Black Gold: Organic Matter – Part 2, by R.M.

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

Do you have access to sawdust? In most places where I have lived, I have had access to free sawdust. Sawdust is almost pure carbon = organic matter (yes I know it’s not quite that simple, but for the purpose of how to make your soil better, it really is). Put it on your plants and they will most likely die from lack of nitrogen as the sawdust absorbs it. For the best and fastest composting, you need a ratio of carbon to nitrogen of 7:1, and sawdust is all carbon, no nitrogen so it will rob nitrogen if too close to a plant. If you have access to sawdust, there are many ways to use you can use it. The following is what has worked best for me. The first I now longer do as my garden soil is over 5%, but I used this technique for many years. Make a raised bed garden by digging out the paths (putting the dirt on the bed on each side so you have twice as much top soil to garden in) and fill in the paths with sawdust. No mud, no weeds and  it does not steal the nitrogen for more than a few inches, which is the edge of the bed where you don’t want weeds growing anyway. Every 2 to 3 years till the whole garden in the fall, plant a cover crop, and repeat the dig out paths the next spring.

Have animals that need bedding? Use the sawdust, put the manure / sawdust mix out on your compost pile or in the area you will get around to gardening in.

Have any animals where you use a outdoor barn lot, or hay feeding area? Bed the whole area down with 6-8 inches of sawdust. The huge advantages of this technique are to keep you and the animals out of the mud, make scraping up the manure easier, but most importantly animal urine is mostly water and nitrogen. At least 90% of the nitrogen (your most expensive fertilizer to buy) evaporates into the air within 24 hours. If the animal urinates on sawdust, almost all the nitrogen is ‘sucked up’ by the all carbon (and no nitrogen) sawdust! Next summer you will scrape up only black crumbly dirt that is much higher in nitrogen than just the manure would have been, and there will be a lot more total volume than just the manure (and waste hay) would have been. This can be your ‘sacrifice’ area where you can rest your pasture when you run low on forage.

Green Manure

Green Manure, grow your own organic matter. Slower, lower costs, but still a fairly quick method:

Get a good tiller so you will not put this task off or better yet, if you have access to a tractor, get a tractor mounted tiller. If just starting on a larger scale and do not yet have a tractor, talk to neighbors who do, who may be willing to trade use of their tractor for use of your tiller for their gardens. Till in whatever is growing there now, and plant something. Your something seed should be cheap as you will be using quite a bit of seed, you are putting it on a LOT heavier than usual. If only green manuring and not using green manure as part of a rotation, you will be growing at least 2 to 3 crops a year. Shop around, I see mail order garden catalogues that sell green manure seeds for $5 to $10 per pound. Go you your local seed / feed store and you will be looking at under $0.35 for grains and a couple dollars for legumes. Till, plant, rake in, and then till back in as soon as it has grown as large as possible, but not so large that you can not easily till the growth back into the ground. If you add some type of fertilizer, you will grow more organic matter faster. The breaking down of plant material will result in increasing organic matter.

Broadcast the seed, practice throwing out evenly by hand (fine for 1/8 to ¼ acre garden) or get a Hand Crank Bag Seeder/Spreader (shop around, you should be able to find for about $45 (I found one new in the box at a garage sale last summer for $5) which is useful for much larger areas (I use for frost seeding in legumes for 40 acres but sure makes a ¼ acre green manure patch easy). Rake the seed it; for small areas get a very large leaf rake, for larger areas drag something behind your favorite powered toy from lawn mower to 4-wheeler. You want the seed only LIGHTLY covered, 2 to 3 times as deep as the seed in large.

Pick a seed for the season (a mixture is better), my favorites for hot weather is soybeans and what every milo or sudan seed is cheapest. I use millet if it is very dry, and in small chicken yards where the chickens have already ‘tilled’ and fertilized the ground millet will be the fastest chicken pasture you can grow. Fall is wheat if I will be tilling in later in the spring, rye (grain) if earlier, with harry vetch and/or winter peas. Early spring would be Oats and winter peas. Grain for bulk fiber (organic matter), the legume(s) to take nitrogen out of the air to help feed your green mature crop.

Controlled Grazing

Controlled grazing. A lot slower, but minimal work (after you get the fences built) and you are producing a crop of livestock at the same time.

Graze it: (If you are not ready for livestock, find a neighbor who will manage the story YOUR way for free pasture) If you correctly control grazing animals, you will be building organic matter. The better job you do of grazing, the faster you will build organic matter. If you do a really good job (see below), you will also replace the need to feed grain (which may not always be available and feeding grain to ruminants will lower the quality of the meat while raising the cost). If you do not control your animals, and just let them graze the same field all the time, you will actually be decreasing organic matter.

Fencing is expensive, so learn how to build electric fence CORRECTLY. First: correct wire: If you use the light ‘electric fence’ wire (usually 17ga), you will hate it. 14ga should be the lightest wire you ever use, and I suggest that you use even 14ga only for the initial learning phase and when you are not sure that location is where you really want that fence to be for the long term. 12.5ga high tensile wire should be used for all property borders and all fences that you are fairly sure will not need to be moved. Second: Build good corners: Build a good corner for 14ga, build a really good corner for 2 or 3 wire 12.5ga internal fences, and build a super good corner for perimeter fences or those with more than 3 wires. All of the strain of an electric fence is on the corner! Third: KEEP IT HOT! If it is not hot ALL the time (and you do not train the animals at first by putting them in a STOUT pen, with one little corner fenced off with the same electric fence you will be using for the rest of the farm) they will get out. If it is not hot all the time, the grass and brush will grow up and short it out.

Electric fencing is a psychological barrier, if the animals don’t fear it, they will not respect it. Get a charger larger than what you think you will need. For cattle / bear height fences, use the estimate length of fence the charger is rated for and divide by 2 for one wire adult-only fences, by 3 for two wires for fences that will keep all ages in. If you are fencing lower to the ground for pigs, sheep, goats, then you will need 3 wires for small pastures / and to be SURE piglets, lambs and kids stay in (you can get by with 2 wires in pastures 2 acres or more in size) and divide the distance the fence charge is rated for by a MINIMUM of 5, 10 would be better. If you will be using electric netting or very low wires for garden pest control, divide by 20 or more ! It is just about impossible to get too large a charger, but really easy to get too small !! Too small will just result in a lot of cussing as you try to figure out how to keep that fence hot in the spring.

The short and simple rules of controlled grazing are: to slowly build organic matter and hopefully replace all grain, you never leave the animals in a pasture more than 7 days. If you want to build organic matter a lot faster, and be sure that you can eliminate feeding any grain, then move them as soon as a plant has re-grown enough to be bitten off a second time OR 3 days, whichever comes sooner. NEVER EVER be tempted to leave them in more than 3 days in the growing season! Have some place to put them when you run out of grass (one sacrifice pasture or a dry lot) in order to have QUALITY feed and QUALITY plants (the animal will go back and eat the “ice cream” plant again as soon as it is big enough to get a bite, and will not eat low quality plants until last. That second bite (7 days) sets the BEST plants back.

For QUANTITY, the idea is that the average height of a plant will be roughly equal to the average depth of the roots. Close grazed plants have shallow roots that can’t reach nutrients and are drought stressed in a very short period of time. Allowing the forage plants to almost reach the reproductive state before grazing will results in a significantly larger average plant size. Allowing them to reach a more advanced state of growth is a balancing act between lowering quality of the nutrition but increasing the rate of organic matter buildup from trampling in forage. More mature forage that has a higher organic matter content. This is not a negative thing, and correctly controlling grazing will quickly result is growing a lot more forage; if you grow 50% more and ‘waste’ (trampling in) half of that extra growth, you still have 25% more forage while building organic matter faster.

Run out of forage? Have a pen to lock them up in till you have forage again, don’t damage your forage trying to save buying a little hay. Not sure if it’s too soon to move the animals? The answer is always YES!!!! Graze a third, trample in a third, and leave a third is another good rule for how to manage grazing. Think about laying out your fields so that they can be subdivided easily (with roll up “polywire”) and still have water and shade in each division. You start in the spring when the whole field can be grazed in 3 days, if you have enough fields, the next time around divide into two fields, and most likely there will be 3 days of graze in each half…. The next time around divide into 4 fields, and guess what? Most likely 2 days of graze again! Did not get it right and they are ready to move in 2 days? GREAT, because optimal is actually moving every 12 hours, but not practical in terms of labor. We are currently moving 45-120 sheep with 4 steers every 2 to 3 days, most days the move takes about 12-15 minutes when subdividing, and about 23 minutes when just opening an electric gap gate. The animals will be so well trained that calling them equals NEW FOOD, that when I need to put them in the corral, I just open the gate(s) and call.