By Karl Wyant, Heliae Agriculture
Improving soil health on farm fields integrates the three types of soil management: physical, chemical and biological. Physical management includes how farmers use their equipment on fields – tilling, harvesting, etc. Chemical management involves the timing and choice of fertilizers, manure, and other additions.
Soil biology is the next frontier being researched for optimizing soil health. Soil quality is a term that has broad application on the farm. Soil quality refers to how well a soil functions physically, chemically, and biologically and does its “job.” Soil health is a term that refers to the interaction between organisms and their environment in a soil ecosystem. Microbial life – and even insects and invertebrates – interact with the soil and help its performance. When you think of soil health, think of the biological integrity of your soil. It’s important not only to have enough soil microbes, but also a diverse population. This is how soil biology supports plant growth.
When it comes to managing the soil biology and influencing soil health, a practitioner has many choices. They fall into two categories:
- Practices typically involve a look at reduced or no-tillage and cover crop use. It can also mean mixing manure or compost into the soil. It can even mean grazing livestock on a field.
- Products are additions that can be used in a field management plan to help optimize soil biology. These products, when sorted by their active ingredient, are typified as microalgae, molasses, fulvic and humic acids, kelp products, and living bacteria and fungi inoculants, etc.
Let’s talk about a common product-based approach for improving soil health. This example involves a soil microbial food called PhycoTerra. This microalgae product can be applied to the soil and feed the microbes below ground. Briefly, your soil is teeming with fungi and bacteria, and they are ready to go to work for your farm or garden. The problem? They are starving and will go dormant on you until conditions improve. Research shows that most soils are generally low in the food stuffs that microbes like to eat, and that food scarcity will limit the activity of your soil biology. The answer? Provide them with a regular installment of something they like to eat to keep their populations up. Once the microbes are well-fed they can go to work for you to improve the health of the soil.
Soil health and quality management techniques often involve leveraging the living portion of the soil: bacteria, fungi, protists, and higher organisms, etc., as research continues to show how soils with a viable biological consortium can help growers work through the challenges listed above. Interestingly, the biological component of soil management, as opposed to chemical and physical management, are quite new to many folks in the industry and growers are looking for research evidence on best practices.
More than ever, growers and their certified crop advisers are looking for solutions for solving production challenges across multiple fronts. These challenges can be related to costs, like fertilizer prices and disrupted supply chains. They can be related to non-living (abiotic) stresses like erosion, soil moisture storage, drought and floods.
Research consistently shows that a farm soil with a strong living component are key partners for working through these obstacles. Improved soil health and quality have tremendous potential to help growers push through challenging times.