Cattle, Side Projects

Brassica Cover Cropping as Biological Soil Tiler

The sustainable farming and land management industries are constantly coming up with innovations to find biological solutions to problems that have been solved through petroleum use since the 1940s. Brassica cover cropping is one example of this.

Brassicas typically have a large taproot and for ease of visualization, the most promising plant in this system seems to be the Radish. Sown in the late summer, the radishes drive their taproot into the soil as they take up nutrients. They are not harvested but left to last through a few freezes resulting in their death. As they decay, the nutrients are released back into soil and the taproot leaves a cavity in the previously compacted shallow layers of topsoil. Hence the tiling effect without mechanical soil turning that disrupts microbial activity and over-oxygenates the soil.

Erosion resistance and water absorption are boosted so well by this process that many riparian managers are studying the effect of planting them in drainage areas. Urban sprawl of impervious surfaces change the hydrology of the area by providing a flush of water during precipitation rather than an sponge-like absorption by local soils that gradually releases stored water into waterways. By aerating the remaining available soils with brassica cropping, that rush of creekbank-eroding rainwater can be somewhat alleviated.

I haven’t found much scientific data (at least not behind a paywall that double dips into taxpayers’ pockets). However there is a bit of literature from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (government source and PDF warning!) that makes me think this is an interesting development to follow!

I was introduced to this concept by my friend who is the farm manager at Frying Pan Farm Park in the bustling DC metro area. Being the last working farm in the county, they strive to strike a balance between typical farm operations and acting as a working farm museum for public education and enjoyment. Its great to see a farm with such a strong public presence exploring concepts of sustainable farming!

Bees, Garden

Lets talk about companions, acid and berries

If I had to make the choice of a single fruit to eat for the rest of my life, it would be blueberries. Raspberries are such a close second that I would read the fine print of the agreement to try and loophole them in.

Blueberries need acidic soil. I will have to retest my farm, but I anticipate the karst limestone-heavy area is going to need some amendment. In the raised beds I need a solution that doesn’t involve hauling in chemicals or soil amendments. My solution will be to mulch up many of the cedars that have encroached on the pasture. Every year, I will assist by adding a top mulch of chipped, discarded christmas trees (needles and all). I would like to note that I have not found any studies that convince me that pine mulch is any better the just plain old organic matter in acidifying the soil. In a pinch, I won’t hesitate to use the leave litter from the forest as a soil amendment.

As for companions, the literature prescribes clover to help fix nitrogen or acid-tolerant herbs for pest deterrence.

I’m going to take a different approach here. My perennial blueberry patch will be a sanctuary for the bees. Widely-spaced Rhododendron could provide shade for the plants during the dog days of summer, beautiful flowers in its long blooming season, and potentially psychedelic honey. I’ll probably avoid them in the end, but they are a viable companion. Lewisias flowers enjoy acidic soils and bloom in the late winter providing food for the bees when not much else is available. Strawberries are another delicious potential companion that would provide a living mulch but they have many pest and disease issues. Yarrow flowers have a rich history of natural medicinal use and seem to enrich soil where they grow. Clover is the last plant to consider as a legume that fixes nitrogen for the berries high demand.

Honestly at this point I have no idea what companions I want to plant with the blueberries. I think for now I will plant strawberries as a ground cover with no expectations regarding production while locating the flowering herbs on the boundaries of the rows.

If anyone has any suggestions for acid-tolerant plants that provide human food or nectar for bees, please let me know!

Chicks, Garden

Wintering Chickens: Shelter, feed, minerals

Wintering chickens actually seems like the least intimidating part of starting the farmstead.

Shelter- Hoop greenhouse over garden. One example is $100-$150 for a 9’x8′ structure. I can easily predator-proof it, provide deep bedding and lock the chickens in at night while letting them wander the garden by day fertilizing everything.

Feed – I am a big advocate of letting animals express their genes thus allowing them to alter their own diets to make up for deficiencies. I will provide them with basics. Carbohydrates will come from spent brewing grains and garden produce. Squash, sunflowers and Corn will be grown specifically as winter chicken feed as they both store well when harvested and handled correctly. Soil in the garden is rich with earthworms to provide protein (28% by composition) and fats while the worms are active. Additionally, red wiggler worms will be an integral part of the composting system and can be fed to the chickens. Honey locust pods are easily collected from the many trees in the pasture. The pods could also be collected for the goats winter feed. Persimmon trees are numerous and heavy producing, but are not as easily harvested.

Supplements- Keeping as much feed on-farm as possible, yeast will also be an abundant byproduct of my brewing operations. Enough yeast for subsequent batches of fermentation can be harvested when the current batch is complete leaving about 95% of it to go to waste. That wasted yeast is a great source of vitamins and minerals including calcium, the most important consideration for laying hens. To ensure all nutrient needs are met, I will provide some off farm sources to see if the chickens utilize them. These will most likely be kelp, oyster shell or other conventional sources.

Future considerations: Aquaponics to recycle processed chicken innards and waste as fish food as well as worms that feed on chicken droppings.

Cattle, Forestry

Carbon Medium for Nutrient Absorbtion in Compost while Wintering Animals

Follow up to Wintering Animals = Backbone of Soil Building

Capturing all of the nutrient rich excrement from the wintering of animals is going to require a huge amount of carbon. Skills I have gained while studying forestry and the associated graduate projects I assisted will be called upon in order to accumulate the carbon biomass I will require. I’ll write a well-cited post on my sustainable forest management plans once I have finished collecting and amassing my research. The gists of my strategy will be to provide the canopy disturbance necessary to have a healthy, sustainable forest.

Good points were made in Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Starting around page 182, Salatin asserts that soil is built and carbon sequestered more efficiently via grasslands opposed to forests. Trees grow very slowly, then die. As they decompose, much of that sequestered carbon is released right back to the atmosphere. Grasslands grow, die and decompose every year; multiple times a year if serviced by grazers and herbivores. However the sequestered carbon in the grasslands us more fully absorbed by the soil and stored in the animal tissue of grazers. Salatin’s assertions seem to be backed up by this study I found.

To minimize the negative impact of forest land on the atmosphere, I plan to eventually harvest the dead, diseased, crooked or otherwise undesirable trees from the forest to make room for subsequent generations of oak and hopefully someday soon, American Chestnut. Despite my minor in forestry, I have a lot more to learn about sustainable harvesting. Fortunately, there are many pioneer trees in the pasture that need removed, and the unmaintained forest has many dead trees that should sustain me for at least a year while I broaden my forestry knowledge.

I will likely invest in a wood chipper to process the farms own biomass to provide the winter bedding. I may also seek out locally discarded christmas trees, shredded paper/cardboard, peanut hulls (suggested by Mr. Salatin in our correspondence) or any other source of easily attainable carbon material.

Note: If you plan to store wood chips on your farm, please be sure to do so in a manner that accounts for the heat generated as they naturally decompose. Limit the height of piles to prevent a fire hazard in your structures and to ensure that the chips dry fully.


Cattle, Garden

Wintering Animals = Backbone of Soil Building

Pulling directly from Joel Salatin’s model at Polyface Farm located in the same valley as my own farmstead, the key to building soil will be through compost.

Have you ever turned onto a country road to be immediately hit by the stench of a chicken house or cow operation? What about seeing a huge manure lagoon, no matter how pretty the tank is dressed up?

Farms that smell are polluting by leaching nutrient-rich animal waste into the atmosphere or ground water. My main issue with industrial farming is that carbon is being pulled from the soil and not replenished whether it is by crop production or animal grazing. The agricultural world is slowly realizing that healthy soil and all of its micro/macro organisms need more than periodic injections of Petroleum-based Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) fertilizers. Most of all, soil requires organic matter, not to mention multiple other elements beyond the three provided by surplus explosives after World War I. Did I mention the inventor’s role in producing chemical weapons caused his perfectionist-chemist wife to commit suicide?

Back to my farm operation. The backbone of building soil on my farm is going to be the composting of animal wastes captured during winter in a carbon medium. Joel Salatin accurately refers to it as “A Carbonaceous Diaper”. Each cow will produce up to 100 pounds of nutrient rich waste a day. Thats a lot to capture and I will have to lay down fresh, dry carbon bedding pretty frequently! I will discuss the sourcing of carbon in a future post.

Every time I lay down additional bedding, I will toss in some goodies. Local corn, spent grains from brewing beer, old hay, etc. The cows will tromp down the manure/bedding into a pretty solid manure pack. The anaerobic decomposition process will start building soil while also providing heat for the barn and animals. After the cows head back to the pasture in the late spring, it will be time for the pigs to shine! They will be brought in to root up the compost to find the treats I left them. This process will turn the compost as well as aerate it which turns the decomposition aerobic, completing the process of turning the waste into the highest quality soil possible!

Stay tuned for a post on sourcing the carbon for bedding!