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Archive | Soil Life

Building the Microbial Bridge to Support Nutrient Availability

The root zone around plants, known as the rhizosphere, is an area of intense activity in the soil. It’s a lot like the snack stand at the state fair on a hot day. Everyone is crowding around trying to get to the cold drinks, funnel cakes and hot dogs. Snacks are being sold as quickly as the workers can make them. In return, the snack stand is bringing in a lot of cash.

Corn roots with lots of root exudates and soil sticking to the roots.

While the snack stand exchanges food for money, plant roots feed nearby microbes in exchange for plant nutrients. The roots put sugars down into the soil, creating an area of crowded, busy bacterial feeding in the rhizosphere, and exchange that microbial food for nutrients the plant needs but would otherwise have a hard time accessing.

We tend to think that plants photosynthesize entirely for their own metabolism, but in truth plants spend a good portion of their energy feeding soil life.

Plants fix sugars through photosynthesis, and while 55 to 75 percent of those sugars support plant growth, reproduction and defense from pests, the rest goes into the soil through the roots to feed the soil biology. This isn’t a waste of energy by the plants.

Those organisms living in the rhizosphere, primarily bacteria, not only make nutrients available to the plants — they also provide a protective layer against pests and diseases. It’s a win-win for the plants and the bacteria living in the rhizosphere. Continue Reading →

Gabe Brown on Ecosystem Stewardship

North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology, but that’s only one of his many contributions.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown stands among his crops

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck.

To his life work, Brown brings an inquisitive mind and an infectious love of the journey. He revels in trying new things and is not reluctant to fail at some of them, as experiments always yield food for thought and generate ideas for future exploration. As a pioneer, Brown has forged close relationships with fellow seekers and fostered a stimulating community for trailblazers. Generous with his knowledge, he’s a consummate educator who strives to open minds and is known for making a deep and sustained impression on his audiences.

As science begins to catch up with what Brown has been demonstrating on the ground, his sphere of influence has steadily expanded to include more mainstream researchers, policymakers, and even leaders in the conventional food industry.

Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck. By area standards, Brown’s Ranch is not that big. But what is astonishing is how much more this dryland farm is able to produce than comparable operations — both for market and deep within the soil. Continue Reading →

Soil Health, Quality & Microbial Diversity

Soil health and soil quality have evolved as important concepts as we continue to expand our understanding of soil as the vital factor for vigorous plant productivity. These concepts have also stressed our awareness that soil is indeed a limited non-renewable resource that requires deliberate stewardship to avoid or minimize its degradation.

Figure 1: Bacteria (small rod-like structures) and fungi (larger spherical shapes) associated with the surface of a root (rhizoplane) readily use organic substances released by the plant as sources of food and energy for mediating many biochemical processes and to maintain dense communities in the rhizosphere. Note the non-random distribution of bacteria showing concentration of cells on the rhizoplane where several processes take place including nutrient transformation, synthesis of plant growth-regulating compounds and antibiotic production for protection from attack by pathogenic microorganisms. Micrograph presented as 5,000X magnification. Source: R.J. Kremer

According to John W. Doran, soil health is the capacity of a soil to function and sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality and promote plant and animal health.

Optimal soil health requires a balance between soil functions for productivity, environmental quality and plant and animal health, all of which are greatly affected by management and land-use decisions. Soil health focuses on the living, dynamic nature of soil that incorporates the biological attributes of biodiversity, food web structure, ecosystem functioning and the intimate relationships of soil microorganisms with plants and animals.

Soil quality also refers to the functional capacity of soil, but has a greater emphasis on agricultural productivity and economic benefits. Indeed, the development of the modern soil quality concept by Warkentin and Fletcher in 1977 was within the context of intensive agriculture, where the major concerns were food and fiber production and the capacity of soil to recycle nutrients, presumably from residual fertilizers and crop residues.

The term soil health, with its focus on biological function and protection of environmental quality, is most relevant for eco-agriculture production systems promoting good management practices that foster a balanced focus on all functions of soil health rather than an emphasis on single functions, such as crop yields.

Several articles published in Acres U.S.A. within the past decade illustrate how eco-agriculture embodies soil health, which is an inherent benefit of this production system. In a series of articles from 2012 to 2015, Gary Zimmer focused on the importance of mineral nutrition for both plants and soil microorganisms for improved soil health. He also stated that the capacity of a healthy soil to function could be realized without intervention, suggesting that eco-agricultural systems facilitate functional capacity by minimizing disruptive management of synthetic fertilizer, pesticide inputs and intensive tillage. Continue Reading →

How to Establish Dung Beetles in Pastures (and Why You Want to Do This)

I only recently became interested in dung beetles, largely because it has only been recently that we have had any to become interested in. As a rancher, I must create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive, and they will come.

The first time I saw dung beetles completely bury a manure pat in a number of hours, I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about them: what they do, how to help them establish in pastures, how they work, etc. My continued observations and research has led our family to develop a deep appreciation of these hard-working creatures. So much so that we created our updated business logo in honor of them.

Our daughter art directed the logo and our neighbor, Brian Taylor, created it. We get a lot of stares when people see our logo on the side of our truck, but we hope it piques their curiosity enough to learn more about dung beetles and the vital role they can play on a healthy farm or ranch. Continue Reading →

Book excerpt: A Biodynamic Farm

The book A Biodynamic Farm by Hugh Lovel is a practical, how-to guide to understanding the definition of biodynamics, and practicing biodynamic techniques on your farm.

An expert in quantum agriculture and biodynamics, Hugh Lovel goes into detail in this book on biodynamic farming. The table of contents includes chapters on:

  • What is Biodynamic Agriculture?
  • No-Till Farming Without Chemicals
  • Biodynamic Training
  • The Compost Preps
  • And many more chapters!

The excerpt below details the thinking behind creating a biodynamic farm, and the guidelines to doing so.

Continue Reading →

Magnesium, the Unheralded Star

Although nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and even calcium are often discussed, magnesium is mostly unheralded and misunderstood. In this article I will examine the nature of magnesium deficiency and show how ignoring soil magnesium can lead to dire consequences in human, plant and animal health.

Unlike nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, magnesium is often overlooked in conventional fertility.

Like the other aforementioned macrominerals, magnesium is essential for plant and animal health and productivity. In man, beasts and plants it is found in substantial amounts and can wreak havoc when it is deficient.

Our health is rooted in our soils both as vegetables we consume and as animal products, which are nourished from the soil. Since the vast majority of what we eat comes from the soil, our health partly depends on earthworm activity, but the overuse of modern chemical fertilizers and pesticides has left many soils deficient in earthworms. This in turn impoverishes the soil.

As soils lose their vibrant microbial activity they become depleted in critical nutrients even as fertilizers are applied in larger amounts. Synthetic fertilizers are not a solution and often aggravate soil issues they supposedly cure. Remedying this downward spiral is more critical than ever because a growing population needs not only more food but better food quality for present and future generations to thrive. Continue Reading →