Soil health science challenges ancient agriculture concepts
It's a tall order to clear any misconception—particularly one that's 7,000 years old.
Yet that is precisely what Jon Stika and researchers at the North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Extension Center have been doing for many years now as they make new discoveries and introduce new paradigms to the world of soil health.
"I started talking about soil health in 1992 and that's when this awareness sort of really started," Stika said. "We could classify soils by type, by their characteristics, and we can measure all the chemical properties ... but no one was really asking 'how well is this soil functioning?"
The answer to that question requires a fundamental shift in how soil is seen. It's taken years of research and a lot of evidence to demonstrate to skeptics that soil is not merely dirt, but a living organism—a system of living organisms—unto itself.
"It's been (seen as) this give-and-take, (that) the soil is a bucket you put things into and take things out of," Stika said. "Now we're realizing that no, soil is a biological system. It can provide everything these plants can need."
Soil is an "agri-biome" which refers to an interdependent environment of organisms serving a greater whole. An example Stika gave is the "human biome" which is the description given to all of the microbial organisms that live within and upon human beings. Close to half the living cells in a human body, by number, Stika said, aren't actually human.
Another example he gave is how bovines need the microbes within their rumen in order to properly digest grass.
"They're realizing that there's a number of human diseases that they're looking at right now that may be very closely linked to what sort of organisms are living in your digestive tract. So the cure for some of these diseases may be ... you don't have the right biology living in your digestive system," Stika said. "We're looking at the same thing with the soil."
For about 7,000 years human beings have been tilling the soil, inadvertently destroying the very resource they sought to utilize, Stika said. The soil's complex biological relationships are damaged by practices like tilling. Likening it to a human house, Stika said that tilling the earth destroys that house, and leaves a cold and weakened soil system in its place.
"(Soil health practices are) basically restoring everything that was there before we messed with it. This is all the biology that's supposed to be there, that's supposed to be working with these plants," Stika said. "If you can restore it all and it can all function the way it was supposed to function...what's the limit? So far, it's been impressive."
An example of soil health practices being successfully applied can be found in ten acres of certified organic soil that the center has been using to grow crops and test a few different soil health inputs. One of those has been inseminating the soil with mycorrhizal fungi, a type of fungus that attaches to a plant's roots, feeding off the plant's nutrients while providing access to nutrients in return.
"They go out into the soil, they can go into smaller spaces in the soil than the plant root can. They can get water, phosphorus, whatever and they give it back to the plant and the plant can give them food," Stika said. "This year we saw it with our drought ... we still had average yields on everything that was grown there. (Mycorrhizal fungi) is just one organism that works with these plants to acquire what they need."
Soil health demonstration projects have produced some very dramatic results—an eight year study of soil health on plots located just south of Manning saw a dramatic increase in water infiltration after that time, meaning the soil absorbed more of the rainwater it received.
NDSU is so confident in the practical applications of soil health that it boasts a fifty-pound nitrogen credit for producers who practice no-till for five year spans.
"So far, NDSU has been able to say ... if you don't till your soil for at least five years, you can give yourself a fifty pound credit, so when you get a soil test back and it says you need 100 pounds of nitrogen, you only need fifty," Stika said. "NDSU as a whole has a vision of looking at this agri-biome more, so there's going to be more of that coming."
Stika said that the average western North Dakota farm runs about 1,500 to 2,000 acres in size, and fifty pounds per acre of nitrogen comes to about $20, which results in a not insignificant amount of savings, and that's just over five years.
Stika anecdotally revealed that he's been practicing no-till in his personal garden for 15 years now. Recently he sought to plant some sweet corn, and after he sent his soil off to get tested, the results came back and told him he didn't need to add any additional fertilizer.
"How can we grow crops and livestock profitably and restore soil health all at the same time? It's very doable," Stika said. "In some ways, as you restore soil health and the soil becomes more efficient at what it can do, you become more profitable."