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CHAPTER TEN

Soil Sense

 

   The foundation trio of a healthy environment is clean air, goodwater and fertile soils. These are the inseparables and the essentials.

   Soil is a science of its own and a part of a lot of other sciences;so it is fortunate that it is not necessary to know all about soil in order to developit and to use it. Few good gardeners have degrees in soil science, but they knowhow to make soil deeper and more fertile.

   Soil may be considered as the conversion of rock by two processes.One is a process of ageing, the other is a process of living.

   The ageing process is the disintegration of rock to dust andthe mixings, the combinings, and the transformings through so many aeons of time.Eventually the surface of the land was little bits of everything from everywhere.

   For a long time the earth remained in this state; then therewas a great change. The living process started and covered and steadied the restlessdust: the living soil was created. But there were ripples and wave motions, and greatthunders from below to disturb the steadied dust; the soil was covered up and newsoil was recreated many times. The evidence of past rain forests and wet lands isthere in the coal seams which are mined now.

   The result today is a thin covering of soil which, togetherwith the sea, supports the life of the earth. This top-soil is underlaid by the greatreserves of rock debris and soft rock--the dead subsoil. together they are from afew times to a hundred times or more thicker than the soil itself. This sub-soil,or soil material, is of great importance. It is the foundation of life now and forthe future. Firstly, it can be turned into real soil quickly, and secondly, thereare these immense quantities of it almost everywhere beneath the surface of agriculturalland. This is the type of land on which cities are built.

   This is how soil is formed. The ageing process of soil formationhas taken unknown millions of years. But the point is, IT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED! THELIVING PROCESS IS RAPID. These are the simple facts which the propagandists of anti-landscapeartificial agriculture want all mankind to forget. The living process is veryrapid. It merely has to convert the sub-soil into fertile soil. The length of timethat this takes is related to the life cycles of the life in the soil. This includeseven the most minute forms. There are many books dealing with this one aspect inthe study of the microbiology of the soil. There are millions of organisms in anounce of fertile soil and they breed, die and breed again in a matter of days oreven hours. There are other larger forms of life in the soil which are part of theprocess. The animal life in the soil runs to many hundreds of species. Of these thegiant is the earthworm, which is not only the great animal friend of man but is alsoa completely reliable soil informant. If a spadeful or two of soil discloses severalsizes of earthworms ranging to seven inches long, then the soil is fertile.

   The living process has been going on for a long time. Some soilsare thousands or even millions of years old. Soil is a process which has been maintainedby countless generations of organisms which have only brief individual life spans.Even the earthworm, our friendly giant of the life in the soil, breeds in two tothree months after hatching from egg capsules which may produce 20 live worms. Hereafterthis hermaphrodite breeds almost weekly in good soil. An acre of fertile soil willcontain a ton or more of earthworms. Each will excrete everyday more than its ownweight of humus-laden casts.

   The soil is a complete universe. It has varying inhabitantswhich occupy specific atmospheres. There is the world of the aerobes which breatheair, and the world of the anaerobes which do not breathe air--they extract theiroxygen from matter in the earth. The soil has climates (soil climates) of great diversity.The size of the populations of the soil (soil life) is fantastic. To try to assessthe numbers of all these multitudes would be like trying to express light years ininches.

   All forms of life require two things for optimum development;good living conditions, which embrace air (oxygen), moisture, warmth and space, anda plentiful supply of suitable food. Then they breed like hell--what else is thereto do? This a soil climax. Multiple soil climaxes can be promoted to make soil quickly.

   It has been found that the best and cheapest food of all forsoil making on the grand scale is the dead roots of good pasture. It it is knownhow to promote this special organic matter in abundance, successions of climaxescan be promoted. We can promote these breeding orgies in the soil and improve anddeepen the soil rapidly.

   What is being said now is that if the living soil were strippedfrom a paddock, the sub-soil material below could be turned into a soil which wouldrival the original in only a few years.

   One of the most controversial aspects of my farm experiencehas been the subject of soil. Briefly, the claim was that soil could be made deeperand more fertile--quickly. We had done it originally on poor top-soil, on sub-soilclay, on yellow shale, on the harder blue shales and on thin sandstone soil.

   This is the simple technique that succeeded where orthodox methodshad failed to produce even a poor pasture: we broke the soil material to three inchesdeep with a chisel plow--the modern equivalent of the ancient stick-plow. Into thiswe sowed a mixture of clovers (with the appropriate innoculants) and grasses withone hundred-weight of a 50-50 lime-superphosphate mixture to each acre. The pasturethat resulted was cultivated likewise with a chisel plow in the autumn of each ofthe next three years only. (The particular attributes of the chisel plow are thatit does not turn the soil under and secondly, it is a tough go-anywhere affair. Ithas two-inch wide chisel-like tynes attached to heavier spring-loaded steel shanksmounted on a steel frame. Its proper use on pasture land aerates the soil. The effecton soil improvement and pasture can be dramatic. There is a chisel plow which bearsthe name Yeomans, in which our financial interest ceased years ago. Our first versionof the chisel plow was made in 1945.) The chisels were allowed to penetrate deeperinto the earth in these three consecutive years, reaching a depth of six or seveninches in the final working. We were thus letting a great deal more air into thesoil and making better use of the rainfall by taking more of it into the soil. Duringthese three years, stock were managed in a way which encouraged the production ofexcessive quantities of pasture roots.

   The super-phosphates--a chemical fertiliser--was used to artificiallystimulate the grasses and clovers to grow the initial crop of roots. It was not usedagain or for any other purpose.

   Generally by the time pasture plants have grown to near floweringstage, their roots will have penetrated as deeply into the soil as they will go.Supposing at this stage the grass is mown down or eaten off by stock, the grass suffersa severe shock. It is as if grass hated mowers and the sheep and cattle which tear-offand eat its leaves. The shock to the grass is very real. So firstly, the grass mustrecover from the shock. It does this by not growing at all for a time and by drawingfor its recovery on the nutrients stored in its roots. These nutrients were madeready for the great reproductive event in the cycle-of-life of the grass--the floweringand the setting of seed. These deeper roots then die and become in various ways thefood for the whole universe of life in the soil.

   After recovery from the shock, completely new roots start downwardsagain. If a sod of grass is dug up at the right time and washed in water--gently--thebase of the clump of grass seems to be infested with maggots. But they are not maggots;they are new roots starting on their way down again. If the grass is now left togrow undisturbed, by the exclusion of all stock from the paddock, these new rootswill continue downwards to the maximum depth of the aerated top-soil. If the sub-soilhas been aerated previously by a suitable cultivation with the chisel plow the rootswould continue deeper into the newly aerated and moist sub-soil. On the other hand,if the grass is eaten before the roots have penetrated to the new optimum depth,the roots will immediately die back because the grass will have suffered anothersevere shock. The system of the constant nibble, where stock remain on pasture forlong periods, is the system of the constant shock. It will progressively reduce thedepth of the aerated and alive soil to two inches or even less.

   The farmer can thus ensure, by moving his stock on and off hispastures at appropriate times, that bigger and better crops of roots are producedfrom deeper root systems. Soil-life climaxes are heightened; and in the better livingconditions--air, moisture, warmth and space--and a plentiful supply of suitable food,a frequency of climaxes is produced. In this manner shallow soil in which grass rootspenetrate less than two inches, can be converted in three years into a very fertilesoil five or ten times deeper. We have brought this about many times and so havemany farmers. On the other hand, stock can be allowed to cause a withdrawal of thedepth of grass root systems and their soil life communities, to shallower horizons:then the soil loses air and loses depth. The life in the soil is suppressed. Thefertility of the soil is then in decline.

   There are species of plants, lucerne is one of them, which sendsome of their roots deep down searching for moisture. Lucerne is the alfalfa of theAmericas. The soil must have some aeration, such as is found naturally on the loamyand gravelly banks of a water course. Once any roots have penetrated deeply theyimprove the aeration of the deep soil. These pioneering roots provide the conditionsfor the roots of other plants to penetrate deeper and to follow the pattern of growthand decay in building a deeper and a better soil.

   This is the Keyline soil making technique which authority hasrejected for two decades. They have said soil cannot be made that way, it can onlybe improved by the constant use of chemicals.

   The most recent happening which illustrates the speed with whichsoil can be transformed occured in May this year (1971). A T.V. camera unit, comprisinga rural adviser, a cameraman and assistant, were taking movie sequences of projectswe had designed in north-eastern Victoria. On one farm, the untreated soil abovean irrigation channel was dug up with a spade and dicovered to be three inches deep.The soil peeled off the sub-soil below in a three-inch thick block carrying the light-brownearth of the root zone, and not a single root had penetrated into the yellow sub-soil.Soil nearby but below the new channel had been "pattern cultivated" oncenine weeks earlier with a chisel plow and irrigated immediately afterwards. (Chapter12, Water the Forest). But here the soil, wherever it was dug up, was nearly blackto six inches deep and carried a heavy root growth with earthworms in evidence. Eventhe owner of the farm was surprised at this proof of how quickly soil can be madedeeper and more fertile.

   Last year (1970) in the Kiewa Region of north-eastern Victoria(south-eastern State of Australia), two high ranking officers of the Bureau of AgriculturalEconomics from Canberra, the seat of the Federal Government, inspected many samplesof soil which were dug up with a spade. They were there at the request of a Ministerof the Federal Government to inspect several properties on which these techniquesof landscape design had been implemented.

   The party which accompanied the officers were farmers and graziersof the Kiewa, my youngest son Ken and myself.

   After the officers had been shown several properties, it wouldbe true to say they had become convinced by the inspections and the demonstrationsof the efficacy of the water control layouts and other aspects of the developmentbut perhaps not yet of soil making; they were finding it too incredible to believe.Then came the final inspection of their visit.

   On this property the owners had doubled their profit by followingonly one aspect of Keyline--soil development. Here that most scientific implementof soil examination--the spade--finally satisfied the officers. They saw many samplesof pasture soil dug up. Some areas of the farm had only one year of soil development,others had two consecutive years and others the full three years. The officers lookedat the soil, and felt it, they pulled it apart, they smelt it and compared it withuntreated soil nearby. They became acquainted with the earthworms, which seem toappear from nowhere when soil is on the improve.

   Formerly these pastures were cared for according to the recommendedorthodox procedures. But over the past three years no money had been spent on artificialfertilisers and no poison sprays had been used on the pastures. There were no peststo be seen.

   The money saved added considerably to nett profits. So did thegreater quantities of better feed which were produced. There were other bonuses:the former worry of bloat has now been removed; there is no sickness in the herdand there are no veterinary bills and a considerable number of man hours has beensaved.

   Finally, last year they were third highest in butterfat productionfor the dairy factory. The two other producers ahead of them were members of theKiewa Keyline Club who had started their development work one year before them.

   They still have their so-called pasture pests, but now the pestsare hard to find instead of being in uncounted millions. I think they appreciatethese pests now. They get the message, which is: when the pests breed to plague proportionsthey are saying: "This is wonderful pests' food." When it is a strugglefor a few specimens to stay alive, the few pests are screaming in despair: "Keepyour lousy pasture, it's only fit for cattle." A cow--if she is given a choice--andthe pests, are good judges of pasture, but few men are.

   Nature produced Her most fertile soil on only limited areasof the Earth where the climate was moderate. Always legumes and grasses grew together.The herds of grazing animals ate Nature's pastures. By learning from Nature's methodsand applying techniques which improve the relationship of both air and water in thesoil and by good stock control, the fertile soil belts of Nature can be extendedto cover both higher and lower rainfall influences in hotter and colder climates.

   In Nature's grasslands the carnivores ate the old, the sickand the excessive young of the grazing herds and maintained the Balance of the Landscape.

   Now mankind dominates all. He must maintain the Balance of theLandscape--or perish.



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