Minerals and Soil Health

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I ran across an article the other day about the problems of phosphorus in agriculture. The authors, who probably aren’t farmers, had me right up to point where they said we need to eat less meat because that would decrease the amount of food we needed to grow and thus decrease our need to use commercial phosphate fertilizers. Well – no, that’s not really the solution. Laying aside the idea of whether we should eat less meat (a subject on which I part company with the medical and dietary establishments), I submit the real issue is not the amount but the way we grow and feed the meat we’re eating.

The article’s authors seem to think that one must obtain phosphorus by mining it and then spreading it on fields. However, you can actually set up a handy-dandy little system to capture not only phosphorus but other minerals such as nitrogen and potassium. You graze your beef, sheep, pigs and poultry on grass, or feed them on the hay you have grown from the grass in their pastures. Their urine and feces return most of these minerals to the soil. Cattle, for example retain about 25% of the nitrogen they eat, 20% of the phosphorus and 15% of the nitrogen. The rest goes back to the soil in their urine and feces, and ideally, the animals would die on the property and the remainder would be returned through the decomposition of their bodies. Obviously, we’ve intervened in the process by eating the meat. The manure of pastured animals, instead of being dumped on concrete in the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they fatten, becomes soil enrichment.

Minerals in through grazing, minerals out in manure.

Minerals in through grazing, minerals out in manure.

If you include legumes such as clover or field peas in your pastures, the soil will retain even more of some minerals, such as nitrogen. Pastures full of deep-rooted perennial plants decrease the leaching of minerals which occurs in fields that grow the annual crops such as corn and soybeans, with which we now fatten meat animals. Trees growing in the hedgerows along the pastures’ borders, and dotted here and there in the pasture, bring up minerals through their roots, carry them to the leaves and drop the mineral-enriched leaves on the soil.

Burning supplies potash to the soil.

Burning supplies potash to the soil.

A better way to make up for the mineral losses (as opposed to using commercial phosphate fertilizers), is to feed your animals supplementary minerals in the form of kelp or other mineral supplements. It’s a two-fer — your critters get a wide variety of minerals and trace elements in their diet and then enrich the soil with what they don’t need.  Not only does kelp provide a wide variety of trace minerals in addition to the “Big Three” of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, it helps prevent some nasty problems related to mineral deficiencies. Pinkeye, for example — thought to be a contagious eye disease in cattle — actually occurs when the animals are iodine deficient. Feed them kelp and the problem goes away.

The other issue I have with this article is the assumption is we need only worry about a few minerals. We need to worry about ALL minerals in the soil, which means the use of something like Azomite — a volcanic powder loaded with a wide variety of minerals — is a much better choice for overall fertility and mineral balance. We also need to look at microbial life (which, not too surprisingly, depends on minerals as well as other factors), soil moisture, soil structure, run-off and erosion issues, vegetable matter in the soil and the interaction between animals, soil and insects or other creatures such as earthworms.

I am not arguing that we should try to get by without adding minerals to the soil at all. After several hundred years of farming in many areas, many soils are deficient. The soil in my area is typically deficient in selenium, not because of cultivation but because it is naturally short on the mineral. If we plant deep-rooted crops, they will bring minerals up from the sub-soil. These crops can be eaten by the animals or simply allowed to mature and rot in the field. The minerals and organic material are naturally returned to the soil. The problem with the current system is that the animals are raised in pasture A or barn A until they reach a certain age and are then trucked to a place many miles away where they are fattened. Then they are trucked somewhere else to be slaughtered. The parts of the animal that aren’t eaten wind up in landfills or sewage systems, as does the manure they produce while confined. These useful byproducts are often wasted, and the minerals they contain go right down the river to the ocean. We could fix this problem by returning what isn’t used to the land where the animals were first grown. Recycling isn’t just for glass and plastic.

 

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