The Positives of Grass-Based Animal Agriculture on Carbon Sequestration

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NOFA-NY is excited to share with you a guest blog post from expert organic farmer, Nathan Weaver.  Nathan and his wife  Kristine and family are Amish members of Organic Valley/ CROPP Cooperative and live in Canastota, NY.  Nathan is always willing to share his knowledge with other farmers and has often presented and participated on farmer discussion panels for NOFA-NY.  We thank Nathan for sharing his insights into raising dairy cows on grass and carbon sequestration.

Farmers, in our activities, share responsibility for the release of too much carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels in the air have risen beyond 390 parts per million.   This level is over 40 p.p.m. greater than what is thought to be safe and sustainable for life on earth.  Most of science agrees that this is altering our climates’ weather patterns in negative ways. Long existing eco-systems are threatened and we are losing species in both the plant and animal kingdom.

Agriculture has understandably been blamed as a major contributor to the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  The use of energy intensive equipment, methane belching ruminants, synthetic fertilizers, degradation of soils and soil organic matter and the long distance between where food is produced and where it is consumed have all been cited as major causes of our environmental troubles – much of modern agriculture as we know it.  I am pleased to be part of a cooperative (Organic Valley/ CROPP Cooperative) which is conscious of this. This has led us to being proactive in reducing our carbon footprint.  We have initiated some first steps by working with the farms within our care and realize that the conversation is just starting and there are many more solutions to be discovered.

A bright spot in agriculture is grass-based farming that relies on the benefits of grazing – optimal nutrition, animals harvesting their own feed and depositing their own manure and enjoying increased benefits to soil, animal and human health through the products produced by animals on grass.  The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has been doing a Farm Systems Trial since 1981 which conducted side by side research on organic and conventional agricultural management practices.  What they have found is that organically managed soils can accumulate about 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre foot of soil each year.  This reveals an incredible opportunity to positively impact carbon sequestration through an emphasis on organic management.

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Jack Kittredge took this idea further in an article in the Summer 2014 issue of the Natural Farmer called Conversion, Quantities, Calculations and Indulgences: A Primer.  He pointed out that if we as farmers can focus on increasing the organic matter in our soils it has an impressive impact on carbon sequestration.  For every 1% increase in organic matter there is the capacity to store over 18 tons of carbon per acre.  I’m part of a group of farms who produce 100% grassfed milk.  Our combined 2000 acres, with an average of 6% organic matter allows us to offset  the carbon emissions of 6,617 Americans or 608,171 Zambians for 1 year.  In comparison, farms who feed higher levels of grain average 3% organic matter in their soils.  If soils worldwide increased their organic matter by 1% we could sequester almost ¾ of the carbon needed to bring us back to the 350 p.p.m  needed for a healthy existence.

My faith as a Christian leads me to ask should we not humble ourselves and get back to some of the basics of nature as God created it for solutions to our problems?   “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.” (Job 12:8)  Farming systems that work in harmony with nature are a bright spot in how we can produce food that is not only nutritious and healthful, but also take us a step in the right direction in reducing the atmospheric carbon problem.

 

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Organic Management of Diamondback Moth and Similar Insects

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The diamondback moth is one of several species of moths and butterflies whose larvae feed on cabbage and related crucifers in New York. Plans to test a genetically engineered diamondback moth at the NY Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva NY have been in the news recently. The genetically engineered diamondback moth was developed in England by Oxitec.

Researchers are studying if the introduction of the genetically engineered diamondback moths into fields where diamondback moths are naturally present is a way to reduce crop damage due to diamondback moth larvae. Caged trials of genetically engineered diamondback are being done and open field trials have been proposed. The proposed trials, especially the open field trials are controversial. There are many questions regarding the risks associated with releasing genetically engineered insects into the environment. Many people believe more needs to be learned about the potential impacts of releasing the genetically engineered moths before open field trials are conducted.

Organic growers – both small and commercial scale – have many tools in the toolbox to control these insects and limit the damage caused by the insect. In fact, organic and IPM methods when properly timed and used appropriately will do an excellent job in managing diamondback moth.

The most effective organic control methods rely on exclusion, like insect netting or row cover, or timely and regular treatment to ensure that populations do not increase. An IPM approach where sprays or other applications of materials are made once a threshold population level is observed is often effective. At low population levels, naturally occurring insects and parasitoids may be sufficient to control diamondback moth populations. Heavy rainfall has been observed to reduce larva and even well timed use of sprinklers simulating a heavy rainfall can reduce larval populations.

Where the crop is in its growth cycle also needs to be considered as the risk of significant crop damage changes as the crop grows. So, while it may make sense to treat a young crop if diamondback moth larvae are found in 10% of the crop or a certain number are found on a sticky trap placed in the field, later in the season, the threshold might be 30% or more before taking action.

Several varieties of parasitic wasps and flies have also been found to be effective. In addition, several OMRI approved materials have been found to work well if spraying is needed. Entrust and Dipel DF are both effective against diamondback moth and other larvae which could be present on the affected crop. These materials are also very specific and affect larvae feeding on the crop, but do not kill the beneficial insects which feed on the larvae. Pyganic is also labeled for diamondback larvae, imported cabbageworms and several other larvae which may feed on cabbage and related crops, but is a broad spectrum insecticide and will also kill many of the beneficials feeding upon the larvae.

Diamondback moth is not the only insect whose larvae feed on cabbage and related crucifers. In NY, cabbage loopers, imported cabbageworms and cabbage moths also have similar life cycles and feeding preferences. Organic control methods for these pests are similar. The life cycle for these pests is short, with several generations occurring each season. Several species may be present at any time in the field and with early prevention and monitoring, they can be successfully controlled using organic methods.