Skip to main content

Biological agriculture - a transition to organic farming

Since I did the Sustainable Agriculture course in July last year, I have been reading The Biological Farmer, by Gary Zimmer.  This month I'm writing about permaculture principle "Catch and Store Energy", and one of the less obvious forms of energy is soil fertility.  Biological agriculture is all about maintaining soil fertility in pasture and grain crop farming, so I thought it was appropriate to tell you more about it this month.



While biological agriculture shares many philosophies with organic agriculture, they are not the same thing.  Like organic agriculture, biological agriculture focuses on soil fertility and working with natural systems, however biological agriculture also uses limited amounts of synthetic chemicals where they will help the soil to rebuild.  This may seem a contradiction, but when you get into the detail it does make sense.  Its fairly obvious that all synthetic herbicides and pesticides will damage natural systems and these are not recommended by biological agriculture, however, certain synthetic fertilisers can help to balance soil minerals and feed soil microbes.  Biological agriculture is a way to transition from chemical agriculture to organic agriculture without losing too much productivity.

In his book, Gary lists 6 rules for biological agriculture:
  1. test and balance soil - replace deficiencies and provide for the crop, replace major elements and then trace elements, restore soil biology
  2. use fertilisers which are life-promoting and non-harmful - some fertilisers are better than others
  3. use pesticides and herbicides in minimum amounts and only when really necessary - a few weeds in a forage or hay crop don't matter, but for cash crops it will depends on customer requirements, use tillage to control weeds where possible
  4. use a short rotation - change crop type every 1-2 years, or don't use a monoculture (particularly for forage)
  5. use tillage to control decay of organic material and to control soil air and water - organic matter (green manure or animal manure) must be tilled into the soil to a shallow depth to enhance decay, also use optimal calcium and soil biology to improve aeration
  6. feed soil life - major elements, plant material, manures and legumes (nitrogen) and then fine-tune with 'biological' inputs such as seaweed, fish emulsion, inoculants etc.
Gary says "the secret to biological farming is to use crops, soil life and fertilisers to make more minerals available to future crops".  Another important point is that yields from biological farming may be lower than yields from chemical farming, but the input costs are also lower.  The main problem with chemical farming is that the input costs will always increase.  As natural fertility is degraded, more synthetic fertiliser, more herbicide and pesticide is required to achieve the same yield.  In biological farming, the natural fertility increases each year and the input costs decrease.  

It has been our aim since we bought Cheslyn Rise to use organic farming principles, but as we transition the farm from chemical farming (used by the farmer before us) to organic farming, we have been using some synthetic fertilisers to help us.  Now we know what to look for to buy synthetic fertilisers that will do no harm to the soil biology, and we understand how to enhance the natural soil fertility, we can continue that transition.  Organic farming works when everything is in balance, but when everything is out of balance due to long-term chemical farming, careful management and techniques such as biological agriculture can smooth the transition to organic farming.

This book focuses on crop farming, however, I believe that the principles can also be applied to animals.  Our focus with the cattle is in building their natural immunity by feeding mineral supplements, but where necessary we will also use chemicals (in this case pesticides) to assist the cattle when they are under threat from pests such as paralysis tick, until they develop natural immunity.

Biological agriculture also has an interesting parallel with permaculture, as Gary points out that whenever part of the natural system is eliminated (eg the earthworm), the farmer must take over their function in the system (eg increase tillage for aeration).  If the natural system is maintained, the farmer does less work, which is also the aim of permaculture design.

If you want to know more about biological agriculture I recommend that you read Gary's book.  I am about to order the sequel, Advancing Biological Agriculture, as I want to keep learning more.

Have you tried any of the concepts from biological agriculture?  What do you think?



Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:

Comments

  1. Another excellent article about permaculture. I am SO glad I found this blog! Although we only have 4 acres and none of them pastured, I want to grow our own field peas to increase the soil fertility and to use as garden mulch. Our problem is that we have a plethora of native animals all at the ready with knives and forks to scarf anything that we plant unless we find some way to cover it. Covering a cover crop... ;)

    ReplyDelete
  2. haha, I am picturing you trying to cover your cover crop! And now I'm trying to think of something you can grow that's not tasty, but not coming up with anything. I'm glad you enjoyed the post :)

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Thanks, I appreciate all your comments, suggestions and questions, but I don't always get time to reply right away. If you need me to reply personally to a question, please leave your email address in the comment or in your profile, or email me directly on eight.acres.liz at gmail.com

Popular posts from this blog

What to do with eight acres

Behind the scenes of my blog I can see the search terms that led people to find my blog.  It can be quite interesting to look through them occasionally and see what people are looking for.  Most of them involve chicken tractors, but another question that comes up regularly is “what can you do with eight acres?” or “how much land is eight acres?”.  Today I will try to answer this question.

Of course it is a very broad question, there are lots and lots of things you can do with eight acres, but I’m going to assume that you want to live there, feed your family and maybe make a little extra money.  I make that assumption because that’s what I know about, if you want to do something else with your eight acres, you will need to look somewhere else.

If you haven’t chosen your land yet, here a few things to look for.  Focus on the things you can’t change and try to choose the best property you can find in your price range.  Look for clean water in dams, bores or wells, either on the property …

We don't have any cling wrap either

Last week I wrote about how we don't have a microwave and I really don't miss it.  So continuing the theme of "weird things about my kitchen", we also don't have any plastic cling wrap or paper towels.  And we haven't had them for so long I can hardly remember why we ever needed them.


I always thought that cling wrap was wasteful.  Not just from an environmental perspective, but I also didn't like spending money on something that I only used once.  When I was at uni and took sandwiches for lunch, I used to bring home the cling wrap and use it again until it didn't stick anymore.  One year when we did Plastic Free July (I can't remember when exactly - here's what I wrote last year) we decided to stop using cling wrap.  I used up the last of it recently when we were painting (its really hard to renovate without creating waste) - its handy for wrapping up paintbrushes and sealing paint temporarily, however I do not use it in the kitchen.

The pape…

Getting started with chickens - Tanya from Lovely Greens

Sign up for my weekly email updates here, you will find out more about soap and our farmlife, straight to your inbox, never miss a post!  New soap website and shop opening soon....

Farmer Liz: You will remember Tanya from Lovely Greens from the first series, she lives on the Isle of Mann and added chickens to her garden about a year ago.  You can leave comments for this post on Tanya's blog.



How many chickens (and other fowl) do you keep, what breed and what do you use them for (meat, eggs, slug control etc)?
Tanya: Around the same time that we were initially thinking about having hens another friend beat us to the punch. She went to the local pet store and bought a flat-pack hen house and chicken run combo and found a local farmer who had dozens of semi-feral chickens running around his property. One night he pulled three down from the trees and my friend took them home in a pet carrier. She named them Miracel, Carmen, and Geraldine and though they’re probably related they were all…