The Non-Toxic Farming Handbook: Foliar Feeding

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your inbox! This week’s feature is The Non-Toxic Farming Handbook, by Philip Wheeler and Ronald Ward. 

What Is Foliar Feeding?

Foliar feeding is a highly efficient method of providing needed nutrients to crops. Research conducted by Dr. Silvan Witwer, Michigan State University, in cooperation with the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1940s, found plants to utilize foliar-fed nutrients anywhere from eight to twenty times more efficiently than those applied to the soil. Their research concluded that trees benefitted from and absorbed foliar fed nutrients even during mid-winter months.

Foliar fed fertilizers seem to bypass problems associated with root absorption, such as nutrient competition, nutrient tie-ups, leaching and soil interactions. Foliar uptake requires the same light, temperature and oxygen variables as does root uptake. It may have a significant effect on lower CEC soils. The mobility of different nutrients once in the leaf varies widely. Whereas all nutrients are initially absorbed extremely rapidly, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and zinc are readily translocated. Calcium, boron, iron, magnesium and molybdenum tend to remain in the leaf after they are absorbed and have little tendency to translocate.

Foliar feeding works best in cooperation with a good soil fertility program. Without the proper soil fertility base to begin with, foliar spraying can have very mixed results. Good sucess could be obtained in certain instances where the right nutrients were sprayed at the right time for the growing plant, yet these would be exceptions to the rule One would expect to see minimal positive results if good fertility programs are not followed. Foliar feeding is not as efficient when it is used as a rescue procedure.

Foliar feeing is intended to strengthen basic fertility (energy) programs. It is used to help swing the plant from growth to fruiting, to alleviate a stressful situation, to counter leaching brought about from steady rains, to give an added push, and to keep the plant’s energy at optimal levels.

How To Foliar Feed

Foliar feeding can be done using a typical boom sprayer with 10-20-gallon nozzles. If possible, it is best to use nozzles which will produce a mist or fog. Plants feed mainly from the underside of leaves through openings called stomata. The plant leaf hairs surrounding the stomata will attract nutrients within fine water droplets. It is possible to purchase nozzles which produce a cone-shaped spray pattern and which also spin the spray upon leaving the nozzle. These have been found to be highly effective.

A new generation of mist sprayers is available which will produce a spray mist and blow it 40 or more feet across the field. Thse sprayers are actually the most cost effective to use because, contrary to logic, the finer the water droplet coming from the sprayer, the more dilute the spray solution can be and still accomplish the feeding task. Mist blowers will work effectively using only one-third or less the amount of fertilizer needed for field or boom sprayers.

Vegetables and orchard growers have long used foliar spraying, however, the major purpose has been to apply chemicals. It’s not unusual for these sprays to be used every one to two weeks. Although most farmers spray toxic chemicals for blight, fungus or insect control, it is obvious that supplementing these toxic sprays with a good nutritional “diet” could be very effective. In fact, many farmers now know that periodic nutritional foliar sprays can not only save a crop but can also make a crop.

When grain is in its early development, for example, it is possible to slice open the growing stem and see, through a ten-power lens, the grains of oats or wheat developing on a head. Prior to their development, a fruiting foliar spray could result in a larger number of seeds being set. After this critical development period has passed, it is no longer possible to influence seed head development in terms of a larger head formation. Now it is only possible to influence how large the seeds will form and how heavy (test weight) they will be. Once the head has formed, foliar sprays will definitely assist in producing larger, heavier grains.

Wheat growers in the Lake Palouse area of Washington have grown 200 bushels of wheat using good fertility and foliar spraying. Their wheat is so good that the farmer can slice a kernel from top to bottom, dividing it in half, and grow two plants from the now split seed.

Learn more about The Non-Toxic Farming Handbook here. 


Philip A. Wheeler has worked as the technical advisor and consulting agronomist for Crop Services International in Grand Rapids, Michigan. CSI is a soil testing lab and consulting service operat­ed by Phil and his wife Louisa. He is a national lecturer on biological and sustainable agriculture and its relation to nutrition and health. An amateur dowser, graphologist and meta­physician, Phil also enjoys composting and gardening. He is a member of American Mensa.

Ronald B. Ward grew up in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the age of 9 his parents bought a 50-acre farm 25 miles away from their city home. He obtained a B.S. in park management from Michigan State University; a master’s of divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary; and a master’s in community counseling from the University of Kentucky. After working for and eventually directing the Lexington Central Kentucky Re-ED Program for emotionally disturbed children, Ron returned to his country roots where he was introduced to alternative health and the Reams method of testing urine and saliva.

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Permaculture Design Starts With Water

By Mary Ann Lieser

Permaculture and water conservation are inseparable. Permaculture design starts with water —with looking at what happens to the precipitation that falls on a piece of land and at how to shape the land so that each drop of rain can bring as much benefit as possible.

Water stewardship is increasing in importance, a trend certain to accelerate in the future. Droughts are more common, current water supplies are less dependable due to depletion or contamination, rainfall patterns are more variable and weather events more extreme. Unless a landscape has been designed to capture and retain as much water as possible, intense storms usually result in more runoff and the erosion of valuable topsoil, without the full benefit of the precipitation infiltrating the soil.

We face a collective future in which widespread water shortages are likely. And agriculture, which accounts for the single biggest use of water on the globe, is already being affected in many places. The underground supply has been depleted and groundwater recharge is not keeping pace. Too often, stormwater flows to rivers and oceans.

But permaculturists have always regarded water as the precious resource that it is, and they have been developing ways to reduce water loss and maximize retention for decades. Permaculture design is always site specific, so they begin by looking at what you have. How much rainfall does your land receive in an average year? What is the highest point on your property, and what are the existing patterns of water flow? Then it’s possible to look at shaping your land to encourage beneficial water flow patterns.

Typically, only a fraction of the rain that falls on a piece of land reaches the roots of the plants growing there. Permaculture aims to slow it down, spread it out, and sink it more deeply.

The soil itself is the easiest place to store water, and the more organic matter in the soil the better it will soak up moisture. Jason Gerhardt has been a permaculture teacher and designer for over fifteen years, with experience in a variety of settings — from desert to temperate forest and urban to rural. He advises farmers to “think about the landscape in terms of a sponge. What can we do to help the soil absorb and hold onto more moisture?” Higher quality topsoil and the judicious use of mulches and groundcovers (which can act as living sponges) reduce runoff and allow more water to reach deeper layers. And increasing organic matter in the soil sets the stage for a virtuous circle: more moisture in the soil results in healthier plants and more soil microbes and will therefore build additional topsoil more quickly.

Beyond soaking in more moisture wherever it falls, permaculture uses design features to shape the land and direct water flow. Keyline design focuses on the existing flow pattern as a guide to placement of trees, irrigation systems and ponds. Swales are broad, shallow trenches dug along the contours of shallow slopes, and can prevent runoff and gulley formation. A keyline system and swales can channel water away from valleys to achieve better distribution, so that rainfall can soak the soil more evenly.

Rainfall can also be directed into ponds for storage or harvested from rooftops to provide water when needed for irrigation, livestock or other agricultural purposes.

Gerhardt, who serves as director of the Permaculture Institute as well as founder of Real Earth Design in St. Louis, often finds inspiration from traditional land-based cultures. “Indigenous people all over the world have developed methods to absorb and retain rainfall, whether it involves diverting streams, flooding paddies or terracing hillsides.”

Todd McCree’s Great Escape Farm in West Virginia includes a nursery focused on the sale of propagated cuttings of edible plants, from familiar fruits like blackberry and raspberry to more unusual ones like aronia (chokeberry) and pawpaw. McCree uses permaculture principles at every level of his operation, including a collection system that harvests rainwater from a 24 by 51 foot metal roof. Two 1,550 gallon containers provide enough water storage for the farm to space out the area’s 37 inches of annual rainfall to supply mist irrigation when needed.

Edible Acres, a plant nursery in the Finger Lakes region, is also based on permaculture principles and also harvests rainwater for agricultural needs. Sean Dembrosky oversees the nursery and the water harvest, which takes place on a combination of many small roofs, ranging in size from two hundred to eight hundred square feet. The water is stored in a collection of 275 gallon IBC totes and some 55-gallon drums placed strategically under downspouts. What began partly as an experiment to see what could be done in an area that receives 34 inches of rain annually, has convinced Dembrosky that “it is 100 percent possible to run a viable nursery business based on collected rainwater and simple hand dug ponds and holding tanks. No well is necessary for full-on farming.”

Gerhardt advises that those who may not be ready for comprehensive farmscale watershed management might start small, taking just a few steps in the direction of water stewardship. “Once they see the impacts, they often want to do more.” And for those ready to dive into learning how to apply permaculture principles to water management on the land they tend, the single best source is Brad Lancaster, who writes and teaches about permaculture design. Lancaster lives in semi-arid Tucson, which receives a mere twelve inches of precipitation a year, yet he manages to harvest 100,000 gallons of rainwater annually for household and garden use. His website ( and his books Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, volumes 1 and 2, share what he’s learned in decades of studying and consulting on water harvest in every climate.

We Need to Regenerate Our Whole Planet on Earth Day

By André Leu
International Director of Regeneration International

In this era of the Anthropocene, in which human activities are the dominant forces that negatively affect the environment, the world is facing multiple environmental, social, and economic crises. These include the climate crisis, food insecurity, an epidemic of non-contagious chronic diseases, new pandemics of contagious diseases, wars, migration crises, ocean acidification, the collapse of whole ecosystems, the unsustainable extraction of resources, and the greatest extinction event in geological history. 

Are we prepared to sustain a world where nearly a billion people do not have enough food to eat, a billion more are deficient in key nutrients and more than two billion are overweight because they have too much food? A world where the majority of people do not have access to adequate healthcare and education? A world where half the population face multiple forms of discrimination such as violence, land ownership, personal finances, education, control over their fertility, job promotions, representation on boards, government and leadership because of their gender? A world where persistent toxic chemicals are damaging all life on the planet including ours and our children? A world where the very basis of life, DNA, is being uncontrollably altered based on flawed science for the sake of the profits of billionaire poison cartels? Where there are continuous wars and conflicts. Where 1% control 99% of the world’s wealth and unfairly influences the political, social, health and environmental agendas to increase their power and wealth?

Simply being sustainable is not enough. Do we want to sustain the current status quo or do we want to improve and rejuvenate it? Regeneration improves systems.

We need to regenerate our societies so we must be proactive in ensuring that others have access to land, education, healthcare, income, the commons, participation, inclusion and empowerment. This must include women, men and youths across all ethnic and racial groups.

field of flowers at sunset

On Earth Day, Regeneration International, with our 360 partner organizations in 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe, will continue to promote, facilitate and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems.

Our vision to is to achieve a healthy global ecosystem in which practitioners of regenerative agriculture and land use, in concert with consumers, educators, business leaders and policymakers, cool the planet, nourish the world and restore public health, prosperity and peace on a global scale.

This article was written as a part of the Acres U.S.A. 2021 Earth Day project. Read more on Earth Day from Acres U.S.A. authors, speakers, teachers and friends here.

The Light Factor: Health and Light

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Eco-Farm by Charles Walters. 

Many plants grow poorly as long as the soil fails to warm up. During this period in early spring, very little nitrogen is served up by proteins in the soil’s organic matter. One can see pasture grasses literally starved for want of nitrogen. Then one day the soil wakes up, and the landscape is painted green overnight.

Ambient air temperatures also figure in plant performance. Photosynthesis comes to a halt at night because the chloroplasts settle down for a sleep of sorts. There is a word for this—photoperiodism—and scientists who use that word speak of daily rhythms, biological clocks, and the like. USDA scientists H. A. Bortwick and S. B. Hendricks found, as early as 1948, that red and far-red light—that is, visible light almost in the infrared part of the spectrum—regulates plant growth. They found a protein which runs the light switch in plants, so to speak. They proved that the molecule styled phytochrome is triggered by light. It presides over the plant life process—its germination, flowering, growth. Even in sleep, respiration and burning of sugar continues.

Good Iowa farmers will tell you that they can hear the corn grow at night, and they can. Entomologist and philosopher Phil Callahan has watched bamboo growing. “After a good electrical storm you can sit down level with the fresh little bamboo shoots and actually see them get longer” Callahan said. But when air temperatures soar beyond endurance, respiration and sugar burning are affected simply because too much sugar is lost.

“Light exerts a profound effect on plants and on all animal life,” John Ott once told Acres U.S.A. readers via the medium of a taped interview. His two books. My Ivory Cellar and Health and Light furbish and refurbish this thesis. “Sunlight is a broad, continuous spectrum peaking a little in the bluegreen. It then cuts off abruptly in the ultraviolet at about 2.900 angstroms because of the filtering effect of the earth’s atmosphere,” Ott wrote in Health and Light. An angstrom is a unit of length so small it demanded a name of its own. Technically speaking it is one ten-billionth of a meter, and is used in optics and to measure light, something a farmer hardly concerns himself with. Yet a farmer has to be concerned with light.

Using time-lapse photography, Ott has been able to show the streaming of protoplasm with cells of a living plant leaf. This has to do with the photosynthesis we discussed in the first lesson of this book. Air, water, sunshine and a few earth minerals make it possible for plants to create food energy in the presence of an appropriate temperature.

But when the sun sets, photosynthesis stops. Long periods of cloudy weather and faltering sunlight intensity not only affect plant life, they help nature decide which plants can survive in climes with long and short days. Modern technology, particularly weather modification and industrial development, has a profound effect on sunlight availability, ergo crop production. The consequences of inserting carbon black and other nucleating agents into the atmosphere by climate and weather modifiers escapes instant comprehension. But the result of heavy and concentrated industrialization has been a matter of record. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has reported a 14% loss of overall light intensity over the past 60 years. Mount Wilson observatory in California has published figures to the effect that all farm acres have lost 10% of average sunlight intensity during the last 50 years, and 26% reduction in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. Some virus problems and aphids brought on in part by inadequate sunlight have in fact been controlled by placing light reflective aluminum foil on the ground beneath the plants.

Poultry growers have long realized that the light in a chicken’s eye stimulates the pituitary and thereby increases egg production. Ott says the pituitary is the balancewheel of the entire glandular system, not only in chickens, but in men as well.

Indeed, Git’s experiments tell us something we ought to know, even if we can do little about it. In one experiment he photographed chloroplasts within Elodea grass as they responded to different wavelengths of light energy. When the Elodea grass was exposed “to the full spectrum of all the wavelengths of natural sunlight, all the chloroplasts would stream in an orderly fashion around and around from one end of the cell to the other. However, if the sunlight was filtered through ordinary window glass that blocked most of the ultraviolet, or if an ordinary incandescent microscope light which is lacking in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum was used, some of the chloroplasts would drop out of the streaming pattern and remain immobile near the center or off in one comer of the cell of the leaf.”

Under red light, chloroplasts would drop out of the streaming pattern or take a shortcut, not touching all the bases. But when the color filters were removed, the chloroplasts would go back to their normal streaming procedure.

About the Author:

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

More By Charles Walters:

Browse the Charles Walters Collection for all of his titles and works.

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Potassium: The Elusive Regulator

Matt Brill |Director of Marketing, Ferticell USA
Steve Trotter | Agronomist
Sponsored by Ferticell®

Potassium (K+) is one of the three main pillars of essential macronutrients for plant growth. Irregularities in uptake or availability can negatively affect yield size and quality when not closely monitored and planned for. Understanding the relationship potassium plays in soil profiles is essential to delivering optimal efficiency, uptake and yield results.  

Often described as the “weakest” member of the cation family, potassium may share space with sodium in many environments. Plant uptake of potassium, or Potassium Use Efficiency (KUE), is highly selective and synchronized to the rate of metabolism in the plant. As a result, potassium is highly mobile across all levels of plants and travels well in long distance transport via the xylem and phloem.

The Roles of Potassium

In the relationship between plants and water, potassium plays a crucial role, forming weak complexes that readily provide exchangeable potassium. While potassium may not strongly compete with calcium and magnesium, in alkaline conditions, sodium may actually replace potassium.

When plant-available, potassium directly promotes carbohydrate production for both plant health and Brix levels. To assist that role, we know now that the frequency of application of potassium will directly affect and increase KUE. All crops and soils throughout the country do not have the same relationships with potassium and it is important to remember crop types like grapes and citrus have high potassium removal demands while stone fruits have a lesser removal demand and should be calculated accordingly. There are several components that affect potassium uptake by plants differently by region, including soil moisture, aeration, oxygen level, soil temperature and tillage systems.

Potassium is an enzyme activator for many plant functions and is required in higher concentrations for protein synthesis than for enzyme activation. Proteins facilitate the movement of potassium through plants. Concentrations of potassium can occur during the accumulation of soluble N compounds like nitrates, amino acids and amides.

Designing a Program for Potassium

When designing a program for potassium, it can be challenging due to the soil source or solubility. The three locations potassium can be found in the soil are structural soil minerals, the soil colloid and exchangeable elements within the soil solution.

It is valuable when managing potassium levels to have the knowledge of soil limiting factors such as iron and aluminum. High levels of Fe (iron) in soils, or high application rates, should be considered as a risk. And as pH drops, aluminum levels should also be monitored in relation to potassium.

When soils have low OM (organic matter), carbon and/or an active biomass, boron – which is beneficial for potassium – can also become a limiting factor. A light rate of supplemental amino acids would be a wise strategy when this occurs.

Potassium-deficient tomato plant leaves.
Potassium-deficient tomato plant leaves.

Selecting Your Potassium Source

When selecting your source for potassium, it is important to take into consideration the adulteration of each source and what limiting factors can be avoided to provide optimum uptake potential of potassium. All traditional sources of potassium, KCL, K2SO4, KNO3 and KOH all carry with a limiting factor which should be calculated during program design. One example is a possible negative effect on chlorophobic plants like grapes, fruit trees, tomatoes, strawberries and cotton by being exposed to potassium chloride. When analyzing nitrate sources, due to competition with potassium and nitrates, a potassium nitrate may be less efficient. When reviewing soil tests where additional sulfur is not required, it would be difficult to use K2SO4.

Factors to Consider with Potassium Availability

  • Low K+ will reduce photosynthesis in leaves.
  • Deficiencies will increase respiration rates.
  • Deficiencies will reduce cell turgor and cell size.
  • Deficiencies will display low energy or energy transfer.
  • Necessary for synthesis of ATP (energy).
  • Will increase osmotic potential as well as support stabilizing cell pH.
  • K+ increases will stimulate CO2 fixation by 3x.
  • K+ and reducing sugars assists turgor potential for cell extension.
  • Increases cell elongation rates with gibberellic acid.
  • A dominant counter ion for nitrate transportation.
  • Elevated levels of potassium will increase resistance to biotic and abiotic stress.
  • Drought resistance requires higher K+ concentrations.
  • Deficiencies may increase risks for frost damage.
  • Severe deficiencies will create yellowing or death of mature leaves and stems depending upon light intensity.

The development of potassium programs can be made simpler with the knowledge of potassium removal by crop type as well as the source. The use of a non-altered potassium will yield efficiencies with lower rates and Potassium Use Efficiency (KUE).

Finally, improving soil health through biofortification is a major factor in allowing plants and crops to maximize their genetic potential by maintaining a balance in metabolic energy. Fertility programs should include several known growth regulators vital for the performance and efficiency of potassium crops. After limits and corrections have been identified, a proper balance can be executed to sustain soil vibrancy and health.

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Planning Your Regenerative Agriculture Business

Photo: Getty Images

By Meg Greski

Congratulations on your decision to join the regenerative agriculture movement! There will be plenty of challenges, but if you take care of your soil, it will take care of you.

Whether you’re starting a new operation or transitioning a conventional one, step one must always be to create a viable business plan. Do not “wing it” and assume you’ll just figure it out as you go along. Even more importantly than that, do not proceed when the numbers don’t work. If something doesn’t even make money on paper, there’s no way it will magically be different in real life. The purpose of planning is to save you money, time and stress and to ensure that you meet your goals.

Your business plan is bound to change as time goes by, and it should. At least once a year, you should adapt it according to what’s going on in the world and what you’ve learned. The conditions in which your farm or ranch exists are always changing. What works at the beginning of your career may not continue to work in the subsequent years. Regenerative management is all about being adaptive.

You can choose the best enterprise mix for your farm or ranch by evaluating the following factors.

GROSS MARGINS: Figure out your gross margin (revenue minus direct costs, excluding overheads) for each class of livestock, each crop and each product. Do the calculations for current enterprises, and ones you might like to add. Compare how much money you make on each enterprise with how much work, land and equipment each one requires. Divide gross margin by the number of acres the enterprise uses to determine gross margin per acre. This is a good way to compare your options and make wise decisions about what to do with your resources. Taking acreage away from a low gross margin use and allocating it to a competing high gross margin use can turn a struggling farm or ranch around.

SPECIALIZATION: Having lots of diverse enterprises decreases risk, but too often results in huge amounts of work. Choose complimentary enterprises that share the same overheads (barns, equipment, etc), use one another’s byproducts, and have a high ratio of profit to work hours. For example, if your goal is to finish and sell 100% grass beef, you might think cow-calf and stocker cattle are a necessary part of it. But what if you could buy big calves, spend a couple months finishing them out, and avoid the cowherd’s winter feed bill? You could also use the cowherd’s grass for more finishers! Put that grass into cattle that are a direct short-term source of income, not an expense incurred in the hope of future income.

CUT OVERHEADS: Your choice of enterprises and the seasons in which you operate can greatly affect overhead costs. When I switched from year-round cow-calf to developing heifers in the growing season only, my overhead costs fell dramatically. I only had to commute to my rented pasture for seven months out of the year instead of twelve. I no longer needed to buy, transport, store and feed hay. This resulted in less wear and tear on my equipment. I no longer needed some of the equipment I owned and/or hired. High utility bills from water heaters also disappeared.

FEMALE DEPRECIATION: In a May 2020 webinar, Wally Olsen shared some eye-opening numbers concerning the changes in a cow’s value over her lifetime. Every year, you must count the value an aging female loses as a cost against the income from selling her calf. Every year older that she gets, the faster she loses value. The older you let a cow get on your operation (after she exceeds her peak value at 5-6 years old), the higher the percentage of calf sale revenue must go just to cover her depreciation. Wally proved that keeping females from birth until culling as an old open cow means you have built wealth, failed to capture it, and let it disappear. The same is true for breeding stock of other species.

How can you fight this depreciation phenomenon? On an example ranch of Wally’s, a switch was made from the traditional “keep ‘em until they fail to breed” strategy to selling all females at 5-6 years old, and developing more heifers. This change caused the example ranch’s net worth to increase 6 percent, and income from cattle sales went up 44 percent. The ranch was also able to run more head on their grass because having more younger cattle means they’re smaller and eat less.

Another option is to lease cows, or raise them under a shares agreement with someone else. This insulates you from cow depreciation cost because that burden is carried by the owner of the cows.

If breeding seedstock with longevity is your primary focus, you’ll have to bite the depreciation bullet. But if your goal is to maximize profit through whichever enterprise(s) necessary, you may not want to keep too many old cattle around.

RAISE OR TRADE? In 2017, I spent close to 40 hours “desk farming” to figure out how much money I could squeeze out of my grass with cattle. Thirty-one pages of spreadsheets and 23 pages on Microsoft Word later, I was confident that I had thought of and evaluated almost every possible business model for bovine breeding stock. My numbers led me to conclude that frequent buying and selling of animals instead of keeping home-raised livestock long-term may result in more profit. Using the right enterprise, I could make as much money on a flip animal as I could on a raised animal.

TURNOVER: Turnover is defined as the number of units produced in a given time period. If you have room for 20 cattle on your place and you keep them all year, that’s 20 units. Going with a trading enterprise over a home-raised one can really boost turnover. Say you have grass to support 20 cattle, but you flip 3 groups per year. You just sold 60 units in a year instead of 20! You have tripled the “size” of your operation without having to acquire and maintain triple the land, machinery and infrastructure.

TIME IS RISK: The longer you own an animal before selling it, the more risk you take that it could get sick or injured and die, leaving you with nothing. Take the above cow-calf-to-finish scenario. If you insist on raising each one of your finished cattle from conception, you are looking at almost three years from conception to harvest. A lot could go wrong in three years.

LIQUIDITY: Three years you have money tied up in a conception-to-harvest beef enterprise. But if you bought a calf at 800 lbs and took it to 1100 lbs in 150 days (2 lbs/day gain), you will have your investment back in under 6 months. You will only incur costs and risk on that animal for 150 days, not upwards of two years. If you think you can raise a calf cheaper than you can buy one, make sure you’re really counting ALL the hidden costs of raising that calf. This includes the carrying capacity loss to your finishing enterprise due to keeping mother, calf and yearling. There is a cost of the maintenance energy used by the cow just to stay alive. There are other investment opportunities for your money that you forgo when you tie it up in a calf for 2-3 years. Even if your gross margin is higher on raising a calf than on buying and flipping, you could flip multiple groups during the time you’d be hanging onto that single raised-calf group.

THE CHANGING MARKET: The longer you hang onto cattle, the more market prices can change on you. (Even if you don’t sell on the commodity market, the value of all livestock is affected by it.) Sudden events like the COVID-19 pandemic can cause drastic unforeseen changes in the value of all assets. Learn to analyze and use the changing price relationships between different ages, classes and sizes of livestock. Use market signals to decide when to buy and sell. Don’t be dead set on doing the same thing and selling at the same time every year regardless of what the market picture looks like. Just like we need to be adaptive in grazing, we need to be adaptive in operating our businesses.

Bud Williams first popularized the concept of sell-buy marketing. It’s a method of livestock business planning in which your profit comes from selling one group of animals, and replacing them for less than you got for selling them. This is opposite from the traditional buy-sell approach, in which you buy animals and hope you can sell them for more than you spent on them. You can use a weekly market report and Bud’s calculations to see which classes of livestock are overvalued and undervalued. Sell any overvalued classes you own before their price comes down, and buy undervalued ones while you can for less than they’re worth.

DOWNSIDES TO TRADING: Trading cattle isn’t for everyone. You have less control over your genetics. Cattle that have traveled through sale barns, trucks and multiple ranches will probably require more preventative healthcare than those in a closed herd. Bringing outside cattle onto your operation may also bring disease. There is likely to be more death loss. You will need safe, sturdy handling facilities and workers with good stockmanship skills. Frequent buying and selling of cattle, and tailoring your enterprise mix to market signals, requires intensive business management.

CONTEXT: The right enterprise mix for your farm or ranch can only be determined through economic analysis and planning that is specific to your situation. If you don’t know how to create or interpret a business plan, find a consultant or farm and ranch business workshop to help you. The Ranching For Profit Schools put on by Ranch Management Consultants (, (307) 213-6010) has been extremely valuable to me. Understanding Ag LLC (, (256) 996-3142) is a worldwide regenerative ag consulting firm started by Dr. Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, and many other visionaries. Their collective knowledge, experience and resources are unmatched. You can also contact me with questions:

Agriculture in Transition: Grid Sampling

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your inbox! This week’s Book of the Week is Agriculture in Transition, by Donald Schriefer.

Grid sampling is about as high-tech as we can get down on the farm. However, we must question whether it is high-tech agronomically. This agronomist says, “No, it is not.” In fact, I will try to convince you why it is not agronomically sound.

The system is set up through satellite global positioning and is often referred to as “site-specific farming.” It is designed to accurately pinpoint positions on the earth’s surface. The purveyors of this system are dividing farms into 31 /2-acre grid sampling patterns. While it may sound good to be able to test and balance your soils in small areas of 1 to 3 acres, let us review the concerns of using this system by asking some hard questions.

  1. Can spreading equipment change application rates fast enough to provide a uniform application within the 1- to 3-acre blocks?
  2.  Why are they providing only soil pH, phosphorous and potassium tests? Isn’t it important to also know a soil’s cation exchange capacity (CEC), base saturation of the cations, calcium and magnesium levels, P1 and P2 tests, sulfur and trace elements?
  3.  How can we adjust calcium and magnesium levels when all we have to work with are constantly changing soil pH levels?
  4.  How can anyone make a potassium recommendation if they do not know the CEC of all of the different soil types found on any given farm?
  5.  Are they implying that nutrient balancing beyond phosphorous and potassium is not important?
  6.  Why are they now recommending you sample your soils every fourth year instead of every third year?
  7.  How are they handling “nutrient stratification,” which can develop in no-till soils where almost no tillage is done?
  8.  How do they handle situations where the 3-acre area straddles very different soil types?
  9.  Zone-tillers plant in the center of old rows. After the second year, there are old and new rows 15 inches apart. Many of these farmers apply all of their fertility inputs while planting and use both liquid and dry fertilizer bands. After a few years of banding every 15 inches, where will they be able to pull a reliable soil sample? 
  10.  Who pays for the costly spreading equipment, the high cost of sampling and the unscrambling fees when the military changes the signals coming from the satellites?
  11.  Why are they making recommendations, regardless of your tillage system, that all of your fertilizers be broadcast rather than the more efficient method of banding while planting?

If high technology puts limits upon your yields it is not agronomically sound. Grid sampling does not serve a farmer well if it locks him into a simple soil analysis such as we used 50 years ago simply to save money or forces him to use an outdated broadcasting system.

A soil analysis that merely covers phosphorous, potassium and soil pH, along with recommendations for broadcast of all fertility inputs, is a practice we want to move away from. It makes more sense to spend our money on more efficient fertility management of the first three soil basics — soil aeration, soil water and soil life. These are the things that determine how well our plants can recover the fertilizers.

We need to look at all yield-limiting factors and remove them in their order of importance. Studies show that a lack of soil fertility is rarely the top yield-limiting factor. It does not seem sensible to spend money on something that may give no return.

About the Author:

Donald L. Schriefer passed from this life on July 30, 1998. He had spent more than five years battling acute leukemia, but he did not lie down and wait for death to come. He left this manuscript as a legacy to his lifelong friends — the
farmers — knowing that those left behind would have it published.

Making education an integral part of his personal philosophy, Schriefer contributed frequently to various agricultural publications and was well known for conducting numerous seminars and farm programs annually. He has previously written two books, From the Soil Up and Tillage in Transition.

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Tractor Time Episode 54: The Fungi Underground (w/ Doug Bierend)

Doug Bierend is the author of a new book called In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms.

Doug is a freelance journalist who writes about science and technology, food, and education. His byline has appeared in WiredThe AtlanticViceMotherboardThe CounterOutside Magazine and Civil Eats.

Investigative journalist Carey Gillam also joins us on this episode to talk about her recent story, publish in the Guardian, about paraquat, a potent and deadly herbicide. Carey’s the author of 2017 book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science. Her new book is called The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice

Cover Crops: The Foundation of Organic No-Till

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! Buy Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture, by Jeff Moyer here!

As mentioned before, cover crops are extremely important to organic no-till. They are the foundation upon which you will base much of your operation from now onward. In fact, as you progress in organic no-till, you’ll become accustomed to thinking of cover crops as your new cash crop.

After you read this chapter, you’ll have a clearer understanding of why it’s important to invest just as much (if not more) time and energy in your cover crops as you might in your cash crops.

Fewer weeds, higher organic matter, soil stability, pest and disease management, increased microbial action, and more nutrients are some of the benefits of cover cropping. In a no-till system we use cover crops somewhat differently, since we do not incorporate them into the soil. Although they still supply many of the same benefits, the cover crops also serve as a mulch, providing a season of weed control.

Even if you use chemical herbicides in your no-till program, cover cropping can be beneficial for all of the same reasons. Cover crops can help boost your soil organic matter, and provide stability and structure while guarding against erosion for the entire growing season. If you take the time to get it right, cover crops will pay back your investment with interest by the end of the season, and for several seasons to come.

The Benefits of Using Cover Crops

Stabilizes Soil

Cover crops stabilize soil in a couple of different ways — by increasing infiltration due to top growth of stems and leaves, and through the roots of the cover crop. Roots keep a low profile, but they are an essential part of the equation. The roots of cover crops, especially legumes, encourage beneficial fungi, which extend their hypae through the soil and exude glomalins, which bind the soil together.

Some cover crops have a deep root system and can help relieve compaction caused by tillage, heavy machinery, and working soil in wet weather. For example, forage radishes can be planted in the fall and grow quickly to a depth of 24-36 inches. After they winterkill, they leave holes in the ground that help to aerate the soil. Other subsoil looseners include sorghum-sudangrass and sweet clovers.

Organic Matter

Both roots and top growth contribute organic matter to the soil, after rolling terminates them or when tilled into the soil to decompose. A combination of cover crops and compost or farm manure is an excellent choice for building longterm organic matter and providing sufficient seasonal nutrients to the soil. Dale Mutch, of the University of Michigan and Ron Morse of Virginia Tech, two of our partners in the No-Till Plus trials, recommend using fertilizer of some kind for your cover crops. That’s because the stronger your cover crops, the better weed control you’ll have the following season.

Cover crops help to repair a steady decline in organic matter that is very common in agricultural systems in this country and around the world. Nitrogen rich fertilizers and tillage encourage an extremely rapid rate of decay of soil organic matter. Cover crops may contribute to organic matter indirectly — by helping farmers raise a bumper cash crop each year. High yielding crops contribute more crop residue, in the form of roots and aboveground growth which does help to mitigate the damage caused by conventional farming systems.

Stimulates Microorganisms

Microbial growth is stimulated by the addition of organic matter, as well as by the roots of the growing cover crops. Nature wants to have the soil covered with something green and growing year-round. By providing a cover for the soil in the form of cover crops, microorganisms have a continuous habitat and food source.

Microorganisms help keep the soil healthy by suppressing disease organisms, improving soil structure, and digesting organic matter so that nutrients can be used by plants. Simply put, microorganisms are the living part of the soil, and also the part that makes the soil work. Without the continuous breakdown of organic matter performed by soil microorganisms, soil nutrients would be tied up and unavailable to plants.

Stabilizes and Adds Nutrients

Cover crops cover the soil and can prevent excess nitrogen from leaching out of the soil during heavy rains. Cover crops act as a “catch crop” or “trap crop,” holding on to available nutrients in the soil (especially nitrogen). When the cover crop is mature and begins to decompose, these nutrients are released slowly and gradually for use by the cash crop. Rye is particularly good as a catch crop. In addition, legumes used as cover crops can fix nitrogen in special nodules on their roots, in collaboration with Rhizobium bacteria. The nitrogen can be passed on to the next crop you grow, for example sweet corn. Organic farmers depend on legumes in their rotations to provide much of the nitrogen for heavy feeders like corn, broccoli and garlic. In our rotations for organic no-till, we pair legumes with these heavy feeders, building a rotation that will work well long term. The air we breathe is over 70 percent nitrogen. These leguminous plants will pull this nitrogen out of the air and “fix” it in the soil for other plants — our cash crops to use. This will work for both tillage or no-till systems.

Some cover crops are useful in bringing up nutrients from deeper soil layers. Buckwheat, for example, is an excellent scavenger of phosphorus. It has a shallow, fine root system (active in the top 10 inches of soil), producing a weak acid solution that releases nutrients from the soil. Sweet clover, with its deep root system, is adept at accessing nutrients in the subsoil layer and making them available as stems and leaves decompose at the surface of the soil.

Pest and Disease Management

When cover crops are added to an agricultural system, pest and disease management becomes easier. Cover crops add organic matter, which feeds the microbes that can play an important role in disease suppression. Cover crops also encourage beneficial insects by providing a nectar source from their flowers, as well as habitat.

Cultivate a healthy population of microorganisms and you’ll also have less to worry about plant diseases. For example, compost, which has abundant microorganisms, has been proven to suppress populations of harmful microorganisms like Pythium and Rhizoctonia, which cause damping off disease.

Suppresses Weeds

In the organic no-till system, the primary function of the cover crop is to serve as a mulch to suppress weeds. Besides acting as a mulch, there are other ways in which cover crops suppress weeds. Covers such as buckwheat are sometimes called “smother crops” because they grow so densely that they outcompete weeds. Others like rye, oats and sorghumsudangrass have an alleopathic effect on weeds — they actually exude compounds from their roots that reduce the seedling growth of weeds.

Water Conservation

In terms of soil moisture, cover crops are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, cover crops definitely need water to grow. In a climate with abundant soil moisture, this is not necessarily a disadvantage. In dry climates, however, cover crops may use moisture that would otherwise be used by your cash crop. On the other hand, cover crops can increase and stabilize soil moisture by increasing infiltration, improving soil structure, and increasing soil organic matter. In other words, once killed and left on the surface as in our organic no-till system, any water from rain or dew is held by the mulch and released to the cash crop. Thus, even if you live in an area with low annual rainfall, there are some powerful arguments for cover cropping. Although improved infiltration can be seen during your first cover cropping year, it may be 2-3 years before there is a noticeable difference in soil structure and organic matter.

About the Author:

Jeff Moyer has been working in the field of organic agriculture all of his adult life. Over the past 28 years he has been the farm manager/director for the prestigious Rodale Institute located in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He currently chairs the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board and serves as an advisor on organic issues to the Secretary of Agriculture. Jeff is also a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a private non-profit certification agency. 

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