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Using The Carbon Cycle in Soil & Water Conservation

By Malcolm Beck

My first experience at seeing the carbon cycle at work (however I didn't understand what I was seeing) was out on the West Texas Desert where they were dumping trainload after trainload of New York belt press sludge directly on top of the dry desert soil.

Fist size chunks of stinky, wet, biologically active biosolids (processed human waste), was being spread several inches apart in the native grass that was very poor and scarce. The annual rainfall in that area is less than ten inches. During that visit one of the tractor operators came close and in a low voice, as if he didn't want anyone else to hear, and said “there is something strange about this stuff, it hasn't rained for month, surely none of the moisture was getting to the roots, but it seemed like within just a few days the grass actually turned greener and seemed to be growing some”.

My first thoughts were wishful thinking. But I too noticed the same thing happen when we put moist biosolids compost on the shoulders of a highway for the Texas Dept. of Transportation to help stop erosion. It was a dry year but the few bunches of established grass that still existed, greened up anyway.

Later I again visited the West Texas site where they spread the first New York Biosolids. In areas where there was soil the native grass was green, healthy and so thick you couldn't see the ground. This is good indication of what the grass in the area was like before it was abused with improper grazing and what it could be like again if properly managed.

After reading some NASA research on global warming I found the missing clue of how plants, especially grass, can green up without rain or irrigation. When there is a concentration of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) around a plant leaf the pores, called stomata, which have the ability to open and close, stay shut much longer and close quicker after opening. When the stomata are open they release moisture to the air, which has a cooling affect. The NASA scientist concluded that, with the stomata staying shut longer, the lessening of the cooling effect was contributing to global warming.

The NASA scientist didn't mention that a plant transpires, to the air, ninety nine percent of the water it pulls from the soil. And when the stomata stay closed longer, especially with large volumes of plant leaves, an immense volume of soil moisture could be saved.

Anytime the insect and micro soil life digests something (rots), there is a release of Carbon Dioxide. Carbon Dioxide is slightly heavier than air. When it is being released from rotting organic material under and around plants it tends stay in or near the plant canopy before it eventually diffuses into the atmosphere. The stomata on the leaves of plants now have an abundance of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis to create carbohydrates, the energy source, for all human and animal life.

Plants do need to transpire some water to the air. The up movement of water in the plant carries nutrients from the soil to the leaves. Also it takes water from the soil that already is, to some degree, depleted of the nutrients that were dissolved in it.

Diffusion now moves more water toward the roots that hopefully will be saturated with more plant nutrients. However this all needs to be in balance. The soil needs to be rich in soluble nutrients so little water needs to be moved up to transpiration.

The decay of organic material is greatest when temperature and moisture is also correct for plant growth. The decaying organic material on and in the soil releases plant nutrients and holds moisture and at the same time allows the plants to need less moisture. All this puts still more importance on the organic content of the soil.

The plants need the carbon dioxide from the decay of organic matter on and in the soil, but the organic material must be kept on or near the soil surface so the soil doesn't get saturated with CO2 since the plant roots also give of Carbon Dioxide.

The carbohydrates manufactured by the leaves of plants are not all used by the leaves, they only keep a portion, and fifty to eighty percent is sent down to the roots. And the roots don't keep it all either. A high percent of the carbohydrates is shared with the high population of soil life that live in the root zone.

Scientist tell us there are around ten thousand species of bacteria and three thousand species of fungi that use or get some benefit from this carbohydrate energy source. Then, in return, these microbes perform many services for the plants. Science is continually discovering more and more of the benefits such as protecting the plants from troublesome insects and diseases and gathering nutrients and moisture for the plants.

As long as the plant is able to create carbohydrate/energy this symbiotic relationships of life forms helping each other continues. The more energy that is created the more each species prosper and can help each other.

Sir Albert Howard, an English soil scientist, way back in the 20s and 30s discovered that when he put compost around plants they thrived with much less insect and disease problems. Howard had his compost tested and discovered the nutrient content just wasn't high enough to give those good results. When Howard checked the plant roots he noticed a fungi growing in, around and extending from them. Research proved this to be the mycorrhizae.

The mycorrhizal fungi are now known to be extremely important to the health and production of plants. Some recent research by the USDA ARS has shown that the mycorrhizae are responsible for a large percent of the humus content formed in rich soils.

The plant physiology books tell us, a plant will grow and prosper more and more as the concentration of Carbon Dioxide goes up, even as high as ten times the normal. However, the soil plants are grown in must also be rich and balanced in the major, minor and trace nutrients the plants need. When growers tried to pump Carbon Dioxide into a greenhouse without balancing the soil it would not work.

The Carbon Cycle and Range Management

The big ranchers that follow Allan Savory’s Holistic Managements teachings have a pretty good handle using the carbon cycle to full advantage. I have been on some of these ranches, the ranchers all claimed that they have doubled their stocking rates, seldom fed hay, almost no vet bills and now showing profits even in dry years.

These Holistic ranchers have learned to use animals to manage the grass. Even though many don't realize it, they are really managing the carbon cycle. These ranchers divide their spreads in to many small pastures or paddocks. They graze these paddocks with heavy stock density.

They discovered when the cows are crowded they seem to eat on all the grasses, shrubs and forbs, not just the ice cream. Then after the paddock is eaten down to a point, but still leaving plenty green for photosynthesis, they move the cattle to the next paddock.

This high stocking rate of cattle leaves behind a lot of urine and manure. The moist urine and manure with the litter on the ground quickly begins to decay and gives off Carbon Dioxide. The green grass blades left standing quickly capture this Carbon Dioxide. Then the grass can quickly re-cover, even in some pretty dry conditions, without straining the roots or using excessive soil moisture. This grazing process also sequesters carbon back into the soil instead of allowing it to disperse into the atmosphere and be called pollution.

Many of these ranchers manage to go through winters without supplemental feeding by saving paddocks of certain species on native grass for winter grazing. Some paddocks will be green with winter growing species. In others it may be dry summer species from winterkill but still standing and full of nutrients or a combination of both.

For more information on this natural grazing concept contact - The Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management, in Albuquerque, NM - (505) 842-5252.

Carbon Cycle and Green Houses

When Delphine and I moved to our new farm one of the first things we did was to build a greenhouse to grow bedding plants of tomato, eggplant, cabbage etc. so we could transplant after frost and get a jumpstart on the season.

Whenever some dignitary from Texas A&M came to San Antonio, they sooner or later came to our farm to see what these organic faddists were doing. Four of them were out one day and when they saw my new greenhouse one of them commented, ”Beck, there is one thing you won't be able to go organic with”, and they all chimed in with agreement.

The greenhouse was put up in 1972 and has been in use every since and to this day there has never been a problem with troublesome insects or disease in it. We did nothing to prevent these problems. But looking back I think I now know why. Naturally, we used all organic fertilizers but the main reason, instead of gravel or a concrete floor, we maintained a wood-chip mulch for the floor that stayed moist from the nutrient rich drippings from the potted plants above. The decaying mulch gave off an abundance of carbon dioxide for the plants, especially on bright sunny but cold days when the greenhouse had to remain closed.

A friend of mine, Rosco Jordon, had a six thousand sq. ft. greenhouse where he grew tomatoes in each year. Rosco had our same experience of no diseases or insects. And he had very few culls, almost every tomato was perfect. To cut costs he operated his greenhouse similar to ours. For fertilizer he used two pickup truck loads of half rotted, chicken house, wood chip litter-manure mix. For cooling it was natural ventilation by opening the north and south walls. For heating he burned waste crankcase oil in efficient heaters that created no pollution.

At one time I belonged to the Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Assn. and had the opportunity to tour many greenhouse operations. Rosco Jordon’s was by far the cleanest, most productive and profitable I had ever seen. A tornado destroyed the green house after the fourth year ending some valuable research. However, I see no reason the same production could not have continued under these natural methods for many years. Rosco had the carbon cycle working to his advantage.

Carbon Cycle Vegetables and Row crops

From many years of growing row crops, vegetables, fruit and pecan trees and grape vines, organically on my own farm and garden, I have learned that building the soils organic content to the highest point possible by using compost and organic mulches and without tilling or disturbing the soil any more then necessary, will put the carbon cycle to work to save moisture and up production and profits. It also lowers insect and disease problems to where little or no control was needed.

When growing vegetables, we sometimes use that fine row cover called Plant Shield or Grow Web over plants as a tent. We would put it up before the seeds emerged or as soon as transplants were put in. The web would trap Carbon Dioxide, give a few degrees frost protection and screen insects out, which also stops plants from being infected with a virus. It slows down the wind. Diffuses the sunlight for greater photosensitizes and protects against light hail. Under this web, if there is ample sunlight, the plants will grow three times faster and produce up to three times more. This may get expensive on large acreage but can really pay off.

Carbon Cycle and Trees and Vines

If trees and vines are not yet established, concentrate on building the organic content of the soil with cover crops and/or compost for a few years before planting. If vines and trees are already established, keep an organic mulch around plants at all times. Grow adapted winter cover crops in the centers. In the spring when the trees and vines are actively growing and beginning to need soil moisture, cut the cover crop down to form a mulch. Never disc or disturb the soil between trees or vines more than one-inch deep or drive vehicles un-necessarily near plants when soil is moist enough to make tracks.

The Carbon Cycle and Hay Crops

With the new cutting, conditioning and windrowing machines used to make hay, I believe the carbon cycle could be used to up production, build soil and sequester extra carbon from the air into the soil. It would probably take some research to fine tune it, but if these mowing machines were set to mow the grasses high enough to allow some green blades to remain the grass could continue trapping CO2. The crop could then recover much quicker without straining the roots. The grass could continue to make carbohydrates and feed all the life on and in the root zone that supports the grass.

This could result in getting an extra cutting while soil quality is increasing. It would also be beneficial to let the last mowing of the year lie in the field as mulch. If need be, use feed-grade molasses (one gallon per acre) with nitrogen fixing microbes (Micro-Soil or Agri-Gro) in ample water and spray it on the mulch hay to decay it and make fertilizer faster. It would also be decayed away so it wouldn't interfere with bailing the next hay crop.

Malcolm Beck


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last updated:  January 14, 2004