Biological farming was a hot topic this week as the first Biological Farming Conference – run by the National Organic Skillnet – took place in Tullamore this week.

Interest in the event was high and attendees came from all parts of the agricultural sectors. Livestock and tillage farmers were in attendance as well as agronomists, Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture and universities such as UCD (University College Dublin).

People from these sectors who have been in a method of conventional farming – dependent on chemicals – who are looking for alternative options; who want to learn more about other systems filled the room.

Joel Williams spoke in front of a full house and had the task of describing what exactly biological farming is. Joel describes himself as an independent soil and plant health educator and an advocate for healthy soils.

He described the basic practices of biological farming as:
  • Designing a system with diversity;
  • Feeding the soil biology;
  • Managing soil organic carbon;
  • Minimising soil disturbance;
  • Remineralisation;
  • Reducing synthetic inputs;
  • Integrated nutrient management;
  • Foliar management;
  • Livestock integration;
  • Using systems thinking.

The diversity that Joel spoke about involves moving from monocultures to polycultures. Many of the practices he mentioned are in use in Ireland – sowing cover crops; using green manures; having field margins for wildlife.

While there are more to be considered, or considered on a bigger scale, such as: inter-cropping; diverse pastures and herbal leys; agroforestry; and silvopasture.

Managing soil carbon

This is one area of biological farming that Irish tillage farmers have begun to embrace in recent years. Using cover cropping or avoiding bare soil as well as the use of minimum-tillage can protect soil carbon.

Adding animals to the rotation and using diverse pastures can also improve and protect soil carbon.

Minimum soil disturbance

Disturbing the soil as little as possible can help to improve the stability of the soil and improve soil aggregation.

Reducing synthetic inputs

Joel explained that it is important to use nutrients efficiently and estimate how much of those nutrients are actually being taken up by the plants.

How much of applied N, P and K is taken up by plants?
  • N – 40-50%;
  • P – 10-20%;
  • K – 40%.

Integrated nutrient management

This practice involves reducing the dependence on artificial inputs by managing soil fertility and combining organics and non-organics.

Nutrient recycling plays an important role in this system through the use of:
  • Crop residues;
  • Biosolids (e.g. manures and compost);
  • Leguminous cover crops which can help to fix nitrogen;
  • Biofertilisers and microbial innoculants;
  • Livestock integration.

Foliar management

Applying foliar products which the plant needs can improve that plant’s health. As a result photosynthesis will be improved and the level of root exudates – produced from this process – released into the soil will feed the soil and help to recycle nutrients. This will feed the soil biology.

Foliar samples should be taken and sampled in the lab to find out exactly what the plant needs.

Joel explained that when your plants are healthy your soil will be healthy and when you soil is healthy your plants will be healthy.