Does Your Soil Test Include Soil Biology?
Growing productive crops is half art and half science. Last year when you walked your fields you noticed that the plants didn’t look as healthy as you remembered from the year before. When you tallied up pounds of produce at the end of harvest your field’s production was less than the year before. This year, before planting, you’ll get your soil analyzed. One of the smartest business decisions you’ll make.
Like the generations of growers before you who have worked that land, you get your shovel, dig up some soil, and send it in for a soil test.
If you send your sample to a university extension or commercial lab for a conventional soil test it can take up to 3 weeks to get back the results and recommendations on soil amendments, so plan accordingly. Generally, the recommendations will be about the amount of N, P, or K you should be adding to your soil. But soil is much more complicated than the nutrients in that soil sample. Soil is alive and the microbiota make a huge contribution to the health of your soil and the productivity of your crops. To put it simply: Microbes affect your bottom line.
What Do You Do Until You Get Your Soil Test Back?
If you try to be proactive by spreading some nitrogen because you noticed last year some yellowing of the leaves or if you noticed your plants were a bit spindly you could add some phosphorus. But have you solved the problem? You may have made the problem worse for future crops. Plants are like people, mostly we’re all lazy. If you add extra nitrogen or phosphorus, it’s like giving them candy. Now those plants won’t search for the nutrients in the soil. And this is a vicious cycle: if the plants don’t secrete sugars from their roots as food for microbes, then the microbes won’t have food and die or leave the area, then your plants won’t have allies in their quest for soil nutrients. This is when you could start to lose your crop.
Adding synthetic nutrients gives your plants a short-term boost but your soil is becoming less soil and more dirt every growing season. The leaves may be greener than last year and the stems less spindly, but you have to take into account the impact those excessive nutrients have on the future of your fields, on the soil biology, and on the environment.
Importance of Soil Testing
Once you have received the results of your conventional soil test, look at the recommendations. Is there any mention of biology except organic matter? Plants have symbiotic relationships with the microbiota in the soil. The greater the microbial activity the healthier and more productive your plants will be. Do they recommend adding lime or nitrogen or…is your soil just dirt and they recommend not growing at all? That was the recommendation Eliot Coleman received from the soil test on his property in Maine;“…the soil scientist warned that the ground did not seem suitable for agriculture.” Eliot Coleman’s response was that with proper soil management any land can be agriculturally productive.
This is the point at which you know that the biology in your soil is more important than ever. You can bring your dirt back to life as soil, but only through the application of organic matter and, to kickstart the process, Humic Land™.
Soil Testing is the Beginning of the Solution
Conventional soil tests measure nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and pH. An advanced test will also test for organic matter in your soil. But there is a lot more to soil health and nutritious, profitable crops than NPK, pH, and organic matter. Because your soil test comes back with a deficiency in any of these nutrients, it doesn’t mean that adding more of any nutrients to the soil will actually be taken up by your plants.
Michael Phillips, in The Holistic Orchard, writes that "…pH and nutrient levels are constantly in flux…" and that "…a slight delay in analyzing a sample will show a shift in certain available nutrient levels as the biology in the soil invariably shifts in accordance with the changed reality."
The microbial activity in your soil isn’t tested by a conventional test but those very microbes determine the level of available nutrients shown in the test. Soil tests always show a moment in time and if the biology isn’t accounted for you can easily over or under fertilize your fields. And keep in mind that if you are using synthetic fertilizers you are giving your plants candy. Do you routinely let your kids have ice cream before dinner? If so, do they eat all their vegetables?
Step Up Your Soil Testing by Adding Biology Measurements
Every grower knows that dark brown, crumbly soil, commonly referred to as loam, is the best soil. But if you have compacted clay or sandy soil can you ever convert it into that desirable beautiful loam? Yes you can, but the speed of that conversion depends on how degraded your soil is to begin with. Creating healthy soil full of biology is a “long game” and well worth the effort. But first you need to know what you’re working with. You need to know the NPK, pH, organic matter AND you need to know what kind of biology you have in your fields.
NPK won’t get you very far without microbes and other soil biotas to ingest the nutrients, move them around, and convert them into forms that plants can absorb. Eliot Coleman masterfully converted a rocky Maine landscape into fertile grow beds. He writes in "Four – Season Harvest" that :
"Undisturbed, the natural crumb structure that characterizes the work of microorganisms, earthworms, and other soil inhabitants actually has more air spaces than disturbed soil. Applying compost to the surface of the soil aids the natural process. The surface organic matter is slowly incorporated into the topsoil by the actions of earthworms and their coworkers. Further decomposition of organic matter by fungal and bacterial action goes on continuously underground."
Growing High-Quality Crops Profitably
It’s difficult to grow productively and maintain, or increase, soil health without the complete picture. We’ve been growing for a long time testing only for NPK, a few other micronutrients, and pH. Growing practices since the 1950s have incorporated ever greater doses of fertilizer, pesticides, and fungicides to produce the same quantity of crops.
Production has increased by quantity but both food quality and grower revenue have decreased because of increased synthetic inputs. We have been working against nature and not with nature. Knowing and caring for the microbial activity in your fields will not only increase the QUALITY of your crops, but it will also decrease your dependence on synthetic fertilizers. Less inputs and greater soil health through microbial "farming" mean producing a greater quantity and higher quality of food for more profit.
How Do I Know If I Have A Thriving Microbiota?
What can you do about soil that is really just dirt? Soil that has no, or few, active microbes is dirt. It is created by growing practices that douse the earth with synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides that take care of the above-ground pests but also take out the below-ground microbiota. A conventional soil test will measure the amount of NPK, pH, and organic matter. To begin to bring your soil back to life you need to give it organic matter. The use of cover crops will help, don’t till them under or pull them up. Their roots secrete food that attracts the microbial community that works with your plants to create nutrient-dense food. With patience, you will have lush earthworm laden soil. Many farmers are learning they can bring their fields back to life faster and be on the road to healthy soil by adding Humic Land™, which includes many microorganisms. Adding Humic Land also allows farmers to cut back on fertilizer, pesticide, and fungicide use because if activates soil microbiota. That activity in your soil means the interactions between the soil and your plants increases the bioavailability of nutrients to plants. Healthy soil equals a greater quantity of high-quality crops which equals more profit.
Physically Examine Your Fields – Shovel in Hand
Our food is only as healthy as the soil it is grown in. Every year you use synthetic inputs your soil health diminishes. As your soil health diminishes so does the nutritional quality of your crops. Go out with a shovel and dig up a shovelful of soil.
What is it like – dark brown, beige, crumbly, sandy, clayey?
How does it smell, taste?
How many earthworms can you count in that shovelful of earth?
Armed with a soil test and a physical examination of your fields you know what you’ve got and where you want to be. It’s your grower’s roadmap to healthy soil and a profitable growing season this year and many years to come.
Will 2021 Be the Year You Have a Bumper Crop?
Plants that have an active symbiotic relationship with the soil biology have increased yields. At the same time, those microbes are increasing the fertility of your soil for future crops. Your job as a grower is to make sure those microbes are happy and healthy. To accomplish that you need to make sure your soil is never bare of growing vegetative matter and to decrease (or altogether quit) your use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. Healthy plants are able to fend off almost all diseases and pests.
Decreased synthetic inputs will also positively affect your bottom line. So, get a soil test and go out and look at your fields with your shovel. Your soil will show you what it needs to produce your most profitable year yet.
All this biological activity in your soil is not accounted for on conventional soil tests. Rogitex is pleased to offer, in cooperation with a number of reputable labs, soil tests for nutrients AND the microbiota in your soil.