There are more questions being asked by growers these days about processes that can be utilized to get more out of their soil and biomass after harvest is complete. Ben Elliott, vice-president of agronomy operations at Brookside Agra, says using biologicals along with components that support their growth will break down biomass quickly and effectively, releasing stored nutrients back into the soil for spring planting.
"In what I call 'digester-type programs,' we are showing improved break down of biomass when using a biological. If using a biological alone, however, the process can still be slow and of little effect," says Elliott. "Remember that biologicals function according to environmental factors like temperature and moisture. If you apply a biological alone, it may only have species that respond to those environmental factors present when they are applied."
The key to a successful digester program is getting as many biologicals in the sprayer as possible and giving them the food they need to multiply rapidly, notes Elliott.
"There are products on the market today that are designed to contain all of the needed components for this type of operation, but be very careful when making a selection," he says. "I have witnessed many cases where the guaranteed analysis was not accurate or the biological component had died and was not available at all. Always use a trusted source for these types of products. If you are unsure, contact an agronomist to help you make a decision."
When using a system that contains a biological combined with the components that support them, you should see a fairly quick response, he adds.
"A unique chemistry that I fully support from my research and use in the fields is Brookside Agra’s all-natural H2OExcel. It is comprised of five primary modes of action to do this all naturally 1) water management 2) capillarity pressure change 3) biological growth and activity 4) saponins, and 5) humates for soil conditioning," says Elliott. "The goal here is to break down the biomass to make it easier to handle the following spring and to return as much of the stored nutrients to the soil in the forms that are stable and can be utilized for the next crop. This is an operation that will also support cover crops."
When utilizing a digester program, Elliott says the first sign you should see is a color change that indicates the biologicals are reproducing and beginning to find their way into the biomass. In crops like corn, you will notice this color change and as rain begins to fall, the stalks will become more brittle.
Elliott recommends not to conduct any tillage operations in the fall in order to maintain the integrity of the biological ecosystems being constructed during this process.
"I always recommend that standing biomass should always be put in contact with the ground before applying a digester program, but if that is not practical for your operation, it is not absolutely necessary," he explains. "Using a digester program also allows the biologicals both already present, and added to the field, to maintain the integrity of the soil structure and improve the ease of water infiltration, which H2OExcel does effectively."
Field Research Overview. "In the fields that I monitor, if we just let the biomass lay, there is only about 2% of the measured nutrients that can be returned to the soil," Elliott reports. "In the studies I have conducted over the last 10 years, this number rarely changes. Where Nitrogen is added, that number only goes up to about 6%. The value of the nutrients released compared to the cost of the Nitrogen and the labor generally does not pay anything back. When adding biologicals, I see those numbers climb into the 20%+ ranges. Of course, it is always dependent on the climate and soil conditions. However, I always see this system pay growers back. As you approach the 20-30% range, there is enough value in the nutrient released from the biomass that allows for incremental reductions in applied nutrients. Also, in my home area of Southern Illinois, I struggled for years on how to get at least some of the Potash we have to apply to stick around or to recover some that has moved deeper into the soil profile. With proper digesters and in-season nutrient management, I am beginning to see the Potassium numbers increase in usable form. Almost all of my growers are slowly reducing applied fertility and creating budget space to accommodate the biological products it takes to begin this system and be successful. Supply companies are beginning to see that there is also market space growth in the value-added products that most didn’t know what to do with just a few years ago. Everything said, using biologicals becomes a win-win for everyone, especially the growers."
Practices like a digestion program post-harvest and using products like H2OExcel is a great way to actively start adapting soil health methods and work toward a better understanding of your soil, inputs and yields.
Proper soil nutrient management ultimately begins in the spring, he said, when selecting nutrients according to the 4-R’s of nutrition – applying the right fertilizer source at the right rate at the right time and in the right place.
"Maintaining proper balance of nutrients throughout the growing cycle will always lead to greater efficiency when breaking down biomass and securing nutrients in proper form in the soil," Elliott says. "This practice will also lead to higher numbers of active soil organic matter, resulting in more efficient use and retention of water in the soil profile, which is absolutely necessary to create a positive return of nutrients from biomass."