The soil depletion crisis – retired Devon organic dairy farmer spells out the hard truth.

My current edition of ‘Grass and Forage Manager’, published by British Grassland Society, shows just how far many farmers have come in recognising their responsibilities to environmental matters over the last ten to fifteen years. Articles on livestock sustainability, growing herbal leys, locking in carbon with grassland and grassland management effects on earthworm communities are all there, alongside some of the more practical offerings.

Given that over half of our agricultural land is unsuitable for growing anything other than grass and forage crops such as clovers, it makes sense to use grazing livestock to make efficient use of this land. At the same time, it is quite possible to improve soil structure, sequester carbon, provide wildlife habitat and opportunities for tourism and recreation. This type of farming is about a million miles away from the ‘beef-lot’ which predominates in the US.

The beef-lot exists because where there are vast prairies of reasonably fertile land suitable for growing maize and wheat, where winters are very cold and summers very dry it provides farmers with a way to feed cattle without the need for grazing. The same goes for US dairying, cows housed all year round, stuffed with conserved forage and cereals, (not to mention a few hormones!) milked three times a day using cheap ‘labor’.

One of my oldest friends married an American girl he met in Jamaica whilst he was on VSO there and she was a Peace Corps volunteer. After a few years working in this country managing a dairy herd, Ned and Martha moved over to The States. I’ve met them several times since and ‘gotten’ some quite interesting insights into American farming. Ned and Martha worked in up-state New York, managing big dairy herds. Ned was held as a model of good husbandry because his cows averaged one and a half lactations, all his neighbours did worse than that. Just say that again, ‘one and a half lactations’. Admittedly, some of those lactations would be four hundred and fifty days long, but that is an animal welfare issue in itself. With cows burning out quickly giving huge amounts of milk each day and a ready burger market for cast cows, the herd turnover of animals would bankrupt most European dairy farmers.

Giving monthly shots of bovine somatotropin (BST) to boost production is routine, and poor Ned always looked very wistfully at my cows, (we achieved nine lactations per cow) when we walked round our farm. When I asked him about his staff, he said the he would stick to Mexicans, ‘Puerto-Ricans are cheaper but they are not so good’!

To be fair, America does have a small prime beef market of cattle produced ‘out on the range’. With winter temperatures of minus forty below, it’s quite common to see calves with their ears burnt off with frostbite – not sure how the RSPCA would regard that. Leaving that aside, the real problem with American farming is that it is arable-based; that is, it requires the land to be ploughed every year and a crop planted. Our own prairies in the east of the country suffer from a similar problem. This is the way that uninterrupted arable crops inevitably degrade the most important thing on this planet, namely SOIL.

In my copy of Grass and Forage Manager, Dr Andy Neal discusses the idea that soil is a process, not a ‘thing’. He states that the relationship between microbes and soil organic matter is complex and can take many years to change. For example, he estimates that it could take up to a hundred years for a particular soil to sequester its maximum carbon holding capacity.

Organic matter is basically the carbon that brings soil to life, from something that is simply a mineral substance. Of course, sugar from microbes in relation to plant roots, oxygen and water are also vital. Ploughing a field is accompanied by a large release of soil nutrients and continuous ploughing continuously burns up those nutrients. In a matter of decades, soil’s organic matter can be degraded to the point where it starts to resemble desert, with all the breakdown of soil structure, water-holding capacity and other characteristics of depleted soil.

The definition of a desert is a soil where organic matter has fallen below one percent. Many arable soils are approaching this figure. A friend of mine left a small organic dairy farm and moved to a large rented farm up country. This farm had been set up for dairying in the sixties, but for the last twenty years had been in continuous cereals. Soil organic matter was approaching one percent. My friend was trying to grow grass, but quickly found that without fertilizer the grass simply would not grow. The soil’s natural ability to sustain plant growth had been destroyed and once the fertilizer ‘ran out’, the grass just stopped.

He said, “ if you put on fifty units of nitrogen that might work for a month…after that the grass simply refused to grow and you had to put on more fertilizer”.

His answer was to try to introduce as much muck on the farm as was possible – fortunately most dairy farms are well-blessed with the stuff!

The American prairies were once vast areas of natural grassland and supported huge herds of bison. Buffalo Bill and Mr Winchester soon cleared them out of the way. Apparently, the indigenous people were appalled at the carnage and could only watch as the buffalo that sustained their way of life were slaughtered over a few decades. These same soils now grow maize, cereals and soya with the help of Mr John Deere. Slowly, but inevitably, the process of soil degradation goes on.

Some commentators predict that the planet may only have forty to sixty harvests left before most of our arable land has been ‘desertified’. If this is true, then a baby born today will see wide-spread human famine within its lifetime. This makes global warming look like a side-show.

We all need our farmers to care for the environment, our EU food and farming standards are a start and we don’t want to go down the American way. Their food may be cheap for now, but could be very expensive in the long run.