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Commercial Nitrogen is not needed for Crop Production
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist

New research has discovered a previously unknown process involving soil biology. This new knowledge could lead to farmers producing crops with a greatly reduced nitrogen rate with no yield loss. This research has been mostly conducted by James White, a plant biologist and pathologist at Rutgers University. The process is called the rhizophagy cycle.

John Kempf, the founder of a company called Advancing Eco Agriculture, says the rhizophagy cycle is a complete revolution in the industry’s understanding of agronomy and plant nutrition.

In an article in the August 2021 issue of No-Till Farmer, White says, “It’s the process that happens at the growing root tip. Entire microbes, bacteria and fungi are actually taken up directly into the root.” He goes on to say that once in the root it releases reactive oxygen that strips the cell membranes off the bacteria and all the nutrients contained in the bacteria are then utilized by the plant.

Kempf says if there is a large enough concentration of bacterial cells they trigger the formation of root hairs. He adds that the growing root hairs secrete the exact nutritional requirements that the bacterial cells that have been stripped of their cell walls need to reform their cell membranes and they move back into the soil. “The signaling compounds that move out of the root hair tips know what the plant’s nutritional requirements are. The plant has signaled to them that it may need more phosphorus (P) or some other nutrient, and the bacteria go out and extract more minerals from the soil mineral matrix and hold them within their cells for follow-up root tips to consume those bacteria and provide the plants with the nutrients that it needs.”

According to Kempf plants are farming bacteria and microbes, feeding them and extracting nutrients from them much the same way that we farm livestock.  “This gives us a scientific explanation of how some farmers are able to produce higher-yielding crops than the regional averages with no fertilizer applications.”

Over the last decade, using sap analysis on thousands of farms, Kempf says he’s learned the majority of nutritional imbalances growers experience in crops are not the result of adding too little of something but adding excesses of some nutrients in a way that created deficiencies of other nutrients. Studies from universities have shown only about 40% of N applied to crops is actually absorbed by the plant, with the rest lost through leaching or nitrifications.  Kempf says if  growers could move that number to 80% it would cut their nitrogen requirements in half.

“Observations and learning have led to this foundational premise: the only reason to apply nitrogen is when the capacity of soil biology to deliver the need of nitrogen has been destroyed,” Kempf says.  “And unfortunately that’s the case for many agricultural soils.  And the counter point is also true – the fastest way to degrade the soil’s ability to provide nitrogen is to apply nitrogen.”

He adds that the more nitrogen you apply, the more you’re creating an addiction where the soil biology is unable to overcome the surplus nitrogen in the soil profile and sequester and fix and make available to the crop what it really would have the capacity for without that surplus application.