The Vitality Of Biological Life Is The Key To A Soil's Fertility
by Jason Hobson, CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture
One of the most common questions about making the transition to a regenerative system of farming is what is the best place to begin. When faced with the myriad options of tillage tools, cover crops, dry and liquid fertilizers, and biological inoculants in the marketplace, and the fall pressures of harvest and preparations for winter, we have found that the simplest approach works the best.
Balancing soil minerals and strengthening soil biology are the all-important first steps on the path of biological farming. Using soil testing to check the level of soil minerals and designing a long-term plan to bring them into balance can help create the conditions for microbial life to thrive.
More importantly, we have to remember that even if we don’t have livestock of the hooved or feathered kinds to care for, all farmers have the responsibility of protecting the 2-3 tons of microbes that live in each acre of soil. Ensuring that this underground livestock-bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and other microscopic organisms have the food and shelter needed for survival is one of a farmer’s primary jobs. In return, the soil biology can work for us by buffering soil pH, making soil nutrients more available, and synthesizing compounds, like complex carbohydrates and amino acids, for crops to absorb.(1)
At AEA, our Regenerative Soil Health Program includes three components: Rejuvenate™, Spectrum™, and Seashield™. This article focuses on how specifically Rejuvenate™ helps farmers care for the microbial life in their fields. Made from a combination of humates, molasses, and trace minerals, Rejuvenate™ performs three important functions.
First, it supports microbes in the decomposition of fall crop residue. The stalks, leaves, and stubble left in a field after harvest are an often neglected source of fertility. An NRCS study showed that there is on average $150.00 or more of fertilizer in the residue left on every acre after a 180-bushel corn crop.(2) The problem is that plant debris left lying on top of the soil will often oxidize slowly, losing valuable nutrients to the atmosphere.
Increasing soil contact through tillage can help, but if the digestive capacity of the soil is not strong enough, highly lignified residue, especially from treated corn varieties, may remain intact in the soil for some time. Spraying a field after harvest with two gallons of Rejuvenate will support the microbial life already in the field and encourage them to break down the stubble more quickly. Additionally, it will move the nutrients from the decaying residue into the soil system where they can be used by next year’s crops. If residue from the previous year is still visible at the end of the next season, chances are that there is a significant amount of fertilizer value left untapped in the soil.
A related benefit of Rejuvenate™ is its ability to help suppress overwintering crop diseases. Many disease pathogens, whether from aspergillus and diploida in corn or timber rot in tomatoes, spend the winter as spores in the shelter of undecayed crop residue.(3) Strong and efficient microbial digestion can break down infected residue more quickly and deny the disease spores their winter cover. A healthy soil biological system is a teeming jungle of microscopic life, the majority of which aids in the development of plants. These beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other organisms out-compete the disease-causing organisms and do not allow them to become established. Pathogenic organisms may be present in the soil, but their numbers are held in check by the number and intense activity of the beneficial organisms.
This tendency is crucial to restoring the health and vitality to soils that have been treated for a number of years with chemical controls. Many herbicides and fungicides are toxic to bacteria, fungi, and other organisms important to plant health. Azotobacter, which are crucial to the soil nitrogen cycle, mycorrhizal fungi that incorporate into the roots of most plants to bring them phosphorus and other minerals, and actinomycetes, which break down organic materials that other organisms cannot, are all significantly affected by glyphosate, pyraclostrobin, and other materials. In addition, studies have shown that glyphosate encourages the growth of pathogenic soil fungi like rhyzoctonia, phytopthora, fusarium, and pythium, which take advantage of depleted numbers of beneficial organisms to become dominant in the soil community.(4)
It is no surprise, then, that in the last 15-20 years, we have seen an increase in the appearance of fungal diseases caused by these fungi, such as take all in wheat, head scab in corn, and root rot and sudden death syndrome in soybeans.(5) Reducing or eliminating the use of these chemicals and employing management tools like the use of cover crops and Rejuvenate™ can begin to shift the balance of the soil microbial communities back toward balance and health.
The third benefit of the consistent use of Rejuvenate™ is improved soil structure. No matter what the soil type of a given field may be, increasing the level of biological activity in that soil will improve its tilth. From crop fields in Arizona to vegetable production fields in California, we have many reports of softer, looser soil that works more easily after Rejuvenate™ applications.
One of the most important aspects of better soil structure is better air and water infiltration. When fields are hard and compacted, the ability of the soil to absorb and hold rainfall is severely limited, often resulting in ponding or runoff. Whenever water stands in or runs off a field, there is the possibility of losing available nutrients through asphyxiation or erosion, but more importantly, in dry years, every drop of water that runs off a field is water lost for the season.
I was on a farm in Indiana in late April when it rained close to two inches in two hours. The farm I was visiting had been organic for more than 10 years, had employed cover crops and good crop rotation, and, as a result, had achieved open, well-aggregated soil structure. Their fields were able to absorb that heavy rain with little or no run-off. Neighboring fields under a more conventional management system showed heavy ponding and water running over the ditches and onto the road.
We didn’t know on that day that this would be the last significant rainfall until the middle of July. The crops soon to be planted in those fields would need every bit of that rain to weather the heat and drought coming in the next three months.
Better soil structure also means that more oxygen will be available in the system, allowing the natural processes of the soil, like the Nitrogen cycle, to function more efficiently, which will make more nutrients available to growing crops and reduce the need for off-farm inputs. When these functions are working well, the soil shows the ability to stand up against weather stress, and bounce back when field operations, like tillage or harvest, need to happen in less than optimal conditions.
Of the many products on the market, Rejuvenate™stands out because of the complexity and quality of its ingredients, and because it provides soil life with food, water, shelter, and the micronutrients that are key to breaking down organic matter. It contains food-grade molasses, an excellent source of energy and nutrition for many soil organisms, and humates which are a complex form of carbon that perform several vital functions in the soil.
The humates in Rejuvenate™ are derived from humalite and are micronized rather than chemically extracted so that they contain the humic, fulvic, and humin components of the parent material. The humate molecule is one of the largest and most complicated in nature, and this intricate structure holds onto water, provides shelter for many kinds of soil biology, and increases the nutrient holding capacity of the soil. Humates also have the ability to chelate, or grab onto soil minerals and make them more available to plants.
The trace minerals, sourced from seawater and plant sources, further enhance the effectiveness of the material by providing essential enzyme cofactors that many soil organisms use to break down their food.
In addition to being one of the highest quality products available, Rejuvenate™ has a wide range of application methods to fit the needs of any farm. The most common use of the product is as a fall field spray, where it can help break down crop residue, unlock soil nutrients for the coming crop, loosen soil structure, and support soil biology.
The Regenerative Soil Health Primer—Rejuvenate™, Spectrum™, and Seashield™—can also be applied as a spring foliar on cover crops before incorporation. Here this combo will help the cover crop to break down more quickly and completely, which means less lag time between green manure plow down and field crop planting. Spring foliars with this trio of products on hay fields and pasture give the chance to improve soil structure without the need for tillage.
Another important place for Rejuvenate™ is in starter and transplant solutions it can help create a zone of intense biological activity around the seed or transplant that will encourage rapid germination and strong early development. It can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of liquid nitrogen by reducing its susceptibility to leaching and volatilization, and make liquid manure more stable and biologically friendly.
If indeed the key to soil fertility is the vitality of its biological life, then Rejuvenate™, Spectrum™, and Seashield™ make a sound investment. In many cases, because of the increased nutrient availability that it can create, other inputs, like dry fertilizer and liquid nitrogen, can be reduced to the point where the costs to the farmer are neutral. When the value of the minerals that are biologically released is added to the savings in money spent on chemical controls on soil-borne diseases and the increased revenue from better yield and quality at harvest, the math for Rejuvenate™, Spectrum™, and Seashield™ looks even better.
(1)Krasail’nikov, N.A. Soil Microorganisms and Higher Plants. Academy of Sciences
of the USSR: Moscow, 1958.
(2)“Harvesting Crop Residue: What’s it worth?’” Iowa NRCS Publications.
(3)Reese, Matt. “Ear Rots a Health and Harvest Concern.” Ohio Country Journal.
(4)Johal GS and Huber DM. Glyphosate effects on diseases of plants.
(5)“Scientist warns of dire consequences with widespread use of glyphosate,”
The Organic and Non-GMO Report, May 2010.