Soil Rehabilitation the Hard Way
By Cam Mather
Michelle and I worked from dawn ‘til dusk on Sunday enjoying a normal spring day. After last weekend’s bizarre Easter Heat Wave I was afraid I’d missed my window of opportunity to do spring work. I love cutting firewood in the winter because it’s cold and I can do strenuous work much better when I’m not dealing with heat. Spring is the time I do most of the heavy work around the property because it’s still cool. Last weekend we beat the previous high temperature record by 12°C (24°F) above the normal high. It was a heat wave. It convinced me climate change is a reality. I could only work for a couple of hours in the morning before it got too hot.
So on Sunday among our many cool weather tasks was what I call soil rehabilitation. We have a very sandy soil, which needs to be built up. As we continue to grow more of our own food and consider selling our organic vegetables too, I need to expand my growing area. I use as much manure as I can get my hands on but I like to add a variety of materials to help build up the humus or organic matter in the soil. For this I use rotted hay. Once hay sits too long it loses its value for horses and cattle, and it can become moldy which isn’t healthy for the animals, so farmers often have older hay they are willing to part with for a reasonable price.
I like to spread it on fields to help build up the topsoil. It means that the soil is supplemented with this great biomass that absorbed the sun’s energy to build up this organic matter that can rot and decompose in my soil. It helps add nutrients but it also helps condition the soil by adding organic matter that is crucial for good plant growth. As it rots the worms will pull some of it down lower in the soil. As it becomes more broken down and becomes part of the soil it also helps with water retention. When it rains the plant material will absorb water, then release it slowly back to the soil. Any roots from neighboring plants can use that moisture as it’s needed.
The challenge is that we get round bales, which are usually moved with tractors. We don’t have a tractor so we roll them off the trailer by hand, and then we have to disassemble them. We use a 4-pronged cultivator and just keep hacking off chunks and spreading them around. If you can get the bail rolling (unlike “getting the ball rolling”) sometimes they will come apart as they move, like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. The difference is that this ball of yarn weighs about 1,000 pounds. Since these round bales are old and have been left out in the elements for years they are heavy. It makes for a great workout though and we both slept extremely well that night.
I like to do this in the spring before the grass and plants have really got going. This way I’m not crushing them, and since it’s early in the spring they can grow up through the clumps of hay and help begin the decomposition process.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, one of the most beautiful sights that I can think of is a field of rotten hay waiting for it to decompose and build up my soil so I can grow healthy organic food to provide human bodies with energy.