Biological farming – it works for them!

Biological farming is the solution to the crisis of ever-spiralling production costs, writes John Fair.

Farmers currently have to deal with frighteningly narrow profit margins. They need ways to cut production costs and increase outputs. This is where biological farming can help. Biological farming seeks to optimise natural soil fertility systems and has been shown to reduce production costs and lead to improved, sustainable yields. What I’ve seen and learnt over the past 13 years has convinced me that the Albrecht system of soil mineral balancing is the cornerstone of biological farming.

I’ve also learnt that successful farmers are able to gather relevant information, analyse it, explain it and predict the outcome of applying it. Their livelihood and continued existence depends on how efficient they are at agricultural production. With this in mind, I want to take you on a tour of farms in Australia and the US, where the Albrecht method of building soil fertility is working.

Paul Mason farms 1 620ha in the Wellington region of New South Wales. The rainfall here averages 600mm/year, and the farming pattern is a typical winter rainfall one. It’s a mixed farming operation with a 10-year crop rotation programme. Multi-species pastures (MSPs) are utilised for six years, after which small-grain crops are produced for four years. The land is then returned to pastures that are self-sustaining in terms of nitrogen.

It was a revelation to me that perennials such as fescue, cocksfoot and clovers could survive the long hot, dry summers. But this is largely due to the fact that the biological fertility of the soil is built up during the six-year pasture phase and the soils have a good balance of minerals. Unlike our Highveld, over-summering, not over-wintering, is the annual hurdle to surmount.

Paul told me how, when his pastures started failing, he sought help and was first told to apply more fertiliser. But this only made things worse. Seeking another solution, he ordered the Albrecht Papers from Acres USA, then attended a course given by Neal Kinsey, the world’s leading authority on the practical application of the Albrecht system. Back on his own farm, Paul took soil samples from a land that was highly productive and from an adjoining one that was failing, and had them tested.

Gary Zimmer appraises forage quality on a farm in Philadelphia, South Africa, on one of his numerous visits to the country.

The top-producing land was very close to the ideal mineral balance that Albrecht prescribes; the unproductive one was short of important elements. Paul immediately started a systematic soil mineral correction programme. He buys in Hereford steers at 300kg and puts them to pasture until they reach slaughter weight at 600kg. The carcasses are deboned for export as grass-fed beef. No concentrates or licks are used in the production process.

It used to take 15 months for the steers to reach 600kg. (Keep in mind that Paul over-summers on dry stockpiled pasture). Each year, as the soil mineral corrections progressed, it took less time for the steers to reach slaughter weight. When I last spoke to Paul he’d got it down to 10 months. Pasture production has increased by 30% to 40% and animal growth rate by more than 25%. Of particular significance is that mineralising his soils has reduced his vet costs.

Soil livestock
Gary Zimmer, author of The Biological Farmer and Advanced Biological Farming grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. At university he majored in animal nutrition. He differs somewhat from Neal Kinsey in his approach to soil mineralisation. He feels Albrecht consultants place too much emphasis on achieving the exact prescribed soil test numbers. This isn’t really necessary – the system is more flexible, he says. Nevertheless, soil mineral balancing based on the Albrecht principles is integral to his farming and consulting businesses.

He emphasises the importance of building soil life, which he refers to as ‘soil livestock’. For example, he practises a short rotation with maize and MSP on his farm, Otter Creek. And he believes it’s good practice to work a magnificent – and expensive – three- to four-year-old MSP into the soil when it’s at optimum grazing height. “Are you mad? Why don’t you feed it first to your livestock?” his neighbours ask. “I am feeding it to my livestock – my soil livestock,” he replies.

In 2004 I arranged a tour to the US for a group of South African farmers – timed to coincide with the annual open day on Gary’s farm. It forced us all to re-evaluate many of our concepts about biological and organic farming. The dairy farmers in the group found it difficult to believe that Gary purchased neither concentrates nor protein supplements. Finely ground organic farm-grown maize was the only extra feed given. Cows were group-fed at the rate of 7kg to 8kg/ cow/ day. Legume-rich pastures provided the other nutrients required.

At the time of our visit, the milk average was 30l/ cow/day. The pastures did not receive any chemical nitrogen fertiliser, yet produced about 17t of DM/ha/year. Albrecht’s credo that healthy soils produce healthy animals is vindicated on Otter Creek. Besides the fact that Gary’s veterinary bill is near zero, the herd has a number of cows that have completed more than six lactations.

The average productive life of cows on non-biological dairy farms in Wisconsin and surrounding states is less than two lactations. Gary and a few partners launched Midwest Bio-Ag consulting service to help farmers switch from conventional chemical-based agriculture to biological agriculture, and the company currently has more than 5 000 clients in Wisconsin and surrounding states.

Their modus operandi is to persuade farmers to give them a portion of their land to demonstrate the value of biological farming. They start by taking soil samples with the view to balancing the minerals. They then supply the minerals and fertiliser. Their agents, who are in fact coaches, stay with the client through all the stages of production. The result is that the majority of their new clients ask them to get involved in the rest of the farm.

I first met the MacLeans, Benny (Snr) and Benny (Jnr), at an advanced Kinsey course in the US. Benny (Snr), now deceased, was close to 80 at the time of the course. As far as I know, he was a student of Albrecht. The MacLean family run a citrus farm and a citrus consulting business in Florida and have followed Albrecht’s method for three generations. Their farm is now fully organic. (If you want to farm organically first farm biologically.

In other words, first get the mineral balance of your soils right, as this is an essential part of getting them healthy.) The MacLeans’ input costs are one-third that of conventional citrus farms in their region and their yield is about one-third higher.

John Fair is a leading expert on pastures. He heads up Fair’s Biofarm Assist, and can be contacted on 058 622 3585 or [email protected].