Building Life In The Soil

in Issue 33 by

“How can I improve soil biology or encourage soil life on my land?”  From organic to no-till farms, this is one of the most asked questions in agriculture today.  Before that question can be answered there are other questions that need to be answered.  Will the benefits from following a proposal to build life in the soil be profitable enough to be economically feasible?  Will such a program justify the time and effort required?  What type of changes may be needed to achieve the goal in a proper manner?  The answers to these questions will help determine what may or may not be possible under varying sets of circumstances.

There are no simple one-step plans that will apply to every farm or field.  For those who want to keep on doing what they have always been doing and provide some individual or convenient change that will magically make the difference, the best results in terms of yield, quality and economics will not likely ever be realized.  Such approaches are like trying to use a band aid instead of cleaning out a wound and applying a larger bandage; the wound may seem to get better, but there are many possible complications that can occur because it was not done right in the first place.

You have to understand what a program requires for specific results. For example, adding lime, manure, compost, cover crops, micronutrients, or even more N-P-K fertilizer may show a positive response for the crop.  But it may not mean you have improved the soil and the quality of what will be produced there. The first and most basic foundational principle for building more biological life in the soil is “feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant.”  When considering the needs of feeding the soil, first think about the number of years plant nutrients other than N-P-K have been taken out by crops without being replaced.  It can become expensive to supply all the needed elements at once to fields that have not been receiving adequate amounts of required fertilizer nutrients for growing each crop over long periods of time.  It is not a reasonable assumption that these can be adequately replaced in one year or at very little cost.  Many farmers are hammered by supposedly expert advisors with the false claim that this type of approach, correcting a soil’s fertility, costs too much.  Is it possible that those who have never learned how to use a true soil-building program, or those who stand to profit most to have a farmer continue using their program, may not truly have the farmer’s best interest in mind?

Some will maintain that they feed the soil and thus build soil life by use of manure, or compost, or cover crops, etc. However, with a detailed soil analysis it can be determined if any of those other nutrients established as being needed for the soil and the organisms living there are more limiting to biological activity than what is continually being applied to that land.  Even compost and manures that came from plant or feeding materials that were grown where soil nutrients were deficient in terms of fertility will still not be adding what they are lacking and thus do not have the capacity to provide all the nutritional value needed for what is to be grown there.  The same can be true for cover crops.  If the needed nutrients are not there in adequate amounts they do not come magically along.

With regard to the question of whether or not feeding the soil is too expensive to consider, there is no need to take anyone’s word.  Dedicate a small portion of land to first prove the benefits of a “feed the soil” approach, and after seeing how the economics of it works, then begin using the program on more land.  Once the results are proven to be achievable on a smaller portion of the land, then proceed with the confidence that the program is worth far more than the time and expense involved.

Will the benefits from increasing life in the soil be worth the time and effort required?  The first biological aspect of the soil for the most profitable returns should be the effects that a program has on plant roots, that is, maximizing the nutrient levels that provide the sustenance to the living organisms in the soil that support the plants via more root growth and resulting nutrient uptake.  Correct fertilizer and soil amendment usage are the primary keys that unlock the door for biological activity to supply better soil and plant response.  The nutrients that tend to be most neglected for root growth are calcium, sulfur and boron – sometimes all of them, but not always, and too much of any one of these can affect nutrient uptake adversely.

What type of changes may be needed to achieve the goal of increasing life in the soil?  Depending on crops being grown and location, there may be several, but in general there is one good place to begin: identify and correct the needs based on observable differences across each field or farm.  One big problem that continues to block progress in biological soil activity is the assumption that all the soil in a wide general area will benefit from the formulation and application of the same program everywhere.

Using one soil sample to fertilize a whole field that has obvious differences is never the means to achieve that land’s true potential, let alone – as some tend to promote – using just one sample to determine what should be done to provide all the needed nutrients for the entire farm!   If all of the soil in a field were alike, it would all look the same, feel the same and grow the very same way.  But that is seldom the case.  If the soil has any major differences in texture, color, or plant population – even different weed or grass populations – chances are the fertility needs will be significantly different as well.  If there is an observable difference and the area of land is large enough to fertilize separately, then it should be sampled separately and that land specifically evaluated, with fertility needs assessed, formulated and treated accordingly.  This program provides the best environment for soil life to flourish.

 The goal for those wanting to build life in the soil will generally be quite different from those selling fertilizers and soil amendments.  Find a consultant you can trust.  Find a consultant who does not sell the fertilizers or other products he recommends.  Such consultants only sell advice on what is needed in terms of fertilizer materials and how to properly build up soils. Then you can buy what you need from the fertilizer dealer you choose.  Also consider the goals of the company or consultant who provides such advice.  Is their goal to become the company who performs the most soil tests or works with the most farmers or growers?  For those who give advice concerning building soil fertility to support soil life, achieving such a goal would be hard to attain and still do the best job. That is because a program to optimize the benefits provided by optimizing soil life places the most value on principles that most farmers, consultants and fertilizer dealers reject as being most necessary.  Today most companies look at service as being how to provide the greatest speed and convenience.  This is a big part of the service many farmers want!  They don’t want to wait; they need it now.  But what price has to be paid over and above the cost of the soil sample for such a quick answer?  It is not possible to maximize yields or minimize costs without a test that provides the correct answers concerning the fertility needed for the soil.  Those answers require far more time and consideration than just trying to guess what the plants need based on the tonnage you want to make.  One good test is to determine whether soils that test high in a nutrient still show the same recommended amount of fertilizer as those testing low in that same nutrient.

One of the questions of greatest concern to farmers and growers in terms of building life in the soil is. “How do we improve the life of the soil in order to build more humus?”  How much of a chance is there that this will happen with a quick test designed to feed the plant?  That kind of concept has been allowed to develop in agriculture based on a false set of premises!  Those who sell these concepts want you to believe that all you need to do is just squeeze out as much yield as possible every year by feeding the plant because feeding the soil is too expensive.  That is a bunch of hogwash and it is time the weaknesses in such a program be properly considered.  A program for soil building to increase soil life is based on completely different concepts.  Rather than a rapid turn-around time, a grower should plan ahead to receive the proper advice in a timely manner.  Under ideal circumstances, the turn-around time needed for soil recommendations to build soil life and humus can be done in a few days.  But once growers begin to learn how well such a program works, they send more and more samples, and then that few days can turn into weeks because of the resulting backlog.  The concentration is on accuracy, not speed, and the way to achieve that in individual cases is by evaluating every soil sample specifically, element by element.  This takes more time than a program designed to feed the crop based on the desired yield.  It is a different approach designed to provide a different program for the planners and thinkers in agriculture, not those who feel they need only quick answers.

With this in mind, the main goal for building a program to most benefit life in the soil should not be to convince farmers and growers they need to take more soil tests, but rather to convince them that taking and using a soil analysis for determining the real fertility needs of each soil is actually possible and the most beneficial approach.  Farmers will only learn if that is best for them by doing it, by starting small if necessary.  Once they are convinced, they can continue by having their soil tested from samples that are properly collected, and then apply only those materials shown to be needed.  If it is too expensive to supply all that is needed for the soil at one time, then it is most important for them to understand how to allocate and apply the most necessary nutrients. Such a program must then express what to use in the proper order, using only the correct amounts of all needed materials to stretch the allocated fertilizer budget which will then accomplish as much in terms of yield and/or quality as possible, while at the same time build the “house” for the best soil biology!