Dr. William A. Albrecht was Professor of Soils and Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture. Through his extensive experiments with growing plants, soils and their effect on animals, he sustained his theory and observation that a declining soil fertility, due to a lack of organic material, major elements, and trace minerals – or a marked imbalance in these nutrients – was responsible for poor crops and in turn for pathological conditions in animals fed deficient feeds from soils. Within this book – volume 1 of his many collected papers – are articles on topics such as “Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition,” “Soil Acidity is Beneficial, Not Harmful,” “Trace Elements and the Production of Proteins,” “Soils, Nutrition, and Animal Health,” and much more.
The excerpt below dives into the topic of soil fertility and the problems that occur when fertility is low.
From Chapter 18: Protein Takes More Than Air and Rain — A Key to Failing Fertility
Shortly after World War II, Edward H. Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly appeared. It contained a quite valid theory on tillage, but also proposed a dangerous soil self-sufficiency theory. Dr. William A. Albrecht was politely vehement in his refutation of the latter score. For real vehemence, however, nothing could surpass the private disagreements between Albrecht and agronomists who developed cover crops to shield thin ground. Granted that cover is an improvement, but “What’s in it?” Albrecht would demand. “Nothing much but animated air and water.” Albrecht was known to use the word “scurf” for such cover. Often he suggested that geneticists who juggled genes to get plants to grow under such conditions were simply “hijacking” stores of earth minerals already depleted in order to grow crops that were really not worth feeding. This paper might be read with these thoughts in mind. It became an entry in Proceedings of the Ohio Conference on Soil and Health, 1945, and was published in The Land in 1946. Albrecht did not deliver the paper since he was out of the country at the time, teaching at an Army University in Germany. The sharpest point in his evaluation of protein and nitrogen centers on wheat.
Proteins are not naturally as plentiful as the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are more nearly the products resulting from air and water brought into combination by the photochemical powers of the sunshine. Proteins are combinations of amino acids, body-building, life-containing portions of ourselves, manufactured in the life processes of the plants from carbohydrates. Protein synthesis is possible only by the help of some ten or more essential mineral elements supplied to the plant only from a fertile soil. Through the proteins, in a particular degree then, our nutrition is dependent on the fertility of the soil.
1- Bread is the Mainstay
Bread is the mainstay to which starving peoples cling. Wheat varies widely in its protein content. This variation underlies our classification of wheat as either “soft” or “hard,” a variation commonly ascribed to differences in rainfall. Only recently have we seen fit to believe that the soil fertility underlies the production of protein in plants. Wheat may well be taken as a pattern of the process and result.
A recent decline in the concentration of the protein in wheat has been alarmingly recognized. For the crop of 1944 the War Food Administration announced that the minimum figure was set at 10.25% protein as compared to 11.00%, which was the corresponding figure for the previous years. This reduction in the specifications upset the millers and bakers. It should not be without reverberations in the minds of all of us. It serves notice to all of dwindling supplies of soil fertility.
High wheat yields under liberal rainfalls for the last five or six years in our wheat belt have been rapidly exploiting our store of soil fertility. Isn’t it about time that we consider managing the fertility of our soils with food quality in mind as well as mining them continually for maximum production of bulk only?
2- Weather and Soil
Any crop is the result of the weather and the soil. Weather is beyond man’s control. Soil yields to the skill of his husbandry. But it takes so much rainfall and so little from the body of the soil to make a crop! Likewise it is so easy to note difference in the weather and so difficult to evaluate differences in the soil as they affect the plant body. Consequently, one can readily understand why the weather is quickly considered the common control of the yield that is measured as bulk and likewise of the quality that registers itself, for example, only as protein concentration in the wheat grain.
When the soil itself is only a temporary rest stop of rocks while the climatic forces of rainfall and temperature are dividing and hustling them off to the sea, we are prone to believe that the weather and not the rocks determine both the quantity and the quality of the crop. We are not so ready to see that, first, the climate makes the soil, and that second, the soil, by its control of how well the crop is fed, determines how much of crop and what quality of crop is produced. Both of these aspects of a crop are more apt to be controlled by how well the plants are fed than by how wet or dry, or how cold or warm they are. Our failure to understand many of the details by which soils feed the plants has kept the soil fertility aspect out of the explanations of plant behaviors. This failure has put weather, especially rainfall, into prominence as the controlling factor in crop yield and in the particular crop quality, like protein concentration in the wheat.
Of course, rainfall is a factor in making the crop, but so is the fertility of the soil that determines through nutritional influence how effectively that rainfall will serve. At the same time that the meteorological forces provoking evaporation are taking moisture from the plant and thereby from the soil, only relatively small amounts of it are being built into the body of the plant. Large amounts are transpired in keeping the leaf tissues moist, just as we exhale much moisture from our lungs.
Shall we continue in confusion by thinking of moisture of transpiration as if it were in control of, or controlled by, plant nutrition? Is the degree of frostiness on our breath a matter of the liquid portion taken for breakfast? The transpiration rate is not a measure of growth rate, and water loss is too often a liability on account of fertility shortage when we believe it an asset in growth. The rainfall is used most effectively when there is liberal soil fertility. It is the climate that either provides or removes the latter. The rainfall therefore enters into crop control not directly but indirectly by way of soil fertility.
About William A. Albrecht
William A. Albrecht (1888–1974) PhD, was undoubtedly the preeminent soil scientist of his time. During his long and distinguished career, Dr. Albrecht made the case for an agronomy based on healthy soil ecosystems rather than simplistic chemical inputs, even as this latter approach was being introduced as the “scientific” agriculture of the future. Dr. Albrecht was a prolific author of articles, books, and scientific reports; upon his death in 1974, his research was willed to Acres U.S.A. founder and his personal friend, Charles Walters. Dr. Albrecht’s work continues to be published and rings just as true today as it did when first discovered.
Want to learn more from Dr. William A. Albrecht?
View a collection of his published works here, on Acres U.S.A.