'What Makes Soil 'Tick'

Recent years the breakdown of the structure of the surface layers of soil under continuous cultivation in the paralleling decline in their productivity has been a matter of increasing concern. This decline in production from soils which require constant increasing expenditures for tillage and water represents even greater economic problems for the farmer and the nation. Increased usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, has not alleviated deteriorating soil structures, loss of organic matter, and the wastage of water and fertilizers.

 In most cases the chemicals used have aggravated the situation. A productive soil is characterized not by the mere presence of large quantities of plant nutrients, but by the rapidity with which the soil microbes make nutrients available to the higher plants. The processes that take place within the soil are, for the most part, dependent first upon the activities of living organisms and hence, the existence of higher plants depends upon the activities of the soil microbes.

 Dr. S.A. Waksman stated in 1952, “The humus content, plus active microorganisms, is equivalent to a high degree of fertility.” Another noted microbiologist, Dr Stanley E. Wedberg, University of Connecticut, went further in stating, “The fertility of the soil is in direct proportion to the number and activity of soil microorganisms.” As you can see there is correlation or an association to high humus content and high microbial activity in the soil; but where does the humus come from?

 Organic matter is the source of energy and food supply for the soil organisms and microorganisms.As organic matter returned to the soil is digested by the microbes the resulting cellular material is mixed with the living and the dead bodies of bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes and other microscopic forms of life, together with certain excretory materials produced during their life cycles to form a dynamic, ever-changing, organic material called Humus.

 Humus is the major storehouse of plant nutrients in the soil. It is literally the “FAT OF THE LAND” Soil microorganisms are involved in many beneficial activities in the soil. These are decomposition of crop residues, mineralization of soil organic matter, synthesis of soil organic matter, nitrification, fixation of nitrogen, immobilization of mineral nutrients and formation of organic substances which may be both stimulative and toxic to plant growth, depending upon the concentration. Organic substances formed by microorganisms may influence soil structure stabilization, binding particles of soil together to permit better water penetration and reduce erosion.

 Many cropping and tillage practices farmers use are effective in crop production because of their influence on microbial activity. For example, when the soil is tilled, aeration is favorable for the growth of the nitrogen, sulfur and iron-oxidizing organisms. When the soil lacks oxygen, it is unfavorable as an environment for plants and organisms. Every practice or management system influences microbial activity which in turn influences the decomposition of plant residues, the availability of nutrients and the soil structure. These all influence crop growth, and the growth of crops determines the soil cover and the ultimate organic matter.

 This influences the balance between the various types of microorganisms whose actions play a major role in the carbon, nitrogen and mineral cycles and thus governs to a great extent the fertility of the soil. Each spoonful of mellow soil contains billions of living microscopic organisms. Multiply this by the number of spoonfuls of soil in an acre and it would weight as much as an average sized cow.

 This mass of microorganisms constitutes a crop of three to five tons per acre foot of soil that the farmer sustains beneath the soil surface, in addition to the crop that he grows above the ground. If the crop of microorganisms beneath the surface does not have adequate food, the crop above ground may suffer from competition for mineral nutrients and be more susceptible to disease."Microorganisms eat at the first table". They are in contact with almost every particle of soil. Plant roots are not. Without micro-organic life, soil, the dynamic perpetual system that sustains terrestrial life, would become an inert mass incapable of providing food. Microorganisms decompose organic material and release elements and organic food for repeated use.” States Dr. T.M. McCalla, research biologist, University of Nebraska Microorganisms need three things….air, water and an energy source starting with organic matter.

 John Box, Extension Agronomist, Texas A. M., has written,"Mike" the microbe is your best friend and may be the most important livestock you produce. Microbes lay in the surface layers of the soil in fantastic numbers. Since we cannot see them, we often neglect them. Mike and his cousins can perform chemical miracles that man has not yet learned to duplicate. Treat him well and give him the raw materials at the needed time with which to work with, and he will keep your soils in top production".

 In addition to a timed food supply, soil compaction needs to be prevented. Compaction reduces air supply, limiting the microbes to perform. Compaction has adverse affect on root development and the soils ability to absorb and hold water.

 Without active soil microorganisms man would long ago been covered up by his own waste. We literally would have to find a way of putting our refuse on the moon or elsewhere. But, thanks to Mike and his cousins, these waste materials are recycled and made into compounds than can be reused over and over.

 How alive is your soil?

A good microscope could show you, you could use a visible friend to tell you….the earthworm. Earthworms are one of the best indicators of a well balanced soil. If you don’t have them in great numbers, than you can be reasonably sure that all is not well in your soil as it should be. On the other hand if they are very numerous you can know that in most years your soil will be most productive.Jack Denton Scott, writing in the August-September 1968, National Wildlife says about the earthworm, "As a soil chemist he has few equals". The earthworm churns the earth into rich topsoil by blending in vegetable matter from the surface into the ground below, and by bringing mineral-rich subsoil up where plants can use them. What he eats emerges in little clumps of dirt called castings.

 Passing through the worms digestive tract, both alkali’s and acids become more neutralized. Earth minerals and chemicals are broken down, enriching the soil with particle nutrients that plants and seedlings can more easily assimilate. Experimenters comparing the top six-inch layer of the soil with the castings contained in a form that plants can use …found….

 There are five times as much nitrate, twice as much calcium, two and a half times as much magnesium, seven times as much phosphorous and 11 times more potassium. Subsequently, scientists found that the soils content of actinomycetesorganisms that play a significant role in decomposing all organic matter into Humus multiply 7 times as it passes through the earthworm.

 Our amazing friend is as energetic as he is talented. Each mature earthworm casts up about a half a pound of Humus a year. Since a population of 50,000 earthworms in an acre of normal ground is common, (7 million have been found).You can figure conservatively that earthworms are producing 12.5 tons of topsoil a year in each acre of good garden-type soil.

 Certainly, the time is here for a deeper look into our soil and the problems that limit their production. Hardpans…compacted soils….low water holding capacity…. Too much toxic salts….. poor water penetration or just low productivity from tied up plant food.


We have available the species of microbes needed in the soils along with components to neutralize high salts and natural plant growth regulators to increase flowering, fruit set, respiration and Co2 fixation to speed energy and natural plant health capabilities without deteriorating soil structures.

We have the most up to date technical capabilities of structuring the most important nutrient aside from oxygen , the water, used as the carrier to promote all biological functions in the soils and the plants.

 Gordy Jordahl