Healthy Sense of Humic

All-natural humates improve soil and plant development

Published online: Feb 05, 2018 Articles, Fertilizer
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This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

We all know how important water and nutrients are to sustaining animal and plant life. Beneficial micro-organisms living in the soil also thrive on the abundance of water and nutrients. Adding all-natural humates to soils can help boost beneficial microbial activity, increase nutrient uptake and reduce soil erosion, among many other benefits.

Humates are now recognized as the single most productive input in sustainable agriculture and are gaining acceptance on a number of farms. Humates are naturally occurring, partially decomposed soil organic matter consisting of humic, fulvic and ulmic acids, and low in ash and toxic metals.

When added to a variety of soil types, all-natural humates have been research-proven to do the following:

  • Act as a powerful chelator, binding nutrients in the soil while increasing plant uptake and decreasing the loss of nutrients due to leaching. Humates improve soil quality, texture/tilth and water-holding capacity with every application.
    • Promote plant growth and root development. When applied to growing plants, liquid humates perform similarly to the plant hormone auxin, which promotes plant growth and root development. Humates have been shown to increase seed germination and viability by more than 5 percent when used as a seed treatment.
    • Increase carbon and oxygen content. Humates contain high carbon and oxygen content. Research indicates that carbon may be the most limiting factor in soils, not phosphorus, potassium or even nitrogen, as many believe. Humates contribute carbon to the soils in two ways: from the humates themselves and from the decomposition of residue, which increases soil organic matter.
    • Enhance fertilizer inputs, making this investment more efficient and useful. When humates are used, fertilizers and other inputs can become over 30 percent more productive.
    • Improve soil structure. Humates modify soil’s permeability, porosity, water-retaining capacity, absorption characteristics, surface area and cation exchange reactions, which can lead to improved fertility, production and profitability for growers.
    • Increase crop resilience. Humates bind to harmful soil enzymes to prevent their entry into the plant. This is why high-humus soils, which naturally contain higher levels of humic acid, suffer fewer disease problems than soils lacking in humus.
    • Increase soil water retention. Humates have superior water-holding capacity—10 times their weight in water when mixed in the soil profile. As a result, crops require less irrigation, which lowers costs, making crops better able to utilize natural moisture from rainfall.
    • Stimulate beneficial fungi. Humates are the most powerful known stimulant of beneficial fungi in the soil. This includes soil aggregators, which build stable humus, and the organisms that help control disease and produce a resilient soil. Beneficial fungi are often the organisms most negatively impacted by intensified agricultural practices.

Dan Olk and Dana Dinnes, researchers for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, conducted numerous research studies on farms across the Midwest to test the effectiveness of humates on crops and soil conditions. The pair concluded that humates are worth considering to boost plant and root growth and crop yields. They also documented better return on investment, faster breakdown of residue, and increased root length and size with use of humates during the course of their studies.

A research study conducted by Southern Illinois-based Top Shot Ag on corn fields in Illinois during the 2012 drought concluded that fields treated with humates remained healthy, green and lush, while untreated fields appeared brown and stressed. An infrared aerial view of the same study fields showed the field treated with humates as bright red, a strong indication of improved drought tolerance. The untreated field appeared green on the infrared image, which indicates poor drought tolerance. The field treated with humates produced 150 bushels per acre, while the untreated field produced just 50 to 75 bushels per acre.

Grower are reminded to use caution when selecting humates. Like all other products, humates are available in varying qualities and concentrations. There are basically three testing techniques that are used to rate humates, but only one of those tests can identify adulterants—such as seaweed, NPK, coal, molasses and lignofulfonates—that can create false levels of actual concentrations of humates. These ingredients may or may not appear on the product’s ingredient list because they are often blended at the manufacturer. Recent studies by the International Humic Substances Society found that the “standard” testing methods failed to detect the presence of lignosulfonates in humate products.

Humates from Brookside Agra have been tested to contain a 12 percent concentration of beneficial humic and fulvic acids; some competing humate products have concentrations as low as 4 percent. Humates from Brookside Agra are also all-natural and OMRI-certified for organic use.


For more information and research on humates, contact Tony Arro, director of specialty product sales at Brookside Agra, at (618) 628-8300, ext. 24, or