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They’re Not All Bad!
by Alisha Sedlmayr
You can’t see them with the naked eye, but there are hundreds of them in a healthy handful of soil and the majority of them are actually beneficial to plants. We’re going to be talking about nematodes! You may think of root-feeding nematodes, which can kill plants or harm them, but they are not all deadly to your crops. In fact, the other types of nematodes (beneficial ones) actually cycle nutrients for plants, control plant pests, and help improve soil health.

The beneficial types of nematodes include bacterial-feeding, fungal-feeding, and predatory nematodes. These types of nematodes cycle nutrients by eating organisms and excreting feces that contains plant available nutrients. Predatory nematodes even eat other nematodes, including the root-feeding nematodes, and take care of the pest for you. These three types of nematodes are a crucial part of the nutrient cycling system and your soil health overall.

Unfortunately, the good nematodes have been killed in the soil by tillage, over-grazing, pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, and lack of food. These good little creatures are fragile, but the root-feeding nematodes go deep down into the soil to survive through these conditions. When the destruction is over and there’s no competition for food and shelter, the root-feeding nematodes come back thriving and ready to harm the plants. Then you spend money to take care of the problem, when the biology would have done it for free for you.

You can save them on your farm and garden by stopping tillage and/or over-grazing. This has the biggest impact on the beneficial microorganisms that are so crucial to your plants. You can reduce or stop applying pesticides. The pesticides also kill the good organisms that protect your plants from pests and help them grow. You can diversify the crops you plant. The more diversity you grow, the more organisms you will attract to your soil and improve the health of your soil. You can reduce nutrients added to the soil. High amounts of nitrogen can kill organisms like fungi and nematodes, and only leave bacteria to survive and thrive. Bacteria is needed for plants, but fungi, nematodes, and protozoa are key to a healthy soil for your plant.

One of the best methods to “jump start” your soil to attract and keep beneficial nematodes is to push out the root-feeding nematodes by planting a fall cover crop. A diverse summer cover crop after a small grain can also speed up the system. Inter-seeding between your corn rows also adds diversity.

Roller crimping a cover crop can help reduce pesticide use and the residue feeds the soil organisms. Cows and other animals have organisms in their gut that are beneficial to the soil. Making your own good compost and applying it to the soil can bring organisms. A system must be implemented for these guys to stick around or they can easily be killed again. Nematodes may be small, but they make a huge impact to your plants.

Contact the NRCS office if you would like to know more about beneficial nematodes and/or soil microbes.

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