Thursday, January 17, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 4 Book Report

Soil quality is one of the most important things for a small scale beginning grass farmer. If you doubt me, then check out the great comment from Kramer in this post, or just browse through any small scale farming book or grazing magazine for a few minutes. You soil is the basis for your forages which makes it the basis for the entire farm (if grass farming is your thing). It is something you should take into consideration when purchasing a farm or planning you farm. So, with all of that in mind I was glad to see a chapter in Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable".

Here is some perspective from Mr. Macher on the importance of your soil on the farm, "The foundation of your farm and your most important production tool is a living, healthy soil." With that in mind it is important that you know about your soil type, of which there are over 18,000 varieties in the United States. You can find that information from local agencies in your area, and I suggest that you do because there can even be multiple soil types on your small farm. It is just one of the puzzle pieces of knowledge when it comes to creating and maintaining good soil.

While soil type is important it is most important that you know what your soil contains according to this chapter. Three major soil contents in the US are sandy soils, clay soils, and loam soils. Your sandy soils are are going to be up to 70% sand and drain pretty well because the sand allows the water to pass through. The sandy soils don't contain a lot of nutrients because the water washes them away most of the time. The clay soils will contain at least 35% clay and they aren't very good at draining away water because they are so compacted. Just think of working with clay in art class ... when it was wet it was slimy and sticky and when it was dry it was hard ... that is like clay soils. Loam soils are the best to have in most situations. They contain a mixture of roughly 45% sand, 40% silt, and 15% clay particles which allows them to take some of the best characteristics of the other soils.

Another important aspect of soil management that Ron Macher touches in this chapter is the reality that our soils are full of living things ... and they should be! The living stuff in soils (such as insects, earthworms, bacteria, and fungi) do tasks such as aeration, fertilization, nitrogen conversion (into something that is usable for plants), nitrogen-fixing, and they contribute in decomposition which all helps create better soil. If we desire to increase the quality of our soil we need to cultivate all of these living things in our soil instead of hindering them.

Crop rotation is something that I have touched on in other posts, but this chapter includes a good overview of the idea and some of the advantages. Ron Macher also throws out a few different 5-year rotation ideas. I think this idea of a crop rotation really fits well with Gene Logsdon's idea of "cottage" farmers. Adding crops to the farm does add the need for more equipment, but it also adds a bit of diversity and provides the ability to be more self-sufficient in your farming ventures. It is something I think our family is going to look into, especially as we begin adding more poultry and pork.

Of course what conversation about soil quality would be complete without a short mention of the numerous benefits of rotational livestock grazing. Management Intensive Grazing or Ultra High Stock Density Grazing are all about creating quality soil and quality forages.

It is evident that Ron Macher knows his stuff, and while there is a lot of basic information that I find in this book that is covered in similar books I think his specific guiding principles that he mentions in each chapter really give the reader something to think about and process.


John said...

I was able to go to this web site and print out a pff of the results of a search on my parcel. It lists the soild types and allows you to further query based on intended use. Very good info.

The issue that I am worried about is that my pastures were under conventional till and corn/soybean crops. I have little info on what I will have to do to recover from what I am sure of was a continuous application of conventional petroleum based fertilizers. Let me know if you have any info to start developing the soil more naturally. I know that running chickens and beef will help but may be quite slow. I kind of need to jump start the pasture growth and don't yet have a roadmap of what to do.

John said...

BTW, we sold the house here in Austin and so I will be on the Ill land around March 1 - Woohoo!!! Going to live in our camper while we get the new house built. An adventure of huge proportions awaits my family, I am sure.


Steven said...

That's really exciting! I'm also going to be changing over some crop land to pasture. In an old Mississippi river bottom. I think the route we are going to take is to plant oats sometime after Feb. 15th and then plant grasses over that. So that the oats will protect the grass as it comes up. Then I'm told that you can graze the oats really well.

Ethan Book said...

John ... thanks for the link! As far as jump starting your pastures ... well, I don't know if there is a perfect way. I do suppose you can bring in organic matter, but that would probably add up quickly. That being said, I know that just after a year we noticed a difference on our garden from composting and such. I do know that if you are going from conventional tillage crops to pasture it is going to take some time to get a good thick stand going and it will be important to be careful in wet times to prevent some serious compacting from the animals.... I'll let you know if I come across any other sources, or remember something!

Great news on selling the house and the impending move! As we begin to look for land we are really going to be thinking about different housing ideas ... building our own, moving a house, or finding a place with a house.

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