KBS LTER grad student works to improve soil tests for farmers

Network News Summer 2015, Vol. 28 No. 2
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Each year the KBS LTER program awards two graduate students with summer research fellowships. Brendan O’Neill, a Ph.D. student in Tom Schmidt and Phil Robertson’s labs, describes the research his summer fellowship supported.

My research at the Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) site has focused on how increasing crop diversity (for example, including cover crops) can enhance soil ecosystem functions while sustaining crop production. Examples of soil ecosystem functions include retaining carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) within the field and managing soil structure to supply both ample water but good drainage. By contrast, for decades, row-crop research has focused on supplying chemical components like fertilizer as the means to maximize crop productivity; this research shaped soil tests that guide farmers’ soil management. Traditional soil tests focus on the chemicals needed for plant growth, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, ignoring the combination of physical, chemical and biological conditions needed for a healthy soil ecosystem.

Nitrogen use in agriculture aptly demonstrates how simply supplying crops ample chemical N, rather than focusing on the biology of how soils can use N efficiently, has consequences far beyond crop yield, leading to N contamination to waterways and the atmosphere. What if we used indicators of healthy soil ecosystems in soil tests to help guide management for farmers, expanding soil tests to include biological and physical parameters? This was the focus of my 2014 KBS LTER Summer Research Fellowship.

You can read more about A new approach to soil testing for Michigan farmers: from inputs to indicators of soil health.