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Soil Organic Matter: Tips for Responsible Nitrogen Management

For soil organic matter to work the way it should, it depends on a careful balance of nutrients and minerals, including one of

Healthy, homegrown carrots in rich soil.

the most important elements — nitrogen. One of the great paradoxes of farming is that lack of nitrogen is regarded as one of the great limitations on plant growth, and yet plants are bathed in it because the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen.

Most plants cannot use nitrogen in this form (N2) as it is regarded as inert. It has to be converted into other forms — nitrate, ammonia, ammonium and amino acids for plants to utilize it.

In conventional agriculture most of these plant-available forms of nitrogen are obtained through synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that have been produced by the Haber-Bosch process.

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Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio: Understanding Chemical Elements in Organic Matter

Adding compost or other nutrients can help you find the right carbon-nitrogen ratios.

Carbon-nitrogen ratios are an important part of understanding soil, as explained by Crow Miller in this piece earlier published in Acres USA magazine:

There are two chemical elements in organic matter that are extremely important, especially in their relation or proportion to each other: they are carbon and nitrogen. This relationship is called the carbon-nitrogen ratio. To understand what this relationship is, suppose a certain batch of organic matter is made up of 40 percent carbon and 2 percent nitrogen. Dividing 40 by 2, one gets 20. The carbon-nitrogen ratio of this material is then 20 to 1, which means 20 times as much carbon as nitrogen. Suppose another specimen has 35 percent carbon and 5 percent nitrogen. The carbon-nitrogen ratio of this material then would be 7 to 1. Anyone who handles organic matter, who mulches, or who composts, regardless of which method is used, should have some idea about the significance of the carbon-nitrogen ratio.

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Three-Year Rotations Best For Potatoes

Potatoes being harvested in the San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado. Rotating potatoes with cover crops provides many benefits, including nitrogen management, improved soil and water quality, and bigger potatoes and higher yields.

Potatoes being harvested in the San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado. Rotating potatoes with cover crops provides many benefits, including nitrogen management, improved soil and water quality, and bigger potatoes and higher yields.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have been investigating new cost-efficient options for increasing yields of potatoes and improving production sustainability. The researchers determined that three-year crop rotations generally helped break the host-pathogen cycle more effectively than two-year rotations. The three-year rotations provided better disease control and resulted in higher crop yields. These rotations also supported beneficial soil microbes that improve soil quality by increasing soil organic matter or by inhibiting plant pathogens. After weighing the costs and benefits of different management systems, researchers concluded that using a combination of Brassica and sudangrass green manures, fall cover crops and crop rotations can reduce soilborne diseases by up to 58 percent, and adding compost to the mix increases tuber yields up to 42 percent.

This report appears in the November 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.