Feeding Biology

June 10, 2020

by Anthony Roth, Greenhouse Manager

Feeding biology has become a hot topic lately at least when it comes to soil biology and raising crops. In other areas of life such as wastewater treatment and feeding livestock, feeding biology is a major focus. Quality Liquid Feeds (QLF) has been feeding biology in rumens for over 40 years, so they are no stranger to enhancing biological function in animals.  Molasses is a major component of QLF’s over 500 products that are offered.

Digging into soil biology, it is important to know what organisms live there and how they interact in their environment.  Let’s start with plants. Plants take sunlight, carbon from the atmosphere, and water and produce sugar.  Plants also produce a variety of compounds call root exudates which they excrete through their roots that feed bacteria and fungi.

Bacteria are tiny (4/10000 inch) single-celled organisms that come in all sorts of shapes like rods called bacillus, circle shapes called cocci, and spiral-shaped called spirilla. Bacteria are the most abundant of soil organisms and there can be 454 billion bacteria in a pound of soil.  They help to recycle nutrients by decomposing nitrogen from the atmosphere and produce acids that unlock nutrients in the soil so the plants can access them.  Some plants and bacteria form very specific relationships that benefit each other.  One example of this relationship that many are familiar with is soybeans and Rhizobia bacteria.  The rhizobia are free-living in the soil and when they come into close contact with a soybean root, they will infect the root and grow into the dividing cortical cells to form a nodule.  This nodule provides a place for the bacteria to fix nitrogen from the air and it allows the plant to exchange root exudates for the nitrogen.  Interesting note, all the nitrogen we need for our bodies we either get directly or indirectly from plants.

Fungi are multi-celled organisms that are key decomposers and important in helping create soil aggregates.  Most are familiar with fungi by their fruiting bodies (mushrooms) but fungi have an extensive root-like system beneath the ground called mycelia.  These root-like structures are smaller than roots so they are able to access nutrients in tiny cracks that roots cannot. They also aid in forming aggregates by tying smaller particles together with their mycelia.  Over 80% of land plants form symbiotic relationships with fungi.

Protozoa consist of amoebas, flagellates, and ciliates.  Flagellates typically have a single tail like a whip that they use to move while the ciliates have tiny hairs covering their body that maneuvers them through the soil.   They are constantly hunting and feeding on bacteria and fungi, and in doing so they are remobilizing essential nutrients for plants and other organisms.

Nematodes are tiny worm-like organisms that are the next level of predators in the soil.  They feed on bacteria, fungi, protozoa, plants, and other nematodes.  They generally fall into 5 different categories. Bacterial, fungal, plant, predator, or omnivore, and this is based on their mouthparts.  Under a microscope, you can detect a vase-shaped mouth for bacterial feeding, a spear for fungal or root feeding, and a large tooth for predatory nematodes.  They also help to remobilize nutrients.

The soil food chain continues with worms, insects, birds, and animals. All are part of the nutrient cycle.  So why is feeding and caring for soil biology important?  The soil helps regulate water on earth directing the water over or through the soil, provides a place for plants and animals to grow, it has the capacity to filter and buffer pollutants, cycle nutrients, and provides a foundation for all living things.  Working with the soil to achieve robust agriculture products and sustainable way of life is a benefit for everyone.

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