Crop Residue Breakdown - Humic Acid as a Helping Hand

Posted by Marty Dilworth

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Aug 23, 2017 9:43:23 AM

Crop residue breakdown is a very important annual event in which left-over organic materials from the harvested plants are consumed by the natural processes of decomposition. It’s important because the living matter that gets broken down will release macro and micro nutrients back into the soil where you will be planting again next year. In addition to the chemical benefits, there are also physical benefits to ensuring there is a layer of organic material left on your fields to decompose. This layer also acts as a barrier that protects your soil from erosion in high winds or heavy rain/snow events.

The sun sets on freshly baled hay

The sun sets on another day of harvesting, can you spot the free nutrients? 

During the “off-season” it’s important to allow your soils to replenish themselves with that layer of residue for a number of reasons. As mentioned earlier, they do contain vital nutrients that your seedlings will be very happy to see in the spring. Along with nutrients, they also contain the building blocks of plant life: namely cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Within these materials is the ultimate Earth element, the building block of life as we know it, and that is carbon. Returning carbon to the ground is a critical step to ensure you have life-supporting and healthy soil.

Let’s take a closer look at what is actually doing the decomposition of the left-over plant material. Your soil will have a completely unique profile that consists of varying oxygen levels, soil pH, moisture levels, air/soil temperature, and most importantly the microbial populations within. In order for your crop residue to breakdown properly, there needs to be active biological and enzymatic processes occurring in and under your soil. The rate and amount of breakdown that occurs will completely depend on the aforementioned soil profile and environmental factors.

As you can see, some of your soil profile characteristics are completely out of your control. Air and soil temperatures will vary according to your geography. Unless you are irrigating the land, moisture levels in the soil are also at the mercy of Mother Nature. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, these are the things most growers have to contend with and simply hope for the best. However, there is an area of your soil profile that you do have some power and control over. I would argue that this portion is the most critical part as the actual “work” that gets done during crop residue breakdown is completed by this team of decomposing professionals. That is, the microbial populations.

Without microbes constantly seeking out and eating dead organic matter, the world as we know it simply would not function. These “underground livestock” as I like to call them are an absolutely critical part of the life-cycle every living and dead animal, vegetable, and mineral on the planet. It is estimated that one acre of land will contain approximately 18,000 pounds of organic matter. Another way to look at it is there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on Earth! That’s everything from microscopic bacteria and protozoa to tiny little nematodes.


There's a party going on underground and everybody is invited!

Adding humic acids to your existing crop inputs plan is a great way to get the most out of the soil you have now. You can’t replace it, but you certainly can improve it. Humic substances have been shown to increase microbial populations in soils, and if you can increase the number of underground livestock who spend their days chewing up and adding organic matter, you will see the benefits yourself above ground. There are many incredible benefits to using humates in farming, like improved root mass and growth, enhanced nutrient uptake, and higher crop yield & quality.

An application of humates after the fall harvest can kick-start your existing microbial populations and ensure you are getting as much out of the crop residue as you put in. Ensuring maximum breakdown over the course of the off season will provide your hungry soil with the nutrients, carbon, and organic matter it craves. After all, if you can glean some extra nitrogen from your crop residue in the fall, it means you will have to buy and apply less in the springtime. Continued applications of humates will lead to healthier soils that lead to healthier crops. Healthier crops require less inputs and they are more adept at fighting off disease naturally.

Continued research has proven the key benefits of adding humates to your input mix, and there is more supporting research coming out all the time. An inarguable fact about humates is that they are 100% natural, organic, and made by the Boss, Mother Nature herself. While there is truly a need for crop inputs from the lab as well, there’s no question that letting nature take its course is better than humankind trying to strong-arm Earth’s natural processes.

I’ll remind the readers that barely 100 years ago there were some very interesting "breakthroughs" in science that everybody thought was the absolute pinnacle of progress. From CFCs, to DDT, to filling our homes with asbestos, we eagerly jump onto the next “man-made miracle” product that promises to accelerate us forward. Looking back, it’s clear that our hubris was naïve at best, destructive at worst.

100 years from now, I believe people will look back on our time in much the same light. Even though we think we are at the apex of human evolution, there is still much to be learned through our collective successes and failures. One thing I am certain of is that utilizing natural processes that have worked for billions of years will never go out of style.

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Topics: humic acid, crop residue breakdown