Archive for the ‘biology products’ Category

Getting Roundup Out of Our Farm’s Soil

February 2014 Update:  I wrote the post below in December 2011.  Since that time, my views have changed.  My 2nd sentence below – glyphosate is harmful to soil life, crops, animals – appears to be based on bad science.   And the scientific community is raising valid questions about Dr. Huber.  I remain cautious about GMOs basically because I believe this argument is very valid – that believing GM crops are innocent until proven guilty doesn’t work when the potential harm hasn’t happened yet.  And tremendous risk exists when we are overconfident with partial knowledge.

July 2016 Update:  I just re-read my post below and find it cringe-worthy.  I’m leaving the post up for now to serve as a record for myself.

Roundup (glyphosate) has been touted as an environmentally friendly herbicide that quickly breaks down in the soil.  New research shows glyphosate does not break down and has very harmful effects on soil life, our crops, and animals that eat the crops.  Our fields were planted to Roundup-Ready soybeans for about a decade before we bought the farm, so we are very interested in mitigating the effects of glyphosate and getting it completely out of our soil.  This post describes what we’ve learned so far and our plan for remediation.

Some Background

Corn farmer refills his sprayer with glyphosate.

Roundup is Monsanto’s brand of glyphosate, a plant killer (herbicide).  Monsanto genetically modified agricultural crops to make them survive applications of Roundup.  When farmers spray crop fields with Roundup, the weeds die and the crops live.  This has been a huge time-saver for farmers.  Until the recent emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds, Monsanto’s technology virtually wiped out the need for farmers to think about and labor over weeds, one of the principal farming burdens since the days of yore.  The following amounts of these U.S. crops are genetically modified organisms (GMO):  Soy (93%), cotton (93%), canola (90%), corn (87%), sugar beets (95%).  Soy, corn, sugar beets, and most of canola go directly into the U.S. food supply, whether for livestock feed or for ingredients in processed foods found in every grocery store.

Why Fret?

Dr. Huber, Emeritus Professor, Purdue

We first became alarmed at the potential hazards of Roundup and GMO crops after reading this May 2011 Acres USA interview of Dr. Huber, Professor Emeritus of Purdue University.  In early December, we attended the Acres USA Eco Farming conference and heard Dr. Huber speak.  His speech was enormously powerful.  The audience gave him a standing ovation, and everyone walked out of the room in a dumbfounded stupor.  Here’s why:

Soil Effects:  Essential Nutrients and Beneficial Soil Organisms

Most herbicides and pesticides are mineral chelators, and glyphosate is no different.  Chelators bind with minerals and make them unavailable to plants and soil life.  Glyphosate doesn’t kill plants directly.  Instead, it chelates (ties up) essential nutrients, like manganese, that plants need for their immune system to function and fend off soil-borne pathogens.  Glyphosate works by shutting down plants’ immune systems so they become completely vulnerable to pathogens and die.

Glyphosate was initially thought to break down in the soil very quickly.  Researchers thought it was gone because they couldn’t find it by itself in the soil, but now we know that it persists by binding with essential nutrients.  Soil biology does eventually degrade glyphosate, but researchers think it takes a while.  One study showed Roundup persisting in clay soils for over 20 years.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria on plant root

Glyphosate is also toxic to beneficial soil organisms.  These unfortunately include the bacteria that fix nitrogen, mycorrhyzal fungi, and earthworms.  This might explain why our soil hasn’t improved after being in pasture grass for 3 years.  We expected the soil biology to bounce back, but it just hasn’t.  Dr. Huber said farmers used to be encouraged to rotate their herbicides because if one herbicide killed off a group of soil microbes, they would have a chance to come back.  Since Roundup Ready crops hit the scene in 1996, farmers have been slamming fields with glyphosate for every year, usually multiple applications per year, for 15 years now.  This has eliminated the chance for beneficial soil critters to repopulate.

Crop Effects:  Nutrient Content and Disease

Manganese Deficiency in soybeans, Ronald J. Gehl, Michigan State University

Glyphosate’s negative soil effects show up in Roundup Ready plants.  Dr. Huber cited the results of multiple peer-reviewed studies that show nutrient comparisons of Roundup Ready corn and soy versus regular corn and soy.  Compared to normal crops, Roundup Ready crops had significantly less (up to 70% less) essential nutrients like manganese, copper and zinc. These nutrients are absolutely essential to animal and human health.

The depopulation of beneficial soil organisms is manifesting in increased plant diseases.  Death of soil organisms doesn’t leave a void.  Instead, it opens up opportunities for other soil organisms to take over.  The organisms that end up dominating the soil ecology are usually the pathogenic ones that are held in check by beneficial organisms under normal conditions.  This microbe imbalance, in addition to the loss of essential nutrients, is believed to be the cause of sharp increases in plant diseases such as Goss’s Wilt in

Goss’s Wilt hurts corn yields.

corn and Sudden Death Syndrome in soybeans.  The missing essential nutrients cuts the quality of Roundup Ready crops, and the diseases are really hurting yields.  The motto that GMO crops can feed the world is turning out to be a very false promise, to say the least.

Animal Effects:  Infertility and Spontaneous Abortion

Dr. Huber said veterinarians in the Midwest are discovering more and more fertility problems with livestock.   This is especially crippling to dairies, where cows must keep having calves in order to produce milk.  Hog farmers are also having problems.  He said vets and researchers worked together and discovered an organism that is new to science.  It is very tiny, about the size of a small virus, but researchers don’t know how to classify it.  Vets are finding this organism in livestock that have infertility and miscarriages, and they’re also finding it in high concentrations in the GMO feeds (corn, soy, cottonseed meal, etc.)  Dr. Huber said it’s likely that this organism isn’t new to nature, but perhaps it has taken advantage of an opportunity to become dominant in our GMO agriculture system.

Humans have seen an uptick in fertility problems too, along with sharp increases in extreme food allergies, asthma, autism, and behavioral disorders like ADHD.  Dr. Huber cited animal studies that showed these outcomes in livestock too.  “Sound science” would at least look at GMO feeds and foods and try to rule them out as the cause.  Unfortunately, this type of research receives no funding in the U.S.  Hopefully, this will start to change.  Dr. Huber is a true hero in my book, not just for his courage to push against the very strong government and agribusiness collusion forces, but also for his attempts to genuinely forge a partnership with the USDA on this problem.  He has met with USDA leaders, handed over all the research, and is working with the USDA to investigate these issues.  How many of us would’ve just tried to excoriate the USDA and FDA at every opportunity?  I know I would have.

Our Remediation Plan

Glyphosate remediation was a big conversation topic at the Acres USA conference.  By the end of the conference, the consensus landed on a “silver buckshot” approach.  The approach was to do everything possible to (1) rejuvenate the beneficial soil organisms that will eventually degrade glyphosate and (2) add soil amendments that can help with detoxification.  We were happy to learn that we’re already doing most of them!  Here’s our plan:

  1. Inoculate seeds with beneficial microbes such as mycorrhyzae, nitrogen-fixing bacteria for legumes, etc.
  2. Spray microbe inoculants on the fields, especially inoculants that contain pseudomona bacteria.  Pseudomona are easily wiped out by glyphosate, and some species are known to be detoxifiers.
  3. Include a microbe stimulant, such as molasses or sugar, in the spray mix.  This gives the microbes an extra leg up.
  4. Bring back tillage.  No-till farming, especially when combined with GMO crops, glyphosate, and few to no winter cover crops, tends to shut down the soil biology.  Open the soils up to counteract this effect and to wake up the microbes.
  5. Amend the soil with humates.  Humates are ancient organic matter that has decomposed as far as possible.  It’s soft coal, known as leonardite or lignite in the drilling professions.  Each microscopic humic acid molecule contains dozens of functional molecular groups and around 100 negatively charged sites that can bind with agricultural chemicals.  Humates also add black organic matter (humus) to the soil and provide a nice home for microbes.

Our tractor with rotovator and front-mounted spray tank.

I’ve posted about our practices of inoculating seeds, rotovating (tillage) and spraying a microbe inoculant with molasses, so we’ll keep doing this.  Adding humates to the soil has now moved up in priority.  We found a humate supplier at the conference, so I’ll be posting about that in the near future.

Learn More

Most of the research I mentioned above comes from my conference notes, the Acres article cited above,  and these two videos of Dr. Huber (Part 1 and Part 2).  Both are long and very informative.  At the end of Part 2, Dr. Huber closes on a positive note.  He says these deleterious effects can be turned around.  We just need to first recognize what’s going on and work to correct it.  For example, vets have been taking infertile livestock off of GMO feed, and it seems to work after about one year.  There is hope.  I sincerely hope all the research he cited is plain wrong, but if it turns out to be true, we’ll at least have the knowledge and a plan to correct the problems.


Cost of Cereal Rye and Vetch Cover Crop

Even though our winter cover crop of rye and vetch did not germinate well, I figured I’d go ahead and lay out its cost so we could compare it with the cost of our summer cover crop of sorghum sudan and cowpeas.  Below is the cost for drilling rye and vetch seed into about 22 acres of our neighbor’s fields (where we grew sorghum sudan and cowpeas) plus about 3 acres of our own former grass pasture.  We bought enough seed for 27 acres just in case we ran out.  We planted on Labor Day weekend 2011.    

Seeding rate:  Rye at 40 lbs per acre; Vetch at 20 lbs per acre. 

Seed Cost = $1,284.  (20 – 55 lb. bags of rye at $17.30 per bag, 11 – 50 lb. bags of vetch at $83 per bag, vetch inoculant = $25)

Mycorrhizal Inoculant = $388 (11 lbs)

Drill Rental = $200

Diesel = $22 (~ 5 gallons)

Labor = $160 (8 hours at $20 per hour)

Total = $2,054 or about $82 per acre (25 acres total) Sorghum sudan & cowpeas cost $70 per acre, but did not have mycorrhizal inoculant.

New Seed Supplier

Myco inoculant (top), vetch inoculant (right), cereal rye seed (bottom), vetch seed (left)

We bought the seed from Sam Swarey, a seed rep for Pennsylvania-based King’s Agri Seeds.  Mr. Swarey is Amish and lives close to us.  We’re glad we found a knowledgeable seed salesman that can supply us with just about any seed we’d like.  King’s Agri Seeds is focused on grazing and cover crops, which fits us well.  Even though we can’t pick up the phone and call Mr. Swarey, we’re glad we found him and his fantastic customer service.   

Vetch’s Low Price

The vetch seed cost would have been much more expensive, closer to $200 per bag, but Mr. Swarey had bags of last year’s vetch left over and sold them to us at cost.  Yay!

Vetch Inoculant

This inoculant is bacteria that forms nodules on vetch roots and fixes nitrogen from the air.  When the vetch dies (we’ll kill it next spring), the nitrogen will be released into the soil and made available for the next crop.  Very healthy soil might already have the bacteria, but since our soil is so lacking in organic matter and soil life, we thought it was wise to spend $25 and coat the seeds with it.

Mycorrhizal Fungi Inoculant

We bought this from AgVerra and mixed it with the seeds with a little milk before filling the seed drill.  Mycorrhizal fungi are amazing creatures.  They colonize plant roots and make the area around the roots acidic so nutrients like phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc, etc will be attracted to the roots and will enter the plant for nourishment.  Cool, huh?  The fungi have a mutually beneficial relationship with plants because they help feed plants minerals, and the plants feed the fungi goodies made during photosysthesis.  These fungi are also responsible for making a soil component called glomalin.  As the fungi die, the glomalin is sloughed off into the soil.  We want more glomalin in our soil because it’s 40% carbon, and it gives the soil nice fluff and keeps stored soil carbon from escaping.  It’s tough stuff, and it’s exactly what our soil needs.  We decided to spend the money to repopulate our fields with these very beneficial fungi.  This should be a one-time cost.

Cost Comparison with Sorghum Sudan & Cowpeas

The Rye and Vetch cost was over $80 per acre, and the sorghum sudan and cowpeas cost was around $70 per acre.  The sorghum & cowpeas did not include the mycorrhizal inoculant, but we got a very good deal on the vetch price. With our poor rye and vetch germination, we estimate that half the seed did not germinate.  So, about $1,000 of this cover crop price was spent in vain.  We believe the cause of poor germination was the combination of planting into very fluffy soil right before a tropical storm dumped 10 inches of rain.  We learned our “grand” lesson and  for sure won’t make these mistakes again!

Adding Biology to Our Soil with AgVerra and Tainio Products

Tractor with 3-point hitch rotovator and front-mounted spray tank on forklift attachment

We sprayed biology (beneficial microbes), enzymes, microbe stimulants, and molasses onto our sorghum sudangrass and cowpeas cover crop just before we rotovated it into the soil.  Our rotovating is described here, and our home made spray tank and molasses adventure is described here.  Our soil has very low organic matter and is lacking in earthworms and other signs of soil life.  Because we were already going to the trouble of rotovating, we applied beneficial biology while we were at it.  Our goals are to help the cover crop residue break down quickly so we could plant our winter cover crop soon and also to get good microbes into the soil so the soil can start coming back to life and creating organic matter.

Good residue breakdown with Tainio products in topsoil. 3 weeks after rotovating. Neighbor's east field - 1.9% organic matter, 6.6 pH, 5.6 CEC

We attended a fantastic farm meeting at Keystone Bio Ag near Lancaster, PA this summer.  They were selling many Tainio products, and we purchased Spectrum, a mix of beneficial microbes and Pepzyme Clear, an enzyme product that stimulates microbe reproduction.  The cost for enough to cover 10 acres was $240.   We were also in contact with AgVerra, a company I found through Acres USA.  They offered to include us as one of their project farms.  In return for feedback on their products, we got 50% off.  Whatta deal!  They sent us 20 acres worth of their Stubble Digester product, a mix of microbes that are especially good at breaking down plant residue quickly, and PTM,  a mix of beneficial soil microbes plus goodies like kelp extract, fulvic acid, and plant growth regulators.  The cost for 20 acres worth was $280 (half off) or $14 per acre.

Besides having a hard time keeping our farm cat away from the Spectrum because it smelled like fishy cat food and also curbing my hunger because the Stubble Digester reminded me of crushed oreos, all products were very easy to work with and get into the spray tank.  All products dissolved really well in the tank.

The AgVerra products offered better visibility coming out of the spray tank.  Their Stubble Digester and PTM are jet-black in color and ended up giving the spray mix a slight oily (not greasy) consistency.  This allowed us to see the spray mix cling to the leaves.  It reminded us of vinaigrette dressing!   This is not a huge benefit, but as newbie farmers, it felt good to actually see the product landing where we wanted it, and it helped us verify that our spray tank was working.

We did not speak directly to the Tainio company, but Keystone Bio Ag had good customer service and pointers in using the products.  AgVerra also had excellent customer service – they have nice product information online, and Alfred went above and beyond to help with product selection, suggestions on our home made spray tank, etc.

Good breakdown with AgVerra products, 2.5 weeks after rotovating. Neighbor's west field - 1.5% organic matter, 5.9 pH, 5.0 CEC

We started first with the Tainio products on our neighbor’s east field, which is their best field in terms of soil tilth, organic matter and mineral content.  The soil in this field is much easier to shovel than their other fields.  AgVerra’s products went on our neighbor’s remaining lower-quality fields and on the 2-acre slice of our pasture.  We took these pictures this morning, 2.5 to 3 weeks after rotovating and 6 days after Hurricane Irene’s 10 inches of rain.  Both products seem to be working really well.  The residue has broken down so nicely that we could plant our winter cover crop now, except the soil is too wet for heavy equipment.

I’m excited to see what our winter cover crop looks like this fall and next spring.  Maybe I’ll discern a difference in the two lines of products at that time, although the soil quality difference between the fields might explain any distinction.  We’ll see!