Soil seems non-living, but it can be unhealthy or healthy like people. Like the human body, soil health also depends on its microbes content. The fungi and bacteria present in the soil help in recycling the nutrients. Moreover, it boosts soil health to support the plants better.
But it’s challenging to define healthy soil. Even scientists are still unable to measure soil health. But now, researchers are unveiling this secret with attention to detail. They aim to help farmers and consumers.
This research is led by Lori Phillips, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher. According to her, better management practices could boost soil health, allowing farmers to grow the same crop on the same soil. The best thing is that it will also reduce the use of costly chemicals, including herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Moreover, it will also protect the environment.
Phillips and her team performed a study with different farming practices to determine soil health. In this study,
- They identified the plants that a healthy soil supports.
- They evaluated a new system for soil health measurement.
This study was conducted in an Ontario field experiment in 2001. Under this project, they
- Studied the effects of different crop growth systems.
- Compared pasture systems with traditionally grown soybean and corn crops
After this study, the research team tried to find the effects of continuous growth of perennial grasses, soybeans and corn on soil health. For this purpose, they should know how to measure soil health.
In the past, organic matter in the soil was a decisive factor in determining soil health. But, it’s not so now because microbes change fast.
Phillips considered the microbes present in the soil crucial for soil health. Therefore, their accurate measurement is also essential.
To measure microbes, researchers used the CNPS test. This test
- helps measure the enzymes required for recycling sulfur, phosphorus, nitrogen and carbon.
- Measures biological activity too.
- Measures the percentage of bacteria and fungi in the soil
They found that the perennial grasses had the healthiest soils. They have diverse microbes that can perform a lot of biological activities. These microbes also host fungi.
Birdsfoot trefoil, fields growing legumes and perennial grasses are even healthier. After that comes the field growing corn fields and then soybeans.
According to Phillip, such fields may produce their own nitrogen. But they may not have healthy soils. She says,
“Many people assume that soybean is a legume and legumes provide their own nitrogen through nitrogen fixation, that soybean must be healthy for the soils. So, it’s the cumulative effect of smaller roots, less residue returned, and the residue that is returned gets broken down too quickly to be stable.”
The ratio of fungi is also higher in the perennial systems than in crop fields. The perennial grasslands have more time for the development of strong microbial communities.
Phillips states that agricultural soils with intense management, such as higher fertilizer inputs and frequent tillage, have many bacteria. On the other hand, only sustainable management practices could increase the soil’s fungi ratio.
The current research proved that the CNPS system is a great tool for determining soil health. Phillips’ team is helping farmers protect the soil by revealing useful farm practices for improved soil health.
Phillips says that management practices that reduce the use of chemicals, reduce soil disturbances, and boost the exposure of living crops to soil greatly contribute to overall soil health. Improved soil health means economically sustainable farms.
Agro-Ecosystem Resilience Program (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) financially supports this research project. On the other hand, the Government of Canada GRDI Ecobiomics project (J-001263) supports the sequencing of this project.