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Archive | Soil Life

Humus: What is it and How is it Formed?

Secrets of Fertile Soils

Humus forms as a result of the complicated interplay of inorganic conversions and the life processes of the microbes and tiny creatures living in the soil — the soil ecosystem. Earthworms play a particularly important role in this process. Humus formation is carried out in two steps. First, the organic substance and the soil minerals disintegrate. Next, totally new combinations of these break down products develop, which leads to the initial stages of humus. Humus formation is a biological process. Only 4-12 inches (10-30 centimeters) of humus-containing soil are available in the upper earth crust. This thin earth layer is all that exists to provide nutrition to all human life. The destiny of mankind depends on these 12 inches!

Cultivated soils with 2 percent humus content are today considered high-quality farmland. What makes up the remaining 98 percent? Depending on the soil type, soil organisms constitute about 8 percent, the remains of plants and animals about 5 percent, and air and water around 15 percent.

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Interview: Scientist, Author Jonathan Lundgren Discusses Ground-Breaking Research into Insects and Species Diversity

Acres U.S.A. is North America’s monthly magazine of ecological agriculture. Each month we conduct an in-depth interview with a thought leader. The following interview appeared in our Febjonathan-lundgrenruary 2016 issue and was too important not to share widely.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren is an agroecologist, director of the Ecdysis Foundation and CEO of Blue Dasher Farm in Brookings, South Dakota. He received his Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Illinois in 2004 and was a top scientist with USDA-ARS for 11 years. Lundgren received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering awarded by the White House and has served as an advisor for national grant panels and regulatory agencies on pesticide and GM crop risk assessments. Lundgren has written 107 peer-reviewed journal articles, authored the book Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-prey Foods and has received more than $3.4 million in grants. Dr. Lundgren has trained five post-docs and 12 graduate students from around the world. One of his priorities is to make science applicable to end-users, and he regularly interacts with the public and farmers regarding pest and farm management and insect biology. Lundgren’s research program focuses on assessing the ecological risk of pest management strategies and developing long-term solutions for sustainable food systems. His ecological research focuses heavily on conserving healthy biological communities within agroecosystems by reducing disturbance and increasing biodiversity within cropland.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

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Healthy Soils for a Healthy Life — Increasing Soil Organic Matter through Organic Agriculture

Better infiltration, retention and delivery to plants helps avoid drought damage. Organic is on the left, conventional on the right. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

Better infiltration, retention and delivery to plants helps avoid drought damage. Organic is on the left, conventional on the right. Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

by André Leu

This year has been declared the International Year of Soils by the 68th UN General Assembly with the theme “Healthy Soils for a Healthy Life.” I am particularly pleased with the theme because this is a message that we in the organic sector have been spreading for more than 70 years, and at first we were ridiculed. Now there is a huge body of science showing that what we observed in our farming systems is indeed correct.

“Organic farming” became the dominant name in English-speaking countries for farming systems that eschew toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers through J.I. Rodale’s global magazine Organic Farming and Gardening, first published in the United States in the 1940s. Rodale promoted this term based on building soil health by the recycling of organic matter through composts, green manures, mulches and cover crops to increase the levels of soil organic matter (SOM) as one of the primary management techniques.

Numerous scientific studies show that SOM provides many benefits for building soil health such as improving the number and biodiversity of beneficial microorganisms that provide nutrients for plants, including fixing nitrogen, as well as controlling soilborne plant diseases. The decomposition of plant and animal residues into SOM can provide all the nutrients needed by plants and negate the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers that are responsible for numerous environmental problems. Continue Reading →

The Soil Solution

The Soil Solutionby Graeme Sait

The UN has named 2015 International Year of Soils, and we should embrace this initiative with open hearts and willing hands. It is an incredibly timely focus in light of a series of serious challenges impacting our future and perhaps our very existence. Soil health directly affects plant, animal and human health. It also impacts topsoil erosion, water management and ocean pollution. Most importantly, it is now recognized that climate change is directly related to soil mismanagement. I believe a global soil health initiative can help save our planet.

The Top Five Threats

While in the UK, I met with a professor who shared some deeply concerning findings. He informed me that a recent survey of leading British scientists revealed that as many as one in five of the best thinkers in the country believe that we will be extinct as a species by the end of this century, or perhaps much earlier. This information should serve to spur meaningful action from every one of us. There are five core threats that need to be urgently addressed, and they all relate back to the soil. Continue Reading →

Calculating the Value of Organic

Root nodules on hairy vetch.

Root nodules on hairy vetch store nitrogen captured from the air with help from Rhizobium bacteria. The stored nitrogen is released into the soil when the plant dies.

A team of international scientists has shown that assigning a dollar value to the benefits nature provides agriculture improves the bottom line for farmers while protecting the environment. The study confirms that organic farming systems do a better job of capitalizing on nature’s services.

Scientists from Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States describe the research they conducted on organic and conventional farms to arrive at dollar values for natural processes that aid farming and can substitute for costly fossil fuel-based inputs. The study appears in the journal PeerJ.

“By accounting for ecosystem services in agricultural systems and getting people to support the products from these systems around the world, we move stewardship of lands in a more sustainable direction, protecting future generations,” said Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold. Continue Reading →

Biochar: Helping Everything from Soil Fertility to Odor Reduction

Biochar is seen as a valuable soil amendment and much attention has been placed on using biochar to boost soil fertility and microbiology, upgrade soil structure and accelerate plant growth. Amid a rising tide of research and trials, what was once mostly fuel or water filtration media suddenly sprouted dozens of innovative applications and benefits.

Biochar in Poultry Farming

Farmer Josh Frye with his gasifier.

New biochar uses are being discovered, including:

  • Stormwater management and treatment;
  • Phosphorus traps to reduce water pollution;
  • Nitrogen traps to reduce ammonia and nitrate pollution;
  • Reclamation of mine tailings;
  • Building material blended with cement, mortar, plaster, etc.;
  • Electronic microwave shielding;
  • Electron storage and release as a “super-capacitor”;
  • Carbon fiber textiles for odor-absorbent clothing; and
  • Carbon nanofibers to replace plastic and metal.

Livestock farming is offering a new and growing area of unexpected uses for biochar. Animals from earthworms to chickens, cattle and even monkeys, show shrewd interest in biochar added to their food. Farmers and scientists around the globe have investigated the use of biochar in livestock production. In the European Union, biochar is carefully defined and approved for use in agriculture. Currently, most is fed to livestock and then spread on land with manure.

This article mainly addresses poultry production, but similar issues and opportunities face other livestock producers. Research from several countries shows that adding 1 to 3 percent biochar to cattle feed improves feed efficiency by 28 percent, reduces methane by 25 percent and increases rate of weight gain by 20 percent. Continue Reading →