. Finally there is some talk, like using a yeoman plow to get air channels deep down into the soil. But I guess that talking about soil air and moisture isn’t glamorous and there are not many products to sell. But I’ve always believed that unless a farm is located on truly very low fertility soil like beach sand, the mineral content of natural standing soil is enough to support good growth of crops and pasture - if managed correctly. Getting good air channels and moisture for root penetration has always been the most important part in my thinking. Air is vital to the microscopic soil life since the soil bugs need air to function to metabolize soil minerals into usable minerals for plants to take up. It is common sense to promote active root zones to interact with the immediate soil area to draw in the right bugs to help release the minerals that are already there. To be honest, I’ve never bought into all the arguing that fertilizer companies do over how much of which specific minerals should be added. They are fertilizer companies after all. While soil chemistry should be a consideration towards soil fertility, it is only one part. In truth, the soil air and water movement and the microscopic bugs are much more important.

When air is abundant in the soil, life is healthiest and disease will be kept away. When the soil is compacted and airless it must be acted upon to break through any hard layers, otherwise disease is more likely since bad bugs tend to like low oxygen environments. Good soil bugs - oxygen loving bacteria, protozoa, fungi and nematodes - do the bulk of the work in solubilizing the existing soil minerals for easy uptake by the plant. It is not the pH which drives nutrient uptake but the soil-plant interaction life in the root zone area. The plants actually dictate the soil conditions. The ecology (nutrient cycling) between plant and soil is accomplished by soil bugs – just like rumen bugs make fiber available for cow nutrition. Can we add life to the soil? Yes – by applying compost. Adding compost enlivens soil immediately by shifting the microscopic bug population to bugs that solubilize the nutrients already there. The opposite of healthy life-giving aerobic compost is manure pit slurry. Manure pits are good for one thing – storage. The slurry itself is an anaerobic substance that is toxic to soil life if injected directly into the soil. It also loses much of its nutrients upon hitting the air - thus the smell when stirred and applied to fields.

Oxygen, or lack of it, decides the balance between good bugs or bad bugs. Soil conditions are critical. You can help create healthy soil life by turning in green cover crops that feed soil bacteria which have a lot of nitrogen. This nitrogen is released as nematodes near the root zones eat them. This action stimulates the plant to secrete juices at the root hairs which further attracts bacteria and fungi to cover the root, protecting it from harmful root feeding nematodes. If soil is open and vibrant with life – full of nutrient releasing bacteria, fungi, nematodes, all silently at work throughout the seasons – there will be healthy crops, animals and people.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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