Renewable Farming

Ways to unleash the power of healthy soil biology for 2021 — and beyond

This afternoon, one of our Kansas WakeUP clients asked: “What ideas and products should I be learning about for next year? Right now I have a brief window of time before harvest.”

August 20, 2020 — After reflecting on that question, here’s the idea that swam into our ken: Look for ways to amplify and empower soil biological activity, so you can replace money spent on NPK and chemicals with mother nature’s natural productivity. 

These 12 management moves reach far beyond spraying soil with bugs from the jug. They involve building the soil food web over several years of testing and measuring results.

  • Widening your array of cover crops and diversifying your crop rotation. 
  • Applying additional live fungal and bacterial inoculants on the seed, in-furrow, with foliar applications or directly on soil.
  • Accelerating nutrient recycling of crop residue with fall biological organisms, shredding or cracking open cornstalks for more rapid breakdown.
  • Checking your root systems for evidence of a density layer within the plow layer and deeper — and accelerating removal of it by reconsidering the use of strict, perpetual no-till. An alternative: true vertical tillage (which is not a high-speed disc) but tillage that disrupts soil density layer without destroying the network of soil fungi.
  • Soil aeration, so beneficial soil organisms can exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  • Improving rainfall infiltration, deep percolation and moisture retention. 
  • Measuring improvements in soil’s biological activity with lab analysis such as the Haney Test, widely available at major soil labs.
  • Transitioning to non-GMO crops, thus eliminating glyphosate so it can dissipate from a biologically active soil.
  • Avoiding use of glyphosate as a cover crop terminator.
  • Reducing or eliminating microbe-killing anhydrous and salt fertilizers … what Doc Skow of International Ag labs called chempaction.
  • Metering out NPK and trace elements through the growing season as crops need them, according to tissue and sap tests — versus applying a season’s fertilizer in only one or two trips.
  • Get the most return on GPS yield mapping by conducting replicated field trials of one or two biological products and combinations each year. This is a learning process, not a quick fix.

Each of those technologies can lift yields a few bushels. Managing them synergistically is what generates the largest, most consistently profitable yields. The entire biological system also offers resilience against crop stress. In the Midwest, total annual rainfall hasn’t changed much in two decades, but storm events and dry spells are more extreme. Thus soils need to allow rapid rain absorption — then hold onto it.

Here’s a bit more detail emphasizing the potential of two of these management moves.

Jim Martindale with the CurseBuster
vertical tillage implement

A veteran farm fertility consultant challenged us a few days ago with this logic: Adding live microbes can offer little benefit unless those beneficials find a healthy ecosystem in the soil where they can proliferate. You may have heard that consultant’s name: Jim Martindale. He’s an out-of-the-box innovator ahead of his time. More than a decade ago, he and his sons developed a vertical tillage implement, the CurseBuster.

Here’s a video of Jim explaining to a Chinese farmer the virtues of enhancing soil life by using the CurseBuster.

Now, says Jim, as a result of years of observing true vertical tillage produce robust advances in soil and plant health, he is offering a soil-health system using the CurseBuster for truly vertical tillage in conjunction with a multi-species soil bacterial and fungal inoculant blend. The product is SRU Bio-Complex. The company name is Soil Regeneration Unlimited. 

The SRU Bio-Complex microbial consortia is uniquely aggressive against soil pathogens like phytophthora (the cause of root rot) and multiple species of fusarium (the fungus behind sudden death syndrome in soybeans and scab in cereal grains). The key element is early colonization of plant roots, accompanied with biofilm production to protect the rhizosphere, and maintenance of the soil ecosystem by using the CurseBuster. This vertical tillage system perpetuates growth of beneficial microorganisms. 

We intend to learn more from Jim about this microbial consortia. It exists in two formulations: One for soil and seed applications, the other for foliar application. 

SRU is also working with New Solutions Ag in Fairbury, IL, introducing a facultative microbial product called Safenure to pre-digest liquid manures. It converts pit manure to a more biologically benign nutrient source, while totally stopping methane and hydrogen sulfide production in the barn and lagoon storage. Ammonia is trapped in the manure and converted to organic nitrogen.

Jim says, “When treated manure is spread on fields using CurseBuster vertical tillage, nitrate loss into groundwater is virtually eliminated.” Lab tests show that beneficials in Safenure can dramatically drop the levels of pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli in soils, he adds.

Dr. Art Dunham, DVM, visited us at Renewable Farming yesterday.  He’s a longtime friend and non-GMO advocate. We asked him: “Who among your livestock clients has followed your advice on transitioning to non-GMO grain for improved animal health?

He named a dairyman, a farrow-to-finish hog producer, and a specialist who raises draft horses from colts. Art pointed out that horses are especially sensitive to glyphosate residue in feed.

We’ve also learned that from another veterinarian, Dr. Ted Dupmeier of Canada, whose practice has dealt extensively with horses. He’s had to deal with glyphosate toxicity in horses, and confirms that “removal of glyphosate-contaminated feed leads to improvement” in equine health. 

Art told us that the operator who raises horses uses exclusively non-GMO rations. “Out of hundreds of horses they’ve raised, I’ve had to treat only one,” he said.


Dr. Art Dunham

The hog producer who raises exclusively non-GMO corn is one of the few remaining hogmen in Dr. Dunham’s service area. Years of PRRS outbreaks have devastated herds surrounding this hogman’s non-GMO farm. (Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome is a viral disease causing reproductive impairment and respiratory disease in swine.) On one routine test for PRRS at this client’s farm, says Art, “The animals I checked tested positive, but weren’t even sick.” That asymptomatic response, he maintains, is a signal of a healthy immune system.

He cites research by Dr. Megan Niederwerder at Kansas State University demonstrating the importance of a robust gut biome — the entire range of microbial organisms in the digestive system. Since glyphosate is a powerful antibiotic, it impacts gut bacteria in pigs and people. The same phenomenon occurs in soil, shifting the soil biome toward dominance by toxic fungi. 

Art told us that Dr. Niederwerder “challenged baby pigs with the PRRS virus at weaning time. These test animals showed far improved health and lower death loss,” compared with controls. That was an indicator that a diverse gut biome in healthy pigs had triggered a stronger immune response.

Art stresses that of all the unique genes in a human body, “99% are contained in the bacteria within our bodies.” That’s why constant, low doses of glyphosate found in most American food and feedstuffs have a major influence on human and animal health. And that’s why Dr. Dunham is such a fighter for glyphosate residue-reduced feeds.

His large-animal practice in northeast Iowa extends over soil regions which are underlain by fissured limestone, frequently testing very low in organic matter. After 20 or 30 years of repeated glyphosate applications, soil tests for glyphosate show soil glyphosate residues equal to a full season’s recommend Roundup application rate, says Art.

We asked him, “When you explain this to livestock farmers who have raised GMO crops for decades, what’s their typical response?”

Says Art: “They usually just look at me like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”