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Humus Flywheel Effect


by Hugh Lovel | Dec 22, 2016 | 0 comments

The Humus Flywheel


by Hugh Lovel
There is a common belief that humus is the result of the
breakdown of organic materials in the soil. While this is
true it is less than true because the organic materials do
need to break down into simple organic compoundsand
from there they need to be built back up again into large,
complex carbon molecules by soil organisms whose role
is to store nutrients for rainy days. These organisms,
primarily actinomycetes and mycorrhizae, work in tandem
with plants, storing humic acids in an easy to access form.
Humic acids are too large for most organisms, such as
bacteria, to absorb. Yet they are accessible to the
actinomycetes and mycorrhizae and thus are insoluble
but available nutrients. And thats how we want nutrients
in the soilinsoluble so they are not easily lost when it
rains, but available.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload::]]The NPK theory that all soil nutrients must be soluble all at
once is rather like feeding a pig six months worth of slop in one mealinitially it is too
much. Try though the pig will, he cant handle it all. As time goes on the banquet sours
and the pig is left lacking a balanced diet while ies, yeasts, moulds and various pests
move in. This is modern agriculture, and its not a pretty pictureyou wouldnt feed your
kids that way. Surely, plants are more resilient than pigs, but as living organisms they
arent that dierent.

Basically we do not want most of our nutrients to be soluble. Rather, we want them to
be insoluble but available. A plant can only consume a small amount of its needs every
day. Having more soluble than the daily optimum in the near vicinity of uptake roots
invites unwonted guests to the table, and this creates unnecessary problems for crops.
Nature, left to her own devices, provides insoluble but microbially available nutrients in
the humus ywheel. Crop-symbiotic micro-organisms mop up loose nutrients and store
them in the humus reserve in large, carbon complexes. Acting like bees storing honey,
they maintain this nutrient reserve. Photosynthesis and root exudation feed the
microbes that stock this storehouse when conditions are good, and when conditions are
poor these microbial plant partnersalong with protozoadraw energy and
nourishment from the humus reserves to feed the crop.

The Humus Flywheel

This reveals humus as the soils ywheel to keep plant growth going by feeding the
digestive activity around plant roots. Humus sustains this microbial activity by providing
uptake of a steady stream of quality amino acids and mineral complexeslike mothers
milkthat makes it easy for crops to assemble their proteins and grow,
photosynthesize, and make nectars that are shared with the soil as root exudateslike
honey. These root exudates provide energy for soil microbes that unlock minerals, x
nitrogen and feed the soils digestive activitywhich in turn provides a milky, mineral
amino acid rich feed for growth. Observation of this millennia old interplay in nature is
honoured in Mosaic Scripture and elsewhere as a land owing in milk and honey.
Humus is the ywheel whose momentum fosters and sustains the milk and honey ow
through thick and thinthe better the storage of insoluble but available nutrients, then
the more momentum the system has.

Soluble Problems

Soluble nutrients, such as the salts of


nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, must be extremely dilute or they interfere with
the sensitive micro-life of the humus ywheel. Like urine, these salts are the wastes of
microbes that x nitrogen, solubilize phosphorous and release potassium. In the soil
these salts shut down the microbes that otherwise might make them available when
they are awash in their own waste. If these salts are applied at rates sucient for a
couple months supply, they kill o soil microbes and release nutrientswhich results in
a ush of crop growth; but it also leads to leaching of key minerals such as sulphur,
boron, silicon, calcium, copper, zinc and manganese. Chlorides tend to sterilize the soil,
while phosphates and sulphates, though useful to soil microbes, can still cause harm in
excess. Nitrates are especially notable for causing a ush of available nutrients and a
lush response that looks good, but its like the long haul trucker using speed, keeping
double log books and driving 5 day runs in 48 hours. The result is problematic, and
there is a price.

Humic vs Fulvic

Both humic and fulvic acids are so complex and varied they are only distinguished by
the size of their molecules. Fulvic acids are of low enough molecular weight they can
pass through bacterial cell walls as bacterial food. Humic acid molecules are larger and
can only be consumed by microbes that can ingest them, like protozoa, or by silica
oriented microbes like fungi and actinomycetes (aka actinobacteria) that can take the
carbon skeleton apart. Since fungi and actinomycetes often live in close partnership with
plant roots, especially our food crop roots, they provide access to the humic complexes
in the soil, stripping out the silicon and carbon frameworks of the clay/humus colloids,
thereby releasing all the other nutrients held on these structures. However, like bees
drinking nectar and concentrating it into honey, these microbes also can mop up root
exudates and loose nutrients in the soil solution and combine them for storage in
clay/humus complexes so bacteria and leaching do not let them go to waste.

Many bacteria and protozoa are consumers that thrive in a nutrient rich broth and break
things down. When soluble nutrient levels are high in the soil, the bacteria that x
nitrogen, solubilize phosphorous and release potassium cant function because they are
awash in their own waste. This is why tilling in a green manure crop requires a waiting
period of 3 or 4 weeks, over which rampant bacterial breakdown subsides, before
humus formation resumes and the excesses are stored in insoluble but available
complexes. Only then can crops be planted and a stable plant/microbe partnership
established.

Justus von Liebig, the great 19th century chemist who introduced chemical agriculture,
acknowledged toward the end of his life his mistake in assuming productive soils
required the nutrients to be soluble. By then, however, the chemical industries had seen
great prospects for sales. Liebig, in his retirement, was ignored, and today the error of
thinking solubility is good still continues.

Consider that most crop seeds contain a food supply so they can give o nourishment
for benecial microbesthereby attracting and multiplying their microbial partners as
their roots emerge. On the other hand, most weeds have tiny seeds which rely on
soluble nutrients rather than microbial partnerships. They soak up loose nutrients by
design, sprouting and growing vigorously when cover crops or raw manures are tilled in.
They do not rely on the humus ywheel or feed its microbes. If crops are planted
immediately after mixing in fresh vegetation or manures they do not grow well. It
doesnt take much experience to see the dierence between application of raw manures
and the application of humied compostthe former feeds weeds and the latter feeds
crops.

Likewise if we apply large doses of highly soluble fertilisersanhydrous ammonia,


superphosphate and muriate of potashour crops then have to compete with weeds
that love soluble salts like potassium nitrates. It is only when we apply humied
compost that we feed the crop/microbe interactions that feed our crops with a mix of
amino acids and minerals akin to milk.

Soil Testing

Most soil tests use mild acids that do not reveal what is stored in the humus ywheel.
The concept behind these tests is that several months worth of nutrients, especially the
nitrogen, must be present in soluble form. But in reality, feeding a plant is more like
feeding your kids. Plants only need a little bit of soluble food on a steady basis, rather
than having it all on the table at once. To reveal what could be available from the humus
reserve on a daily basis requires a testing method more like what is used for tissue
analysisa total acid digest.

Many organic growers take it on faith that if they build organic matter they will have
good crops and their problems will go away. However, this is rarely the case. The
clay/humus complexes in the soil are like a storehouse, and unless this storehouse has
everything it needs, growth is limited to whatever is in short supply.

Since sulphur is the bio-catalyst that acts as the key in the ignition, when it is decient
both soil and plant life suer. When boronwhich leaches unless held in clay/humus
complexesis decient, nutrient uptake lags because borons interaction with silicon is
what draws uids through the plants capillary system. And silicon, which lines the
capillaries themselves, must also be sucient, along with boron, to transport calcium
and other nutrients. And, if calciumwhich is essential for nitrogen chemistry and cell
divisionis decient, then growth suers. Moreover, if too much soluble potassium gets
in the way of calcium and magnesium uptake, photosynthesis suers. And even if
everything else is working, without sucient phosphorous and its trace element co-
factors, chlorophyll burns up because its energy cant be transferred into making sugar.
So all these things need to be stored in the right proportions, which means we need to
get the mix of major and minor nutrients right in the humus ywheel.
Understanding the Mix

In some of the worlds premier soils, such as the Ukraine, Western Missouri or Australias
Liverpool Plains, natures virgin conditions provided black, crumbly clays with cation
exchange capacities of nearly 80, and the rst couple plantings of wheat and other
cereals produced crops beyond anyones previous experience without any fertilisers.
However, with insucient understanding and poor management these soils went
straight downhill and their enormous momentum was lost. Nevertheless,
measurements of the carbon to nitrogen ratios in unexploited remnants still in their
virgin state are between 9 and 10 to 1, carbon to nitrogen. Interestingly, it takes roughly
10 units of sugary carbon to x one unit of amino acid nitrogen, so this does not seem
mere coincidence. Even making industrial ammonia takes ten units of methane to make
one unit of ammonia.

Comparing hundreds of total acid digest tests to eld responses also revealed that a six-
to-one nitrogen to sulphur ratio is desirable. When these two ratios are achieved and
major and minor nutrient targets are approached so that microbial partnerships interact
eciently with the humus ywheel, then the only limit to nitrogen xation is the energy
provided by root exudation.

Since grasses make more sugars and can get them to their roots a lot faster than
legumes, they can feed several times more nitrogen xation than legumes. However,
because legumes unlock minerals better with their acidic root exudates, they can feed
nitrogen xation in nodules on their roots and kick o nitrogen xation in an otherwise
mineral decient soil. Because legumes unlock far more minerals than they use in
nitrogen xation, and because they leave these minerals behind for plants that follow,
they have a reputation for getting nitrogen xation going under tough conditions.
Besides, it is easy to measure their nodules and estimate how much nitrogen was xed,
though it may be a mistake to credit their follow-on eects solely to the nitrogen xed in
their nodules. After legumes have made sucient minerals available, grasses can easily
supply the energy needed for further xation.

Soil test information is useful in blending the right amounts of major and minor
nutrients into composts or fossil humate fertilisers to ensure that both grasses and
legumes have what they need. Composts and raw humates can be combined in humus
based fertiliser programs, and as such they are food for life and are appropriate for
growing quality crops.

Manure composts are richer in minerals and nitrogen than fossil humates, but either or
both are an excellent way to add decient nutrients in a humate complexed form. Even
at only a quarter ton per acre composts and mined humates fortied with decient
nutrients can deliver signicant adjustments, although imbalances and deciencies
usually require many small corrections. Fossil humates, which are more notable for
nitrogen and sulphur deciencies, generally need ammonium sulphate added along
with whatever else is needed as rock phosphate, gypsum, borax, copper, zinc,
manganese and sea minerals.

The total test ratios of carbon to nitrogen and sulphur can be used for nitrogen and
sulphur targets while calcium, magnesium and potassium targets are derived from their
percentage of base saturation. Other targets vary depending on the test used, and
achieving these targets is likely to require many partial adjustments. Exact formulas for
restoring optimum balance in soils is the job of a professional consultant, but in general
never add more than 10 kg/ha borax, 15 kg/ha copper sulphate, 25 kg/ha zinc or
manganese sulphate or 1 kg/ha sodium molybdate, cobalt sulphate of sodium selenate.
[1] In sum, blending these mineral supplements in with humied compost and/or raw
humates before spreading turns an expense into a capital investment.

Some References:

http://www.stadiumturf.com/acidity_and_salt_index.htm

http://www.soils.wisc.edu/extension/wcmc/2008/ppt/Laboski1.pdf

http://www.uctm.edu/journal/j2008-2/8_Kamburova_227.pdf

http://www.fertitech.com/

http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/html/sr/sr1061-e/2tables.pdf

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