Building and Feeding Soils

by Gary Kline

Since the time of the pharaohs, men (and women) have practiced crop rotation, fallowing and dunging in an effort to maintain and increase soil fertility and productivity. Composting of some type goes back at least half as far, and in organic farming and gardening the phrase “building up the soil” has frequently been heard. The Chinese were practicing composting in some form over four thousand years ago. What exactly does “building up the soil” mean? What does it take in? Conditioning? Fertilizing? With what? Is the same prescription or plan workable everywhere?  Does merely recycling organic matter accomplish soil building?

There is a short section in The Complete Book of Composting, (pages 555-7) published in MCMLX (1960) by Rodale Books, that sheds light on this subject of building and feeding soils and which is helpful in answering the questions I raise. It involves the story of one Ernest Halblieb and family of Illinois, back about the time I was born. Rodale and staff introduce it this way:

“Since 1941, when the Ernest Halblieb family of McNabb, Illinois took over the old homestead, their foremost object was to increase their land’s fertility”.  Mr. Halblieb takes over speaking from there:

“Our system of [mixed] farming, - - - is not one of medicating the soil with chemicals, an indication it is sick, but with feeding it. In addition, the humus from our compost adds greatly to the texture [technically, the structure] and to the moisture-holding properties of the soil, and aids much in its retention against erosion.”

As Rodale described it, “The basis of their soil building program on the 186 acre farm is 54 head of Holsteins, which furnish much manure. Plenty of straw is used for bedding, which absorbs the liquid part of the manure. The manure is never used raw on the open fields. Instead, it is hauled to a large compost pile where a bacterial activator hastens its decomposition to a matter of days. All leaves, weeds, corn stalks, cobs and table garbage go into the pile. It all combines to produce a compost of high quality”.

I [GK] question how high the quality of such a compost is in terms of its crop nutrient value and I will come back to that point. The Rodale book goes on to say that when placed in the fields and plowed under, “all the [compost’s] nutritive value is immediately available for plant growth”. “When raw manure is plowed under,” says Mr. Halblieb, “long periods of time elapse before decomposition is completed and the nutritive value is thereby made available.”

Dung contains a very high proportion of bacteria, both living and dead, and a lot of still- undigested food.  Urine, as it is excreted, is something else and contains considerably more nitrogen than dung. When dung lands on stall litter (such as straw or wood shavings), and whether or not it is joined by urine, the mixture of dung and litter (perhaps also with the urine) is properly known as manure.  Historically, however, the term “manure” has been used synonomously with fertilizer, even to include “chemical” or synthetic fertilizers.  The subject can get further confused in speaking of plant “green manure”.  Here, however, I am speaking of livestock or animal manure.

While it is still relatively fresh and odorific, the manure is regarded as raw manure. As it becomes more thoroughly decayed, and generally the odor dissipates, it is regarded as aged manure and is safer and more suited for incorporation into the soil to fertilize crops. It’s even more complicated than that and seldom gets adequately explained. In a separate article I covered the potential problems with using modern day manure, to include antibiotics, and leaching of nutrients from stockpiling manure outdoors in the rain.

Rodale’s composting book goes on to describe soil treatment practices on the Halblieb farm:  The crop rotation practiced also helps build the soil [but in what sense is not explained].  This rotation pattern consists of one year corn, one year soybeans, followed by one year small grain seeded to a grass-legume mixture, which is then pastured to cows for two or three years.

And, of course, while the cows are on pasture, they deposit dung and urine drawn out of the fodder of grasses and legumes they eat while on pasture, possibly supplemented by hay and grains that may also have originated on the farm.  This is the natural recycling of fertility that can go on with mixed farming that is self-contained and very desired, but not always a fully-satisfactory objective in terms of results achieved, in my (GK) estimation. 

Finally, there is this lofty statement of intelligent stewardship and ethical business responsibility by Mr. Halblieb:

“All our efforts are toward quality rather than quantity.  If any kind of business is good only for the immediate cash returns, we do not consider it of much value.  We prefer health which can only come from good foods - - - health for ourselves and for those who buy our products.  Our aim is to give our customers and ourselves everything in our products that the Lord put into them.” 

Would that all farmers and businesses see it that way.  Most conventional farmers know better than to eat the crops they grow and sell for you to eat.  Oh well, at least it’s cheap.

I have further commentary on the Halblieb organic farm story in regard to the quality compost question I brought up earlier.  Everything Halblieb did was smart and advantageous, but did it go as far as it might have?  There was no mention of the importance of minerals in the fertility and soil program Halblieb followed, and it may be that he was on naturally mineral-rich land.

Note that all manure was hauled to a large compost pile that also incorporated other forms of organic matter.  Plus, Halblieb used some unnamed type of inoculant to speed up the composting.  Certainly the value of manure and any purchased fertilizers is improved by first running them through a proper composting process.  However, Halblieb apparently did not add any mineral materials purchased from off-site to either his compost or his fields, which could have meant that his soil fertility and crop quality would eventually have suffered.  It may be that he knew about the value of mineralization, but the needed materials were not obtainable where he was, back in 1941. 

My contention is that the nutrient quality and tilth of his soil would have been improved by the addition of select minerals, to include rock minerals and lime.  As my compelling authority I shall cite none other than Rodale’s The Complete Book of Composting on pages 51 through 53, plus pages 44, 46, 47, 62 and 80.  This says it all for me; I quote:

“The ways of composting are many and varied.  Some gardeners simply throw waste materials on a heap, call it compost, and hope for the best.  - - The first organized plan for composting, perfected by Sir Albert Howard [about 1930], became so popular and widely used that it generated the organic method itself.  His Indore Method was successful because it assured that the heap would heat up and not putrify - - - the Indore Process has been modified and improved upon in several important ways - - - .”

Rodale continues, “One thing to remember [which never really sank in with organic gardeners]:  You can improve the quality of your compost greatly by adding natural rock fertilizers to it as you make it.  For every 100 pounds of compost material you can add several shovelfuls of rock phosphate, colloidal [clay] phosphate, granite dust, greensand and/or ground limestone.  This intense bacterial activity in the heap will help break down the nutrients in the rock and make them available faster.”

In making compost, Rodale advocates the use of nitrogenous materials, preferably manure (raw or aged) and, of course, this is needed to keep a desired carbon to nitrogen ratio of the composting ingredients.  “Substitutes for manure are cottonseed meal, dried manures, commercial composts, blood and bonemeal, and sewage sludge.  Over the manure or manure substitutes are sprinkled earth [aka dirt] and pulverized limestone and phosphate rock.”

The Compost Fortifier Mix (BLOOM No. 10) offered by BLO contains most of those ingredients.  Our composting leaflets (GIL’s 9 and 10) will guide you in how to properly make a compost pile and the amounts and successions of materials to use, including our mineralized and microbe-inoculated Compost Fortifier product.  This is essentially the Mineral-Augmented Organic approach epitomized. 

If you want photographic proof that Rodale knew, prior to 1960, about the value and importance of mineralizing compost and gardens, I invite you to go to page 53, where his composting supervisor is pictured pouring shovelfuls of minerals on a compost heap in the making.  As Rodale said, “If you want to increase the quality of your compost greatly, you need to add natural rock fertilizers [minerals] to it.  When you do that and apply mineralized compost at about 10 percent to your topsoil, then you are assuredly fertilizing and building-up your soil.”   GLK

© 2012 Gary L. Kline

All Rights Reserved

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