Black Earth Blog
For the Love of Water: Mother Nature & Humates
Posted by Marty Dilworth
Jan 4, 2017 11:22:21 AM
Every living creature needs and loves water. No water equals no life, at least on this planet! In fact, humans are made of about 65% water, water covers about 71% of the Earth, and if you stopped drinking water, you will be 100% dead within days. Water is integral to our survival as a species, as well as all other carbon based life. You need water before you need food. You need water before you need shelter. The world needs water, and it seems to be disappearing before our eyes.
Take the above photo for consideration. Looks like soil that has been impacted by a severe and lasting drought. If water is the answer, then what's wrong with just dumping a bunch of water on the ground? Naturally or through irrigation, one would think simply returning water back is enough to change drought ravaged land into a lush, growing paradise. Alas, it's not so simple and it has more to do with the soil than with the lack of water.
What's in the Mix?
When discussing composition, it's important to mention that all soil comes from the same place, the Parent Material. The Big Three as it were: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks all play a part in making the soil we count on to grow our food. Whether it's a layer of pumice launched from a volcano on the other side of the country, or just a giant slab of sandstone that has been getting rained on for millions of years, rocks just love to get broken down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. These tiny pieces come together over the millennia to create a Soil Profile.
To understand how water impacts the soil, you need to first know what is in the soil. Now soil types will vary greatly from place to place, but there are some common components that all derive from the Big Three. Sand, silt, and clay in various ratios are the basic ingredients of most soils. Included in that mix are air/gasses, water, and of course our personal favorite, organic matter.
Depending on where your family laid down roots all those years ago, the type of soil you have is essentially what you're stuck with. You can't add more clay, mix it up evenly and lay it back down! In a garden situation, sure. However when we are talking thousands of acres, you have to work with what you got. Nevertheless, there is one very important soil ingredient you do have control over, and that component is critical to extending water retention capabilities.
Natural Water Storage Facility
Healthy soil can be the best, most cost effective water storage system available to you. Sure that 500 gallon tank you haul around to water the new trees is fine, but nothing will compare to what Mother Nature can store under the right conditions. The pores in soil (the spaces between particles) are what allows water to penetrate the ground via gravity, osmosis, and capillarity.
These tiny spaces are where that essential H2O will flow until the point of saturation. Once that point is reached and the soil can't hold any more water, then the excess liquid will leach downward further into the soil profile. If the water can't travel further downward into the soil, it will dissipate naturally through runoff, drainage, transpiration, or evaporation.
Sandier soils will reach the point of saturation far quicker than soils with more clay content. As mentioned earlier, it's rather difficult to pull up your entire farm's topsoil, add the right amount of clay, mix thoroughly and return it all back. Some places have too much clay and not enough sand as well which creates hard, nearly impenetrable soil. While the soil profile affects water retention more than anything else, the amount of organic matter in the soil is a very close second.
Organic matter, much like us, needs water to survive. Take a look at the sun-baked landscape above one more time. Does that look like a place that is teeming with life? Just like us, our microbial friends in the soil will eventually die off without life giving water. That being said, their thirst is actually beneficial to keeping water on your land instead of watching it runoff down the hill and into your neighbor's yard.
Just like us, the microbes in healthy soils absolutely love and need water. The organic matter in soils has a natural affinity towards water. A molecule of water has a much easier time hanging onto organic matter as opposed to hanging onto a rock. In addition to simply being easier to hang onto, organic matter will increase the microbial activity in the soil as well. More organic matter, more microbes, more water being held in place.
Increased microbial activity leads to more pores, more aeration, more channels for water to get into, and simply gets soil back to the way it was. By the way it was, I mean pre-tilled, pre-chemical, pre-compacted, pre-human essentially. All the bugs, worms, microbes, and fungus living together in perfect harmony!
It's important to remember that traditional chemical fertilizers are great at feeding plants, but sometimes they can harm the microbial populations at the same time. Not to say there is no place for chemical fertilizers, but if you can help the soil while you help the plants, it's a win-win. If you have been paying attention to our blogs, you know that negatively affecting the mighty microbe is an absolute no-go if you want to have healthy, happy soils.
Real World Applications
Adding humates to your soil could help with soil structure problems caused by current agricultural practices. Some recommend no-till or cover crops to keep soils in tip-top shape naturally. However, that is not always possible and some larger scale operations like orchards and groves simply can't be dug up and replanted every couple years! That being said, here is how adding organic matter through the use of humates might address some of the soil woes faced by growers.
Soils with a high sand content
Because humic material can help soil retain more water and stay more optimally packed, preliminary studies show that it might be the perfect additive when sandy growing conditions are present. As mentioned above, the water molecules will have an easier time sticking around if there is organic matter to hang on to. Have you ever tried to cling to a crystalline silica molecule? Forget it!
Soils with a high clay content
Likewise, pieces of land with undesirably high clay content can often be improved through the use of humic material. Humates increase organic matter. Organic matter increases microbial activity. Microbial activity leads to more pores in the soil profile. More pores leads to higher water retaining capabilities.
Soils with a depleted level of organic matter
When soil has become over-farmed or improperly replenished, humic material can help plants pull nutrients from fertilizer additives, as well as the natural organic matter already present within the soil. Simpler than cover crops, cleaner than bio-char, humates may help to wake up your tired and overworked soil.
It's important to note that not only can humic acids possibly help make these types of soils more viable, but also has the potential to reduce toxicity and salinization at the same time. In fact, numerous studies have shown that humic acid and related chemicals found in humic material can help reverse certain types of environmental damage, and increase yields on previously disturbed or contaminated lands.
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