On Silicon, Cows, and Soil Fertility

Travel Notes from India

by Dr. Joseph Heckman, Rutgers University

In late February I was one of several scientists from the United States invited to participate in an Indo USA workshop on Silicon in Agriculture.  We gathered at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India to share the latest research on silicon nutrition.

Let me begin with a brief introduction to this often forgotten nutrient.  Silicon is one of the most abundant elements in nature.  The supply of available silicon to plants and animals, however, sometimes limits optimal growth and health.  Rice, wheat, and cucurbits are examples of crops that accumulate silicon and have been shown to benefit from supplemental silicon fertilizer on some soils.  Crop benefits include increased yield, disease and insect resistance, and stress tolerance.  Silicon also functions as a nutrient for animals where Si has a role in the health of bone, joints, skin, hair, and connective tissues. See www.westonaprice.org/Mineral-Primer.html and http://www.silife.nl/


India Silicon Conference

After our workshop, we boarded a bus to visit agronomy research plots in the countryside.  From my window view, I saw ordinary everyday scenes that most amazed me as we traveled along on a two-lane highway.


Cows in India Free Range on Streets

I saw numerous cows kept in the common areas along the roadway sometimes tethered, often not.  With exception of some fenced areas, cows were generally free to roam as they please.  There were no apparent barriers to keep cows off of the highway.  In some of the more urbanized areas around Bangalore, I saw on several occasions cows on main streets walking in harmony and with the natural rhythm of traffic.  Cows “getting out” in the USA may create an emergency, but in India, what cows do is pretty much a non-event.

With a future personal goal of keeping a family cow someday, I started to ask a lot of questions.  From information I gathered it appears that many families keep a cow, but in a way that might be described as a self-regulated free-range relationship that allows their cow to move to and from the pasture areas at will.  Cows apparently return home when they are ready to be milked.  With regards to using the milk, I was told that many families boil the milk before consumption, while some consume fresh raw milk.  Having such choice is for me one of the attractive features of keeping a family cow.


Urban Cows Head Home at Milking Time

Some bovines are used as draft animals and pull carts on the highways or plows in the rice patties.  When I was asked about bulls, I was told that they are typically consumed as beef by some Indians that do eat meat.  I was also told that artificial breeding was common.  Breeds I saw most often were Jersey and Holstein.  The Holsteins look smaller than seen in America.  Water buffalo were also common.

Cows of India are highly regarded and generally have a good long life.  However, cows sometimes eat the plastic trash which is heavily dispersed over the landscape and this causes animal health problems.

In addition to bovines, chickens and turkeys are common but generally not as free ranging as the cows.  Chickens are often kept in small metal cages near homes.


Fresh Squeezed Sugar Cane Juice

In addition to available animal foods, such as milk and eggs, the people of India appear to have an abundance of fresh coconuts.  Bananas, watermelon, cucumber, and pineapple were available from roadside vendors.  Some vendors used machines to squeeze cane juice from stalks of sugarcane.

Rice, a staple in India, is available in numerous types and varieties.  A rice plant breeder explained that the diversity of rice types was due to more than genetics.  Some varieties of rice were said to be uniquely flavored by the climate and soil where they were grown.


Display of Rice Varieties at Agricultural Research Station

While people of India have access to many traditional foods, advertising prominently displayed on billboards (such as 0% cholesterol commercial products) around Bangalore suggests that displacement of traditional foods with modern items is well underway.


Silicon Research in the Rice Paddies

Because the history of organic farming has roots in India, I was especially interested in the impact of Albert Howard’s pioneering research on current agriculture.  Howard conducted research in Northern India near Pusa and Indore between 1905 and 1931.  One of Howard’s most notable accomplishments was the development of a scientific process for composting that has since become adopted in many countries around the world.  I asked numerous agricultural officials about the Howard’s legacy in India and was surprised that hardly anyone knew of his work.  Around this same time the Wall Street Journal ran an article concerning the heavy use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in India and how this fertilizer was becoming increasingly less effective at increasing crop yield.  The failure of India to widely adopt the practice of composting, as recommended and taught by Howard, remains an unfulfilled promise for sustaining soil fertility.


Agronomists Enjoy Fresh Coconut Juice in a Sugarcane Field

Whether feeding people or feeding the soil, there is often a tendency to allow modern commercial foods or fertilizers to displace the ways of nature.  And so, I am reminded of how importantly Weston Price emphasized the need to teach.  Although there is much opportunity and potential for improving nutrition through education, at present The Weston A. Price Foundation has no chapter leaders in India.


Dr. Joseph Heckman

Dr. Joseph Heckman is a soil scientist with the Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station. He grew up on an organic dairy farm, and has helped to organize the Rutgers Raw Milk Seminars. Heckman has written a number of articles on organic farming for Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal published by the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Another article by Joseph Heckman is In Defense of Living Organic, published in That Natural Farmer.