Many land managers transitioning to regenerative agriculture become interested in applying bio-stimulants to bring life back into their system. There are some simple options to explore in this realm that can suddenly have us excited about farming again. It is SO much more fun than spending our days applying poisons to our landscape! Bio-stimulants can play a key role in many of the programs that our clients implement at Integrity soils and there are a few key areas that I find continue to trip up regenerative agricultures newest recruits.
Management builds the foundation
There are no silver bullets and regenerative agriculture is not about simply exchanging one input for another and essentially doing the same things and expecting different results. If you continue to overgraze, apply high rates of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and focus on killing things then no amount of biological stimulants will make a profitable difference in your system. Get your management on a regenerative track first before you waste time and money on inputs.
Mindset can be the biggest obstacle
We have been well trained to see weed free, uniform monocultures and high units of production as the signs of success in agriculture. If we decide to implement regenerative practices yet continue to view our farming system through our old conventional farming mindset we will not have the eyes to see the changes as they emerge. Adopting regenerative farming is a process of unlearning the conventional farming mindset and learning to see with new regenerative eyes. 90% of success is your mental attitude!
I frequently hear stories of bio-stimulants being applied with a conventional fertiliser mentality, with trials done in strips to see if there is a visible difference after applying them. Before you write off the bio-stimulant application as not working when a visible fertiliser type response is not obvious, remind yourself to focus on the purpose of the product you are applying. Fertilizers are applied to soil or plants to supply nutrients that promote plant growth. In contrast, bio-stimulants can contain metabolites, microbes, quorum signalling molecules, proteins, amino acids, plant growth hormones, enzymes, botanicals, humic substances and much more. Bio-stimulants can be applied to seeds, plants or the soil to stimulate natural processes that may enhance nutrient uptake, nutrient efficiency, stress tolerance or crop quality and yield as well as soil microbial communities.
If you carry out trials using bio-stimulants then it is imperative that you monitor soil health holistically. Your conventional farming eyes will be trained to look for an above ground response. If you stop here you will miss the subtle changes that happen beneath the soil first. This is why it is essential to monitor soil physical health and biological health and stop relying solely on soil chemistry tests. A holistic soil and plant health monitoring system will help you develop new ways of seeing the living system in your soil. Commit to the regenerative program for at least 3 years and monitor thoroughly along the way. Don’t give up after one season and go back to your old ways, undoing the good that has started to happen!
Assessing product options
It can be confusing sourcing inputs in the biological space, just as in the conventional space there are plenty of companies willing to take your money with the promise of the answer to all your farms problems. Fortunately there are reputable input suppliers who operate in a truly regenerative way with a purpose bigger than themselves. These companies will have no problems supplying you with information on their products so you can make an informed choice regarding where you spend your money.
If you are purchasing vermiculture products ensure that the products are based on vermicast and not a leachate liquid from the worm farm. Leachate is a waste material and a sign the worm farm needs more carbon. Whilst it may have some nutrients, plant growth hormones and enzymes it is often bacterially dominant and it also could contain pathogens.
If you are purchasing composts you should also verify that the compost has a favourable fungi : bacteria ratio which is determined by the source materials the compost or vermicompost is made from. Applying bacterially dominant bio-stimulants can do more harm than good to your soil health if your soil is already bacterially dominant.
Making your own inputs
One of the most exciting aspects of regenerative systems is that there is so much potential to save money and make your own bio-stimulants on farm for a fraction of the cost of manufactured versions. Many farmers are creating on farm composting or vermicomposting systems to use as the basis for their landscape regeneration program. This will take time to learn, build, look after and wait for the compost to mature but will be well worth it for those who have a ready supply of compostable materials and the inclination to make this process work.
As for purchased products, the fungi : bacteria ratio of your home made composts is vital to creating a quality product that is tailored to your soils needs. Some general rules of thumb to putting together a quality compost are to add the following:
Brown materials (Straw, wood chips, cardboard, shredded paper, dry leaves)
-30% for bacterial compost
-40% for fungal compost
Green plant materials 30-40%
Manure up to 20%
You can also add clay, paramagnetic rock dusts, seaweed, biodynamic preparations or other additives as relevant to your situation.
New compost makers can gain confidence in their techniques by sending samples of their finished products away to a laboratory for microbial analysis to verify the quality of their finished product.
A little compost can go a long way
Making your own compost is not just suited to small area agriculture. Once you have mastered the art of composting you can make your own compost teas or extracts on site so that a little bit of compost can go a long way. Alternatively you could purchase a quality compost to make your own extracts from. Compost extracts can be made from 2-20kg/ha of compost. Vermicast extracts from 1-2kg/ha of vermicast.
Applying biological inputs
Bio-stimulants are best applied when there is good soil moisture, even better just before rainfall. Getting set up with equipment suited to applying biological inputs in a timely, efficient manner is another part of the process of setting yourself up for success. Equipment doesn’t need to be over complicated. A simple option for applying compost extracts on small areas is a tank with a pump and a size 24 boom less jet nozzle. Biologicals require a diaphragm pump as centrifugal pumps damage organisms and pressures must be less than 80psi. Also consider water quality when using bio-stimulants as over 150ppm hardness is hard on biology and plants. If you are also planning to apply products with more solid components such as liquid limes you will need a tank set up that will agitate to keep these in suspension.
Bio-stimulants are a useful tool in your regenerative agriculture tool kit. Selecting the appropriate tool for your unique situation is the key to success as there is no one size fits all, quick fix, copy and paste approach or formula that will work in every situation. The regenerative agriculture path is an ongoing journey of learning and discovery as we develop the eyes to take a whole systems approach. Getting your management and mindset right will be what sets you up to navigate incorporating these tools and principles successfully into your regenerative agriculture system
Written by Kim Deans.
Kim is available for coaching to empower you to create a thriving, profitable and regenerative farm business. Email firstname.lastname@example.org Ph +61 0455 596 464