Carbon Sequestration

Increasing your soil microbes increases carbon sequestration. Carbon is stored in the soil as “humic materials” i.e. C,N,P,K etc.; rich organic matter which is the soil organic carbon or sequestered carbon in the soil. ­­­­­

The formation of humus, the final stable carbon, is a stepwise process. All organic carbon in soil comes from plants, either directly or via digested plant material. It starts with plant material being digested by soil microbes, or in the case of brown manure, being predigested by animals and further digested by microbes. The breakdown process begins with soil fungi and bacteria. As these microbes are fed carbon, they multiply. If fresh carbon stores are not utilized, they become attached to soil particles and become stored, therefore, less available as food sources. As microbes die, if they are not immediately cannibalized, their remains also become part of the more recalcitrant humic material.

Slowly, this humic material, which is as much as 80% the bodies of dead microbes, builds up. We measure it as soil organic carbon (SOC) and it reflects the carbon sequestered in the soil, but it also contains all the minerals and other plant nutrients. To increase SOC, the fresh organic matter required to feed the microbes and in turn the plant via the microbes, there needs to be an excess of the minimum required for a low microbial population. If there is an excess, the microbial population increases, and their dead bodies will increase the humic matter, in return increasing carbon sequestration. If it is not adequate, the soil microbes will be stimulated by the plant to mine the stored organic matter, which will decrease the stored carbon. It is not surprising that scientists have compared the plant/microbe/soil fertility index to economic models. A rich soil, like a rich man, has money in his pocket and money in the bank, for soil the currency is carbon.

This system is very much like our agricultural complex. There is fresh food, which we utilize within days, food we freeze or can, which requires freezers and can openers to access, and food stores (our sequestered carbon) that we maintain in silos as protection against disaster.

What is a good level of soil microbial biomass?

Understanding Soil Organic Matter and its impact on soil health and microbial biomass.

We are often asked what is a good level of microbial biomass (MB). There is no one answer. The level of MB you can reach is dependent on soil organic matter (SOM.) Soil organic carbon (SOC) is a large part of soil organic matter but SOM is a mixture of Carbon (C), Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Sulfur (S) and all the other minerals that microbes and plants need.

There are 2 types of SOM: Stable SOM, often referred to as humic matter; and Fresh SOM. Fresh SOM is composed of SOM material recently released from Stable SOM and any fertilizers, amendments or litter. You can compensate for low stable SOM by providing lots of fresh SOM. The key to the efficacy of fresh SOM is that it needs to be nutrient balanced*, i.e. it needs the correct balance of C,N,P, and S. That is where understanding soil chemistry and using the right additives comes in.

Think of SOM as your credit reserve. In spring, the plant starts to grow and puts out exudates that stimulate the microbes to multiply. But these multiplying microbes need more than the sugars that the plant supplies, they need the N, P, S and micro nutrients that are in SOM.

Agronomists often cultivate soil for intensive organic agriculture and those soils contain lots of fresh organic matter. The microbial biomass of these mixtures can read as high as 2000 ug MBC/gram of dry soil. As the microbes and plants in this rich soil die, they become fresh SOM. The amount of stable SOM that soil can store depends to a large degree on the type of soil because storage requires mineral surfaces for attachment and aggregates for protection. If your soil is inherently poor at storing SOM, you will need to rely on fresh SOM to feed your microbes and plants.

We highly recommend that you read the review referenced below to better understand SOM.

Coonan, E.C., Kirkby, C.A., Kirkegaard, J.A. et al. Microorganisms and nutrient stoichiometry as mediators of soil organic matter dynamics. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 117, 273–298 (2020).