Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How Pesticides Affect Soil Microbes

In natural soil environments, a symbiotic relationship exists between microbes and plant life. Plants like grass, trees and food crops depend on microorganisms in the soil to obtain water, ward off dangerous organisms, prevent nutrient loss and break down compounds that could inhibit growth. These soil microbes, in return, benefit from the health of plants growing in the soil. This relationship creates a dynamic living system that is easily broken by human systems that use pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. The chemicals humans use to enhance plant growth can actually destroy the soil system, killing or causing mutation pressure on the soil microbes that all other organisms in the ecosystem need to survive.

What Soil Microbes Do for the Ecosystem
A small handful of healthy soil will include millions of microscopic organisms that are beneficial to the soil systems where healthy plants grow, including fungi, nematodes, protozoa, microathopods and other beneficial bacteria. These microbes decompose organic material while they absorb water and nutrients that would otherwise get lost in the soil; the absorbed water and nutrients then get used by more and more complex creatures. This ecosystem ranges from the tiniest bacteria to the largest mammal predators. Any damage suffered by one part of the system can affect the health of all the others.

Three Levels of the Soil Ecosystem
The first level of the soil ecosystem is made up of bacteria and fungi that consume leftover organic matter, nitrogen and nutrients. These organisms act like a nutrient bank that plants can use when they need it. The second level of organisms consists of predators that feed on the bacteria and fungi. Nitrogen and nutrients are metabolized and released into the soil at a slow rate that is beneficial to plant growth. Higher-level predators, like millipedes and earthworms, make up the third level. These animals keep the second-level organisms in check, helping the plants maintain a healthy growth rate. The third level is also made up of bigger predators that keep the smaller ones from over eating. This extensive bio-diversity is what makes all life in the soil ecosystem possible.

How Pesticides Affect Soil Microbes
Pesticides include a large group of chemical agents that attempt to eliminate destructive biological forces in agriculture. These include herbicides for killing plants, insecticides for killing insects, fungicides for killing fungus and bactericides for killing bacteria. While these chemicals supposedly only target specific species, repeated use inevitably kills microbial life that is beneficial to the soil system. Microbes that survive can be genetically altered in a way that is no longer beneficial to the soil ecosystem and be resistant to the chemical intended to kill them. The destruction or alteration of first-level microbes can affect the entire soil ecosystem all the way up to the largest mammalian predators.

What Happens When Soil Microbes Go Out Of Balance
Microbial communities work in concert (or synergy) to out-compete antagonistic communities of microbes. This is a balance between "good" and "bad" microbes. Many microbial species (the good ones) kill or inhibit bacteria, fungi and nematodes (the bad ones) that attack the root systems important for the exchange of valuable nutrients in the soil through competitive exclusion. Good microorganisms improve the soil structure by producing glues, hyphae strands and tunnels for air and water. Good microbes also eat a lot of toxic material that would otherwise make for poisonous soil, but they do need healthy organic soil to consume with it. An imbalance of soil microbes can result in parasitic infestations, root disease, breakdown of the soil structure and build-up of toxic compounds. When the soils are repeatedly treated with toxic chemicals, the balance between good and bad is disrupted and the soils can actually become toxic to plants.

Ways to Keep Soil Healthy
Microbe numbers in the soil can be maintained by making sure the soil has plenty of digestible plant material (organic matter) with high levels of nitrogen to feed microbes. A blend of proteins from vegetable and animal sources can provide the material to help make this possible. Likewise, regularly folding in a healthy dose of an all-natural microbial inoculant soil amendment which will enhance the soil with beneficial microbes for crops and horticulture will retain or restore microbial balance. High-quality organic composts, grass clippings and lawn litter can also benefit soil microbes. And, of course, harsh pesticides should never be used due to their destructive impact on microbial lifeforms.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Using Microbes to Control Livestock Smell

Unfortunately, raising livestock is usually a smelly business. This is due to the release of offensive gases, as well as ammonia in the urine, from the natural breakdown of food in the body.

How It Works
Livestock smell is as issue as old as civilization. In recent times, however, enterprising biologists discovered that microorganisms could break down organic waste in order to effectively reduce offensive odors. Purposefully placing large quantities of these desirable bacteria onto manure and even the animals themselves makes the breakdown process much less stinky – naturally and without the use of harsh chemicals.

A potent microbial inoculant can be used to keep livestock pastures, barns and other confinement areas from becoming overwhelming or dangerous. The beneficial bacteria break down the odorous compounds and can also be applied to cattle foot baths or directly on the animal so that organic matter breaking down on the animals’ coats doesn’t start to smell. All the loafing areas and surface areas where wastes spill should be regularly sprayed as well to suppress all the odors in the area.

Why Odor Control is Necessary
Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are two of the gases that are responsible for the strongest smells in confined livestock areas. Both of these gases can be dangerous when levels are high, and animals or humans that continually breathe them in can get sick, making ammonia and hydrogen sulfide odor control extremely important. The beneficial bacteria in microbial inoculants break down these products to less toxic byproducts that do not smell as strongly and are not harmful.

Other Options in Odor Control
Other agents that are used in combating smells from livestock may simply mask the scent. This makes it more pleasant to be around, but doesn’t remove the possibly damaging effects on the animals and people since the compounds responsible are still lingering in the air. Microbes actually break down the compounds from their more dangerous state into a less odoriferous and safer end product.

Keeping a livestock area so clean that it is completely free of odor is practically impossible, but many large-scale farms try. The downside of this method is that harsh cleaning products and chemicals can be just as bad for the animals and people as the waste they are used to remove. Beneficial bacteria are a naturally-occurring part of the environment that has no similar negative side effects.

Why Microbial Treatment is Best
Manure and other waste that is treated with beneficial bacteria makes great compost. Unlike manure tainted with chemicals, it is completely natural and will not leech toxins into the environment. Manure that is treated with beneficial bacteria can be applied to worms for further processing without any ill effects on them (worms actually eat bacteria!).

Microbial inoculants contain living organisms, so they must be applied appropriately or other chemicals in use can kill the bacteria. For example, when using in a cattle foot bath, they cannot be combined with copper sulfide. Copper sulfide is an antibacterial agent and does not differentiate between the harmful bacteria it is intended to kill and the beneficial microbes present in the inoculant.

How Beneficial Bacteria Aid the World
Beneficial bacteria play a large role in the lives of humans and animals. Many animals rely on certain types of bacteria to help them digest their food. Humans maintain beneficial bacteria on our skin that keeps other, more harmful bacteria from setting up shop. Some plants even grow special ‘homes’ in their roots so that bacteria which fix nitrogen (an essential element) will move in and share the bounty. Harnessing the power of these microorganisms has led to healthier, safer environments for livestock while simultaneously reducing the use of dangerous pesticides. Inoculants are safe for animals and humans, great for the environment and most importantly, they work. Healthier animals lead to better returns for farmers, which more than pays for the investment in purchasing the appropriate treatment.