“Anyone who cares about having food to eat and water to drink should care about the health of our soil. Those who make a living from the soil should care even more.” Jon Stika
Observing the prairie and marveling at all the flora and fauna can easily cancel out time. But how does something that was once so resilient, diverse, & beautiful become degraded and dysfunctional in record time? It’s been the fastest desertification - on record - in human history.
We’ve heard the buzz words around soil health: carbon sequestration, water filtration, soil aggregates, regenerative ag, microbes etc. But how many of you have ever really taken a minute to think about a microorganism? And not just one microorganism, but billions that can be found in one teaspoon of soil? Let me say it again, BILLIONs of microorganisms in one teaspoon of soil – think about it. I’m very much a visual person so to be honest it never truly sank in until a saw it for the first time.
“We do not value what we do not understand!”
Here on the ranch, we are focused on prairie restoration and preservation which is directly linked to carbon sequestration. To reach maximum potential, we need those microorganisms! Sadly, when it comes to agriculture we’ve only focused & come to understand two out of three major soil components: The physical & chemical aspects. This has led to the agricultural industry. The physical component being sand, silt, and clays, from the parent material (rocks and pebbles). Then there are the chemical components being the “tried and true” NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, & potassium) as essential macronutrients and other micronutrients which feed plants. There is also the pH of the soil which is measured. The third component and the one less known is soil biology. Soil is ALIVE! This has been completely overlooked & disregarded. The Soil Food Web is the driver of maximum soil health.
From a high-level overlook there are four main beneficial functioning groups in the Soil Food Web: Bacteria, Fungi, Protozoa, & Nematodes. These 4 beneficial groups in the soil drive soil health. These microorganisms help cycle nutrients for the plant – every second – of every day. No added nutrients are needed. This is a complex system that’s been functioning without humans for hundreds of thousands of years! The rainforest doesn’t receive doses of toxic chemicals on a yearly basis. The Soil Food Web is intact and therefore self-sufficient!
Bacteria are the most abundant in the soil. They feed on the root exudates from the plant and in return capture essential nutrients for the plant with its powerful enzymes. Bacteria are responsible for making microaggregates- the building blocks or bricks of the soil structure. If conditions are right, bacteria can reproduce every 20 minutes. When conditions are not favorable, bacteria can produce spores or go dormant.
Fungi also have a synergistic relationship with plants. Extracting nutrients from parent material in exchange for exudates. Even going as far as gathering water for the plant. Fungi grow from the root tip creating a branch or hypha. When conditions are right, and food is abundant, the hypha will branch and continue to branch creating a fungal network. Those hyphae strands glue microaggregates together forming macroaggregates. These become the soil’s aerating structures that create more air flow and more water holding capacity. Fungi can also go dormant and produce spores, but take longer than bacteria to respond to environmental disturbance. Thus, being more delicate and vulnerable.
Protozoa are the third functioning group in the soil food web. They feed on bacteria and a lot of them! Eating up to 10,000 bacteria a day! Once a bacterium is consumed by the protozoa, it excretes out all the excess nutrients it doesn’t need, which just so happens to be in plant soluble form. Protozoa are also eaten by other organisms such as micro & macro-arthropods. This just continues the soluble nutrient uptake by the plant. When conditions are unfavorable protozoa form cysts. These cysts are not as resilient as bacteria and fungal spores, surviving less than 9 months in soil.
Nematodes are slender worms that live in soil – still microscopic though! Some dine on bacteria, others on fungi, and some are omnivores eating anything that will fit in their mouth. Both male and female species exists along with some species that are hermaphroditic. They can lay eggs in the soil or hatch them inside the female body. Life cycles range from months to several years! Just like protozoa, nematodes do not require as much nutrients as the prey they are consuming, leaving them to excrete out any excess into plant soluble form, increasing the nutrient cycling and health of the plant. Some nematode species go into a dormant stage when conditions are unfavorable.
When all 4 functioning groups are present, they create the “poop loop” – continually cycling nutrients for the plant - every second – of every day. We can’t talk about human health, animal health, or environmental health, without including the health of the soil food web. It’s all one thing. We are all connected. If the Soil Food Web is intact, there is no longer a need for toxic & synthetic chemicals! Imagine what our natural world would look like then.
Mother Nature is talking to us all the time. Relationships already exist in nature to fix the mess we’ve created. We need to start respecting those relationships and the environment in which we are a part of.
I hope this helps in valuing what is underground and helps you visualize the life that drives soil health. 😊