Ag Instructor Vic Martin: Microbes, the Soil, and Agriculture

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Great Bend Tribune
Published May 9, 2021

As of May 4 the Drought Monitor report is indicating the effects of the warm windy weather. Even though we received rain Monday, it didn’t stop abnormally dry conditions from creeping closer to Barton County as almost all of Stafford County is now rated as abnormally dry. Most of the southern third of the state is abnormally dry. Moderate drought is still confined to a two-county tier next to the Colorado border. The six to 10-day outlook (May 12 to 16) indicates normal temperatures to the west and below normal temperatures for the eastern half of the state, and below-normal precipitation. The eight to 14-day outlook (May 14 to 20) both above normal temperatures and precipitation for most of Kansas. This should aid wheat development and help the 2021 corn and soybean crops emerge.

In agriculture, we spend most of our time examining what’s on or above the soil surface. When we think about microorganisms and fungi, we associate them negatively with diseases and problems. While diseases can be a problem, the reality is that these diverse organisms play essential roles in crop production. Today, let’s briefly examine the importance and positive impact they play on the soil.

  • The classic example of beneficial microorganisms is the genus of Rhizobium bacteria that infect legume roots. Legumes include soybeans, alfalfa, clovers, vetches, peas, lentils, peanuts, beans, honey locusts, and many other native plants. Each plant species has a specific Rhizobium species that infects. Simply put, both the plant and the bacteria benefit. The plant provides the bacteria a place to live, it infects the roots and nourishment. In return, the bacteria take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a plant available. This means all or almost all of the legume's nitrogen needs are provided by the bacteria. An added bonus is the residues of the legume provide nitrogen for succeeding crops. Some legumes are also used as nitrogen adding cover crops and green manures.
  • Many plant species are infected by what is termed a mycorrhizal association. Here fungi infect the plant roots and are essentially creating a shadow root system. For trees and shrubs in temperate and semi-arid regions, the fungi don’t penetrate into the root cortex (center of the root). Some penetrate the cortex and are extremely important in helping the plant take up nutrients in soils with poor fertility. In either case, this symbiotic relationship aids the plant in water and nutrient uptake. In fact, some plant species can’t survive without them.
  • Finally, for today, fungi, bacteria, and even some insects are critical in the breakdown of dead plant and animal tissue along with the breakdown of animal wastes. The end of this process produces stable organic matter which increases the soil's water and nutrient holding capacity. And as they break down these organic materials, they will release back to the soil nutrients such as nitrogen, sulfur, potassium, phosphorus, etc. for use by plants.