Healthy soil is an essential part of sustainable agriculture practices. With the increase in popularity among organizations such as Soil Health Partnership and Field to Market, it’s clear that this topic is becoming a rising priority among farmers around the country. In fact, according to the USDA National Resources Conservation Service, a recent study among farmers in Iowa showed that more than 75% reported taking steps to improve soil health, believing that healthier soils lead to increased yields, reduced fertilizer needs, and improved drought resilience.
So what tools are available for farmers interested in boosting soil health? Are there prescriptive treatments that can provide long-term benefits? The answer is yes, and the most impactful of these tools are focused on activating nutrients at the microbial level.
How nutrient cycling impacts soil health
Fertile soil provides an untapped resource of nutrient reservoirs available for crop uptake. However, a plant’s ability to access these soil nutrients, especially during critical growth periods, is essential for achieving maximum health and yield. Because nutrients are not always present in plant-available forms, nutrient cycling becomes a critical factor in a plant’s ability to reach its full potential.
Nutrient cycling is a complex process by which soil microbes convert nutrients that are ‘locked up’ or otherwise unavailable to the plant, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, into forms that a plant can use.
A diverse soil community that includes microbes specifically required for nutrient cycling is a key component to healthy soil and a contributor to overall plant health. So, the question becomes, how do we increase the diversity of beneficial, nutrient-cycling microbes in the soil to support an overall increase in soil health?
Boosting microbial growth to increase nutrient cycling
Compelling evidence is emerging that cover crops increase the abundance of soil microbes. Research indicates that cover cropping provides both above- and below-ground biomass, including root exudates, that are known to boost soil microbial growth.
Root exudates contain signaling molecules that aid in the activation of microbes involved in the nutrient cycling process. This is a highly intelligent system that plants have evolved over time — communicating with soil microbes in exchange for bioavailability of nutrients.
As complex as this system is in nature, there is now a way to initiate communication between plant roots and microbes in-season, similar to what cover cropping does off-season.
The intricate communication between plant roots and soil microbes was the impetus for the discovery of the novel active ingredient in SOURCE. With a deep understanding of molecule signaling, our team was able to develop a unique foliar applied product that facilitates communication between the plant and native soil microbes.
SOURCE can be applied alone or as part of a post-emergence herbicide program or late-season fungicide program to improve nutrient cycling, activating both free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria and phosphate-solubilizing microbes. It’s a powerful tool for growers, providing plant-available nitrogen and phosphorus when crops need it most—without requiring additional fertilizer.
The added value of cover crops
Cover crops have earned recognition in recent years for their beneficial effect on microbial growth, which, in the context of soil inputs, can also provide economic value. A review by Cornell University Cooperative Extension regarding the impact of cover crops on nutrient levels noted the importance of giving a good cover crop credit in nutrient budgets. The report also notes that using cover crops will increase soil organic matter.
Beyond nutrient cycling, there are myriad valuable services that can be attributed to cover cropping. A cover crop can decrease erosion potential and loss of valuable topsoil, increase weed control, sequester carbon, reduce nutrient leaching and runoff, and add soil structure.
We’re living in an exciting time as more earth-friendly ways to increase microbial populations and take advantage of available nutrients are becoming available, along with research to prove their effectiveness. Planting cover crops and using innovative products like SOURCE to tap into the beneficial nutrients that lay beneath the soil are two ways that sustainable farming practices can promote healthier crops.