Biological products and the market place

biological farmingStarting a biological soil program seems to be a very difficult thing for many farmers to do. The fear of the unknown and lack of documented research become real barriers.

Using liquid fish fertilizer on a crop is often questioned by farmers. I am asked if it really works or I am told they have never heard of such a thing. I remember reading about Indians using fish for plant nutrient in my grade school text books.

In most states, liquid or dry fish cannot be sold as a fertilizer, only as a soil admendment. If I would advertise fish products for soil as a fertilizer and make any claims I would be breaking the law. I would be subject to fines and possible jail sentences. The same is true for seaweed products. Seaweed has been used for centuries by people along the oceans as a nutrient source for crop production.

In areas where fish and seaweed products are used the crops are not nearly as susceptible to insects and diseases. However, if any claims are made as to these effects you immediately come under the jurisdiction of the EPA, FDA, etc. Then papers and research data with proof of your claims must be filed. The cost of doing this is overwhelming, no one can afford it.

The other problem is patenting these products. They are products most anyone can purchase and too many people have access to the raw materials. The only products that can be patented are brought into the market place by people with money and they have successfully gotten laws passed to protect their interests.

The result of all this is it has become nearly impossible to market biological products legally under current laws. Universities Ag Extension, an arm of the university, carefully watch anyone in their area, making sure biological products cannot easily enter the market place.

Each spring, or whenever appropriate, selected university professors and extension personnel place articles in local farm papers and magazines about all the unproven products that lack research, warning people not to buy them. Unfortunately there is a certain amount of truth in these articles, because a single biological product is not a cure all for crop production. I have often warned farmers against the use of certain products until they have studied the product thoroughly and understand how to use it. Many salesmen who sell these products fail to properly teach their clients how to use them.

Biological products are often sold with the idea that you can cut back on your current program with the use of their product and still save money. I have found that this is not necessarily the case and it needs to be addressed.

Switching to biologicals

bio conceptsIf you switch to biologicals, do you truly understand how to manage a program or do you have someone available to help? Keeping good records will help you to know if you are making progress.

To make progress above ground you need to make changes below ground first. You need to have realistic expectations. Change is not going to create miracles on your farm, but in many cases, changes in the soil must occur before you make progress above ground.

If you have problems with soil compaction, you automatically have reduced levels of bacteria, yeast, algae, and fungi. If the soil has had a compaction problem for several years you could be having a lot of anaerobic breakdown, with a build up of toxic metabolites which can really hinder progress on a switch to biological concepts. Very few understand this problem and as a result many failures occur giving the whole biological concept a bad name.

When high amounts of commercial nitrogen have been used you have another dilemma. If too much commercial nitrogen is applied at one time the bacteria in the soil, which takes nitrogen from the air, shuts down. It is the consensus of those who work in this field, that once you add more than 40-60 units of commercial nitrogen at one time per acre you cannot get the nitrogen producing bacteria in the soil to activate. This creates a real problem. If you come in and reduce the nitrogen down to 40-60 units per acre and use a biological like many want you to do, the toxic metabolics in the soil may prevent the nitrogen producing bacteria from kicking in.

The next problem is calcium. This is the number one element for a successful biological program. All soil micro-organisms have a need for calcium. I have found many soils very short of soluble calcium and these shortages greatly reduce the speed at which you can make progress.

People are switching to biological programs expecting great things which are simply not going to occur for several years. The financial position of many dictates immediate response the first year and I don't see that as a realistic idea for many.

You cannot get a compacted soil with poor air and water circulation straightened out in one year. All living biological life need air, water energy, and minerals. Most soils have these available but not in the right ratios at the right time. This is why I will make no yield guarantee or any other guarantees.

Another major problem is hardpan which prevents moisture from rising to the surface at night replenishing the top 6" of soil if it does not rain. This is very important, as the soil completely dries out most microorganisms either go into dormancy or die off. The result is a long lag time before you are back to where you were before you started.

It is a long, slow road back to what a good fertile soil should be. On top of all this, we put on herbicide and insecticide in addition to salt fertilizers. No one really knows the effect this has on single cell plants in the soil and in animals. Single celled plants in the soil help maintain the ecobalance in a soil plus produce simple sugars which provide the energy for bacteria in the soil.

Any way you look at the whole scene it really cannot get much worse. Thankfully people in positions of policy making within the government are beginning to realize we have a serious problem. I just hope enough realize in time what we have done to our most precious resource.

Planning a program

I have been lecturing around the country a great deal lately and believe more people need to understand what they are up against with changing to a biological program. I feel I have learned a lot over the last 15 years working with this concept and believe I have a program worked out that can help many make a transition without any serious consequences. It may not work in all cases, but I don't know of anything that works all the time.

When I plan a program all factors must try to be addressed. This is not an easy task. Many times I do not have enough history of the farms' problem or equipment available to do the specific jobs that need to be done.

When planning a commercial corn program I know we need a source of nitrogen in most areas of the country. From there on we may or may not need more. When using a liquid program, I often use liquid 28% of 32% nitrogen on the soil. Next I like to use a soil conditioner or wetting agent of some kind to get better penetration in compacted soil. Soil conditioners improve soil aeration and water penetration which help soil microorganisms reactivate. Like all products, more is not better, and you do not need to use them once you correct the problem.

Next we need a source of energy added to the nitrogen. This will increase the bacterial activity of the soil so nitrogen can be taken from the air instead. This is why I often recommend molasses, sugars, seaweed, liquid fish, and humates. I find that the first one to two year sugar and molasses are the best sources for energy. After that you move into fish and seaweed products. If there has been heavy herbicide use then I like to add liquid humates which tie up herbicide build up in a soil. I next like to add liquid calcium to the mixture, especially if the readings are below 2500# per acre. If each of these are properly managed you should have a successful cropping program.

Soil Test

pH   6.2
Nitrate Nitrogen   40
Ammonial Nitrogen   0
Phosphorus   60
Potassium   150
Calcium   1850
Magnesium   400
Humus   1

This is a common soil analysis I find coming through my lab with someone just starting. From this analysis I know this field has a compaction problem and a weed problem. The reason is the calcium magnesium ratio is too narrow. I like to see this ratio at 7:1 and this particular soil is 4.5:1. The other problem is the phosphorus and potassium ratio. The ratio should be 2:1 and this ratio is 1:3 in the opposite direction. This tells me grasses can be a real problem unless grass herbicides are used.

Getting started

So how do we start? First we need a very good spray that is properly calibrated and easy to use.

Based on the analysis and being the first year, this may be the only plan needed period. I would suggest a review of the soil and tissue analysis when the crop is 6 - 10 inches high.

Plan 1 should be sprayed on shortly before or after planting and lightly incorporated. It's very important not to deep incorporate because you want the spray in the aerobic zone to activate the dormant bacteria and biological system. Another reason for keeping this program surface applied is so the sun can increase the energy in the top soil. The combination of nitrogen, molasses, the soil, and calcium creates a bonding which can be activated further by the sun's rays greatly increasing the electrical energy in the soil. The result should be a gradual increase in the humus content of the soil which will help the soil hold more water in the top 6 inches.

  Plan 1 Plan 2
Liquid 28% 25 gallons/acre 15 gallons/acre
Mollasses 3 gallons/acre  
Liquid Calcium 2.5 gallons/acre 2.5 gallons/acre
Thiosol 2 gallons/acre 1.5 gallons/acre
Water 18 gallons/acre 20 gallons/acre
Soil Conditioner 4 ounces/acre 4 ounces/acre
Nitromax   12.8 onces/acre

D.L. Skow D.V.M.