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Little livestock - will the soil remain fertile?

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Not every farm brings enough cattle into the organic conversion or has a milk quota. And some organic farms are faltering. But how much cattle does organic farming need to remain fertile in the long term? This question has already been adequately investigated in conventional farming - albeit at a different yield level than today. Conclusion, viewed from the ground: It doesn't work without cattle. But if you only look at the yields, it works, especially economically. Because keeping cattle is labor-intensive.

by Michael Olbrich-Majer


In the beginning of organic farming there was a mixed farm that naturally kept livestock, the questions revolved around the type of fertilizer processing: compost the manure or not and if so how? With increasingly low livestock farming, three questions arise: the humus content, the nitrogen supply, and the yields. With the latter, organic farms with no livestock have so far been able to keep up, as they are mostly in favorable locations. An optimal mix of legume cultivation, set-aside management, crop rotation and appropriate tillage can also keep nitrogen available, especially in the case of grain-oriented crop rotations. But what about soil fertility as the basis for sustainability?


Various long-term experiments are now also being carried out in organic farming - with and without cattle or manure. Current research results (3, 6) indicate that conventional humus balancing cannot be relied on - the location and the fine fraction of the soil (5) play a decisive role. So the measurement remains: here, recent long-term tests (1, 8) show the clear advantage of livestock systems in humus maintenance: particularly pronounced on the dry, sandy location in Spröda. Even on the black earth soils in Bad Lauchstädt, the system with cattle showed a higher humus reproduction. In terms of yields, this is usually reflected in the higher crop rotation performance of the variants with cattle, even if winter wheat often performs better in the cattle-less system - mostly due to its position in the crop rotation.


How do the significant differences come about? In low-yield locations, the livestock-free market crop system obviously has considerable disadvantages in terms of N efficiency and nitrogen synthesis: abundant N is lost during mulching and also when plowing in the grass clover that cannot be used as fodder (1). Other studies also come to the conclusion that “the type and scope of the organic inputs are the main differentiating factors or that the different crop rotation services are based on the differentiated use of grass and straw. In plain language: on livestock farms, the handling of organic matter and nitrogen is qualitatively different. On the one hand, different humification coefficients have been described for organic materials: compost and straw are well ahead at over 50%, manure in the middle at around 25%, liquid manure and green manure, however, below 10%. (6) The biodynamic researcher Petterson describes the results of an experiment in Sweden that lasted from 1971 to 1979: An increase in the humus content was only possible with clover and cattle: The mineral fertilized variant as well as the variant with manure alone or grass clover plus mineral fertilizer alone did not succeed (7) . As a rule, the various attempts are based on 1 RGV per hectare.


But none of this is so new. As early as 1994, the elite of German soil scientists demanded that the "ecological superiority of animal-husbandry mixed farms based primarily on their own forage be taken note of and that framework conditions be created for the re-integration of livestock and field crops." required. (9)


If you still have few livestock, the advisors at FiBL (2.4) recommend the following principles: if there is no livestock farming, then it should be extensive agriculture, as nitrogen does not run out so quickly. The central aspect is crop rotation with artificial meadows, and the purchase of organic fertilizers or cooperation with a livestock farm must be considered. The proportion of grassland in the crop rotation should be at least 10%; in addition, greening, grain legumes or green manures / undersown crops are required on at least 10% of the areas. Cultivation breaks of one year for the same species and 50% winter coverage must also be observed.



Beckmann / Kolbe / Model / Russow, 2002: Arable farming systems in organic farming. Investigations on Nmin N20 and NH3-N dynamics as well as conclusions on cultivation optimization, E. Schmidt Verlag Berlin
Böhler, D., Dierauer, H: 2004: Bio without cattle is a big challenge, in Bio-aktuell 2/04.
Brock, C., Leithold G. 2007: Humus balance methods as forecasting and evaluation instruments in organic farming - general and special need for adaptation, in: Between tradition and globalization: Contributions to the 9th Scientific Conference on Organic Farming, Verlag Dr. Köster, Berlin
FiBL 2006: Soil protection and crop rotation on organic farms with few and no livestock, FiBL leaflet
Hoyer et al .: Influence of oil on different humus pools in the soil and conclusions on humus balance, in: Contribution 9. Wiss.tgg
Kolbe: Simple method for site-adapted humus balance of arable land of different cultivation intensities, in: Contribution 9. Wiss.tgg
Pettersson, B. D., Reents H. J. & Wistinghausen E. v., 1992: Gödsling och markegenskaper. The result of the 32-årigt försök i Järna i Sverige (På tyska med svensk sammanfattning). Nordisk Forskningsring, Meddelande no. 34., (quoted from Granstedt, A. Dornach, 2007)
Reinicke F., Christen, O .: 2007, performance and long-term effects on humus and nutrient balance of different cultivation systems of organic farming - results of the 1st rotation of a permanent field test, in: Contribution 9. Wiss.tgg
Robert Bosch Stiftung (Ed.) 1994: For an environmentally friendly soil use in agriculture: Memorandum of the Schwäbisch Haller Agrarkolloquium on soil use, soil functions and soil fertility, Bleicher, Stuttgart.
Schmidt, Harald (Hrsg): 2004: Viehloser Öko-Ackerbau, contributions, examples, comments, Verlag Dr. Köster 2004