Carbon: The Backbone of All Life on Earth
Carbon is a chemical element represented by the symbol C. Scientists often refer to carbon as “the backbone of life on Earth.” All organic compounds, such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats contain carbon. Plant and animal tissue cells consist of carbon compounds, which hold their structures together. Where else will you find carbon?
- In inorganic compounds, such as carbon dioxide, which you and I breathe out to the tune of over 2 pounds per day. Carbon makes up about 0.04% of Earth’s atmosphere.
- In coal, which for centuries has provided energy to generate electricity and heat.
- In diamond, which is a very pure form of carbon. These gems are obviously precious and very highly valued.
- In activated charcoal, which is used in purification and filtration.
Carbon has so many positive attributes, that when it’s out of balance, we usually perceive that as something negative.
The Origin of Carbon Credits
Carbon as carbon dioxide (CO2) is being measured at higher numbers today than years ago, stirring the carbon credit market. Carbon credits have become a hot topic in agriculture over the past couple years. The concept behind the carbon credit is simple: Industries or businesses that cannot reduce the carbon footprint of their manufacturing or operational process fund projects or practices that reduce the carbon footprint. Dollars available go to solar or wind power initiatives, to forestry services for better tree management, and to farmers for planting cover crops or reducing tillage. This process simply credits those that are encouraging or increasing what God has already designed— the photosynthesis process.
Photosynthesis is the process in which plants use sunlight energy to synthesize food from carbon dioxide and water. In this process, carbon from CO2 is used by growing plants to build tissue, transport water and nutrients, and feed soil biology in symbiotic relationships. This storage and utilization of carbon is also known as carbon sequestration, or the process of capturing and storing (long-term) atmospheric carbon or other forms of carbon in plants, soil geologic formations, and the ocean. Untouched grass prairies store the highest amount of carbon in their biomass underground, sometimes to depths of over 20 feet. Once disturbed, this living carbon becomes organic matter, and over time can decrease.
Use Carbon in Agronomy to Increase Yields
When we mention carbon in terms of agronomy programs, we’re talking about adding carbon to the system in order to increase yields in various ways:
- By growing cover crops to increase soil activity.
- By applying carbon with fertilizers to buffer the salts.
- Or by applying carbon as food source for biology to consume.
I’ve identified 3 carbon strategies in agronomy that can increase yields, directly increasing ROI just as applying the optimum amounts of nitrogen would.
1. Make Your Fertilizer More Effective with Carbon
Soils that are low in organic matter—or with low cation exchange capacity measurements—struggle to hold water and nutrients. Carbon has a unique property: because it has 4 electrons in its outermost shell, it is able to build four bonds. What does that mean for us farmers? If added to your fertility program in the right amounts, clean carbon sources can better bond your fertilizer application to the soil particles. This keeps your fertilizer near the application zone for a longer period of time.
Two carbon products, Humika™ and CetaiN®, have earned a PFR Proven status after 4 years of studies. Humika™ is a clean source of carbon that has provided an average of $6.88 ROI per acre when included with sidedress nitrogen. CetaiN® is also a clean source of carbon, but different in that it has a high level of hydrogen and oxygen already on the carbon molecule to better balance with nitrogen to enhance cellular functions. CetaiN® has provided an average $5.71 ROI per acre.
Learn More About Humika™: Grow healthier and more productive crops.
Learn More about CetaiN®: Hold your nitrogen in the soil longer for higher yield potential.
Activated carbon, as found in water purifiers, can also buffer the negative impact of salts, which increases the safety of the fertilizers to soil biology and plants. This opens up opportunities to test new application methods. Consult your local supplier of these products for the best management practices on your soils.
2. Feed with Carbon to Boost Plant Development
Carbon delivers a food source for biology. Living organisms—from humans to soil microbes—need 3 things: oxygen, water and food. The most common carbon food sources are fats and carbohydrates. Carbon is the main molecular truck that delivers the food for our survival. In agronomy the most common carbon food source is sugar. Sugar is a source of energy, and when applied in agriculture, it can stimulate the soil biology and give it a boost.
Four sugar products have earned PFR Proven status after years of testing sugar in various ways. These products, when applied at the right time, will feed your soil biology. Consider a sugar application at R1 on soybeans, and V4 or in-furrow on corn. You already spend money on nutrients for plant development; think about investing in your soil biology with sugar.
3. Use Cover Crops to Build Healthy Soils
Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that work together to support life. The ideal soil composition is 45% mineral matter, 5% organic matter, and 50% porous space (with a mix of water and air). Building the right balance is the key to healthy soils. Cover crops can keep soils balanced, active, and building. Think of the prairies or fence rows that have been left untouched for decades. Why are they so fertile? Why do you never see a prairie field “drown out”? Why, when turning one of these areas over, are the yields significantly higher in those spots? The answer is balance.
These prairies and fence rows didn’t get this way overnight, or in one single year. When plants are alive and active, they capture CO2 from the atmosphere, store it deep within plant shoots and roots, and utilize it to build new tissue. When these same plants decay after a reproductive cycle, they create humus—organic matter that serves as a food source to keep the biological cycles active.
You don’t need money from carbon credits to incorporate cover crops on your farm in a profitable way. For us in the north, some of the best practices are utilizing cover crops to simply keep something growing in the soil after small grains or canning crops are harvested mid-summer. For those further south, cover crops can bridge the gap between cash crops where temperatures and conditions allow plants to grow and thrive. Or maybe you are using them to reduce the weed pressure in organic or non-GMO cropping cycles.
As an agronomist for both AgRevival and Beck’s, I continue to explore ways to better understand the right blend of plants for the perfect cover crop mix and the best management practices for increasing ROI.
Learn More: Beck’s cover crop offerings.
You Don’t Need a Credit to Profit from Carbon
Though carbon credits have become a hot topic recently, carbon in agronomy is nothing new. God put the life cycle that revolves around carbon into action when He created Earth. Light, atmosphere, plants, sun, and creatures complete it in that order. Want a more consistent approach to profit from carbon on your farm? Seek the understanding, balance, and right place for carbon in your agronomy program.