Nature’s money-making potential

Like many other farmers, the Herholdt brothers learnt through bitter experience that it’s better to farm with nature than chase high yields with high inputs. Glenneis Erasmus asked Junior Herholdt from the farm Uitkyk in Philadelphia how they have made their farm more profitable.
Issue date : 13 June 2008

- Advertisement -

Junior Herholdt and his brother Dirkie thought they had unleashed the secret to wheat production when they produced a record yield of over 4t/ha after applying 130kg/ha of nitrogen in 1996. Before that, their yield had been similar to those of neighbouring farmers in the Philadelphia region of the Swartland, averaging between 3t/ha and 3,5t/ha. T o their shock, however, when they repeated the recipe the following year, their yield was less than half their long-term production average. “We almost went bust and had to buy wheat in to fulfil our wheat contracts,” recalls Junior.

“We encountered a production wall and concluded that the soil had became dependent on nitrogen and would require progressively higher dosages to attain a similar yield. After some thorough research we decided that we needed to fully incorporate biological farming methods to rebuild the soil.” A different mindset he Herholdts had already unwittingly started incorporating biological farming principles on their farms Uitkyk and Goede Ontmoeting in 1987, when they switched from a wheat monoculture to a medics/wheat rotation.

Using medics in the system provided an effective way to combat grass weed, which at the time was starting to render wheat production almost unprofitable. Junior specifically chose medics because it only needs to be established once and makes excellent grazing for Merino sheep.

- Advertisement -

He believes there’s something wrong with either a farmer’s graze management strategy or the soil’s balance if medics has to be sown in to re-establish lands. “Medics is sensitive to a calcium deficiency,” explains Junior. “A shortage can have a negative impact on crop yield.” he brothers started to incorporate minimum tillage in 1990. At first the lands weren’t ploughed and seed was sown on lightly harrowed land. And then in 1994 they started to leave stubble on the land to improve its water retention, keep soils cool and build up the carbon content.

When the brothers started using a planter they had built in 2000, which is similar to the Case Concord, but has a more robust seeding boot to allow for planting in 3,5t of stubble. Junior feels that type of planter becomes less important as the soil improves. “I’ve found that most planters perform equally well in well-balanced soil because balanced soil leads to good soil structure,” says Junior. “The soil is accordingly easier to work.” Discovering a balance I n 2004 the brothers hit another production wall. “We had tried out almost every new product presented to us,” explains Junior. “If somebody said a product boosted production, we bought it. In the end our input cost were so high we were hardly making a profit. “decided that was enough.

We would no longer buy products, we’d use what nature had given us.” Junior’s first step was to completely adapt the Albrecht method of soil analysis. “The method is extremely comprehensive and measures far more elements and micro-elements than most other tests,” says Junior. “It also measures the amount of nutrients available to the plants, rather than the amount present in the soil.” The SA Biofarm sends soil samples overseas for analysis and then provides farmers with soil correction guidelines. Junior feels that balancing the soil has made the most significant difference to soil and plant health – even more than incorporating a biological and minimum-tillage production system.

He explains that balancing the soil improves soil structure, creating a better environment for soil organisms and ultimately helping to render soil nutrients more accessible to plants. He says correcting the calcium:magnesium ratio alone has resulted in an explosion of life in the soil. These two elements are the most important contributors to soil structure. This correction, combined with conservation farming methods, has resulted in carbon levels increasing from as little as 0,5% 20 years ago to an average of 1,6%, while the best lands are up to 2,4%.” Junior adds that little emphasis is placed on pH as an indication of a calcium deficiency. It’s rather seen as an indication that the soil is not in balance. “Magnesium, sodium and potassium have a much greater impact on soil pH than calcium as they balance the soil, which usually automatically corrects pH,” he explains.

Chemical fertiliser has systematically been replaced with environmentally friendly products such as the Neutrog product Rapid Razor and cow manure. Just before the wheat is planted, about 250kg/ha of Neutrog is applied to the lands. This, together with the manure, is a rich source of micro-elements, phosphates and potassium. Cow manure is sheet-composted (thinly spread) at a rate of less than 6t/ha on lands with phosphate and potassium shortages.

The manure is collected from the dairy houses and left to decompose for a year before it’s applied. Junior points out that it must be applied as thinly as possible as the aim is to feed the soil, not the plants. He adds that manure is rich in nitrogen and over-application should be prevented. “For every 1kg of excess nitrogen, you destroy around 250kg of humus,” explains Junior. Some people say the brothers’ recipes could create a phosphate shortage over the long-run, but Albrecht’s renowned soil scientist Neal Kinsey told them it’s highly unlikely.

He said that in biologically active soil, phosphate levels won’t decline because microorganisms make phosphate more accessible to the plants.” A good result Over the years, as the soil recovered, the amount of nitrogen applied has been reduced and nothing has been given as a starter since 2005. Some 20kg/ha of Black Urea, which contains 8kg of nitrogen, is applied on 60% of the wheat land when the herbicides are applied.

This is done to enhance the protein content of the wheat. The rest of the land only get Neutrog Rapid Razor. Junior plans to use no chemical fertiliser on his land from this year and has managed to cut his fertiliser bill by 60% over the past 10 years. “The aim is to make a profit with the energy and resources provided by nature, instead of farming against nature,” he explains.

He adds that farmers often don’t realise how damaging chemicals can be to soil organisms. Biological farming has not only had a huge impact on soil health, it has also helped improve the condition of the animals on the farm. Wq“We believe that the high quality of our feed means our animals require fewer supplements and are less vulnerable to diseases than in the past,” says Junior.

“used to buy high yield, but have found it’s much cheaper and more economical to farm with nature. In future, we want to enhance our profitability by selling our produce in niche markets that recognise our environmentally friendly production methods.” Contact Junior Herholdt on (021) 972 1796. |fw