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It ain’t pretty

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

Regeneratively grazing recycles nutrients to the soil.

You may have heard me say this before. A monoculture is ugly, no matter how pretty it looks. This constant drive to manage monoculture cropping has us in a downward spiral of dead soils and added inputs. It is costing us dearly. Nature rarely relies on only one species in an environment. Even a hay field with only two or three species is not natural. The more diverse the plant types, the more diverse the root systems and the more diverse our soil biology. Did you know that if you have diverse soil biology, you don’t need to buy fertilizer? It is free.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper. Plants use photosynthesis, which takes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water (H2O), which also came from the air. Plants then combine them to capture sunlight energy and store it in the form of a simple sugar — glucose (C6H12O6). As you can see, this has carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Through a bunch of different chemical reactions, this glucose will change into all sorts of carbon compounds. All of the building blocks of life come from this base compound, including carbohydrates, proteins, organic acids, humic substances, waxes and oils. Even our coal, oil and gas were originally built from age-old sunlight power. High-five to the plants.

Let’s break this down with a bit of math. The elemental breakdown of all plants is approximately 45 per cent carbon, 45 per cent oxygen and six per cent hydrogen. Do you know what other nutrient we can get from the atmosphere? Every breath we take is 78 per cent nitrogen, so now we can add nitrogen to the plant composition at about 1.5 per cent. In total, that’s 97.5 per cent of every plant that comes from the air. Not the soil.

The plants do most of this work for us but we are still short 2.5 per cent. That is where our underground employees get to work their magic — that is, as long as we provide good working conditions for them. They may be small but they make up for that in sheer numbers. The millions of employees that work for me are strategic in my “underground black market.” This is a very complex system that is constantly trading nutrients with the plants. How do they pay? To simplify it, the plants produce the sugar and “buy” the needed 2.5 per cent of nutrients from some of the soil organisms.

Everyone needs sugar and that’s the currency that finances this underground black market. It is all about life and death. If you want to live, you better find something to trade with the plants to get a hold of some sugar. If a plant needs nitrogen, they trade a molecule of sugar for a molecule of nitrogen with a bacterium. Do we need phosphorus? Plants can work with the mycorrhizae fungi to get us some. These are just two simple examples. There are millions of symbiotic relationships that occur in a healthy soil. Most of the other nutrients needed by the plants are measured in parts per million. Two-and-a-half per cent is easy to get with a healthy soil.

Don’t be fooled by your soil test. There is plenty to go around. When you get your soil test back, it shows available nutrients. Ask yourself, why available? Why are there unavailable nutrients? That’s an easy one. The soil lacks biology. It is unavailable because the soil is dead. Bring it back to life and the soil organisms can get you those unavailable nutrients. There are more nutrients in the soil than you will ever need in your lifetime. I recently attended a lecture from Joel Williams. He showed examples comparing available nutrients to actual nutrients in soil tests. The differences were staggering.

Do you want more fertility? Then we need more biology. To get more biology, we need different types of root systems. To get more root systems, we need a polyculture of plants. And we are back. A polyculture is beautiful. Only 2.5 per cent of every plant comes from the soil, 97.5 per cent comes from the air.

Do you want more? I like math. Let’s do some more math. When we regeneratively graze our crop with livestock, we recycle 80 per cent of the nutrients back to the soil. Therefore, we are only removing 20 per cent from our system. The alternative would be to harvest a crop and remove it from the land. Livestock are very inefficient that way. Since we can get 97.5 per cent of every plant from the air, I am only concerned about the 2.5 per cent. If we recycle 80 per cent — of the 2.5 per cent — that’s only 0.5 per cent that is actually removed from our system. The other two per cent of the soil-derived nutrients we need is returned to the soil by the livestock in the manure and urine. Are you still with me?

Here is the punchline: every crop I grow, I graze. In this scenario, I only require 0.5 per cent of the nutrients in every plant to come from the soil. Only 0.5 per cent! We do not have a fertility issue in agriculture, we have a biological issue. To fix the biological issue, we need to have a polyculture. I’ll say it again, a monoculture is ugly.

About the author

Contributor

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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