Soil microbes: Why they are critical for sustainable agriculture
Soil microbes are an essential component for modern farming
At Genesis Ag, we realize that essential microbes in soils are critical to the success of our farming practices due to their role in soil fertility, nutrient cycling, forming symbiotic relationships with plants, carbon cycle regulation, nitrogen fixation, and so much more. That’s why Genesis Ag provides a full line of biological products to amend, boost, and feed soil biology for increased plant health and long-term sustainability.
This article will review soil microbes’ role in our soil and essential ways we can support biological life on the farm.
What are soil microbes?
Soil microbes exist in the soil, either independently or as part of a larger organism such as plants and animals. These organisms influence the health of plants by modifying what nutrients are available to them, mitigating other environmental stresses, and decomposing organic matter.
Soil microbes exist in an ecosystem where they are dependent on one another despite the competition, and their populations change over time. The four major types of soil microbes include bacteria, fungi, archaea, and protozoa. Each plays a vital role in the health of our soil, plants, animals, and the environment as a whole.
Soil microbes play a critical role in modifying what nutrients are available to the plant, as plants cannot take up nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. However, microbial activity in the soil allows the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a critical component of plant proteins.
These microbes can also take nitrogen gas out of the air, bind it to the soil, and convert it into nitrate for plant use. This process can lead to more significant plant growth than relying on atmospheric nitrogen alone. Similarly, fungi allow plants to access phosphorus, another necessary nutrient for plant growth.
This natural process is a vital tool to reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers. Globally more than 115 million tons of nitrogen alone is used commercially. Nearly 65% of this applied nitrogen is subject to runoff or around 75 million tons. The negative environmental impact from excessive fertilizer use is dramatic. 1
Excess fertilizer runoff can cause algae blooms along with air and water pollution. Over time, their heavy salt content can sterilize soils. Nurturing soil microbes can help to reduce that impact by enhancing nitrogen fixation and unlocking nutrients already bound in the soil. Healthy soil biology can help provide for the plants’ nutrient demands while reducing fertilizer inputs.
How To Support Your Soil Biology
- We recommend Genesis Ag products to treat seeds, inoculate soil, energize soil microbes, and boost beneficial bacteria and fungi. You can learn more about our biological products here.
- Maintain a diverse array of plant species to maintain diversity in the soil microbial population. Microbial diversity can reduce disruptions in nitrogen availability or other essential nutrients for plants caused by lacking or overabundant populations of certain soil microbes.
- Observe how vegetation on the soil surface changes throughout the year and consider what conditions cause it to change. This information can support more sustainable practices in the future.
- Use organic matter in agricultural practices to encourage healthy microbial populations rather than synthetically produced fertilizers.
- If possible, use conservation tillage practices. These practices include no-till options such as in-row subsoiling, strip-till, and ridge-till planting. Conventional tilling techniques can disrupt soil microbes and their relationships with plants over time.
- Rotate crops and allow fields to lie fallow for a season or more to prevent nutrient depletion without compromising yields. Crop rotation enables soil microbes to recover from disruptions in their relationships with plants that these activities may have caused.
- Recognize how human activity can impact the health of soil microbes and its consequences, such as pollution from pesticides and herbicides, over-fertilization, etc.
- Use crop rotations whenever possible
- Utilize cover crops, when possible, to increase soil organic matter and maintain soil structure, which can help prevent erosion and encourage microbial activity.
What do soil microbes do?
Soil microbes break down complex plant carbohydrates so their host can access the nutrients more effectively. Microbes serve as a source of food for many herbivores, such as cattle and sheep, which means they provide many nutrients with little energy expended by the animal’s digestive system. Microbes help break down the remains of dead organisms so that other organisms can recycle their nutrients in the environment. Microbes provide nutrients to their host when no other food sources are available.
Many nitrogen-fixing microbes perform a vital function in the environment by converting inert atmospheric nitrogen into usable forms that other organisms can access. As plant matter breaks down, microbes help it turn into usable nutrients and energy for other organisms. Plant roots produce sugars that many soil microbes can use to encourage growth in the plant’s root system. Microbes can also remove toxic minerals from the environment, such as heavy metals such as aluminum and uranium.
Soil microbes can combat other environmental stresses such as drought and over-abundant rainfall by providing the necessary conditions for plants to grow despite such circumstances. Soil microbes also break down organic matter into nutrients that plants can access and work to maintain soil structure.
How do microbes affect plant growth?
Plant roots secrete carbon compounds called exudates, which serve as food for certain soil microbes to grow and reproduce in the rhizosphere (the area around plant roots). This process attracts other microbes that can utilize the carbon compounds released by plants, resulting in a diverse community of soil microbes near plant roots.
Microbes can increase the availability of nitrogen and phosphorus for plants, among other nutrients that are necessary for growth.
Although soil microbes can combat other environmental stresses such as drought and over-abundant rainfall, they also contribute to these conditions by depleting essential nutrients from the soil or changing their forms so that plants cannot access them. Soil microbes can help break down organic matter into nutrients that plants can access and maintain the soil structure to help plants thrive.
How do microbes affect soil fertility?
Soil microbes convert inert nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into forms of nitrogen available for uptake by plants through nitrogen fixation. Microbes in the soil can increase the availability of phosphorus for plants by converting it into more soluble forms or making it available when other limiting factors are alleviated.
Some microbes produce plant-stimulating hormones like auxin that help promote root growth. Soil microbes induce genetic mutations in plant cells, resulting in beneficial traits like disease resistance. Microbes often function alongside plant roots to acquire nutrients from the soil more effectively.
How do microbes affect plant diseases?
Pathogens can thrive in places where there are many other microbes. Many pathogens are consumed by insects or mites and spread from one plant to another.
Pathogens, such as the fungi that cause powdery mildew in cucumber plants, can secrete enzymes that break down plant cell walls and allow the pathogen and its spores to take over and multiply inside the plant tissue (much like how viruses reproduce inside of a host).
Pathogens can also consume plant cells and acquire nutrients, which further weakens the plant and makes it more susceptible to disease.
How do microbes affect the environment?
Many nitrogen-fixing microbes perform a vital function in the environment by converting inert atmospheric nitrogen into usable forms that other organisms can access. Microbes often help control the number of nutrients and other materials present in an area, affecting everything from nutrient cycling to climate change.
Soil microbes are essential in helping plants determine which roots to grow towards when seeking out nutrients. Some microbes possess genes that allow them to stabilize rocks and prevent soil erosion, while others break down rock material into its particles which facilitates the process of weathering.
Microbes play a role in decomposing dead organic matter and help recycle organic material in the environment.
What are some benefits of microbial life on Earth?
Microbes play a vital role in the carbon cycle because they produce carbon dioxide, which plants use during photosynthesis, and regulate their intake. Many organisms live within microbial mats, which provide an essential source of food and protection.
Microbes that produce methane are responsible for helping maintain the chemical balance in our atmosphere that is necessary for life to survive on Earth; without them, atmospheric oxygen levels would be deficient. Some microbes play a role in helping plants determine their roots’ orientation when they are seeking out nutrients.
What are some of the possible risks from microbial life on Earth?
Microbial pathogens can cause significant damage to crops, which can significantly affect food production for humans and animals worldwide. Pathogens can also endanger species that become endangered due to habitat loss by making them more susceptible to disease.
Microbes can also help make their hosts’ environment uninhabitable, which can cause population declines and affect the organisms that feed on those organisms (such as predators).
Microbial pathogens introduced into ecosystems by humans can endanger species already under pressure from human activities by allowing them to become infected more easily.
Invasive microbes can cause many problems in their new environment, such as forcing native species to compete for resources with the invasive microbe or become infected with a disease and die off.
Many people don’t know what types of organisms make up the microscopic life in the soil, but they considerably affect how successful farming practices are. There are many different types of bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, and other very tiny creatures that live in the top layers of soil all around us. Their beneficial relationships with plants are vital for healthy growth, while their harmful effects on soil chemistry can prevent productive harvests.
Why do soil microbes have a vital role in agriculture?
Many different types of organisms make up the microscopic life in the soil, and they play a huge role in successful farming practices. The various relationships these organisms have with plants are vital for healthy growth, while their adverse effects on soil chemistry can prevent crops from growing properly.
How can Genesis Ag products impact a producer’s soil biology?
Genesis Ag has a full line of biological products to help farmers boost their soil health. Producers around the country are using our products and programs to help increase their yield potential, crop health, and long term-sustainability. We provide biologicals, seed treatments, micronutrients, and specialty products. Our biological product line includes the following:
- Revita-N provides nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can help producers cut their nitrogen inputs.
- Carbose is an energy source with four sugar types and beneficial microbes that help feed soil biology.
- RizNate is a soybean and legume seed treatment.
- Invigor 8 Plus is a biological seed treatment for corn and grass plants.
- Zenergy is an in-furrow inoculant that contains mycorrhiza fungi and other microbes to boost soil health.
- Morphos contains a combination of microbes that help unlock phosphorus locked in your soils.