Farming with Less Clean Water
By Dan Pavich
20+ years in the agriculture industry and mostly in the regenerative ag sector, you see some stories and are occasionally reminded that “it can be done and it should be done.” Recently I was reminded of this life maxim as an article was squarely dropped in my inbox. The sender didn’t know that I was going to be so impacted by this article. In fact, the sender could not have been sure that I would even open the email. And yet I did.
The article was a story about a farmer in west central Indiana who has, for all intents and purposes, escaped the use of nearly all chemical inputs on his 8000-acre row crop operation. He’s free. More importantly, he’s using less water while, at the same time, building up his soil.
For years, when I speak with farmers, the saying routinely comes from my mouth, “you cannot get there from here, at least not in one season.” What do I mean by that? Well, it’s really about two things.
First, the difference between a water-conserving regenerative ag system and a water-shedding degenerative ag system on a farm resides mostly in a six-inch space between the farm manager’s ears. And second, the change to a regenerative system from a degenerative system takes time. Converting to this water-conserving regenerative system is a marathon, not a sprint.
The change to a regenerative system is worth it though. It’s a chance to be free from the bank, after all. Allow me to lay out just a few of the benefits and since you’ve probably heard them before, I’ll add a little bit of the science behind the benefits. If nothing else, you will learn some information to wow your friends and family.
Regenerative systems are more biological in nature than they are chemical. I say this tongue-in-cheek. The research I’ve done indicates soils that possess an Organic Matter Percentage (OM%) above 3% are driven mostly by biology. Soils that possess OM% below 3% are typically driven by chemistry. My reference to OM% in the scope of this writing represents water-holding capacity.
You may be sitting on light sandy soil and now you are thinking “Great, so what you’re saying is that I’m stuck using chemistry forever.” The Land Grant Universities tell you that a single OM% takes 100 years to build.
I’m here to offer you hope.
Let me start with the obvious contradiction. If you want to “reduce” your soil OM% by 0.5%, go out and plow or work your fields right after a rain event. Your organic matter will go down. So if OM% can change downward in a single season, it only makes sense that it can be increased in a similar time frame. So what is the secret to increasing OM? (Seriously, if you figure it out, let me know. In fact, let everyone know.) There is no magic powder or solution in a bottle for this.
Without sounding too pat with the answers, it really does hinge on a regenerative system. It’s a mechanism that I like to call a “biological cascade.” One event triggers another and another and so on.
Plants have a unique mechanism for filling the soils with polysaccharides, amino acids, lipids, and ultimately humus. This mechanism begins with only one aspect, really good photosynthesis. Stimulate the plants with a “biostimulant” to increase the productivity and efficiency of your plants during daylight hours. There are many “biostimulants” on the market, certainly more today than when I started speaking about this 23 years ago. More on “biostimulants” later, first let’s discuss this biological cascade.
The biological cascade looks like this: plants that photosynthesize better because they’ve been stimulated, produce more sugars. Not just any sugar - well, ok - it’s just glucose C6 H12 O6. What you don’t see here are any plant nutrients. So what is attracted to simple sugar? Did you say bacteria? Correct. The bacteria cannot live on sugar alone, so they will mineralize plant nutrients into their system from the surrounding soil. They cluster together, as bacteria are prone to do and the plant does something that we never conceived of until just a few years ago - The plant roots will eat an entire cluster of bacteria and all the minerals therein. Does this give the notion the idea that plants could be carnivores? Not a discussion for today.
The bacteria contain amino acids that are a highly available nitrogen source for the plant and the attached minerals are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to growth. This phenomenon is studied in the field called Rhizophagy.
The plant uses these amino acids in the bacteria just as it would use nitrogen to build proteins. There is a major difference in this particular form of nitrogen though. The plant can utilize it far more efficiently and can actually create proteins much faster because half of the protein is already built for the plant. The plant now has excess energy to play with and plants will do exactly the same thing that you and I would do. It has excess energy, it wants to store it for later. How exactly does it store that excess energy? If you guessed Lipids (fat), you were correct. The plant will send lipids down to the root system to store excess energy. While bacteria cannot digest lipids, it turns out that fungus can. A flush of fungus begins when the plant feeds with these surplus lipids. From there, the fungal colonies create a process of “humification” and this is the soil process we are after. While humus contains very little nutrition, the micro pores in humus retain water, and nutrients and house many microbes.
This humification process is at the heart of creating soils that simply require less fresh water.
We can measure the increase in plant lipid production with a phospholipid fatty acid test (PLFA test). Better yet, there is a portable test that uses the camera on your phone and an App. You can get fungal-to-bacterial ratio results on your soil in 20 minutes. The cost is about $12 per test. It’s worth the time to learn to measure your foliar program’s effectiveness using a test such as the microBIOMETER test. At the end of the day, more fungal colonies indicate that your plant is producing more lipids, and more humus and operating at a higher level.
It takes plants between 7 and 14 days to make these adjustments and the soil microbes to respond. The method is simple. Pull a sample pre-foliar spraying and measure your bacterial-to-fungal ratio. Foliar spray some plants and wait 7-14 days and pull another sample from around the root zone of the same plants. Record the difference.
So now that I’ve touched briefly on some of the science, let’s circle back and talk about how healthy soil ties into the original thought of removing your farm operation from the clutches of the bank.
It turns out that biologically driven soils cost far less to maintain. These soils hold far more rainwater (for each 1% OM increase, you can count on approximately 1” or 21,600 gallons of rainwater retained per acre, dependent on soil textures). These soils can be disease suppressive (of course, some restrictions do apply here). The best part about all of this is that you can use your existing crop to help create the soil goals you are trying to reach.
As stated previously, I do intend to address the idea of choosing a proper biostimulant, mostly because they represent the fastest way to build OM% and give a farmer higher-producing, more efficient soils.
There are a few categories of biostimulants. There are the biostimulants that stimulate biological growth, whether that be in the rhizosphere (root zone) or the phytosphere (leaf surface) and biostimulants that act as direct plant stimulants such as Induced resistance (active), Acquired resistance (passive), PGR effect (stimulate hormone production) or provide a colonization effect (direct seeding of microbes).
Whichever biostimulant you choose, be sure to try some on your crop before you write the big check. On a sunny day, measure the brix prior to applying, apply and then measure the brix 2 hours after you apply. If the brix does not go up (I like to see at least a 2-point increase), keep your checkbook in your pocket. You can make some fairly significant decisions before lunch using such a technique and minuscule quantities of product. Also, remember that your plants’ needs change throughout the growing season. A biostimulant that has no effect one day, can be just the stimulant needed on another day.
Remember the prize. Higher OM% soils hold water, nutrients and biology far better. Keep your eye on the prize.
I wish you the best of luck this 2023 season and many blessings.
Author Bio: Dan Pavich has a BS in Chemical Engineering from Purdue University. He’s been a self-taught agronomist since graduating and has served in the agricultural community as a consultant for 23 years. He’s the creator of a biostimulant called Symbiosis AGx. His website is www.symbioticag.com.