Taking the reins of soil health starts from the ground up

The farmer and rancher adage “if you take care of machinery, the machinery will take care of you” also applies to soil health.

Cassidy Million, the director of ag science at Heliae Agriculture, Gilbert, Arizona, says that when it comes to soil health it is important to develop a plan and build with success.

Million said the company wants growers to be successful, and she is a believer in testing the soil and working with agronomists and crop consultants. Heliae Agriculture knows the importance of working with the producer for a successful return on investment. Success is defined by yield improvement and building soil health. Both are possible, Million said.

“Every growing season we want you to have an increase in your yield and return on your investment,” she said, but added long-term profits are like investments that because of compound interest continue to grow.

Conventional tillage can have a negative impact on soil health but a good program also has to look at compaction and erosion, Million said. Simply making a one-time change is not a long-term solution but making constructive changes over a period of time works.

“It is going to take time to increase soil health but it is doable,” Million said. “It’s doable just by making small changes over time.”

By understanding the soil profile a grower is already building a roadmap to success, she said. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach as soil types can change from field to field even in an overall operation, Heliae Agriculture believes is it important to work with growers and learn beside them.

Million said farmers and ranchers care deeply about stewardship of their resources and that’s why she enjoys working with them.

She studies the rhizosphere, which is under the surface where the plant root opens, and she notes that’s where the microbes thrive and live.

“Twenty percent of the biomass in the rhizosphere is made up from microbes (fungi) and sometimes even more depending on the soil type and the makeup,” Million said. “It’s a really large portion of what makes soil function and also it helps with mineralization nutrients so the plants can uptake those nutrients.”

It also plays a role in water holding capacity, she said.

Million has advanced degrees in plant pathology from the Ohio State University, and she focused on soybean diseases, then did her postdoctoral with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. As the director of ag science for Heliae Agriculture, she is responsible for overseeing agronomy training and product performance trials.

Before joining Heliae Agriculture, Million served as the senior agriculture research scientist at Monty’s Plant Food. Before this role she held a postdoctoral position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service crop production and pest control research division. In that role she researched non-host resistance in wheat and barley. Prior, she performed research in the Integrated Plant Protection Unit of Swedish University of the Agricultural Sciences’ Plant Protection Biology department. She obtained her bachelor’s in biology from Indiana University Southeast.

Micro-perspective on tap

At Heliae Agriculture, one focus is on the make up the soil from a micro-perspective. “Fungi and bacteria is what we think of as the major components,” Million said.

“Wake up your sleeping giant” is a tagline the company uses and it is fitting.

“Microbes do a lot for the soil but also a lot for crop production.”

According to Million, 75% of microbes in the soil are dormant. “What’s really cool about microbes is their survival mechanism isn’t to die.” In a way they can wait until they are called into service. Her company’s PhycoTerra products can offer a microbial food source to break the dormancy ultimately.

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Growers in the past year have experienced severe drought in the many of Plains states and that’s part of a new challenge and why it is even more important to make sure soil quality stays in place and is able to retain moisture even in drought stressing events.

Microbes are important in drought situations, Million said.

What microbes do is naturally secrete extracellular polymeric substances, or EPS, which she says is a glue-like substance. It can hold water longer. The microbe also helps with soil structure.

“As you increase soil structure, you can penetrate water deeper into the soil profile and hold it there for a long period of time,” Million said. While the EPS increases soil structure, it also provides a benefit of holding water in the soil longer.

Early research on jet fuel

Heliae Agriculture is a 14-year-old company and it purchased Arizona State University’s microalgae library and continues its partnership with ASU. There are hundreds of thousands of species of microalgae, she said. Microalgae serves as a superior food source for the microbial and puts it back to work supporting crop growth.

The soil microbiome is a community of microbes that lives in the soil and helps nourish the crops. Sourced from microalgae, PhycoTerra, Heliae’s soil microbial food product line, activates the soil microbiome by feeding soil microbes. PhycoTerra is a renewable resource that helps farmers and growers work toward healthier crops and a healthier world.

Million said the company’s commitment is impressive.

“We’ve spent 14 years figuring this out before we come to the market and we only went commercial in the last two and a half to three years,” she said.

The company has done over 500 field trials to prove the three PhycoTerra products work, and she said it has been applied on 58 crops from specialty to row crops in the United States, Canada, Australia and Latin America. PhycoTerra has different ways of being applied, which Million said can help a producer to have flexibility. The company also has an organic formulation to serve organic farmers.

“As a company we focus on soil health and microbial feeding so from our standpoint we understand which microbes we’re feeding and we’re going to feed a really diverse range of microbes. We want to not only hit on one function in the soil, we want to feed your entire community to get multiple functions,” she said

It’s not just a process of looking at nitrogen or phosphorus but a gamut of needs to help reduce abiotic stress, she said.

Million will be one of the presenters at Soil Health U, which is Jan. 18 and 19, 2023, at the Tony’s Event Center in Salina, Kansas.

Information for this story was from the Soil Solutions podcast with Jessica Gnad, the executive director of Great Plains Regeneration and soil health content consultant for High Plains Journal. Visit soilhealthu.net/podcasts to hear the podcasts. Sign up to receive the monthly Soil Health HPJ Direct newsletter and Soil Solutions podcast notifications by visiting hpj.com/signup and checking Soil Health.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-226-1822 or [email protected].