The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Remineralizing with animals

Spoiled goat

Our goat pastures are flattish and dryish, but otherwise contain some of our farm's worst soil. Seriously, nothing but black locusts would grow there for the longest time. Even the ground was nearly bare of herbaceous growth (aka grasses and weeds). So I sent away a soil sample last fall, and the results confirmed my suspicions --- this area needs help. The CEC was 7 and the pH was 5.2. No wonder plants kicked the bucket before they had time to get their feet under them.

Deficient comfreyNow, I'd planned to use the fast, traditional approach to solving my acidic-soil problem --- adding lots of lime. But last winter was so wet I would have had to carry dozens of 50-pound bags back to our core homestead on my back. And our local feed stores suddenly only sold dolomitic limestone...which I don't want to apply because our soil is already overfull of magnesium. So I dropped the ball, ahem, decided to experiment with using ruminants to improve the soil.

My experimental protocol was simple --- use this pasture as a sacrifice area over the winter, letting the goats poop there with wild abandon. Then, this summer, I turned our herd of two into the same pasture at least a third of the time, even when the does were clearly too spoiled to eat the grass and weeds growing therein. In other words, I was taking hay from some other farmer along with weeds and tree leaves from our own woods and gardens, passing the plant matter through our goats' bellies, and using their manure to fertilize the pasture's poor soil.

Soil improvement with goatsThe results were astonishing. CEC increased by 30%, percent organic matter improved by 14%, and pH rose to 5.6. And plants also started to grow! Not lush, thriving jungles of weeds the way we see in other parts of our core homestead. But at least I stopped noticing comfrey so deficient in nutrients its leaves were pale yellow.

Meanwhile, calcium levels of the soil also rose, even though I applied no lime. If you're a proponent of remineralization, you want 60 to 70% of the cation exchange sites in your soil to be full of calcium. Pre-goats, our pasture soil was at a measly 33%; now the calcium percentage is 42%.

Maybe in another two or three years, this soil will have been entirely remineralized...all due to kelp-fed goats. Do you think then our darling does will then deign to dine on their own grasses?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Hey Anna,

You have talked a number of times in the past about remineralization and soil testing. Do you have a good place to start learning about the process? I want to do some soil tests on my pastures/garden area to see how to improve the quality but that means figuring out what soil test to do and how to interpret it.

Comment by BW Wed Sep 30 13:50:32 2015
WONDERFUL story!!!
Comment by Terry Wed Sep 30 16:32:03 2015
I keep hearing how rotational grazing is one of the best ways to improve soil health, and this seems to be a nice confirmation of that. Thanks for sharing your results!
Comment by Brett Wed Sep 30 18:56:34 2015

Terry --- I'm glad you enjoyed it!

BW --- You can start out by reading my lunchtime series about The Intelligent Gardener. Or, if you want to wait, I'm working on a book about soil that will sum up everything I've learned to date. It'll probably be out this coming spring.

Comment by anna Wed Sep 30 19:16:23 2015

Seeding that developing soil with Ladino clover or whatever perrenial clover does well there might help too? If nothing else it will fix more Nitrogen in the soil and add more vegetable matter.

I have been refining clay in my back yard using 5 gallon buckets getting ready to plant a-la-Masanobu-Fukuoka clover and barley clay seed balls. The clover from my first failed fragmented seed balls (too much sand - thus the refining operation) were discarded in my back yard and I swear they took 24 hours to sprout. We have a good bit of warmer weather ahead of us here near Savannah GA so hoping there will be enough time for them to get established.

Comment by Andrew McDonald Wed Sep 30 21:43:31 2015
A place to start is 'The Intelligent Gardener' for gardening, but for anything else I prefer Neal Kinsey's 'Hands-On Agronomy' (he was one of Albrecht's pupils).
Comment by Michael Fri Oct 2 13:22:07 2015
Although he was trying to tackle a slightly different set of problems, I think Alan Savory would agree with your approach.
Comment by Jake Thu Oct 8 01:54:42 2015

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