Cutting To The Chase

By Philip A. Wheeler, Ph.D.

As graziers, the bottom line is pounds of meat produced per acre. Then you can refine that by talking about price for pound for “quality” meat and cost of land, labor inputs, etc.
Many growers pride themselves on efficiency and diligence in their choice of breeds, choice of forages, choice of markets and advertising, etc. What has been amazing to me over the last 30 years is the lack of efficiency and diligence shown by growers all over the globe in dealing with soils and plant needs/nutrition. I can’t totally explain why this is so, but several possibilities come to mind.

Chemistry has never been a favorite high school subject and many people find it as difficult or unfriendly as math. The chemistry of soil, fertilizer and plants is extremely important to achieving efficiency of plant and subsequent animal growth. However, during the age of chemical agriculture that began in the 40’s, the chemical model of soil and fertilizer that was presented to growers was simplistic, incomplete and sometimes just plain wrong. The biological nature of soil and plants was totally ignored and this continues to this day from many universities and fertilizer companies. And even tougher subject, physics, which forms the basis for understanding the other sciences, is never mentioned.

The plants in your fields can be thought of as factories. Although they are extremely complex, a marvel of nature, we can reduce them to factory status for understanding what we are trying to accomplish by growing them. The factories main job is to produce simple sugars. The plant/factory does this by a process called photosynthesis. Using an atom of magnesium located in the center of a chlorophyll molecule as an antenna, it captures a ray of sunlight in the infrared region and upgrades (increases its energy) to an ultraviolet frequency. Then it uses this energy to break a water molecule bond and combines it with carbon dioxide to produce a simple six-carbon chain sugar. (If your eyes are already glazing over, then you can better understand the paragraph above.)

Everything else that the plant becomes is made from the simple sugar. It can form: long chain polysaccharides (many sugars) that become the main structural components of cellulose and hemi-cellulose; enzymes and hormones that make the systems work; protein and vitamins to feed our livestock; sugars and starches that are even more important livestock feed (energy) and a long list of other components. Knowing this, wouldn’t it behoove us to do everything possible to make sure our factories/plants were producing the maximum amount of sugar to produce the maximum amount of feed/energy for our livestock to produce the maximum saleable product, meat? I will wager that a large percentage of readers aren’t aware that you can measure the sugar output/efficiency of you factory/plant by walking out in your pasture with a hand held instrument called a refractometer, that costs less than $150, or that you can dramatically increase the sugar output of your factory/plant. You are, however, acutely aware when the factory is under producing by virtue of your rate of gain, strength and speed of regrowth, etc.

The only way to consistently make the factory produce at its best in all kinds of weather conditions is to introduce biology into the system. Regretfully, conventional agriculture is the antithesis of biological/sustainable agriculture. When I first go onto a conventional farm, I find that the economic crop is usually in the 6 to 10 brix range. [Brix is the industry name for percent dissolved solids {sugars} in the fluids you are testing.] When I check the weeds in the field, they can read 10-12 brix. These means the grower has arranged his soil and fertility program to have the factory/weed function better than his economic crop/factory. Now this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is true in most parts of the world, where ever conventional agriculture is practiced. [In the few areas where it isn’t true, the soil is so highly mineralized and has such good organic matter that it can buffer the chemical impact.]

To change this situation, you have to change the chemistry as well as introduce the biological components. You won’t be aware of it, but you will also be changing the physics too. When you start using the appropriate fertilizers, you will actually be telling the plant what to do by means of the energy output of the fertilizer. IMPORTANT POINT: Plants grow from the energy given off or produced by the fertilizer, not from the fertilizer itself. Just ask a fertilizer specialist to explain how a plant can grow upward through a soil crust and against the force of gravity. The main chemical change to make to make the factory work better and to decrease weed, insect and disease pressure is change your emphasis from nitrogen and potassium [N & K] to calcium and phosphorous [Ca & P]. Notice that I didn’t say to ignore N and K.

The calcium and phosphorous can’t just be “out there” as indicated by a CEC test, they have to be biologically available. When they are available to your crop, all kinds of interesting things can occur. One of the first things you might notice is a significant germination of clover that you didn’t even know was out there. You will also start to see insect attack on broadleaf weeds, reduction of quack and crab or other sour grasses, reduction of dandelion pressure and of course, a higher brix in your economic crop. Your economic crop will have greater insect, disease and cold resistance and most importantly, feed value. If you give them a chance, your livestock will show you right to the line where you have changed things in a split pasture. Livestock will even rush right over and start eating when you are applying many of the “good” materials/plant food that are used in a sustainable program.

[I can hear your mind clicking right now. If this is true, why doesn’t the USDA, the University Extension, my local dealer/consultant etc. tell me this? Let’s not even “go there”. I think that politics and money are the only two words you need to consider.]

To help you understand, let’s go back to the 40’s or 50’s. I can remember my grade school teacher telling me that I needed to drink milk for strong teeth and bones. Milk is a significant source of calcium and phosphorous. Go way back to the 2nd century when they killed so many Roman’s in southern England that they made prison cells out of human bones. When the bones finally decayed the books record that, “and for many years thereafter, the fields grew astonishing yields of grain”. Fast forward to today, our teenage and older female citizens are developing osteoporosis at an alarming rate. They get excessive phosphorous from the “soda” or “pop” that interferes with the already low intake of dietary calcium. Dietary calcium is supposed to come from the food grown around the world by conventional agriculture that assumes pH indicates calcium needs. Get the picture?

Your livestock are similar to us humans in some respect, but we know it is their ability to turn cellulose and hemi-cellulose into energy for meet and milk production that makes them unique in the animal kingdom. Calcium and phosphorous based fertility programs will raise RFV [relative feed value] and TDN [total digestible nutrients]. The protein readings on forages may actually go down a few numbers, because the free/harmful nitrates that are counted in the typical test as protein will now be converted to amino acids and true protein. Vet and antibiotic bills will go down, breeding will be easier, calves will be healthier and your pocket book should as happy and contented as your livestock.