Garden, General Pasture

Agriculture caused global warming…7000 years ago

Shifting scientific consensus are fascinating trends to follow. Mounting Evidence Suggests Early Agriculture Staved Off Global Cooling published in the University of Virginia’s UVAToday demonstrates that exact type of change.

After analyzing ice core samples for carbon dioxide levels as well as pollen deposits, researchers have found that agriculture first started affecting global climate 7,000 years ago by preventing the expected cooling cycle.

Beginning 7,000 years ago, carbon dioxide levels began rising. The author attributes this to slash and burn techniques of clearing land for farming.

Beginning 5,000 years ago, methane levels started rising which coincides with large scale rice production. My assumption is the flooding of rice paddocks caused anaerobic decomposition conditions resulting in the release of large quantities of methane which is a greenhouse gas four times as potent as carbon dioxide. The author also states that domestication of ruminants could also be a factor or it could be a combination of both rice and ruminant husbandry practices.

After 12 years of debate, the consensus is shifting to agriculture being the main cause for staving off expected cooling trends.

Citation:

Samarrai, Fariss. “Mounting Evidence Suggests Early Agriculture Staved Off Global Cooling.” UVA Today. University of Virginia, 15 Jan. 2016. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

 

I need to write a post on a relevant and absolutely eye-opening article published in Acres USA magazine about using soils to bank carbon. The interviewee is phD in soil sciences that explains the only way to build carbon (organic matter) permanently in soils is to keep plant roots pumping sugar into the soils to feed the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi then leaving the soils undisturbed so the fragile humic globules are not destroyed. She asserts that all carbon from compost will eventually oxidize into carbon dioxide if plants do not constantly utilize those products of decomposition. Same goes for nitrogen in the form of off-gassing ammonia.

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General Pasture

New favorite plant to observe diverse bugs: Goldenrod

Being honest, I am a disappointed in the lack of goldenrod (genus Solidago) in my pasture while the neighbor’s field across the fence has solid patches of yellow. It is the last significant nectar bearing flower for bees to build up winter stores. However watching my few sparse patches of the wildflower have yielded some cool critters. It seems they have migrated from my buckwheat plantings to the wild goldenrod. (Past posts on pollinators in my buckwheat: 1, 2, 3)

I’ve seen my honeybees in the patches, but have not bee able to capture any images.

Previously in buckwheat, I’ve seen Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) but this time around I learned they hunt many other undesirable bugs like crickets and are very docile to humans. Here is one sharing a flower with a pair of young carpenter bees:

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Next are the reason every black locust tree on my farm looks pitiful. They are a longhorn beetle that mimic the coloration of hornets to deter predators. Megacyllene robiniae or as the common name suggests, locust borer, feed on the bark and wood of locust trees as larvae.

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Cattle, General Pasture

Utilizing my uncle’s manure pack until I have my own

Carbon bedding bonds to nutrients and ammonia in animal wastes preventing pollution of the air or ground. When animals overwinter on bedding, they pack their manure down tight removing air pockets leading to anaerobic decomposition which provides free heat contributing to the animals’ health and comfort. Letting the pack decompose for 6 months lets the microbes digest some of the material as well as begin to mineralize the nutrients making them bioavailable to plants.

The concept is old and the cornerstone of fertility and soil building on my farm. There is one small problem: I don’t have animals yet!

But my uncle has beef cattle and pigs and was willing to part with some manure so I could start applying it to my pasture.

I wanted to add a bit more carbon to the pack so I lined my truck bed with sawdust before heading to my uncles farm. Upon returning I added ancient hay to the top of the pile and it all mixed together as I unloaded it by hand.

Once I got back to my farm with a truck overloaded with manure, I tossed the first bit into the compost bin to bolster the nitrogen content to rev the compost pile up one last time before the fall temperatures cool it down. On top of the compost I added a bit more sawdust.

The rest went quicker than I had anticipated. I used it to fill in divots and cover rocks that have appeared on the vehicle track through the pasture. There are a few more places along that track I would like to build soil, most notably around exposed rocks. Any future loads will be spread on the pasture around rocks that are barely exposed. When it breaks down a bit more, I can pull back the hay mulch and plant some clover and buckwheats seeds before returning the mulch.

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General Pasture

Virginia Native Prickly Pear Cactus are fruiting!

My amazement of the native cacti growing on the exposed rock in the pasture has been the subject of a previous post.

Only now the cacti are fruiting!

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I still can’t get over how diverse the plants on land can be even after only a decade of being allowed to grow wild. These cacti and their fruit are the perfect demonstration of such!

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General Pasture

A Nod to the improvements of Industrial Farm Practices

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some shifts in the operations of the nearby farms that produce crops for animal feeds here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Farmers are now practicing crop rotations in greater numbers than ever before; usually just corn and soybeans with grains mixed in occasionally. Using a leguminous crop like soybeans in the rotation harnesses their power of fixing nitrogen into the soil from the atmosphere replacing soil fertility lost to grain crops as well as cutting down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with the included salts that damage soil life.

Occasional inclusion of grains also plays into the second major improvement I’ve noticed: cover cropping. Most grains I see used here are planted immediately after the long crop harvest in the late summer or fall to provide a winter cover crop. Some are never even harvested and knowing before hand no harvest will take place allows a much broader choice in crop selection. Preventing exposure of bare soil to the forces of mother nature and weather keeps erosion at bay. If the grains grow to maturity, some fertility is taken from the soil but if the frost kills the crop, roots and plant residue returns that fertility. I’ve seen radishes, turnips and other non-grains planted instead of the conventional choice of winter grains. These brassicas amass nutrients only to be killed by frost releasing the mineralized (bioavailable) nutrients back into the soil as well as providing aeration by leaving voids where the roots or tubers compost.

Another key change I’ve seen is the inclusion of no-till seed drills. While row cropping still requires herbicide application, the lack of tilling helps preserve fertility by reducing vaporization of nutrients. The benefits of not disturbing the microbial soil food web are likely lost to the burning salts in herbicides however. Yet a benefit is still seen with the seed drills: fall cover crops can be planted right into existing corn stubble or soybean residue. The former provides habitat for wildlife such as ground nesting birds and helps hold the soil in place as the cover crop gets established while the latter releases the mineralized nitrogen stored in the leguminous plant tissues.

While not in my home area, on a trip to the beach in Delaware, I noticed some soybean farmers leaving uncultivated and wild strips of weeds and wildflowers through their fields. I can only assume this is to harbor wildlife like native pollinators to ensure a full seed set in the crop of beans.

The next key step in more sustainable industrial fodder production is replacing the organic matter lost from soils to crop harvests removed from the farm for sale. No-till seed drilling is a step in this direction, but an inclusion of carbon matter if not compost would be ideal. Maybe it will take one of the big local names or the regional extension office to sway the masses.

Confined animal rearing operations have also slowly began to show signs of improvement. I’m noticing more and more carbon stockpiles amassing near livestock barns and poultry houses. Massive and numerous piles of chipped wood are being dumped on these farms and judging by the continuous changing of the piles, farmers are using it for bedding and using it frequently. Also judging the varying quality and chiping size of these mulches, these farmers are sourcing the carbon for free or cheap as waste from local government agencies, power companies or tree service companies that have to clear brush or trees. Carbon in this bedding bonds to nutrients and ammonia from animals wastes reducing vaporization (air pollution) and leaching (groundwater pollution) then composts directly in the animal house (providing free winter heat!) or on fields adding both fertility and organic matter back to the local soils. This formation of a winter manure pack is an old practice that will the backbone of improving my soils. I could not be happier about this development!

There are still a lot of farm practices I don’t agree with…especially in the industrial food production field. However it is vital to give credit where it it is due. Pitting industrial vs. sustainable agriculture is polarizing and damaging to both fields, not to mention building of animosity and the subsequent ability of human emotions to hinder progress. Remember, agriculture is historically slow to adapt to new practices so patience is vital in improving our overall food production systems. Very few of these practices would have been used even as little as a decade ago. Notice how the oldest practices of crop rotation and winter cover are the most widespread now even though the forces driving the practices have shifted from economic in gaining extra income from a winter grain crop to soil preservation. We can only improve from here and from the looks of it, conventional farms are already doing do!

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