Article Written By: Al Toops, BioMakers and Lance Gunderson, Regen Labs
Soil fertility and conservation have been central areas of focus for farmers for over a century. From the first implementation of the tractor to the advancement in cropping systems and fertility management. The invention of the Haber-Bosch process utilized molecular nitrogen (N2) and methane (CH4) gas to synthesize the making of ammonia (NH3). This later led to the Ostwald process in making nitric acid which led to the development of ammonia nitrate. In 1927, Erling Johnson invented the method to produce nitro phosphate, and the commercial fertilizer industry was born.
The next stage for the commercial farming community was to utilize and combine these two newly developed industrial products, the tractor, and commercial fertilizer products to farm more acres with less labor. This union was the beginning of the agrochemical empire. The industrialization of farming became the accepted method to produce the world’s demand for food, fuel, fiber, and feed. As the evolution of technology grew and expanded, an increasing need to improve numerous areas in the crop production process followed. These improvements centered on soil conservation practices, seed genetics, soil fertility management, and plant protection.
Soil fertility management emphasized the roles plant nutrients play and how they can be precisely measured. In the 1940s, soil sampling became the method that was introduced to better understand the chemistry of the soil. Laboratory methods used acid extractions to give measurable outcomes where the fertilizer retailer could then use to offer fertility management recommendations to the farmer. Although great strides were made in fertilizer management, soil health was overlooked. The implementation of “precision farming” introduced substantial improvements in soil testing by better understanding that soils are not consistent in their chemical profiles across any given field and constant rates of fertilizer inputs affect various farm soils differently. This knowledge introduced the era of variable-rate fertilizer application and the increased need for more soil testing.
Soil health has a direct relationship to plant growth. When closely studied, we see that plants grow in a digestive system. This environment includes paths where the movement of nutrients is processed through biological interactions. These biological interactions move plant nutrients from generation to generation and season to season. Understanding the biological interaction between the plant and the soil is key to improving nutritional efficiencies and soil health.
The debate surrounding how one measures available nutrients within the soil system led to the development of various soil extracts used for identifying soil fertility restrictions and fertilizer response curves in support of better crop production. This process, however, relies almost entirely on inorganic chemistry, both in the extractions themselves and in what we measure for nutrients in the lab. Furthermore, the models were developed on relatively degraded and biologically dead soil systems. Recently, we have seen the introduction of soil tests with greater emphasis on the organic pools of plant nutrients like N and P along with other biological indicators beyond soil organic matter. One such test was developed by Dr. Rick Haney (formally USDA-ARS, Temple, TX), known as the Haney Test. The Haney Test employs a multifaceted approach to measure various aspects of a living soil system. First, the test uses organic chemistry designed to mimic natural soil solution to extract commonly measured nutrients such as N, P, K, etc. Second, the test includes a measure of soil respiration as an indicator of microbial biomass and potential activity as it relates to nutrient cycling. The third part of the test uses a water extract to measure the available pools of organic carbon (food) and nitrogen (protein) available to the microbes to drive their growth and function. Collectively, all three of these independent processes come together to help track advancements in soil health and provide a more holistic picture of soil fertility management.
While the Haney Test can shed light on aspects of nutrient availability and the potential for cycling with respect to carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, it does not provide much insight into nutrient mobility and uptake by the crop. The common misconception in agriculture is that when we apply nutrients as fertilizer or if we have access to nutrients already in the soil, that the plant roots simply take in a majority of what they need directly from their environment. However, the process of nutrient uptake is far more complex and there is an economic trading process taking place beneath our crops. Plants capture carbon as part of photosynthesis and provide much of this to the soil through root exudates to feed microbial communities. While there are many reasons for doing so, one of the primary reasons is to provide energy to the microbes in return for mobilization of plant essential nutrients from the system. Different microbes are responsible for the mobilization or potential tie-up of various nutrients, but these complex communities are difficult to measure in-depth.
Techniques such as phospholipid fatty acid analysis (PLFA) can give producers some insight into community structure by identifying bacteria, fungi, and protozoa as functional groups, but the test is limited to identifying individual species or smaller class groups of specific microbes. Therefore, we must rely on other techniques such as metagenomic sequencing to gain a greater level of detail into the microbial community. One such approach has been developed by Biome Makers with the introduction of the BeCrop Technology, the new standard for soil biology analysis. BeCrop is able to identify the presence or absence of various microbial groups responsible for vital nutrient uptake and mobility processes. Furthermore, the analysis can identify and assess potential disease risk, carbon cycling dynamics, fungal to bacterial ratios, and much more.
Regen Ag Lab and Biome Makers have been working together for the past 2 years to analyze the same soils using both the Haney and BeCrop soil testing methods. Preliminary results from several hundred samples indicate a very distinct relationship between a soil’s current health and fertility status measured on the Haney Test and the indication of open or closed nutrient pathways determined with BeCrop. More importantly, often seen in an inverse relationship with regard to inorganic nutrient availability, microbial mobilization, and transport to the crop. Based on this vital connection to build a deeper understanding of nutrient management under regeneratively managed farming systems, Regen Ag Lab and Biome Makers have recently come to a partnership under a new licensing agreement.
Under this new licensing agreement, Regen Ag Lab will begin performing the BeCrop soil testing at their Nebraska facility in 2022 under the guidance and expertise of the Biome Makers Team. Data from the BeCrop analysis will still be uploaded to the current sample portal developed by Biome Makers. In addition, in any sample where the Haney Test is also performed, these results will be made available directly to the producer as a stand-alone report, but they will also be integrated directly into the BeCrop Report provided by Biome Makers as part of the partnership. President of Regen Ag Labs, Lance Gunderson says, “ We are excited about the opportunity this agreement presents to producers striving to gain a better understanding of their soil health journey and refining their nutrient management strategies in the midst of drastically increasing costs of production.”
In the midst of the current agricultural paradigm shift, regenerative practices like cover cropping show a direct link to soil regeneration, and fertility providing producers with a glimpse into the complex, natural intelligence of nutrient cycling and uptake in these systems. Soil testing shows how the soil’s complex community of microbes can impact yield, product quality, and crop longevity. Functional soil analysis assessments empower growers to make informed, science-based decisions to refine fertilization protocols, improve productivity, monitor soil recovery and prevent pathogenic outbreaks. Now, farmers can measure soil bioactivity and turn low-yield fields into reliable producers through in-depth biological insights.
ARTICLE FROM THE SOIL HEALTH RESOURCE GUIDE: VERSION 8