Kansas State University Soil Microbiology Professor Charles (Chuck) Rice has always been interested in science and nature. A biology-turned-geography focus in college turned his attention to soils and water. Now, he revels in the new field of soil microbiology.
“Soil microbiology is a young field, compared to some of the chemistry and physics components. Over time we knew what the microbes were doing in the soil, but we didn’t necessarily know who they were. There’s a huge opportunity to further understand the soil microbe component,” Rice said.
This opportunity for more information about soil microbes is illustrated by the fact that we can, at this time, only cultivate less than 1% of the microbes that exist in the soil.
Rice currently studies soils in two different ecosystems: the native prairie and cultivated ag systems. He studies the relationships between carbon, microbes, and structure – his Holy Trinity, as he puts it – as he works to understand the soils in these two environments.
An example of how the “Holy Trinity” works is the additional fungi that occurs in no-till soils, which binds and builds soil aggregates – resulting in improved soil structure. Inside the aggregates is trapped carbon, which builds the organic matter of the soil.
Rice says there are practices we know are changing this three-way interaction, but measurement can be slow and difficult.
“Carbon is the centerpiece, but it does take a long time to measure that change. But we can detect earlier – within three or four years – a change in soil structure through aggregation. We can measure the microbial composition, so we can pick up changes in fungal-bacteria ratios much quicker than a carbon change.”
According to Rice, if you have these three components – your soil has good structure, carbon content, and microbes – then that soil is going to hold more water. Soil with these three factors will capture intense rainstorm events better and be more resilient to dry periods or drought years than less-healthy soil.
“You may not get higher yields, but you should get more stable yields with healthier soil,” he said.
And healthier soil can influence the atmosphere and mitigate some of those extreme weather events.
“There’s two to three times more carbon stored in soils than there is in the atmosphere. So if we can make some small changes in soil carbon, it can have significant influences on the atmosphere and one of the causes of our changing climate,” he said.
Learn more from Dr. Rice about the amazing “new field” of soil science by clicking the player above or listening to this episode in your favorite podcast player.