Building Soils for Better Crops, Third Edition

Amounts of Living Organic Matter

SARE Outreach
Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es | 2010 | 294 pages
PDF (6.8 MB)

This title is temporarily out of print. We expect to publish an updated edition in the spring/summer of 2021.

In chapter 4, we discuss the various types of organisms that live in soils. The weight of fungi present in forest soils is much greater than the weight of bacteria. In grasslands, however, there are about equal weights of the two. In agricultural soils that are routinely tilled, the weight of fungi is less than the weight of bacteria. The loss of surface residues with tillage lowers the number of surface-feeding organisms. And as soils become more compact, larger pores are eliminated first. To give some perspective, a soil pore that is 1/20 of an inch is considered large. These are the pores in which soil animals, such as earthworms and beetles, live and function, so the number of such organisms in compacted soils decreases. Plant root tips are generally about 0.1 mm (1/250 of an inch) in diameter, and very compacted soils that lost pores greater than that size have serious rooting problems. The elimination of smaller pores and the loss of some of the network of small pores with even more compaction is a problem for even small soil organisms.

The total amounts (weights) of living organisms vary in different cropping systems. In general, soil organisms are more abundant and diverse in systems with complex rotations that return more diverse crop residues and that use other organic materials such as cover crops, animal manures, and composts. Leaves and grass clippings may be an important source of organic residues for gardeners. When crops are rotated regularly, fewer parasite, disease, weed, and insect problems occur than when the same crop is grown year after year.

On the other hand, frequent cultivation reduces the populations of many soil organisms as their food supplies are depleted by decomposition of organic matter. Compaction from heavy equipment also causes harmful biological effects in soils. It decreases the number of medium to large pores, which reduces the volume of soil available for air, water, and populations of organisms— such as mites and springtails—that need the large spaces in which to live.