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Promoting the Importance of Soil Microbes

In sustaining/improving soil health, there is no doubt that soil microbes and their byproducts play an important and major role in breaking down crop residues, recycling nutrients, and improving soil structure. In fact, much of the current interest in soil health revolves around enhancement of the soil microbial population. However, there needs to be a concerted effort to inform producers about the importance of soil microbes and how they contribute to enhanced crop production by improving soil health.

In an article titled “Soil Microbes for Agriculture: Enhancing Resources for Farmer Outreach” by Cloutier et al. (CSA News, Dec. 2022), the case is made that farmers need practical information about the functions of soil microbes and how they impact crop production. Pertinent points from the article follow.

•    An increasing number of producers are recognizing the importance of soil microbes, but they need practical and specific information about just what needs to be done or changed to enhance microbe functions. This places a burden on agricultural service providers to explain just how a change in management will affect soil microbes.

•    Service providers must have access to valid and meaningful resources so they can inform farmers about needed changes in their production system or systems to enhance soil microbial activity.

•    The authors report results from a survey-based study that was conducted to identify common challenges faced by service providers when they are meeting with farmers about the importance of soil microbes and the advantages of a robust soil microbial population. An online questionnaire was developed that consisted of 10 questions (see article) to be answered by professionals who provide farmer-based educational programs that are based on soil health management. There were 91 respondents to the questionnaire, and nearly half of the respondents communicated with farmers or service providers about soil microbes several times a year.

•    The three main topics that respondents communicated with farmers or service providers about were nutrient cycling, farm management impacts on soil microbes, and microbial diversity/function.

•    Nutrient cycling, especially N and P, was identified by 43% of the respondents as the most important function that producers and service providers should have knowledge of in relation to soil microbial activity. Carbon cycling/building organic matter and alleviation of plant stress were rated as next most important.

•    More than half (57%) of the respondents indicated that conveying information about soil microbes to farmers and service providers was hampered by a lack of information relating site management practices to soil microbes, while 54% indicated that use of scientific jargon made communications difficult. Other major items that respondents indicated were hindering effective communication about soil microbes to audiences were the uncertainty of just what information should be passed on, how to explain the effect of soil and microbial variability, and how site management practices affect the soil microbiome.

•    The top three resources that respondents had used and found helpful for communicating information about the importance of soil microbes were in-person events, images-photos-infographics, and extension articles and factsheets.

•    The top three resources that respondents requested more of were images-photos-infographics, videos, and extension articles and factsheets.

•    The authors concluded that the two most common threads from the survey responses were 1) a lack of understanding of how management practices impact soil microbes, and 2) the need for effective resources that can be used to educate non-scientific audiences about soil microbes and their importance in crop production and soil health.

•    The authors promote an open-source database about soil microbes and their importance that is accessible to any and all purveyors of information about this subject to the agricultural and non-academic communities.

The results from this survey support consideration of the following points. 1) Future research on management practices that may impact crop production should include a component that measures the effect of those management practices on the soil microbial population. 2) A group of researchers and extension personnel should seek funding that will be used to establish a database of current and forthcoming information about the soil microbial population. This should be done as soon as possible since there is an increasing number of research projects that provide new information about this subject. 3) Extension personnel that deal with crop production should include in their planned activities the composition of factsheets and video materials that provide information about the soil microbial population and its importance to crop production. 4) Students in a crop production discipline should be directed to take a course or courses in microbiology so they will have base information about the various species of microbes that are important to soil health. 5) Crop scientists and specialists should become aware of which microbes are important contributors to the important aspects of soil health so those can be promoted/protected when a change in cropping systems is considered. 6) Developers of soil-applied agricultural chemicals and additives should determine the effect of any new such materials on the soil microbial population, and include this information in the product label.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, Jan. 2023,