Ecological farming - what is it and how does it benefit the farmer?

18 October 2016

The notion of farming “at one with nature” may sound like it’s veering toward the tree-hugging side of the organic movement but it is not only possible… it’s easy and profitable.

I believe the key to good farming practice is design. Say we wanted to design a farming system that had a high profit margin, low input costs, low workload and was environmentally sustainable. Well, when it comes to growing things, nature has been at it a bit longer than farming so it’s not a bad place to look for a design template.

Let’s look at some common farming problems and examples of possible solutions. Weeds are an issue on most farms and can be a deal breaker for farmers turning away from organic production back to conventional farming.

Firstly we have to learn to see weeds differently. Nature is not neat and tidy with everything in straight rows and it is never a monoculture. Take road margins for example. How many times have you envied the abundant growth along the road sides when your rye grass pastures are struggling to get going in spring? Now in late summer they are a species-rich mix of grasses, vetches, clovers, cow parsley, hogweed, plantain, chicory, nettles, docks, brambles… and anything you care to mention. This unmanaged roadside is diverse, self-sustaining, self-fertilising. Ok maybe the county council mow it a few times a year and it does get fertilised partly by the exhaust fumes of passing traffic, but it is its diversity that makes it resilient and abundant.

Weeds in our pastures can be split into three groups:

1. Weeds our animals eat.

This group are really not weeds at all but forage plants that have fallen out of favour because they do not suit many conventional intensive farming practises. Things like chicory, plantain, yarrow, birdsfoot trefoil and burnet. These plants are deep-rooted mineral accumulators and have huge health benefits for livestock. Chicory for example is a natural anthelmintic and has been shown to reduce internal parasite burdens in ruminants. They also benefit the soil with their deep roots pumping up water and nutrients from lower in the soil profile as the roots open up air space relieving compaction and improving soil structure. They also just add to plant diversity which in turn adds to soil biological diversity because each plant species attracts different microbial symbionts.

2. Weeds our animals don’t eat but benefit the soil and the larger ecosystem.

These are all too common in most cases and need to be managed but if we learn to understand the role they play with the whole farm ecosystem it can help us tolerate them a little better. I am talking about plants like docks, thistles, nettles. Ok I understand they are hard to love and they are messy looking but if they are topped once a year before they seed they are easy enough to keep under control. Unless there is a huge infestation they don’t really affect yield that much, their roots don’t compete with the grasses. They are also deep-rooted and the topped weeds are nutrient and mineral rich organic matter for the soil. They also harbour a host of beneficial insects, butterflies, bees and ladybirds to name a few.

As a side note, if we have a very healthy and balanced ecosystem that we farm within things find their own balance. For instance, I had one field that had a small amount of ragwort (Ragwort is classed as a noxious plant and it is the land owners responsibility to keep it under control under the 1936 noxious weed act). I spent a few years pulling it up by hand until I realised it was getting worse. As every piece of root left in the ground was capable of growing a new plant. I considered grazing sheep in the field as they are known for grazing it out. Sheep are less susceptible to being affected by the poison but it was wet low land and I didn’t want to subject my sheep to a potential fluke burden so I decided to mow it twice a year after grazing instead. It got a little worse at first and then I noticed a natural ally moved in. The cinnabar moth fluttering around and then another and I looked down to see the ragwort was completely infested with cinnabar caterpillars stripping the plants of the foliage. Now every year I have some ragwort and it gets devastated by the caterpillars and it doesn’t cause me any problem.

3. Persistent Weeds that are telling us something - the Indicators.

Some of the plants in the other two categories could also be classed as indicators. Tap-rooting plants can be a sign of compaction for example. But there are two big indicators it is good to be aware of. One is low pH and the other is early successional weeds.

Rushes are the bane of many farmers, especially organic farmers on marginal land, because it seems like nothing can be done to get rid of them or control them. Spraying or licking is out the question on an organic farm and anyway it is only an expensive short term solution because not only do they come back but the damage the herbicide does to the soil improves the conditions for the rushes long term. Rushes love acidic, anaerobic soil conditions. Any steps toward improving these conditions will help. Avoid the use of heavy machinery and heavy animals. Improve drainage and water management and plant suitable trees (Poplar can be useful as it has powerful vigorous roots that will break up compaction layers and pans, it is also a thirsty tree that soaks up a lot of water). Try to raise pH and improve soil structure with the use of well-composted farmyard manure rather than lime which can damage soil structure with heavy application. Consider mowing or mulching the rushes with a quad rather than a heavy tractor. There is no quick solution or complete answer but these are steps in the right direction that will improve things in the long term and all the time adding to rather than damaging the ecological elements. Sometimes there will be a topographical situation where little can be done for example if there is nowhere to drain water to. Maybe it is worth considering a change of use, simply leaving an area as a wild wetland by fencing it off, or invest in digging a pond and using it as a reservoir as a new usable water source, grow some fish in it and make a new wildlife habitat on the farm!

Early successional weeds are the ones that grow on waste land, abandoned carparks or soil sprayed with the beloved glyphosate; the active ingredient in the trademark weedkiller Roundup. Willowherb, dandelion, silverweed, chickweed, daisies, thistles and scotch grass are all early successional weeds. The ecologic role of these plants is to reclaim damaged areas that have been cleared of life either by natural causes like fire, flood, volcano or man-made reasons like tarmac and concrete. They are super tough, need very little fertility and are hugely prolific, producing masses of seeds, often many times a year. They are short-lived and grow as much foliage as possible before going to seed and dying. They create organic matter and build soil for the next generation. If left to their own devices they will eventually die out because they make the area too fertile and will be replaced by later successional plants, many of which will be grasses. But this is a slow process.

Essentially what early successional weeds indicate is bacterially dominant soil generally lacking in fertility. All healthy soil needs to be rich in bacteria but they also need fungi and an early successional soil lacks fungi. The way to solve this problem and speed up the natural succession is to add fungal-rich compost (a compost made with a high percentage of woody material).

As an example of the futility of trying to fight against nature without understanding it, The use of Glyphosate has the reverse effect of adding compost because a recent study has shown the 1:50 dilution of the recommended application rate is enough to kill all soil fungi it comes in contract with. So the irony of using glyphosate to kill weeds on soil is that it exposes bare soil, creating a new seed bed that is bacterially dominant so the only thing that will want to grow there are more weeds!

Healthy soil is the key to success on any farm and understanding how soil ecology works with the whole farm ecosystem is the key to designing a farming system that works within that ecosystem. Increasing diversity and striving towards creating a natural balance is the goal. Weeds can play a role in achieving that. The added organic matter though topping weeds should be left to rot on the ground. Don’t force your animals back on topped ground to graze the drying vegetation. The life in the soil need organic matter to cycle the nutrients. The more organic matter, the more life in the soil. The more nutrients are cycled the more grass you grow. It is that simple!

The biology in the soil affects the life above the soil too. The more insects, worms and slugs, the more birds. Birds in all their diversity are a huge benefit when they are many. They clean pastures of parasites. Crows scratch through dung in search of food and help break it up and spread it around. Worms and dung beetles break it down further and take it into the soil. Swallows and starlings flock around cows eating flies on the wing, all the while making their own manure which may not be much but it is something and they are making it while reducing the nuisance fly burden for the herd. These benefits can be adversely affected by the use of medical parasite controls. Ivermectin is an amazing drug. It saves countless human and animal lives but it is dangerous and very persistent in the environment. If the whole herd is routinely dosed, while the drug is in their system their dung is poisonous to a whole host of soil life. That is why you can find cow pats still whole in the field months after the cattle have been there. These cow pats reduce the productivity of your pasture a lot more than docks or thistles. They break the nutrient cycle and poison the ground they cover. Long rotations, careful grazing management, and culling persistently affected animals, dung sampling and treating individual animals with appropriate drugs rather than a kill-all cocktail will help keep your herd and your farm healthy and productive.

The benefits of considering ecology on the farm can be subtle. But when all the subtleties begin to add up, when we learn to understand them and their connected impacts, when we design our farming system with these things in mind, suddenly farming starts to become easier. We are not battling against nature encroaching on our enterprise but strolling along beside it watching the moths lay eggs on our weeds and the dung beetles devour the cow pats!

Clive Bright