High-Quality, High-Yielding Crops: Measure to Manage

By Neal Kinsey
From the October 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

High-quality, high-yielding crops are the goal for most farmers. But where do you begin? Some even insist that to have both is simply impossible to accomplish. For those who think that way, it will likely always be true. But for those who are looking for ways to improve and believe there is still room to do so, what should be considered first? And then where do you go from that point to make the most possible difference?

To get high-quality, high-yielding crops, begin with the soil where they will be growing by performing the closest examination of all the most important factors needed to meet every possible requirement. What provides the most advantage to the crop from that soil? Some will feel the answer here is a heavy fertilizer program for the crop. Sufficient fertilizer is extremely important, but to achieve high-quality, high-yielding crops, there is another requirement that is also essential to assure the greatest value from whatever fertilizer is applied.

For each soil to perform at its best requires a balance of water, air, minerals and organic matter. Specifically, if you want the soil to do its best it should contain a balance of 50 percent solids (ideally 45 percent minerals and 5 percent humus) and 50 percent pore space (composed of 50 percent water and 50 percent air). This is the correct physical composition of extremely productive, high-performance soils. To be consistently efficient it is a necessary requirement to develop the most effective biologically active environment to build the needed extensively developed root systems of high-quality, high-yielding crops.

But most soils are moderately to severely lacking when it comes to having the proper physical structure to provide the correct amount of water, air and minerals, let alone the needed humus. If soils are lacking this basic foundational set of requirements, until these problems are solved, the efficiency for top yields and quality will not be achieved from the crops being grown on that soil. And thus the next question should be, “If you don’t have the right physical structure in a soil, how do you solve that problem?”

soil structure
The soil’s physical structure can be measured and needed corrections determined by use of a detailed soil analysis.

Proper Soil Structure for High-Quality, High-Yielding Crops

You can only manage those things you can measure. Farmers, ranchers or other producers can manage physical structure, because in spite of what many so-called experts still insist cannot be done, the soil’s physical structure can be measured and needed corrections determined by use of a detailed soil analysis. This requires sufficient planning beforehand in that each significant difference in the field that is to be corrected should be sampled and analyzed separately. For most fields this will mean three to five areas or zones that will require a separate detailed analysis. As a rule, those who advocate the use of one soil test to develop a fertilizer plan to treat the whole field are selling their program of products to use, not the program needed for helping each farmer get the most from each different area of the field.

The physical structure of each soil is determined by the measured influence of the same four elements that most influence the pH of soils where high-quality, high-yielding crops are generally being grown. These four elements are calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. When soils have the proper combination of these four elements they will be most closely matched to the proper amount of water, air and minerals they should contain. For those soils that do not have the correct structure, the soil analysis can be used to determine what needed corrections should be required to achieve it and in what amounts.

Most of those involved in soil fertility and fertilization reject the methodology required to accomplish this program. They fail to grasp the need for a precise testing methodology and assume that all soil testing that reports the content of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are essentially providing the same answer. Nothing could be further from the truth. All that is required to know better than that is to take samples of the same soil and send it to two different soil testing laboratories to see the difference.

And for those who doubt that would be enough, take a soil probe and prepare four sample bags. Mark them as numbers 1 through 4. Now choose a uniform area and take the first probe of soil and place it in sample bag #1. Take the next probe of soil down to the same depth from the immediate right or left of the first as close together as possible and place it in bag #2. For bag #3, drop down just below where sample 2 was pulled, still as close as possible without hitting the place where soil was removed for #1 or #2, and take a probe of soil for that sample bag. Then move over just below #1 and take the probe of soil to go into bag #4. If the uniform area is large enough, repeat this procedure at least four or five more times if possible. Now select two of these soils and send them to one of the labs and the other two to the other lab as if they are two different soils to be analyzed by both labs. Then compare the numbers when the test results come back.

As a rule, the numbers should be close to the same for the two samples each lab has analyzed, but quite different numbers should be expected when compared to the other soil lab’s test results. Without some training to gain a thorough understanding in order to grasp the need for using the same laboratory every time and using field work based on what the numbers actually show from that specific lab those who even want to understand will not grasp these concepts. And those who do not want it to work under any circumstances will keep using this common false assumption about all the lab tests being the same as a smokescreen to make their claims and try to discourage the true use of the program.

Keep in mind that in order to achieve high-quality, high-yielding crops, assuring the proper soil structure is the place to begin. And without using a detailed soil analysis to measure whether the soil has this physical structure and make any needed corrections, only soils that are already perfect could ever be up to the task. But for those who have the vision to proceed with a measureable plan when conditions are not ideal, the possibilities are extremely good and in many cases rather easily within reach.

Use the chemistry of the soil to correct the physical structure which in turn builds the house for the biology. Roots, earthworms, soil microbes and all other life in the soil are all strongly affected by the environment that is created when good soil porosity is present. That porosity, which helps determine the correct amount of minerals, water and air, is only present when the correct nutrients are present in specifically determined amounts. Because most soils do not have the proper structure, without this key, these same soils will never achieve their top potential in terms of yield and quality.

Fertility and Fertilization Support High-Quality, High-Yielding Crops

Once the proper structure of a soil has been addressed, then to be most effective supplying needed fertility levels with fertilizer and soil amendments is the next consideration. And again, for fertilization to be most effective in building high yields and quality, the importance of soil chemistry and its effects on physical structure must be correctly measured and properly considered. This is because the nutrient content of the soil determines how well all needed fertilizer that is applied can be taken up and utilized by the plants that are growing there. When the soil has too much of any element the excess will result in the crop not getting enough of something else it needs to support high-quality, high-yielding crops.

The most efficient uptake and utilization of nutrients begins with the calcium content of the soil. As Dr. William Albrecht would say, “Calcium is like the doorman that opens the way for all other nutrients to enter into the plant.” (Albrecht on Calcium, Vol. V) Without adequate calcium, it requires even larger amounts of all the other essential nutrients to produce the same yield.

And while considering the importance of calcium in the soil, beware of a trap that catches some growers striving for top quality and yields which prevents them from reaching such goals. This trap is trying to achieve a specific ratio for calcium to magnesium in the soil. With the system being advocated and utilized here for high-quality, high-yielding crops, such a program will not work. In fact, there is no one ideal ratio of calcium to magnesium for soils when they are being measured as available nutrients for the crop. That is because the calcium to magnesium ratio will vary from 7:1 on heavy clay soils, all the way to 3:1 on very light sandy soils.

As the clay decreases in a soil and as the silt and/or sand increases, the less magnesium by weight will be needed to provide what the plants need to grow best. It is the amount of negatively charged clay and humus particles in the soil that determines the amount of calcium and magnesium needed. The amount needed is expressed as the percent of the total nutrient-holding capacity of each individual soil. In the case of calcium the required level would be 60-70 percent, and for magnesium 10-20 percent of the soil’s total exchange capacity.

The soil test then needs to show how many pounds of that nutrient are needed to supply the proper amount for that soil to grow the best crops possible. Apply the proper pounds of material to correct any deficiencies and at the same time this begins to provide for achieving the correct percentage of each nutrient required to grow the best yield and quality on that land.

You may be able to grow a good crop without the addition of more fertilizer, but you cannot capture the land’s true potential without the proper amount of fertility. Calcium and magnesium provide for the long-range goals in terms of soil fertility needed to reach the best in regard to yield and quality. Without the proper amount of both of these needed nutrients the soil’s true potential will never be met.

Next consider that to produce the crop you need to grow this year, any nitrogen, phosphate, potassium or sulfur deficiency would generally take precedence over calcium and magnesium. This rule is especially true for crops other than legumes. Once these four nutrients are present in adequate amounts be sure you use a soil test that can measure this in order not to continue to apply them at the expense of other needed materials. For example, using an excessive amount of nitrogen will tie up copper. Copper provides stalk strength and resilience in the plant. In terms of nutritional value, copper is required for protein utilization in livestock. Too much nitrogen can contribute to stalk lodging and diminish protein value for the crop.

Phosphorous in excess is antagonistic to sulfur availability, ties up zinc and when excessive enough, also copper. Sulfur is needed for root development and plant protein. Zinc is needed for moisture absorption into the plant. So even though adequate to good P levels can positively influence root growth, too much can hinder proper root development because of its effect on S availability and, due to zinc tie-up, can be responsible for the failure to take up moisture even when it is present in the soil in adequate amounts.

Too much potassium can be a problem too. Once above 7.5 percent saturation it ties up boron. And in combination with sodium, together totaling 10 percent or higher, manganese uptake will be blocked. Boron is necessary for nitrogen utilization in the plant throughout the growing season. It also takes the starch out of the leaf to build fruit and grain size. Manganese is needed for seed germination, faster and taller growth, bloom and seed set and stalk strength. When the soil has too much potassium it will contribute to these problems.

Sulfur in excess is also a problem. When too much is present, it ties up nitrate nitrogen and inhibits phosphate availability. Too much sulfur can also reduce molybdenum availability. As long as it is utilized properly to feed the crops and reduce excesses of calcium, magnesium, potassium or sodium, sulfur is extremely beneficial, but once those needs are met, more than that will begin to cause problems. After assuring adequate N-P-K-S for the soil and crop and once the needed calcium and magnesium have been applied, then micronutrients that are deficient can become the nutrients that are limiting yield.

Trace Minerals for High-Quality, High-Yielding Crops

Boron, like sulfur and nitrogen, can be leached from the soil, especially in years where there is more than enough rain during the fruiting stage of the crop. Most soils are lacking the recommended minimum of 0.80 ppm and several good rains can make that even worse. When you do not get good grain fill with adequate P levels already in the soil, check the boron.

Iron can be a problem especially where calcium or phosphate is in excess in the soil. But before more is added it is best to check its availability in the subsoil. As long as the subsoil is higher in iron than manganese, if the roots can get down to it, there should be no problem.

Manganese tends to be deficient more often in cool, wet soils. All soils need at least 40 ppm for the type of testing we do. Woody plants do even better at 125 ppm+. Growing rice or use of ammonium sulfate tend to increase manganese availability in soils. But if there is a serious deficiency do not wait, for such methods are slow enough that they should only be considered once there is enough in order to assure that continues to be the case.

Copper should be at least 2 ppm on our tests. Above this level and in combination with adequate boron it is the key to control rust and fungal diseases. And because it helps in protein conversion in livestock, the first obvious sign is a slick shiny coat on the animals. Copper is also the third key to stalk strength behind potassium and manganese.

Zinc is perhaps the best-known and most often applied of the trace minerals. As long as there is enough potassium, zinc is the next key to proper water uptake by plants. Minimum for our testing is 6 ppm, but as the P level increases, so does the need for zinc. When zinc is applied, expect that only half of the potential increase will be in the first 12 months, then the other half in the next 12 months. And just as an extreme excess of phosphate ties up zinc, an extreme amount of zinc can also tie up P availability.

So in every instance when it comes to nutrient needs of the crop, it is possible to use so much that it will cause a problem with the availability of one or more other needed nutrients. Consider again, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. All of these can be properly measured and evaluated and once it has been done and the problems solved, only then can the greatest possibilities for yield and quality be determined.

Testing the soil and understanding how to interpret what those tests show in terms of actual nutrient needs are the beginning requirements for producing nutrient-dense foods and feeds.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Neal Kinsey has worked as a soil fertility specialist in his home state of Missouri since 1973, with clients in all 50 states and at least 70 other countries. He also conducts several training courses for interested farmers and growers each year as well as on-farm consultations for clients who want to make best use of the fertility program. 

Increasing Soil Organic Matter Through Organic Agriculture

By André Leu

Numerous scientific studies show that soil organic matter provides many benefits for building soil health such as improv­ing the number and biodiversity of beneficial microorganisms that pro­vide nutrients for plants, including fixing nitrogen, as well as controlling soilborne plant diseases. The decom­position of plant and animal residues into SOM can provide all the nutri­ents needed by plants and negate the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers that are responsible for numerous environ­mental problems.

The year 2015 was declared the International Year of Soils by the 68th UN General Assembly with the theme “Healthy Soils for a Healthy Life.” I was particularly pleased with the theme because this is a message that we in the organic sector have been spreading for more than 70 years, and at first we were ridiculed. Now there is a huge body of science showing that what we observed in our farming systems is indeed correct.

“Organic farming” became the dominant name in English-speaking countries for farming systems that eschew toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers through J.I. Rodale’s global magazine Organic Farming and Gar­dening, first published in the United States in the 1940s. Rodale promot­ed this term based on building soil health by the recycling of organic matter through composts, green ma­nures, mulches and cover crops to increase the levels of soil organic matter as one of the primary management techniques.

organic field
Organic vs. Conventional. The higher levels of organic matter allow the soil in the organic field to resist erosion in heavy rain events and capture more water.
Water run-off

Soil organic matter improves soil structure so that it is more resistant to erosion and is easier to till, resulting in lower energy use and less greenhouse gas output. Soils with good SOM levels are more efficient at absorbing rain­water and storing it for plants to use in dry periods. Studies show that organic systems get around 30 percent higher yields in periods of drought than con­ventional systems due to the increase of SOM and its ability to capture and store water for crops.

SOM is composed largely of car­bon that is captured as CO2 from the air by plants through photosynthe­sis. Published, peer-reviewed meta-studies show that organic farming systems are superior to conventional systems in capturing CO2 from the atmosphere (the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change) and sequestering it into the ground as SOM.

Soil Organic Matter & Climate Change

Worldwide, agriculture is respon­sible for between 11 and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the boundaries and methodolo­gies used to determine its emissions. According to the United Nations En­vironment Programme, the estimates of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 were 50.1 gigatons of carbon di­oxide equivalent (Gt CO2e) per year. To keep global mean temperature increases below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, GHG emissions will have to be reduced to a median level of 44 Gt CO2e in 2020.

This means that the world will have to reduce the current level of emissions by 6.1 Gt CO2e by 2020 and reduce it every subsequent year. According to the latest World Me­teorological Organization figures, the levels of GHG pollution in the atmosphere and the oceans are the highest in history and are still increasing.

Keeping the rise in temperature below 2°C will not only involve re­ducing emissions through energy effi­ciency, renewable energy and cleaner energy sources; sequestering GHGs already present in the atmosphere will also be necessary to reduce the current levels. Currently most seques­tration is based on growing biomass as carbon sinks and capturing it as wood-based products.

Soils are the greatest carbon sink after the oceans. According to Profes­sor Rattan Lal of Ohio State Univer­sity, there are over 2,700 Gt of carbon stored in soils worldwide. This is considerably more than the combined total of 780 Gt in the atmosphere and the 575 Gt in biomass.

The amount of CO2 in the oceans is already causing problems, particu­larly for species with calcium exo­skeletons such as coral. Scientists are concerned that the increase in acid­ity caused by higher levels of CO2 is damaging these species and threatens the future of marine ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef.

Mitigation Through Aboveground Biomass

Currently the major push for car­bon sequestration is through above-ground biomass, despite that fact that its potential as a carbon sink is signifi­cantly less than that of soil. The other issue is the need to take land out of food production to grow trees. There is some potential with agroforestry and trees as shade cover for some cash crops like coffee and cacao, however this will deliver considerably less than research has shown can be sequestered into soils with good agri­cultural practices.

Sequestration Through Agriculture 

The ability of soils to absorb enough CO2 in order to stabilize cur­rent atmospheric CO2 levels is a criti­cal issue, and there is a major debate over whether this can be achieved through farming practices. Reviews of conventional farming systems have found that most are losing soil car­bon and at best they can only slow the rate of loss. On the other hand, farming systems that recycle organic matter and use crop rotations can increase the levels of soil organic car­bon (SOC).

A preliminary study by the Re­search Institute of Organic Agricul­ture, Switzerland, published by FAO, collated 45 comparison trials between organic and conventional systems that included 280 data sets. These studies included data from grasslands, arable crops and permanent crops in several continents. A simple analysis of the data shows that on average the or­ganic systems had higher levels of soil carbon sequestration.

Dr. Andreas Gattinger and col­leagues wrote, “In soils under organic management, the SOC stocks aver­aged 37.4 tons C ha-1, in comparison to 26.7 tons C ha-1 under non-organic management.”

This means that the average differ­ence between the two management systems (organic and conventional) was 10.7 tons of C. Using the accepted formula that SOC x 3.67 = CO2, this means an average of more than 39.269 tons of CO2 was sequestered in the organic system than in the con­ventional system.

The average duration of manage­ment of all included studies was 16.7 years. This means that an average of 2,351 kg of CO2 was sequestered per hectare every year in the organic sys­tems compared to the conventional systems.

In a later peer-reviewed meta-anal­ysis, published in PNAS, that used 41 comparison trials and removed the outliers in the data sets in order not to overestimate the data and to obtain a conservative estimate, researchers reported that organic systems seques­tered 550 kg C per hectare per year. This equates to 2018.5 kg CO2 per hectare per year.

Based on these figures, the wide­spread adoption of current organic practices has the potential to sequester around 10 Gt of CO2, which is the range of the emissions gap in 2020 of 8-12 Gt CO2e per year.

The potential exists for higher lev­els of CO2 sequestration. All data sets that use averaging have outlying data. These are examples that are sig­nificantly higher or significantly lower than the average.

There are several examples of higher levels of carbon sequestra­tion than the averages quoted in the studies above. The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has been conducting long-running comparisons of organic and conventional cropping systems for more than 30 years that confirm organic methods are effective at re­moving CO2 from the atmosphere and fixing it as organic matter in the soil. Tim LaSalle and Paul Hepperly wrote, “In the FST [Rodale Institute farm systems trial] organic plots, car­bon was sequestered into the soil at the rate of 875 lbs/ac/year in a crop rotation utilizing raw manure, and at a rate of about 500 lbs/ac/year in a rota­tion using legume cover crops.

During the 1990s, results from the Compost Utilization Trial (CUT) at Rodale Institute — a 10-year study comparing the use of composts, ma­nures and synthetic chemical fertil­izer — show that the use of composted manure with crop rotations in organic systems can result in carbon seques­tration of up to 2,000 lbs/ac/year. By contrast, fields under standard tillage relying on chemical fertilizers lost almost 300 pounds of carbon per acre per year.”

Converting these figures into kilo­grams of CO2 sequestered per hectare using the accepted conversion rate of 1 pound per acre = 1.12085116 kg/ ha and SOC x 3.67= CO2, gives the following results: The FST legume-based organic plots showed that car­bon was sequestered into the soil at the rate of about 500 lbs/ac/year. This is equivalent to a sequestration rate of 2,055.2kg of CO2/ha/yr, which is close to the average found in the Gat­tinger meta-study.

However, other organic systems produced much higher rates of se­questration. The FST manured or­ganic plots showed that carbon was sequestered into the soil at the rate of 875 lbs/ac/year. This is equivalent to a sequestration rate of 3,596.6 kg of CO2/ha/year and if extrapolated globally would sequester 17.5 Gt of CO2.

The CUT showed that carbon was sequestered into the soil at the rate of 2,000 lbs/ac/year. This is equivalent to a sequestration rate of 8,220.8 kg of CO2/ha/year and if extrapolated globally, would sequester 40 Gt of CO2.

A meta-analysis by Eduardo Agu­ilera et al. published in the peer-re­viewed journal, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, of 24 comparison trials in Mediterranean climates be­tween organic systems and non-or­ganic systems without organic supple­ments found that the organic systems sequestered 970 kg of C/ha/year more than the non-organic systems. This equates to 3559.9 kg of CO2/ha/year. The data came from comparison trials from Mediterranean climates in Eu­rope, the United States and Australia, and if extrapolated globally, would sequester 17.4 Gt of CO2.

The Louis Bolk Institute conducted a study to calculate soil carbon seques­tration at SEKEM, the oldest organic farm in Egypt. Their results show that on average SEKEM’s management practices resulted in 900 kg of carbon being stored in the soil per hectare per year in the fields that were 30 years old. Using the accepted formula of SOC x 3.67 = CO2, this means that SEKEM has sequestered 3,303 kg of CO2 per hectare per year for 30 years.

Based on these figures, the adop­tion of SEKEM’s practices globally has the potential to sequester 16 Gt of CO2, which is around 30 percent of the world’s current GHG emission into soils.

It is not the intention of this paper to use the above types of generic exercises of globally extrapolating data as scientific proof of what can be achieved by scaling up organic systems. These types of very simple analyses are useful for providing a conceptual idea of the considerable potential of organic farming to reduce GHG emissions on a landscape scale. The critical issue here is that urgent peer-reviewed research is needed to understand how and why — and for the skeptics, if — these systems seques­ter significant levels of CO2 and then look at how to apply the findings for scaling up on a global level in order to achieve GHG mitigation.

Greater Resilience in Adverse Conditions 

According to research by the UN­FCCC IPCC Fourth Assessment Re­port (IPCC 2007) and others, the world is seeing increases in the fre­quency of extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy rainfall. Even if the world stopped polluting the planet with greenhouse gases to­morrow, it would take many decades to reverse climate change. This means that farmers have to adapt to the increasing intensity and frequency of adverse and extreme weather events.

organic vs conventional fields
From The Rodale Institute: Organic vs. Conventional fields side by side.

Published studies show that organic farming systems are more resilient to predicted weather extremes and can produce higher yields than conven­tional farming systems in such con­ditions. For instance, the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials found that organic yields were higher in drought years and the same as con­ventional in normal weather years.

Improved Water Use Efficiency 

Research shows that organic sys­tems use water more efficiently due to better soil structure and higher levels of humus and other organic matter compounds. D.W. Lotter and col­leagues collected data over 10 years during the Rodale Farm Systems Trial. Their research showed that the organ­ic manure system and organic legume system (LEG) treatments improve the soils’ water-holding capacity, infiltra­tion rate and water capture efficiency. The LEG maize soils averaged 13 percent higher water content than conventional system (CNV) soils at the same crop stage and 7 percent higher than CNV soils in soybean plots. The more porous structure of organically treated soil allows rain­water to quickly penetrate the soil, resulting in less water loss from runoff and higher levels of water capture. This was particularly evident during the two days of torrential downpours from hurricane Floyd in September 1999, when the organic systems cap­tured around double the water as the conventional systems.

Long-term scientific trials con­ducted by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland comparing organic, biodynamic and conventional systems had similar re­sults showing that organic systems were more resistant to erosion and better at capturing water.

“We compare the long-term effects (since 1948) of organic and conven­tional farming on selected properties of the same soil. The organically farmed soil had significantly higher organic matter content, thicker topsoil depth, higher polysaccharide content, lower modulus of rupture and less soil erosion than the conventionally-farmed soil. This study indicates that, in the long term, the organic farming system was more effective than the conventional farming system in re­ducing soil erosion and, therefore, in maintaining soil productivity (Regan­old et al. 1987).”

Humus, a key component of SOM, allows for the ability of organic soils to be more stable and to hold more water. This is due to its ability to hold up to 30 times its own weight in water, and being a ‘sticky’ polymer, glues the soil particles together, giving greater resistance to water and wind erosion.

There is a strong relationship be­tween SOM levels and the amount of water that can be stored in the root zone. The table below should be taken as a rule of thumb, rather than as a precise set of measurements. Different soil types will hold different volumes of water when they have the same levels of organic matter due to pore spaces, specific soil density and a range of other variables. Sandy soils generally hold less water than clay soils.

The table above gives an under­standing of the potential amount of water that can be captured from rain and stored at the root zone in relation to the percentage of SOM.

There is a large difference in the amount of rainfall that can be captured and stored between the current SOM level in most traditional farms in Asia and Africa and a good organic farm with reasonable SOM levels. This is one of the reasons why organic farms do better in times of low rainfall and drought.

The Rodale Farming Systems Trial showed that the organic systems produced more corn than the conventional system in drought years. The average corn yields during the drought years were 28 to 34 percent higher in the two organic systems. The yields were 6,938 and 7,235 kg per ha in the organic animal and organic legume systems, respectively, compared with 5,333 kg per ha in the conventional system. The researchers attributed the higher yields in the dry years to the ability of the soils on organic farms to better absorb rainfall. This is due to the higher levels of organic carbon in those soils, which makes them more friable and better able to capture and store rainwater which can then be used for crops.

This is very significant information as the majority of the world’s farming systems are rain-fed. The world does not have the resources to irrigate all of the agricultural lands, nor should such a project be undertaken. Improving the efficiency of rain-fed agricultural systems through organic practices is the most efficient, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and practical solution to ensure reliable food production in the face of increasing weather extremes.

Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers 

One of the main reasons for the differences in soil carbon between organic and conventional systems is that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers de­grade soil carbon. Research shows a direct link between the application of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers and decline in soil carbon.

Scientists from the University of Il­linois analyzed the results of a 50-year agricultural trial and found that syn­thetic nitrogen fertilizer resulted in all the carbon residues from the crop disappearing as well as an average loss of around 10,000 kg of carbon per hectare per year. This is around 36,700 kg of CO2 per hectare on top of the many thousands of kilograms of crop residue that is converted into CO2 every year.

Researchers found that the higher the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer the greater the amount of soil carbon lost as CO2. This is one of the major reasons why most conventional agricultural systems have a decline in soil carbon while most organic sys­tems increase soil carbon.

Plant-Available Nitrogen Levels

One of the main concerns about organic agriculture is how to get suf­ficient plant-available nitrogen with­out using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers such as urea.

SOM, particularly the humus frac­tions, tend to have a carbon nitrogen ratio of 9:1 to 11:1. As the carbon levels increase, the amount of soil ni­trogen increases in order to maintain the carbon-nitrogen ratios. Adding organic matter into the soil to increase carbon, results in the nitrogen levels increasing.

organic nitrogen in soil amounts
Table: amount of organic nitrogen held in soil.

Much of this soil nitrogen is fixed by free-living soil microorganisms such as azobacters and cyanobacte­rias. The use of DNA sequencing is revealing that cohorts of numerous thousands of species of free-living microorganisms are involved in fix­ing nitrogen from the air into plant available forms. There are many stud­ies that show that there is a strong relationship between higher levels of SOM and higher levels of soil biologi­cal activity.

This biological activity includes free-living nitrogen-fixers, and they turn the atmospheric nitrogen, the gas that makes up 78 percent of the air, into the forms that are needed by plants. They do this at no cost and are a major source of plant-available nitrogen that is continuously over­looked in most agronomy texts.

New research has found a new group of nitrogen-fixing organisms called endophytic microorganisms. These microbes can colonize the roots of numerous plant species including rice, grain crops and sugar cane.

Soil Carbon, Nitrogen Ratios 

It is important to get an understanding of the potential for how much nitrogen can be stored in SOM for the crop to use. SOM contains nitrogen expressed in a Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio. This is usually in ratios from 11:1 to 9:1; however, there can be further variations. The only way to firmly establish the ratio for any soil is to do a soil test and measure the amounts.

For the sake of explaining the amount of organic nitrogen in the soil we will use a ratio of 10:1 to make the calculations easier.

The amount of carbon in SOM is expressed as SOC and is usually measured as the number of grams of carbon per kilogram of soil. Most texts will express this as a percentage of the soil to a certain depth. There is an accepted approximation ratio for the amount of soil organic carbon in soil organic matter: SOC × 1.72 = SOM.

The issue of working out the amount of SOC as a percentage of the soil by weight is complex as the specific density of the soil has to be factored in because some types of soils are denser and therefore heavier than other soils. This will change the weight of carbon as a percentage of the soil.

To make these concepts readily understandable we will use an average estimation developed by Dr. Christine Jones, one of Australia’s leading soil scientists and soil carbon specialists. According to Dr. Jones: “… a 1 percent increase in organic carbon in the top 20 cm of soil represents a 24 t/ha [24,000 kg] increase in SOC …”

This means that a soil with 1 percent SOC would contain 24,000 kg of carbon per hectare. With a 10:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio this soil would contain 2,400 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare in the top 20 centimeters, the primary root zone.

The conventional dogma around nitrogen is that it can only be used by plants if it is in the form of nitrate or ammonium and that organic nitrogen is mostly not available to the crop until it has been converted into these two forms of N.

There are hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies that show that this assumption is incorrect and that in natural systems plants take up nitrogen in numerous organic forms such as amino acids, amino acid precursors and DNA.

The fact is that the significant proportion of the organic nitrogen in the soil is readily available to the crop. The key to get an adequate level of N is to increase SOM levels rather than adding synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

Given that synthetic nitrogen destroys organic matter, the use of these fertilizers should be avoided as they lock farmers into a perpetual dependence on these costly inputs once the organic matter levels have been run down and most of the organic nitrogen forms in the soil have been depleted. Farmers should be encouraged to obtain all their nitrogen from organic sources such as composts, manures, green manures and legumes and build up their organic matter levels.

By André Leu. This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

André Leu is the author of Poisoning our Children and The Myths of Safe Pesticides. He is the International Director of Regeneration International.

True Soil Health: Create the Capacity to Function Without Intervention

By Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer Durand
From the October 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

My philosophy is that whatever you do on your farm should improve soil health. But how do you know what that is? The USDA defines soil health as, “The continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” I would add to that definition and say that soil health isn’t just the capacity to function, it’s the capacity of soils to function without intervention.

Soil management creates healthy corn

What counts as “intervention?” Does intervention mean biotechnology, insecticides, fungicides and tillage? Is fertilizer an intervention? Do these interventions make your farm better for future years? I believe money spent on interventions needs to be shifted to inputs that yield soil health.

Appropriate intervention when absolutely needed is wise, but the goal is minimum intervention — in other words do everything you can to get the soils healthy and mineralized. Mineralize your soils using exchangeable nutrient sources that come from the carbon biological system. You have to create an ideal home for soil life and feed them in order to build soil health.

Remove the negatives, which include monoculture crops and excessive tillage. Reduce the use of other possible negatives added through harsh soluble fertilizers and excessive nitrogen, not to mention chemicals and biotechnology.

Farming for soil health means treating your farm like a system. For years we have been promoting the “rules” of biological farming (Six Principles of Biological Farming). Following these rules will lead to healthy soils that produce good yields. The soil health guidelines you now see published in many places focus on minimum disturbance with an emphasis on no-till. In my opinion not all soils are capable of being farmed no-till.

The Six Principles of Biological Farming

  1. Test and balance your soils, and in addition, feed the crop a balanced supplemented diet.
  1. Use fertilizers that do the least damage to soil life and plant roots. Watch salt and ammonia levels. Use a balance of soluble and slow-release nutrients for a controlled pH. Use homogenized micronutrients — add carbon — and place them properly to enhance performance.
  1. Use pesticides, herbicides, biotechnology and nitrogen in minimum amounts and only when absolutely necessary.
  1. Create maximum plant diversity by using green manure crops and tight rotations.
  1. Use tillage to control the decay of organic materials and to control soil air and water. Zone tillage, shallow incorporation of residues and deep tillage work great on many farms.
  2. Feed the soil life, using carbon from compost, green manures, livestock manures and crop residues. Apply calcium from a quality source in order to feed your crop and soil life.

I believe strip-till has its place on many farms as the strips create an ideal area where you can concentrate needed nutrient inputs and warm up our northern soils in order to grow large root systems. Some farms may also need to run deep rippers as compaction is a problem on many farms, and tight waterlogged soils are not healthy.

On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag

Learn about soil health in person with Gary Zimmer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – July 19-20, 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn biological farming from Gary Zimmer himself!

Learn more here!

Regenerative Farming

Regenerative farming is another philosophy of farming with a focus on soil health. Not just sustaining your soils but regenerating them makes sense, but this method of farming generally calls for cattle on every farm. Just like no-till doesn’t fit every farm, having cattle is not possible on every farm.


Cattle are desired for digestion — they eat the cover crops and digest them into plant nutrients in the form of manure. While this system can work well in northern climates where there is low rainfall and snow and frozen soils to minimize soil damage, how do you deal with waist-high cover crops in cold, wet, black soils? And what about all the compaction caused by those large animals stomping around, often in wet conditions?

I am a believer in growing cover crops and shallow incorporating the residues, using strip-till to get the right nutrients in the right place, with deep ripping to break up compaction. I believe on most farms some tillage is needed, but it’s the middle zone from 3-8 inches down with earthworm channels and old, dying roots that needs to be left alone. You don’t want to break up all your soil aggregates, fungal networks and homes for soil life, but you do want to till in order to digest residues and keep the soil loose and crumbly for air and water to infiltrate.

Plant Diversity

The more diversity of plants that you grow, the more types of root exudates to feed the soil life, and therefore the more diverse the soil biology and the less likely potential for large populations of trouble-causing insects and diseases. The plants determine the soil life so the more types of plants, the more diverse the biological life pool, and no one population takes control. Planting a diversity of crops and cover crops leads to healthy soils and healthy plants.


Minerals are also key for soil health and crop yields. There are at least 20 minerals known to grow healthy crops, and balance and ratio between those minerals is important, as is having a soil sufficiency level.

Trace elements are often overlooked, but are a key to plant health. Farmers often look for the direct yield increase for any added inputs on their farm, but what about the benefits gained from healthier plants that are able to resist pests and diseases?

Healthier plants lead to fewer interventions, which saves money and increases profits.

When applying fertilizer I like adding minerals in a carbon biological matrix. This is the way it’s done in nature. Plants, animals and soil biology all die with minerals tied to carbon in their bodies, and as they decompose they give those minerals up in a timed-release process.

For liquid carbon-based fertilizers I like to mix molasses or humic acids with the minerals. With dry fertilizers I like compost or digested manures. We use the manures from dairy farms that have gone through an anaerobic digester and then have minerals added to make blends that fit the farm’s needs. This anaerobic digestate and mineral blend has a large number of biological properties and dead bugs from the digester process that feed soil life and give up minerals in a plant-available form.

It’s also important to keep your soil life fed with the right kinds of food to maintain balance in the soil. I think of it as feeding the soil life like we feed our dairy cows. Any high-producing healthy dairy cow not only has a diversity of food in her diet but also has added minerals to maintain her health.

Her feed is a balance of soluble and slowly digestible food sources. You don’t get high production from feeding all mature, lignified plants because even though the cow may be healthy, production will be low as her rumen is spending a lot of time and energy doing the digesting. The same is true for soils.

alfalfa crop
Working in a young alfalfa crop in May helps provide nutrients for the corn about to be planted on this field. This practice provides readily available food for microbes and cycles a lot of nitrogen for this year’s crop.

Mature cover crops are slow to digest, which means they tie up nutrients and starve the crop while they’re breaking down. Young, green, knee-high diverse plant mixes will rapidly break down after they’re shallowly incorporated, providing soluble nutrients that feed soil bacteria and your crops for high yields.

As an organic farmer I have no choice but to take advantage of the nutrients released by working in a young cover crop if I want to grow high-yielding, nutrient-demanding crops like corn. Supplying nutrients for a good organic corn crop is like feeding a milk cow to get 100 pounds of milk per day — you need a lot of grain and other quickly digestible nutrients.

Growing legumes like soybeans is more like feeding your dry cow. You don’t need as many quickly available soluble nutrients, so you can use more mature plants that are slower-release nutrient sources.

When farming organically you have to get this system working perfectly or you need to do some interventions. Smaller amounts of high-quality fertilizers and nitrogen properly placed and timed provide extra quickly available nutrients to feed your crop.

Even though you can have really healthy soils by growing only mature cover crops and doing no-till and compost, you won’t get great yields following this practice.

Mature cover crops will build soil organic matter, but they do it by breaking down slowly and scavenging nitrogen, sulfur and other key nutrients from the soil.

Those nutrients will eventually be released back into the soil, but it can take a long time, and in the meantime your crops will be starved of those nutrients. Yield is minerals, sunshine and water, and when you limit minerals, you limit yields.

The Soil Health Mineral

In my opinion the final key to soil health is managing calcium because calcium is king. For soil health you need to maintain a certain sufficiency level of calcium in the soil, but it’s also important to add smaller amounts of a soluble calcium source that fits your soil and crops and provides minerals above and beyond what the soil can dish out. Calcium is the soil health mineral — it builds good soil structure, is a key nutrient for earthworms and interacts with soil aggregates to provide homes for other forms of soil life.

All of these management practices may sound difficult and complex, but at the end of the day achieving soil health on your farm is really simple. For healthy, high-yielding soils you need to deal with the physical (soil structure and tillage), chemical (nutrients) and biological (plant diversity and soil life) soil properties.

It’s a system. When you balance all of the components of the soil the system works and farming is a joy.

By Gary F. Zimmer & Leilani Zimmer Durand. This article appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer Durand are the authors of Advancing Biological Farming, a sequel to Gary’s earlier book, The Biological Farmer, both published by Acres U.S.A. Gary is also an organic dairy farmer, an accomplished speaker, a sought-after farm consultant and president of Midwestern BioAg, a biological farming products and services company. Leilani has written extensively about biological farming and runs training courses for farmers and farming consultants on the principles of biological farming at Midwestern BioAg where she serves as vice president of education initiatives.

Both are regular speakers at the annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference, and other related events.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

Learn biological farming this summer with Gary Zimmer. The On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag is a two-day educational event. Join a small group of fellow farmers and growers on Gary Zimmer’s Otter Creek Organic Farm in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. Walk away with practical information you can apply to your operation right away! Event lasts from July 19-20 so don’t wait to sign up! Learn more about it here.

Farming to Improve Soil Health

By Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer Durand

Today, you can’t pick up a farm paper or any other ag publication without seeing something about cover crops, minimum tillage and farming to improve soil health.

But what exactly is meant by “soil health?” Much of the soil health focus is on soil biology and fostering a healthy, diverse, living ecosystem in the soil. I agree that soil life is a key component of soil health, but in my opinion, the other important aspect of soil health is the soil’s ability to dish out nutrients to the crop, and then using the right sources of minerals to make up for any shortcomings in what the soil can provide. This aspect of soil health is often overlooked in discussions on the topic, but is equally important in getting you a high-quality bumper crop.

Like many aspects of biological farming, it’s the balance of different components that makes the system work.

farming to improve soil health

I believe that many farmers now recognize that the soil is alive, a teeming underground city of creatures, all doing their own “jobs,” working together. They can be really productive, naturally balancing things out and providing nutrients for the crop that’s being grown. Soil health under this definition is a balance of organisms — no group crowding out any other group, seizing control and causing crop problems.

To achieve healthy biology, we as farmers have to create a healthy environment (ideal amounts of air and water) and provide food for this balance of soil life. You get what you manage for! A diverse diet feeds a diverse population of organisms.

The soil life needs this food in its ideal location — near the soil surface where more air is present, and preferably lightly mixed into the soil. This also prevents the formation of a crust, which shuts off the air supply and curtails biological activity. Just letting all the residues accumulate on top of the ground keeps them out of the reach of soil-dwelling organisms.

That’s why you see so many ads for machinery that talk about vertical tillage, mixing in some residues to feed soil life while leaving some on top to protect the soil surface and keep soil temperatures more stable.

Soil health is a working soil system where you feed the biology and also maintain good soil structure through minimum disturbance, shallow incorporation and deep ripping, as needed, to make sure there’s drainage and air in the soil. Waterlogged soils drown many aerobic (meaning they need oxygen) soil organisms and compacted soils harm them as well.

You need crop rotations, plant diversity and management of residues.

Young plants are digested differently than mature plants, and they also feed different soil organisms.

Think about feeding the soil life the same way you would feed your cows. If you want a rapid nutrient release to feed a crop like corn, feed your soil life like a top cow that produces 100 pounds of milk per day — with lots of energy and no shortage of soluble nutrients. On the other hand, if you want to build soil organic matter, grow a crop with low nutrient needs which means feeding the soil like you would a dry cow or an older beef cow that’s not milking.

In this case, the focus is on a slower release of nutrients and more fibrous materials that digests slowly.

Three Types of Carbon in Soil

In my book Advancing Biological Farming, I explain how to feed soil life to achieve different goals by describing the three types of carbon in the soil — green, brown and black — and what they do.

Black Carbon

Black carbon is made up of mature humus-type compost, humates, biochar and other black materials.

Each of these black carbon sources is different, but what they have in common is that they are not food for much soil life. They are already digested — the by-product of what the soil life has already consumed — with many soil-building benefits.

They are good for soils if your focus is on building stable carbon. The type and source of inputs you feed soil life controls the results you see.

Brown Carbon

Brown carbon is made up of mature plants, and is harder to digest and slower to break down inputs like manure with a lot of straw bedding in it and woody materials. Because it has more lignin in it, it’s broken down by fungi and actinomycetes in the soil and will build soil organic matter.

Green Carbon

Green carbon is highly digestible bacteria food. It’s made up of things like liquid dairy manure, chicken manure and young, green, succulent cover crop plants. It’s easily digested by soil bacteria, and the nutrients from green carbon sources cycle in the soil quickly. Green carbon doesn’t do much to build long-term soil organic matter but it does aid in crop growth by stimulating bacteria and getting nutrients into a plant-available form.

Learn how to manage your soil life by deciding what you feed it, picking inputs that fit the crop you are going to grow and the results you are after.

My main goal on my farm is to build soils and grow high-yielding crops without lots of synthetic inputs. That’s why I work in a lot of young, succulent cover crops and put on dairy manure and chicken manure. I also want to maintain or increase my organic matter levels, so I also use compost and humates on my fields and let some cover crops get more mature when I am focused on a soil-building year for a particular field.

USDA-SARE Definition of a Healthy Soil

  • Accommodates active and diverse populations of beneficial organisms, with plant pest populations minimized by beneficials.
  • Contains high levels of relatively fresh residues that provide beneficials with food.
  • Includes high levels of decomposed organic matter, which help it retain both water and readily leachable nutrients.
  • Contains low levels of such toxic compounds as soluble aluminum and only low to moderate concentrations of salt.
  • Supports adequate levels of nutrients because excessive nutrients can make the crop more attractive to insect pests or can increase the threat of surface or subsurface water pollution.
  • Has a sufficiently porous surface with many pores connected to subsoil to permit easy entry by rainfall or irrigation water.
  • Has good tilth that allows plant roots to easily penetrate large volumes of soil.

Source: USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE):www.sare.org

On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag

Learn about soil health in person with Gary Zimmer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – starting in summer 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. 

Learn more here!

Improve Soil Health by Minding Minerals

The USDA soil health definition (above) covers a lot of important aspects of soil health that I agree with: high levels of biology; low levels of toxic compounds; good tilth; no soil crust and good water infiltration; lots of fresh residues; and no nutrients in excess. But in my opinion this definition misses a key aspect: using the right sources of minerals in the right balance. You can’t have a healthy soil where you grow a good crop without adding a quality source of minerals.

A balance of all minerals is needed for healthy soils and healthy crops — just like we are going to feed to that cow giving 100 pounds of milk per day. Your soil has a certain ability to dish out minerals to the crop, and soil testing shows how much of each mineral is there — both the minerals that are in short supply and those in excess. Based on your soil report, add what’s short from a high-quality source in order to balance the soil minerals. It’s also important to apply a crop fertilizer that provides a balance of nutrients, preferably hooked to a carbon source that has both soluble and timed-release ingredients.

Remember, you don’t need to apply all the minerals your crop needs for the whole growing season because the fertilizer you add is there to feed your crop above and beyond what your soils can provide.

What is humus made of

On my light to medium soils I can get yields as good as the farmer who has high OM, high CEC soils. Either they are not addressing all of their limiting factors and not reaching their potential (which is certainly a part of it), or soil with beautiful structure, good mineral balance and volumes of soil life being farmed well can make up for a lot.

Many people overlook the fact that the soil life also needs mineral nutrition. When your soil is short minerals, the soil life suffers. Not adding enough minerals from a high-quality source will starve your soil life just like it starves a crop plant or a high-performing milk cow.

Soil organisms are living and are made up of sugars, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, enzymes and other molecules, similar to plants and animals. Short your soil of minerals, and you’re going to have an impact on the health or diversity of your soil biology, or both. Similarly, if you have an excess of one type of mineral, or apply a very high-pH, high-ammonia or high-salt index fertilizer, it’s going to have a negative impact on your soil life. You need to supply your soil life with a balanced diet from high-quality sources to keep it healthy and thriving.

I believe with all this new focus on soil health and the tools to measure it, farms will start to be valued based on the quality of the soil and production potential. Rather than the current focus only on what it is worth per square foot, farmers and farmland investors are going to be looking at the health and long-term sustainability of the farm.

I don’t believe that right now most farmers are farming to their full potential — meaning growing healthy, clean foods while not damaging our environment — but I do believe that is going to change.

When I travel to different parts of the country and around the world, I see farmers making positive changes to their farms in order to improve quality and sustainability. For example, I recently returned from a trip to the United Kingdom and was on a wheat, small grain and bean farm that was 100 percent no-till except for the planting equipment. It was a successful operation with good soil health and crop production, although many chemicals were used to control weeds and pests. It had taken the farmer many years to get healthy soils — he had to “earn the right” to go no-till.

During the transition, things went backward for a time before his system began working well and became profitable. In my opinion, if you start out with a good plan and transition system in place, going backward in order to go forward isn’t necessary.

You have to improve soil quality and get your soil life healthy and functioning before things start to really work in a no-till system.

He farms in the northern parts of the UK, so he focused on growing small grains and low-residue legumes. He didn’t grow corn, as a 200 bushel/acre crop leaves a large pile of residues, and dealing with all that trash would require different management such as shallow incorporation or zone tillage. By growing only small grains with their smaller residues and young green manure crops, the earthworms could come up out of the ground and pull the residues down into the soil. It was an impressive operation, and his method fit his crops in his climate with his soils and his management skills.

In addition to focusing on healthy biology, the farmer also didn’t skimp when it came to nutrients. He used good amounts of balanced fertilizer from high-quality sources and addressed trace minerals as well as NPK, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. By focusing on both biology and nutrients, he has transformed his farm into an impressive high-yielding, high-quality operation.

This farmer was very successful with no-till, but not all farms are the same, and you have to find a system that fits your farm. Not all farms are suited to go 100 percent no-till.

The soils and farms that are very successful and at the top of the scale are not there by accident. The farmers who run these operations focus on all aspects of soil and crop health and address limiting factors on their farm, in their climate, so they can farm to their maximum potential.

Soil health management along with soil mineral management is what it’s all about. Confusion on how to get there is the issue. On your farm, put a system in place that addresses all aspects of soil health: the chemical, physical and biological, and then add the management, farming tools and nutrients to move to the top.

The principles for farming successfully with healthy soils and crops haven’t changed. I still believe in and follow the Six Principles of Biological Farming that I came up with over 20 years ago:

The Six Principles of Biological Farming

  1. Test and balance your soils, and in addition, feed the crop a balanced supplemented diet.
  2. Use fertilizers that do the least damage to soil life and plant roots. Watch salt and ammonia levels. Use a balance of soluble and slow-release nutrients for a controlled pH. Use homogenized micronutrients, add carbon and place them properly to enhance performance.
  3. Use pesticides, herbicides, biotechnology and nitrogen in minimum amounts and only when absolutely necessary.
  4. Create maximum plant diversity by using green manure crops and tight rotations.
  5. Use tillage to control the decay of organic materials and to control soil air and water. Zone tillage, shallow incorporation of residues and deep tillage work great on many farms.
  6. Feed the soil life, using carbon from compost, green manures, livestock manures and crop residues. Apply calcium from a good, plant-available source.

Source: Advancing Biological Farming, by Gary F. Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand

Now consider these questions:

  • Where are you on the curve?
  • What are your farm’s constraints?
  • Are your soils loose, crumbly and biologically active?
  • Do you have a healthy balance of nutrients?
  • If not, what do you need to head in the right direction?

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

About the Authors

Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand are the authors of Advancing Biological Farming, a sequel to Gary’s earlier book, The Biological Farmer, both published by Acres U.S.A. Gary is also an organic dairy farmer, an accomplished speaker, a sought-after farm consultant and president of Midwestern Bio-Ag, a biological farming products and services company. Gary and Leilani spoke at the 2018 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky. To download their presentations, go to Acres U.S.A.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

2021 On-Farm Intensive logo

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – July 19-20, 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn more here!

Soil Minerals: Nature’s Sunken Treasure for Health and Fertility

By Charles Walters

Soil minerals not only can help your plants, but they can help your health too.

Readouts from high-priced instruments tell us that ocean water contains 92 elements — give or take a few, depending on location near ocean vents and extraction methods — which appear as the first 92 entries of Mendeleyev’s periodic table.

We rely on paleontologists and archeologists to tell us what happened with the North American continent. One single event suggests recall before we move forward to place ocean minerals under the microscopic eye.

About 55 million years ago an asteroid crashed into the shallow sea near what is now the Yucatan Peninsula. It had been traveling at perhaps 85,000 miles per hour, give or take, and lost its way for reasons only speculation can supply. The crash terminated the age of dinosaurs, literally leveled most of the continent, extinguished species, annihilated woodlands, and prepared the way for mountains to rise, savannahs to form, and, not least, for mineral dusts to be distributed worldwide.

Periodic table elements minerals

One mineral that asks for our attention is beryllium. It can’t be found on land except at depths that invite paleontologists and their digging tools. Scientists date their finds by the beryllium layer, which was uniformly distributed when the asteroid struck. Yet beryllium shows up in a readout of ocean water. Does it have a role in enzyme formation? If Dr. Maynard Murray is correct, all the elements have a role, all of them governed by the law of homeostasis, even if in concentration they are quite toxic.

The asteroid that struck also shaped our future, as in science fiction. Picture the scene, if you will: A star appears in the heavens. It will not graze, but will punch a hole into the planet as deep as Everest is high. Some of the fragments of exploded rock return to the heavens and a new orbit. Before the ocean can cool the wound, dust bellows skyward to circle the globe. The asteroid itself was perhaps three times the size of Australia’s Ayres Rock, the largest monolith on the planet.

The rock that struck with the explosive force of 100 million megatons of high explosives brought the Mesozoic Age to a close.

On November 19, 1998, the journal Nature published Professor Frank Kilt’s definitive proof. He had found a piece of the asteroid ore taken from the ocean floor. The sample still contained the chemical traces of a carbonaceous chondrite. These chemicals are so rare they rate attention as the most miniscule of traces in ocean water.

The point here is that everything on Earth finds its way into the nutritional center of gravity, the ocean.

The connection between enzymes and specific minerals has been made in only a few cases. The full inventory of knowledge awaits discovery.

For now it is enough to supply a few notes simply to make the point that a shortage or marked imbalance of trace nutrients means malnutrition, bacterial, fungal and viral attack, debilitation and the onset of degenerative metabolic diseases.

It is a shortage that best defines our situation. Elsewhere I have discussed the inability of hybrids to pick up trace nutrients even if they are present in the soil. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that too often the traces simply are not there. Soil scientists can test in vain for cobalt, a trace nutrient generally farmed out and totally missing in almost all American soils. Yet cobalt is essential if brucellosis in cattle and undulant fever in human beings is to be prevented.

At numbers 23 and 24 of the periodic table, you’ll see vanadium and chromium. These are the keys to enzymes that determine glucose tolerance. A deficiency of chromium has been implicated in low blood sugar, hyperglycemia and finally diabetes. There may be more to the story. Since about the end of World War II, many municipalities have added sodium fluoride in one form or another to the drinking water, this on the theory that it strengthens the apatite in teeth. Fluoride is one of four halogens: fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine. Fluorine trumps iodine, for which reason iodine often does not make it to the thyroid, and thyroxin is not produced. Without thyroxin, sugar metabolism becomes a non-event. This deficit in being able to handle sugar is exacerbated by a sugar overbalance in the diet, which has increased from about five pounds per capita in the 1930s to 135 pounds per capita at the present time.

The chromium molecule is required to burn fat, and chromium is simply missing from the soil and food supplements due to unavailability. The chromium molecule is also a demanded element in muscle construction.

Both chromium and vanadium function badly as synthetics. They function best when delivered by plant life, especially by grass.

Sulfur is a nemesis of cancer. Sharks concentrate ocean sulfur in their bodies, which is why some entrepreneurs offer shark cartilage to consumers. There are problems with all the recognized major nutrients and their tendency to achieve excess status with relevant cures that are worse than the cause. Just the same, it should be pointed out that sulfur protects the myelin sheath over nerve endings. It is thus an insurance policy against multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and even Lou Gherig’s disease. Synthetic sulfur may be toxic, but as it appears in ocean water, it has no side effects and no taste. Sulfur supplements are compounds, always inorganic compounds. The side effects can be devastating. Sulfur as it arrives in grass is organic, totally digestible. Sulfur compounds put on restaurant salads and in wine often cause allergic reactions, as evidenced by ringing, perspiration around the collar and on the forehead, even breathing difficulty. The sulfur served up by grass grown on a diet of ocean solids scavenges free radicals, blunts food allergies, assists the liver in producing bile, adjusts pH, and assists in the production of insulin, sugar metabolism.

There seems to be a pecking order to mineral utilization, one so complex science can only hint at nature’s complexity. For instance, that sulfur mentioned earlier requires vitamin C for absorption. In turn, vitamin C demands copper, and copper asks for zinc. Much as elements work together in ocean water, they support each other in the warm-blooded body.

Se, Mendeleyev number 34, is selenium. That short measure of selenium delivered by ocean-grown grass may be the lifetime protection against cancer. It’s an antioxidant. It traps unstable molecules and prevents damage. It helps confer immunity to viruses when ingested in nature’s prescribed amount. There is research that suggests protection from neurotoxins.

The mechanism has been identified. Selenium is used by the body to construct an enzyme that detoxifies staphs and builds immunity. Unfortunately, selenium is generally missing in row crop soils except in some Western regions, where it appears in toxic overloads.

Selenium is implicated in muscular dystrophy, myalgia, cystic fibrosis, irregular heartbeat, Lou Gherig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Sudden Death Syndrome and many other abnormalities, sickle cell anemia and cancer included. There’s more, namely, the nature of fat metabolism. The food industry no longer likes butter. It wants shelf life and therefore uses synthetic fats that do not melt at body temperature. This single fact also defines such compounds as rancid fats filled to the brim with free radicals.

Selenium is best able to deal with the rancid fats that have come to infect — yes, infect — our diet and its overload of free radicals.

We can digress to identify role and function, just the same. Suffice it to say that viruses often inhabit the human system, sheltered from the immune system, often staying on for an opportunity to perform mischief years later. Various viruses and bacteria bow only to minerals that deal with the problem. These minerals have to be organic in the strict meaning of the term. They have to have a carbon passenger, ergo water soluble and of a size that permits transport not only into plants, but into the hiding places perceived to be unreachable by medicines.

That trace of silver in ocean water interdicts the activity of a virus that weakens a cell and turns it anaerobic. The cancer cell, for example, is not aerobic and oxygen consuming — it has turned itself anaerobic and finally goes into wild proliferation. The virus isn’t alone in effecting cancer mischief. Parasites figure, as do toxins and pH levels at variance with human requirements. That is why ocean silver and zinc are so effective in preserving health. The law of homeostasis has decreed that these minerals are to be excreted if not required.

Move down the periodic table a bit and you’ll encounter copper, number 29. This mineral annihilates all parasites and intestinal worms. Entire texts have been written about parasites, some of them essential, most of them not. According to Hulda Clark, fully 97 or 98 percent of the

soil samples in lab
Growing plants in different soil conditions have allowed scientists to learn more about how basic elements affect growth.

American people are loaded with immune system-debasing parasites that take for themselves nutrition basically needed for health. This nutrient is either deficient or missing in the boxed foods sold across grocery store counters. The texts tells us that a copper shortage is often implicated in weight gain, cancer, a raft of allergies, high blood pressure and, yes, weight loss. These little copper-stealing creatures sail in the river of food and defy detection because of their size and metabolic duplicity. The placental barrier saves infants from many distress factors, but it can be breached by an overload of farm chemicals, mercury, atomic fallout and even malnutrition. Research is always indicated, but the promoters of ocean-grown wheat or rye grass are probably well within their mark when they point to copper and the array of minerals in ocean water and ocean-grown grass.

Zinc’s association with copper is too well known to permit delay in presenting these few notes.

Water, of course, is H2O — hydrogen and oxygen. The mere mention of oxygen suggests ozone and serves up the medical definition that ozone is a poisonous gas with no known medical use. A distinction has to be made: Nature’s ozone, like nature’s oxygen, is pure as the driven snow and both safe and efficacious. Ozone produced by high-voltage machinery is a nitric oxide acid gas. Most commercial machines produce a harmful gas. Ocean water does not create nitrous oxide. This is merely an aside and a warning to those who seek shortcuts via machines, when the real shortcut is daily use of wheat or ryegrass juice, especially juice from plants grown with ocean water.

Oxygen is absolutely necessary for digestion.

Silver is a trace mineral that rarely finds a plant list, simply because it isn’t there, at least not in soils. Its role in stomping out infections has been recognized by food supplement suppliers and now enjoys a brisk trickle. Organic silver requires a carbon component not generally available in inorganic supplements. Mere mention of one nutrient does not extinguish the requirement for another.

The efficacy of silver in combating Candida albicans does not rule out the even better efficiency of raw garlic for the same purpose.

All so-called major and minor nutrient elements are microflora in which efficiency is energetically coupled. Don’t let the word frighten you. It simply means that overdosing with one growth factor will change the entire spectrum. An excess of nitrogen will cause potassium deficiency. In fact, every excess disturbs the microflora’s activity, chiefly through nitrification and fixation. Interrelations work their way all through the life chain.

The complexity of nature’s arrangement seems awesome, a regular nightmare for the human being attempting to match wits, calibrate, and supply minerals one at a time. Here is where the ocean and its plenty come to the rescue.

You will note that fluoride is missing from Mendeleyev’s table. Actually, there is no such thing as fluoride. There is a gas called fluorine. Combined with iron, it becomes stanis fluoride, a compound; combined with sodium, it becomes sodium fluoride. Both are said to assist the apatite crystals in teeth to harden. The idea is bogus and merely a device for unloading a waste product from the aluminum and phosphate industries into the water supply. The ocean does not construct these compounds, and fluoride is not taken up by wheatgrass grown in ocean water. The fluoride touted by dentists is a compound that turns stomach acids into fluoric acid. This particular acid is available in many grocery stores to take out rust stains in clothing. Sodium fluoride cancels out over 100 enzyme functions. The late John Yiamouyiannis attributed up to 50,000 deaths per annum by cancer to this contaminant.

The single factor that separates the useful from the useless is carbon. Carbon makes a mineral organic. The inorganic iron in processed foods is not easily assimilated. The worst-case scenario is hemochromostasis, a fatal disease, or iron supplement disease. Much the same is true when inorganic copper gets into the bloodstream, where it causes Wilson’s disease, schizophrenia, the Jekyll-Hyde syndrome, enzyme shutdown and digestive failure. Copper and iron are not copper and iron if they are not organic. People often suffer aneurisms even though tests show they are full of inorganic copper, this because of a copper shortage.

Even lead and mercury have their organic forms and arrive as harmless ingredients in plants. As heavy metals, they are among the most ubiquitous nonradioactive contaminants on planet Earth. Mercury in Portland cement and plastics is a hazard. That fog on the car window on a hot day is created by mercury vapor escaping the plastic. It visits degenerative conditions too numerous to mention on mankind, yet mercury and lead are listed as organic elements in the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. They are found naturally in plants and animals and ocean water, even though we are loathe to list them.

Confusion reigns supreme when human beings doctor themselves with compounds that pretend to supply missing nutrients. Calcium carbonate is a good horrible example. Calcium carbonate is simply one calcium, one carbon, three oxygens — better known as a blackboard chalk. It takes super-big activity to rescue this metabolic contaminant before the system can use the calcium. Usually it doesn’t happen, and the chalk goes down the tube without any beneficial results. Muscle and leg cramps are a consequence of calcium depletion. Using blackboard chalk for a calcium source delivers osteoporosis.

Simply stated, calcium carbonate is inorganic and not water soluble. Suffice it to say that most processed foods such as orange juice, cereals, etc., are loaded with this form of calcium. Ocean calcium is of a different stripe. It is perfect for plant assimilation, a crown jewel in the pantheon of essentials in the soil, the plant and the human being.

The business of counting elements — chromium picolanate, for instance — means making a complex molecular compound. This is the modus operandi for creating many health food supplements and all new drugs. The suggestion that the product is delivering an element leaves unstated the fact that side effects and reverse effect are always a legacy and frequently a debilitating consequence.

If this connection calls into question copper glutamate, zinc, pecolanate, vanadium picolanate and other complex molecular products, so be it. Blood vessels clogged by calcium are legion, as are triple and quadruple bypass surgeries because of blackboard chalk in the food supply and the absence of organic calcium in food crops.

Mere mention of these facts calls into question the recommended daily allowance (RDA). We ask and leave unanswered the question whether tests establishing RDA were accomplished with calcium carbonate or organic calcium!

The first element listed in our elemental inventory is H, hydrogen. Ascorbic acid equals hydrogen in a useable form.

Too little hydrogen equals scurvy. Hydrogen is antagonistic to oxygen and leaves the latter element developing a shortfall of cellular oxygen.

A short digression may be in order. Grind grain, make it into bread, and you invite acidity. Let the grain sprout, then make bread, and the result is more alkalinity, a higher pH. Cooking food tends to lower pH because it destroys enzymes. As pH declines, the ability of the body to absorb nutrients is diminished, leading to deficiency and disease. The pandemic of obesity, now an inescapable fact of American life, is a consequence of low pH in the food supply, among other factors. Viral diseases, cancer parasites, all gain permission for mischief from low-pH acidosis.

Cell division and blood clotting depend on minerals. They keep DNA and RNA activity at the cellular and subcellular level. They make vitamins possible. It is axiomatic that scientists can make vitamins, but they can’t make minerals any more than they can make ocean water.

A full complement of soil minerals makes it possible for the body to self-regulate and self-repair its way out of most afflictions.

Linus Pauling, the only person so far to win two unshared Nobel prizes, once pointed out that you can trace every illness, every disease and every infection to some mineral deficiency. Any mineral deficiency always means there are even more mineral deficiencies waiting in the wings. It is equally true that most of the major degenerative diseases have been developed in test animals by withholding or manipulating critical trace minerals.

These soil minerals have been scoured from agricultural sites over the last two centuries just as surely as if they had been vacuumed out of a family room carpet.

The shocking absence of cobalt and chromium from New Jersey soils was recorded early last century by George H. Earp-Thomas. The issue of missing trace minerals and their role in plant and animal health consumed the working lifetime of William A. Albrecht at the University of Missouri. It also enriched the archives of Friends of the Land at Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm in Ohio. Many of the great professors of the 1930s and 1940s amassed agronomic knowledge right up to 1949, when toxic rescue chemistry became established orthodoxy and agriculture was sent reeling into an uncertain world.

There is a mineral called molybdenum. Its function is to expunge waste from the body. Unfortunately, it is generally missing — as though it went down under with beryllium when the asteroid collided with Earth.

Briefly, the anatomy of disease control and reversal of degenerative metabolic diseases is seated in the organic mineral diet and the vitamins controlled and dispensed by nutrients.

Thus, magnesium walks hand-in-hand with calcium. They go together like ham and eggs. The lack of one diminishes the role of the other.

None of these problems are easily solved with a handful of pills, but all bow to all the minerals in the right form. Magnesium cancels out migraine headaches. This is merely an aside, a hint at the complexity of nature’s demands and a recipe for meeting these demands. The pharmacy pretends to have drugs for asthma, anorexia, neuromuscular problems, depression, tremors, vertigo, organ calcification, etc., all when magnesium is the shortage. There is no need for calcium blockers or the alchemy of synthetic medication. The point here is that there is an absolute shortage of minerals in the food supply. The wheatgrass juice that Ann Wigmore developed seems to be a final benediction and absolution for the transgressors of civilization.

There are mysteries in the ocean we hardly dare mention. Consider that 20 percent of the Earth’s surface contains gold, organic gold. There isn’t enough of it to justify setting up an extracting operation, but ocean water has enough of a trace to make a few suggestions. The literature suggests gold’s offering in battling alcohol addiction, natural problems, circulatory problems — indeed a raft of anomalies that could fill this page. Its presence in ocean water is not a curse, rather a gift no less treasured than was that gold delivered by the magi. Gold’s assent in achieving deep sleep is a staple in folk medicine, albeit one ratified by research and modern experience.

Platinum also appears on Mendeleyev’s table, at number 78. If anything, the presence of platinum in ocean water is even more fortuitous than its gold content. It figures in dealing with PMS, circulation and cancer. It enhances the ability to sleep and sparks daytime energy. Here again, ocean particle sizes contribute to efficiency as well as balance.

These few notes merely hint at the vast complexity contained in energy from the ocean. It has been reported that silver annihilates no less than 650 viruses. It does this because of the valence charge that surrounds resistant molecules when silver is present and able to assert itself. Even though silver kills viruses and anaerobic bacteria, it never harms the friendly fellows, the aerobic bacteria. It will be noted that the most effective burn ointments are silver-based.

Many elements have rated mention in this article. Others bask in silence. We do not know all the answers, or even the questions: Henry Schroeder, in writing The Trace Elements and Man, suggested another 400 years would be required to discern the role of each mineral if the present rate of discovery is maintained. Maynard Murray and Edward Howell calculated equal time for enzymes, knowledge of which is enlarged every day.

While we wait, the ocean abides, and ocean-grown grass waits in the wings for those with the wit to use it.

Editor’s Note: Order Charles Walters’ book, Minerals for the Genetic Code, from Acres U.S.A. bookstore. This article was originally published in the February 2005 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Minerals: The Big 4 for Soil Health

By Gary Zimmer

Minerals and their respective roles in achieving healthy soil is a common topic of discussion among agriculture consultants and farmers. A long time ago, when I was going through my initial soil balance training, mineral balance was all that we talked about. Get the minerals right, address calcium and get it to 68 percent base saturation and all will be great.

The physical and biological aspects of soil weren’t even part of the discussion. Even alternate mineral sources were just touched on. Potassium chloride (KCl) was a no-no due to the high salt index and the chloride, as was dolomitic lime due to our already high magnesium soils. Also on this “not to be used” list was anhydrous ammonia because of its damaging effects on soils. The concept of soil correctives and crop fertilizers wasn’t talked about either, nor was the idea of different calcium sources for different soil conditions. The balance of nutrients on a soil test was the only goal.

Now, looking back, I can certainly see that wasn’t the whole picture. What about the biology and the physical structure? How about making a fertilizer that not only delivered soil minerals but did so more efficiently? Why not have fertilizer that can balance the soluble to the slow release, make sure carbon is added for the buffering effect and provides something for the minerals to attach to so that it is “soil biology food”? Soil health is the capacity to function without intervention; therefore minerals are certainly a part, but not the whole of soil health.

Gary Zimmer, Minerals for Healthy Soil, from the 2017 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (18 minutes, 56 seconds.) Listen in as agronomist Gary Zimmer, author of The Biological Farmer and Advanced Biological Farming, teaches why he puts these four minerals at the top of his priority list.

This article is about the minerals’ role in achieving the goal of soil health.

Minerals: The Big Four

healthy well-mineralized soil
Healthy, well-mineralized soils have good aggregation.

I always talk about my “Big Four” minerals: calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and boron. The Big Four relate to the plant, to the four minerals I like to get at real high levels in a plant compared to normal recommended levels.

Mineral 1: Calcium

Start by adding calcium. In most cases, just having the soil calcium level at some magic number, say 68 percent base saturation, does not guarantee the plant is able to take up sufficient levels of this mineral. The other cations in the soil, K and Mg, have an influence, and the soil’s physical properties also affect this. I know I was taught to get the calcium to magnesium ratio right and the physical structure of the soil will be great. It is true this helps, but it is not the whole picture. If the plant, let’s say it’s an alfalfa crop, on average is 1.5 percent calcium and your crop is 2 percent, something more is at work there. Generally, we have had to add some ‘soluble’ calcium along with boron to get more calcium into the plant.

Gary Zimmer, Gaining a Working Knowledge of Calcium, from the 2002 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. Listen to Gary Zimmer talk about how calcium drives the flow of other minerals and nutrients through the soil and plant, and how to measure and balance calcium levels in your fields.

Remember, not all sources of calcium are the same. Using gypsum, mixing acid materials such as humates with fine ground limestone, burning limestone and hydrating it to make hydrated lime — all alter solubility, in effect making fertilizer out of lime.

After all, soil health is ideally measured as plant health, and plant health affects the health of whoever eats that plant. So it is fair to say that the real measure of a healthy soil is a healthy crop: a high yielding, disease- and insect-free crop. Remember, you can have soil that seems great (lots of earthworms, loose and crumbly texture with a great “root cellar” smell) and yet it doesn’t produce healthy crops.

So how do you get that healthy soil? Step one is to have enough available calcium.

Mineral 2: Phosphorus

Step two is to address phosphorus. Phosphorus is tied to energy production and cycling — get the P level high and you will have a higher yielding, healthier crop. I will use potatoes as an example.

Tomato leaves showing magnesium deficiency.
Tomato leaves showing magnesium deficiency. Healthy leaf is on the left, most affected leaf is on the right.

Potato growers know that the higher the petiole P level, the better the crop. Measuring the petiole and staying above 0.2 percent phosphorus is a challenge. You can apply all the soluble P the plants can tolerate and still not drive that number higher. Some growers have seen levels of 0.45 percent in the petiole on the same crop, same varieties, same locations. Why does that happen? Phosphorus is an indicator mineral because you can’t buy it in, there is a biological link required — soil life such as mycorrizhae need to be there and working in order to get more P into the plant. Just having a soil that tests high in phosphorus doesn’t guarantee high P uptake. I do like to see higher soil P levels, but there is more to getting it in the plant than just high soil test numbers.

Mineral 3: Magnesium

Step three, or mineral indicator number three, is magnesium. Many farmers and scientists already know that having soils with high magnesium levels does not guarantee high levels of the mineral in plants. If the plant takes up lots of magnesium, something ‘balanced’ is happening. Magnesium is another mark of healthy plants. It is needed for photosynthesis and is also a real indicator of proper potassium levels and distribution. (Don’t forget, sulfur is also required to achieve high magnesium exchangeability. Apply sulfate sulfur to make magnesium sulfate, a much more soluble, plant usable form than magnesium carbonate from lime.)

If extra soluble potassium is added, the plant magnesium level will drop. You can’t have both high or excess plant potassium and high magnesium. It just can’t happen! Magnesium and potassium are both cations, and compete with each other for uptake into the plant. It may be that the excess K level is more damaging than the shortage of Mg. And usually with high K, plant levels of calcium are also short.

Mineral 4: Boron

The fourth mineral as indicator is boron. Other trace minerals are also important, but boron being an anion is hard to build up and hold in the soil. It is also critical for calcium uptake and sugar translocation. Apply boron with your calcium source, and you’ll get more calcium uptake than if you apply calcium without any boron.

About Gary Zimmer

Gary Zimmer is the co-author of Advancing Biological Farming, a sequel to his earlier book, The Biological Farmer, both published by Acres U.S.A. He is also an organic dairy farmer, an accomplished speaker, a sought-after farm consultant and president of Midwestern BioAg, a biological farming products and services company.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the October 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn more here!

Minerals for Healthy Soil & High-Quality, Top Yields

By Gary F. Zimmer

It’s a new century, and there is more knowledge about farming and the role of minerals, and there are more farmers paying attention to it. When it comes to farming, we know what the “base” is: putting all the pieces together including minerals, biology and soil structure — and using crop fertilizers that provide above and  beyond what the soil can dish out in terms of nutrients and biology

Even though there’s a lot of discussion about soil health, no-till and soil structure in farming right now, not enough attention is paid to minerals.

It seems like so much of agriculture is spending its time and money chasing magic biologicals, foliars or plant protection and not focusing on doing everything you can to feed your crop a balance of minerals and prevent the problems in the first place.

So what is your limiting factor or constraint that interferes with plant production and plant health? You need to understand that your farming practices have a lot of influence on plant health, and plants that are healthy protect themselves — just as you have an immune system that functions well if you are healthy. Reduce stress; eat a balanced diet with a balance of nutrients; eat a variety of foods that are clean without foreign compounds to fight and a good biological balance. If you get all that right do you need to take supplements?

It’s not farming the same way it was in grandpa’s day because there was a lot he didn’t know. He didn’t understand nutrients, soil health or soil fertility, and didn’t have the tools we have. He was stuck with a “plow.” If I asked you to do everything you could to get your soils healthy and mineralized, what would you do?

cover crops create soil health
A fall mixed cover the author grew after rye was harvested. He used the cover crop to capture nutrients in a biological form and to cycle nutrients to get more minerals into the following cash crop.

Soil Testing

We know there are over 20 minerals needed to grow plants. We know there is a certain level of minerals needed in the soil (a sufficiency level), and that there is a balance or a ratio between them. We also know soil with “perfect” soil testing results does not always grow perfect crops.

Soil testing is not looking for perfection in numbers, it is a tool to identify limiting factors: nutrients that are deficient or in excess. It hopefully doesn’t matter which soil testing lab you use; they all use extraction methods that give clues as to mineral levels and what type of soil it is based on CEC, pH and organic matter. It’s simple to add the nutrients that are short and not to add more of what you already have enough of.

Trust the lab, and then in three to five years, after you have made the necessary corrections, retest with the same lab, pulling your soil samples the same way and at the same time of year. Monitor your plan.

The next question is what type of material to use for correction and how much to use? I always like to start balancing soils by correcting calcium and phosphorus. When correcting your soil for calcium and phosphorus, start by finding the right source and right amounts to fit your soils.

The amount depends on your budget and the crops to be grown. Livestock manures and natural mined materials like rock phosphate, lime, gypsum and K-mag are some of my top choices.

If the pH is low, lime it. Choose the correct type of lime, either high calcium or dolomite, depending on your soils, and don’t overdo it. I never like to go over 2 tons per acre of lime at a time. If the pH is fine and calcium is low and magnesium high, use gypsum.

Calcium works best when boron is added with it. The other minerals like potassium sulfur and traces can be added with your crop fertilizer rather than in a soil corrective, but can’t be ignored.

Crop Fertilizers

While fixing the soils you also need to get a good crop in order to pay the bills. You use crop fertilizers to feed this year’s crop. Crop fertilizer is a balance of nutrients chosen to fit your situation. I don’t want to make this complex — if you want pick the right crop fertilizer yourself, I suggest you read the latest edition of my book The Biological Farmer, Second Edition. There are a lot of examples and guidelines in the book on how to choose fertilizers for different crops and soil types.

Crop fertilizers can be dry or liquid. My first choice is dry as you can get more nutrients for your money. You can also easily add carbon, make homogenized balanced blends and control your pH.

I like my fertilizers to be low in pH because around each pellet in the soil the zone remains acid, keeping nutrient availability longer. I also don’t want all my nutrients to be soluble when added; I prefer some for now and some in a time-released form.

For organic farmers, I like to use biology to grow nitrogen and release nutrients already in the soil, and on top of that add natural mined sources that also contain other minerals like sulfur, silica and many rare needed micro trace elements like selenium.

For trace element fertilizers I use sulfate trace minerals mixed with humates that are a low pH natural mined mineral. For an organic farmer, trace elements are restricted so you need to have a test to prove you need them. But why would anyone buy them if they don’t need them?

Test both your soils and crops to see if you have enough minerals and if they’re getting into the plants. I like adding carbon sources to fertilizers, like mixing minerals with humates or putting the minerals in compost, or adding molasses to liquids. It is not only food for the soil biology but also buffers the minerals and gives them something to hold on to so they don’t tie up or leach.

For the organic major elements, mixing compost with humates, K-Mag, potassium sulfate, rock phosphate and gypsum works well. For organic farmers nitrogen needs to be grown or supplemented with manures.

The soils on a farm the author has been managing for 10 years using lots of biology through crop rotations and mixed cover crops, and feeding the soil a balance of nutrients including calcium, sulfur and trace minerals. The soil has excellent structure, improved organic matter since the author took over managing it, and you can see the aggregation and earthworm channels — all signs of a healthy, biologically active soil.

For the biological farmers we have been building our base fertilizer from nutrients collected from dairy manure out of anaerobic digesters. This manure matrix has lots of biological bodies and properties along with many humic substances. To make blends that fit the farms we can mix in MAP for phosphorus, ammonium sulfate, K-Mag, potassium sulfate and traces — all added to the matrix to give us our carbon base. Our calcium crop fertilizer includes adding humates, sulfur and hydrated lime. The calcium sources should be spread on the land separately from the granulated dry fertilizers due to volume needed and price.

Liquid crop fertilizers can be used and work best as in-row or foliar on high testing, highly mineralized soils. I like higher quality nutrients in the liquids and mix them with carbon sources like molasses or humates.

If I have given you enough information, you will know why you’re applying certain minerals and will have confidence you’ll figure out how.

Supporting Soil Biology with Minerals

After you’ve worked out what minerals you need for both your soil corrective and your crop fertilizer, the next step is to address soil biology and soil health. I think it’s logical — create an ideal home and feed the biology a variety of foods.

Plants determine the soil life, so the more plant variety you have, the more diversity in soil life, and the more success you’ll have growing healthy crops. Digestibility of those crops feeding different types of soil biology is also a big part of it. Mature, rank, “brown” plants are hard to eat and slow to digest. They may build organic matter in soils, but do not provide enough soluble nutrients for the crop to grow.

Young, succulent, highly digestible plants feed more bacteria in the soil, which eat the easy stuff and provide not only a lot of nitrogen but also other nutrients that feed your crop. So choose the plants you want to feed your soil life and the maturity of those plants to achieve the results you’re after.

Soil life wants its food on top and to be left alone. But if the food just lays on top of the soil, how does the biology eat it? It’s like putting the livestock feed on the other side of the fence!

I believe shallow incorporation of plants makes the most sense. Soil life needs air to survive — the fence post rots off near the surface. To support healthy soil life we need to feed them a diversity of plants, apply manure, compost and undigested plant material (like your cover crop) and make sure they have air and water with no crust on the soil. The soil life also needs a balance of minerals. Take every opportunity to have growing plants on the soil. Living roots keep feeding the soil biology, even in winter.

You need healthy soil life in order to maximize the cycling and plant uptake of the minerals you applied, and good soil structure is necessary to protect your soil life.

With a lot of residues mixed in near the surface you protect the soil, avoid crusting and allow rain to soak in.

Because you can’t let the soils be waterlogged if at all possible, I run deep rippers through my fields when compaction starts to be an issue so the water has an easy path to soak in. The only time I would do aggressive tilling like plowing or chiseling is if I’m making a major correction of nutrients or applying a lot of manure.

It’s middle zone where there are many roots and earthworm channels. That “middle zone” (from about 3 inches to 8 inches down in the soil) is what I want to leave alone to protect the breathing tubes for soil life and channels for new roots to follow.

Get your biology and your soil structure right in order to get your minerals cycling. Lay out a plan, observe and measure. Get help from a consultant if needed. Remember, it’s easier to choose your soil testing lab than it is to choose your consultant. That can be a difficult process. You have to get smart enough to ask the right questions. You have to find someone who really understands your farm and your goals. It has to be logical.

When it comes to fixing your farm, the first area of compaction you may need to address is between your ears. Keep an open mind. Look at the big picture. Once the base is laid down then it can be easy to judge if additives are a benefit. Evaluate those additives on the base that was there when they were tested.

If my soils are really working, I don’t seem to get results from all the biologicals, foliars and extras. It’s much easier and more fun and profitable when the system is working right.

In The Field

The map and soil test presented in this article are from a farm I bought three years ago. It had been rented for over 20 years, growing mostly conventional corn in the last decade or so.

I farm organically, and it takes 36 months from the last prohibited substance before an organic crop can be sold for newly transitioned land. Normally I would use those two growing seasons to “fix” the soil by adding compost, manures, minerals, growing cover crops, ripping to reduce compaction, shallow incorporating cover crops and residues and building organic matter and soil health. After those two growing seasons, you would not be able to recognize the soils I started out with.

On this particular farm, the soils are really out of balance with extremely low calcium and pH levels. Because of this and my desire to test new things, I am building the soil more slowly. I grew two years’ of cereal rye and harvested the seed since I can use it as cover crop seed for the rest of my farm. I did some mineralization with soil correctives, deep ripped the fields, and have made some progress now after two growing seasons but this farm still has a long way to go. If I would have soil tested it before I bought it, I would have had second thoughts.

The farm has about 45 tillable acres, and I am setting it up for row crops, vegetables and some livestock. My goal is to have the farm productive and profitable so a family can make a living on it. If you look at the farm map on page 26, you’ll see that fields 1, 6 and 8 are level enough, and it’s possible to irrigate those fields and grow vegetables.

If you take a closer look at this soil report, the first question you need to answer is: What type of soils are these? Based on the CEC of 8 to 16 they are sandy to silt loams, and the organic matter is mainly in the 2% range. Most fields have a low pH. With a pH this low, some of the mineral levels shown on the soil report are falsely high. Once the pH comes down, those reported mineral levels will come down as well. High iron can be a problem, but this will change as I remineralize these soils.

Note Field 6. It has a pH of 4.7 with a 16 CEC and 4.4% organic matter. It looks to me like a perfect place to grow blueberries, as these need high iron and manganese, which show up at this low pH.

The cereal rye crop the author grew during transition to organic production on the farm.

Lime is needed across the farm, but also phosphorus. I like to start correcting with calcium and phosphorus, and these soils need some of both. While the soils are still acid before I lime it, it’s a perfect opportunity to apply rock phosphate, which is calcium phosphate.

I decided to put on 1,000 pounds per acre rock phosphate — there’s no magic in that number, but logistically it made sense because I have 45 acres, and one truckload holds 25 tons which works out to just about 1,000 pounds per acre. I also put on compost at 2 to 4 tons per acre and poultry manure at 2 tons per acre each year for the two years I’ve been farming it so far. The poultry manure is from laying hens and is a good source of phosphorus and calcium. I also deep ripped the soil last year because it was hard and tight. I grew cereal rye both years, as I needed cover crop seed and straw.

Last summer after the rye harvest I put on 2,000 pounds per acre of high calcium lime and planted a cover crop blend that included oats, radish, alfalfa, clovers and a forage grass mix. Some of that blend will be used as hay this year as I start my crop rotations and some will be shallow incorporated this spring to plant organic corn. The soil is a long way from being fixed, but it’s on the right path.

I will continue to apply a manure/compost mix each year and a crop fertilizer containing rock phosphate, HumaCal, K-Mag, potassium sulfate and a homogenized trace mineral blend. This will go on at 400-500 pounds per acre. This is a lot of fertilizer and costly, but I have lots of fixing to do. As you can see from the soil test, it needs lime, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and traces.

When I plant row crops, I have liquid in the planter and will apply 5 gallons per acre of a fish fertilizer along with 5 gallons of a molasses crop fertilizer blend.

Everyone asks, “What does your fertilizer cost”? On this farm I will have a large investment in the soils, but over time it would cost me a lot more if I didn’t fix it. Once it’s fixed, I will still use a crop fertilizer but at much lower levels, depending on crops grown and the minerals those crops are removing.I will always plant cover crops and apply manure and/or compost, and I will also practice tillage with a purpose so I can maintain and continually improve soil health. My investment in my soils will pay off before long in fewer problems, higher yields and higher profits.

In two or three more years I will retest the soils to check progress. This will give the soil correctives time to impact mineral balance and then I can fine-tune the fertilizer applications from field to field. For now, all of the fields need help.

My rotation will be hay on the steeper fields, with corn in rotation on the leveler ones, and a corn/beans/small grains and cover crops rotation on the rest of the fields, eventually adding in vegetables once the soils are in better shape.

Fixing soils and growing good crops is not that difficult. Fix the base of minerals, biology and soil structure; give it time to adjust to the changes you’ve made; test the soils again in five years to see how you’re doing and adjust your fertilizer program to match the soils and crops. It’s a method that really works, and I expect to grow high-yielding, healthy crops on this farm.

This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Gary Zimmer is founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Midwestern BioAg. Zimmer is an internationally known author, speaker and consultant. He owns Otter Creek Organic Farm, a family-operated, award-winning farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin, and has been on the board of Taliesin Preservation Inc. since 2011. Zimmer is the author of three books, The Biological Farmer, Second Edition, The Biological Farmer and Advancing Biological Farming (available from Acres U.S.A.), and numerous articles on soils and livestock nutrition.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn more here!