Ag 101 Week 39

pH

Why is pH so important?

The following is a conversation that started from a post I published called Amending Vs. Fertilizing from Week 5 on an agricultural social network called Agfuse. To see the post in its entirety, go to www.agfuse.com and sign up for a free account.

https://agfuse.com/article/amending-vs-fertilizing

Pat Rogers, the founder of Agfuse responded with-

“I am continually baffled by long time farmers in my area who still don't see the value in getting your pH right. To me, it's the foundation of farming. An optimal pH leads to more efficient nutrient use which in turn helps us grow better crops (on less fertilizer no less). A good fertility plan that isn't used in combination with a good ph/amendment plan is pretty useless if you ask me.”

I replied-

“If you think of the soil as a digester similar to a gut, managing pH to be slightly acidic keeps it operating effectively to assimilate nutrients that are already present or being added in the form of manures and fertilizers. I often explain it as if you are taking advantage of what is inherently present and using what might be added as efficiently as possible. A healthy gut or soil, one being slightly acidic where as good bacteria and fungi flourish does that. pH is the linchpin to creating that environment conducive for healthy flora to thrive. 
Often, I think we don't understand all the ways pH is useful or even what drives it. It can also be a hard concept to grasp. I liken it to an abacus. You're using calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium, etc. balancing pH -hydrogen, to encourage a healthy system. And as you mentioned, grow a better crop with less or no fertilizer.”

It influences what nutrients will be available to the plant by having an effect on the mineralization of rock minerals and encouraging balanced soil biology for more efficient use of those minerals. 6.0-6.5 is the ideal range for most crops. However, a pH range of 6.8-7.2 can be tolerated by some as well.

The following is a chart showing at what pH nutrients are available

 Google Image

Google Image

An obvious example and one I deal with on a regular basis are blueberries.

They are a great example of two things

1.     Pre-planning based on soil type and chemical characteristics is imperative

2.     pH is the linchpin of any long-term fertility plan

I think I said it best in an email to a client when giving iron sulfate recommendations for an established blueberry patch having some issues

“Iron can be indicative of the type of soil you have. Some soils are naturally higher or lower in iron or have varying amount due to previous uses. The challenge with blueberries is they can't use the iron that is present because it is bound in the soil due to the pH being so high. You have to give it to them in a form that is readily available until you adjust the pre-existing pH. Then you should be able to stop amending with the iron sulfate, and they will be content with what is available to them. This is why pre-planning is probably the most critical when it comes to blueberries.” 

I’m going to go one step further and clarify that pH is something that needs to be consistently monitored because the soil always wants to go back to its inherent traits. For example, I want blond hair, but I’m a brunette. If I want to keep my hair blonde, every four to six weeks I have to dye the part that has grown out, because inherently it grew out brunette. Just as you want to grow blueberries, every 1-3 years you need to have a soil test done and need to be using the necessary amendments to ensure the pH will be within a range conducive for growing them.

To adjust pH, some common amendments are

High calcium lime

Dolomitic lime (high magnesium lime)

Aragonite

Elemental sulfur

Fall is a great time to soil test. It is also a great time to amend soil to have the time necessary to prepare for the next crop.

 For a free printable pre-planting application chart for adjusting pH

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Ag 101 Week 38

A Podcast and Garlic

This week the post for the 52 weeks of Agronomy is going to be a link to a podcast I’m recording tonight for The Vegetable Gardening Show with Mike Podlesny.

http://www.averagepersongardening.com/about/about.php

You can check it out at that link, Facebook, and YouTube


Since it won’t be available until Sunday the 23rd I though I would give you a bonus all about garlic.

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It’s getting to be that time of year when you are going to be thinking about planting and I have the Cadillac of fertility recommendations for it. Old school rule of thumb says plant garlic around Columbus Day.

Typically, garlic is a scavenger when it comes to nutrients in the soil and will do well under a variety of growing conditions. But if you want to grow the best of the best I came across this all-purpose mix and cover crop rotation that is touted by the premier garlic growers in the northeast.

Cadillac Mix

25 pounds of Blood Meal

25 pounds of Bone Meal

25 pounds Raw Aragonite

12.5 pounds of Greensand

12.5 pounds of Kelp

 

Three Year Cover Crop Rotation

1st Mustard

2nd Buckwheat (Summer)

3rd Rye (Winter)

As always, I recommend a soil test before any amending or fertility plan can accurately be determined. But for a general fertilizer option why not use the Cadillac of all mixes!?

Ag 101 Week 37

Agronomy-It's Not Just Vague Lingo For Big Ass Profit Driven Farmers

 

I came across an article in The Modern Farmer from September 4th called “The Modern Farmer Glossary of Farm Jargon.” In it, they explain terms associated with modern day farming and one of them happen to be “Agronomy.” The author defines it as “the science of agriculture, specifically as it relates to industrial-scale farming and profit maximization.”

You can read the rest of the article here

https://modernfarmer.com/2018/09/the-modern-farmer-glossary-of-farm-jargon/

At that time I didn’t think much about it.

That is until I was getting this weeks’ post ready. For several weeks now I have wanted to go back and reiterate my role as an agronomist. I wrote a short intro and linked to the following post from before I started the 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2017/3/26/whats-an-agronomist-anyway

Done! I went on with the rest of my day.

Then I remembered reading the article.

I reread it and thought to myself, “Whoever came up with that definition of agronomy did not go to college with me. Every professor I had explained agronomy as the science of crop and soil management.” The agricultural science phrase used in the article seems a bit vague and at no point in time did any of my professors say it was for industrial-scale farming and profit maximization. Was it implied you wanted maximum profit, sure? But we focused on the crops yield, soil health, and the strategies to achieve them.

Yes. I understand it is modern day language for modern day people. Yes. I realize I could be splitting hairs. No, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with big ass profit driven farmers. I'm related to some, and they are some of my favorite relatives. I'm a firm believer it will take all types of agriculture and farmers to feed us. There's a lot of us, and we all get hungry. 

But, hear me out.

I started to think about the word jargon and what it implies. Jargon is defined as-

Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

Not buying that the word agronomy is mere jargon, I thought about how a technical term is defined. Technical terminology is-

The body of terms used with a particular technical application in a subject of study, theory, profession, etc.

That sounds more like the agronomy I know. It is a term used to explain the science of crop and soil management. 

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I know all too well that people have no idea what agronomy is or what an agronomist does, both in and outside of the industry. Tell someone you are an agronomist. I dare you. You will experience what I deal with every day. This is why I am referred to as The Dirt Lady that gives soil sermons! Can I get an AMEN!

And this is why I started the 52 Weeks of agronomy series in the first place. An entire generation, maybe more at this point who need it the most, is out there thinking agronomy is vague lingo that only applies to big ass profit driven farmers. That it has nothing to do with them. It is merely jargon. 

My definition of agronomy is-

the science of soil management and crop production no matter what size or type of farm

And as an agronomist it is-

my job to take the best science has to offer a farmer and make it practical for their situation so they can implement it to be successful

As for the notion, it is only applicable to industrial-scale farms; maybe this is why small-scale growers don’t know of and aren't implementing basic sound agronomic principles that would make them a more successful farmer? 

Maybe no one ever thought to teach or explain it to other types of farmers?  

I touch on this in week 9

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/15/ag-101-week-9

Since getting back into the Ag industry, I have long felt that the true meaning of what agronomy is and what an agronomist does is often overshadowed by marketing trends and mistaken for other Ag related occupations. 

And for some reason, that I have yet to totally figure out, the very people who need to understand agronomy seem to be dismissive and almost offended by what it has to offer them. 

Agronomy and the practical application of it's principles can make or break a growers success. Sure, anyone can get stuff to grow, but using your resources efficiently and effectively is what sets growers apart and helps them stay in business.  

If you have a garden, make a million dollars off an acre growing salad mix, milk two cows or thousands, have a pet chicken, raise any kind of livestock, grow crops in a hoop house high tunnel whatever you want to call it, grow blueberries in a container on your porch, have a 15 member CSA, or farm 10,000 acres agronomy is part of what you do. If it involves soil, plants, and the people growing them it involves agronomy.

To this accidental agronomist soil sermon giving dirt lady

Agronomy is–

Using soil and crop management principles based on science that can be practically applied by any scale or type of grower to be a prosperous sustainable steward of the land,

                                                                             not just vague lingo for big ass profit driven farmers. 

 

Ag 101 Week 36

An Offer too Good too Pass Up

Now is the time to take soil samples.

I know you’re still harvesting, going to market, and trying to stay ahead of the weather.

Think about this...

“If you don’t have next spring figured out this fall, your summer won't be as productive.”

To be ready for spring, you have to plan now, and one of the most critical parts to planning is soil testing.

Why is soil testing the most critical?

You can’t amend your fields or fertilize your crops without getting a soil test showing you the current chemistry of the soil.

Fall is the great time to apply amendments and to pre-purchase fertilizers. 

If you recall we talked about the topic of amending vs. fertilizing in week 5

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/1/21/ag-101-week-5

I also speak at length regarding the information needed from a soil test in week 24

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/6/11/ag-101-week-24

Here’s an offer to good to pass up from the folks at Fertrell

Head over to their Facebook page and download the submission form. Terms, conditions, and instructions have to be followed to have discounts applied. 

https://www.facebook.com/231821895616/posts/10156332311760617/

All though I have no affiliation with Fertrell, this offer is a great way to get a reputable soil test done 50% off.

Find out more at

https://www.fertrell.com/

Direct any questions about the offer to:

info@fertrell.com

or call 800-347-1566

You can also show them some love on Instagram at 

https://www.instagram.com/thefertrellcompany/

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* The Accidental Agronomist is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with The Fertrell Co., or any of its subsidiaries or its affiliates. Their official website can be found at www.fertrell.com. 

 

Ag 101 Week 35

They Have Agronomists In Canada Too

This week we’re going to hear from Luc Bernard, all the way from Canada. Luc is the second of the up and coming agronomists featured in Week 35 of the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series.

I meant him on Instagram as well as Jordyn from last week. I posted on social media the following graphic

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Luc replied with “My soil prof always told us soil is sexy!”

Not that I disagree with Luc and his professor. However, I find far too often people focus on the ‘sexy’ part of the soil and not the actual management of it. I’ve said often that soil health is the overall concept, but soil fertility is where the real magic happens. That is where you take a soil beyond being sexy and make it profitable.

Since Luc was one of the first to comment on the post, I reached out to him to get his take on soil health vs. soil fertility.

Here’s what he had to say-

When Monica asked me earlier this week for my thoughts on soil fertility vs. soil health, I was not sure where to start. However, during my never-ending commutes between fields, it all came together.

First off, my name is Luc Bernard, and I work for 4R agronomy in the Southwestern region of Manitoba, Canada’s slough as I like to think of it. Much of the waterways in the Canadian prairies feed our watersheds, which includes around 110,000 lakes (yes, you read that right).

Our focus is on crop planning, fertility planning, and in-season scouting. Our clients grow wheat, barley, oats, rye, alfalfa, canola, soybeans, corn, dry beans, peas, and quinoa. I am also a partner in the family farm, where we use a cell grazing system to run 180 cow/calf pairs and grasser calves.

Alas, we can talk about soil fertility and soil health. Here when I see that statement, it can be complementary, but also exclusive. Fertile soils can be healthy, healthy soils can be fertile (duh), but healthy soils can be infertile, and all of the above can be unhealthy.

I’ll be real quick about soil fertility, five steps:

1. test your soils

2. Plan your fertility specifically for the next crop 

3. Fertilize appropriately 

4. Don’t guess too much (it’s too expensive)

5. Profit!

Now let’s move on to soil health. In a parsimonious way, healthy soil is one that can grow a profitable crop. Plain and simple. When we see plain black dirt all growing season, there's a problem.

Like, I mean, even weeds should be able to grow there! Here are a few unhealthy symptoms that we deal with in our soils.

Compaction is an unhealthy characteristic that we often stumble upon on broadacre agriculture, as heavy machinery often passes over the same areas over and over again. Tillage can only go so far to break up the compacted soil, and that creates a hard pan below the tillage layer. This prevents roots from penetrating into moisture on dry years and prevents water from infiltrating on a wet year. This limits our yield potential and essentially wastes every input you apply to those acres. Potential solutions involve deep tilling the hardpan or planting tillage radishes to break the hardpan and increase porosity. Some producers have also adopted CTF (or controlled traffic farming), where you strictly stay within the same wheel tracks. I mean, everything stays in the same track. Seeder, sprayer, combine, grain cart, everything. In fine soils, this can pay dividends.

Salinity is another issue we deal with in our soils. Often farmers wrongly perceive this as a soil problem when it’s a water problem. We get lots of water here during wet years, and it usually drains poorly in localized areas, this water often carries salts, and it leeches and settles into those areas. Most crops tend to be sensitive to high salt levels; this tends to stunt them or prevent them from establishing altogether. This often allows salt tolerant (and quite herbicide-tough) weeds like kochia to establish and become a problem. Solutions to this include tile draining those areas to let the water to move without settling in and evaporating. In dry years, the salt levels only become higher as there isn't any moisture to “water it down.” Some crops like canola or barley can handle some salinity. We often seed problem areas into saline tolerant forages so we can slowly harvest the salts in the form of hay.

 The cheapest way to deal with salinity - put it in hay

The cheapest way to deal with salinity - put it in hay

Wind and water erosion, as well as herbicide residues, are other symptoms of unhealthy soil. These can also be caused or exacerbated by the amount of moisture a field receives (or does not receive). Keeping tillage to only when necessary, same as herbicide applications help mitigate this. Robust crop rotation helps as well.

 

Ag 101 Week 34

Meet the Next Generation of Agronomists

 

I’m taking the next couple weeks off from writing.

1.      I’m not 20 anymore and pulled my hamstring acting like I was. Does it affect my writing? No. Was I hoping it might make my writing better? Yes. What it does mean is that sitting at my desk any more than I have to has become painful and I need to face the fact that if I don’t take care of it now, it will only get worse. I’m referring to my hamstring. The writing, that’s a constant work in progress.

2.      I have taken on more clients and need time to focus on that aspect of my business as well. Writing can sometimes get in the way.

3.      I have always felt there is a bigger picture of what I’m doing and one of the ways I know how to achieve that is to include other people’s perspectives and ideas.

4.      Last but not least, our daughter starts high school this year. In two weeks, I have to be more prepared for ninth grade than she does. I’m the teacher.  I haven’t even gone up to the attic to find all the books I need let alone gotten a schedule ready for her. I need a couple of weeks to get things in order so I can be useful in that part of my life as well.

I’m handing the next two weeks in the 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series over to two very capable much younger than me up and coming agronomist. Both wrote about two different aspects of agronomy, and I’ve enjoyed reading what they each had to say.

This week we’ll hear from Jordyn Bush.

She’s a junior majoring in agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her career goals are to help humanity through agriculture and preserve our environment in the process. She spends most of her free time riding and showing her two horses, Ty and Monkey, traveling, and enjoying the outdoors through activities like hiking and kayaking. 

I meant Jordyn on Instagram. She had been featured in a publication Inver Hills News. When I read the article, I immediately related to her and asked if she would want to write a piece for the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy. I’m glad she said yes.

You can read that article here

https://news.inverhills.edu/blog/jordy-bush-agronomist-of-the-future/

 

You can follow along with her adventures at Instagram here

https://www.instagram.com/dieselxdarlin/?hl=en

Here is the piece she wrote for Week 34 of The Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series

Finding an Internship That Doesn’t Exist

By Jordyn Bush

               Finding the pot of gold at the end of the collegiate rainbow is tough… especially when you get there and the pot is empty or full of coins you just might not want. What do you do when you get there? After spending thousands of dollars in tuition (or acquiring loans to do so), should you have to settle? Absolutely not.

               Interns have a stereotype: get the coffee, do the dirty work, come early, stay late, work for free! It seems that each industry has its own standards for interns. The agricultural industry tends to pay interns since we are valuable workers and tend to have enough experience to actually be an asset pretty quickly.

               I got into the ag industry after thinking my biology degree would lead me to a medical career. I got into medicine because I loved science and problem solving, and I really love helping people. What lead me away from medicine was my love of the outdoors. Was the pay I would be getting worth being miserable and stuck inside all day? It wasn’t for me. Growing up alongside horses gave me an appreciation for agriculture, and it seemed to fit my requirements for a career.

               I transferred from community college to University of Wisconsin at River Falls. It’s a small school, just outside the Twin Cities of Minnesota. The focus on campus is everything agriculture, and they’re serious about it. Serious as in “Sorry I’m late to class, prof. I was stuck behind the manure spreader.”

               Wisconsin is a corn and beans state with dairy farms for miles. I appreciate cash crops, but they’re not what I love. I love horses, but I enjoy having them as my hobby and I didn’t want to work directly with them for my career. My advisor in the CAFES (College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences) was a forages expert with an extension appointment. I was required to take CROP263: Forage Crop Production. I really enjoyed the class and through a turn of events ended up on our Forages Quiz Bowl team, and competing at the National SASES (Students of Agronomy, Soils, and Environmental Sciences) Meeting with a research project I did on corn silage-and I won.

               I never thought I’d go from a track to medical school to spending hours swooning over grass species in the greenhouse-but here I am. As my first semester of my junior year was starting, everyone was under pressure to find internships for the summer. We have an internship board in our Ag Sci building, as well as an online resource. There was a plethora of internships with big companies for cash crops, research, etc. But again, this is my education. This career is mine for the rest of my life. Would I learn a lot in one of those internships? Sure. Would I work hard? Absolutely. Would it give me the skills I’m looking for? I can’t say for sure.

               Internships are a two-way street. Sure, I’m going to work and be another employee for a company. But I’m also interning to benefit myself. I’m more than willing to do the “dirty work”. I will work 14-hour days, Saturdays, rainy days… whatever it takes. But I will not be treated poorly. As a woman in agriculture, I know that there are some people in the industry who would rather not work with women and I have encountered this firsthand. I decided that if I felt disrespected in an interview, I would not proceed with the process.

               Hours and hours, I would spend scrolling through internship postings. I applied for everything. There were internships I didn’t even want that I would write a cover letter for at 2am, just because I was desperate to get something. I finally got my first interview. This opportunity was with a big ag company-and I mean big. The internship I applied for was not the one I ended up interviewing for, I think due to lack of communication on their end. I was crushed when I didn’t get that internship. In retrospect, I would have been miserable.

               After weeks of not hearing back for all the internships I applied for, I started thinking outside the box. I’ve applied for every feasible internship out there. What about the ones that aren’t out there? So, I went to Google. “Agronomy Internships near me” turned up thousands of results-many of which I’d already applied for. I tried getting more specific: “forage internships near me” …. Nothing. This is when the lightbulb flickered on. “Agricultural Companies near me”. New results! Score.

               I scrolled through hundreds of companies. Each one that didn’t have an internship got a lovely email from me with a resume and cover letter. I sent out at least 100 emails each with a customized cover letter. Pro tip: don’t use a vague cover letter. It’s easy to have your template and edit it to each one. Most companies didn’t even respond. Some guided me through HR to apply. I did. I never heard back.

               There was one particular company that responded. They were a small, family company in the town where my boyfriend is stationed (about 5 hours away). Not only were they an agriculture company, they were a forage company! Which is exactly what I loved. They said that they’d never had an intern before, but had kicked around the idea of doing so. They couldn’t guarantee anything but were willing to do a phone interview.

               Let me tell you… I don’t think I slept the night before. I was so excited.

               A few days later I had my phone interview. It went great, but knowing that there was really no position I was applying for meant it might go nowhere-but now I was on their radar. They discussed among themselves and decided they wanted to meet me, so I went and sat down with the company next time I was in town. I loved the place-they presented themselves extremely well, with one of the cleanest businesses I’ve ever seen. Everyone was kind and seemed to love their job – what a dream place to work!

               We had a get-to-know-you meeting which went smoothly. A couple weeks later I got an email-they decided to do an internship! But I wasn’t a shoe-in. They wanted to open the internship application for others. I was still optimistic, and kept reinstating my interest. I interviewed for a few other “backup” options in the interim, just in case.

               Those couple weeks dragged on. I got two other internship offers that I really didn’t want. But then the day finally came-I got an email in my inbox while walking through the hallway at school. I was so excited to open it I could barely see straight. All I could read was the important stuff, “we’d like to offer you the internship.” I was ready to shout it from the rooftops! And the best part was I created this opportunity for myself. No one handed it to me. No one dangled it out there waiting for it to be snatched up. I sought out this opportunity and made it happen

               Not only am I teaming up with a company that can teach me more about what I love, I can be here as an asset as someone with new viewpoints and freshly out of school. I get to learn about the industry and use the knowledge I’ve gained (and paid for!) to help their existing customers.

               My takeaway from this experience goes back to a lesson a very special person once taught me, “If you don’t ask, you’re always at no.”

               Look for the grey areas in life. Be different. Write 100 cover letters. Find what you love. Passion will trump logic EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

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Ag 101 Week 33

Soil Health Indicators-

        Quantitative Vs. Qualitative

 

I’ve spoken before about how I feel there are differences between soil health and soil fertility. If you refer back to week 2, I wrote a short post about it.

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/1/5/ag-101-week-2

This week I want to expand on the two topics and go further into depth about each. Knowing the differences, understanding the concepts, and implementing management strategies specific to your farm is what will set you apart and elevate the level of your farm's capabilities.

Let’s start with soil health. If you recall I’ve likened this to the overall concept that every farmer knows they need to work towards. We have a basic understanding that to grow a high yielding productive crop sustainably as possible the soil we are producing it in needs to be healthy. The benchmarks set are qualitative indicators that are achieved when specific farming practices are used leading to healthy soil. Those indicators include-

Organic Matter (OM)

Physical

Chemical

Biological

The NRCS has developed several great resources outlining and explaining each in great detail

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/assessment

A walk around your fields on a regular basis is also a great way to assess the indicators as well. I highly recommend to farmers on any scale to invest the time to walk fields with a notebook and a shovel. Yes, I realize technology has come along way from the days when I was scouting on foot and had nothing else but what I could fit in my backpack, however getting out and looking for yourself as often as possible beats any technology we have. On my uncle's farm, he has tracking devices for each cow. It’s a great system and aids him immensely. However, he still invests the time to monitor each animal in case the monitors aren’t functioning correctly for whatever reason. Technology should be used as another layer of management but does not replace the human element of seeing it for yourself.

Here are some field observations for each indicator-

Organic matter-

Color is one of the best field observations for OM. Soils higher in OM will have a darker appearance. On occasion, they will have an earthy smell to them as well.

Physical-

Structure, soil depth, infiltration, and water holding capacity are visible indicators. The soils ability to retain nutrients, water, and be a conducive environment for microbes is dependent on its soil structure. Balanced amounts of different pore spaces and a soil that is workable but not so lacking in stability it just crumbles like sand indicate a healthy soil structure. Often you hear some say your soil should resemble large curd cottage cheese.  

The depth of the soil is an indication of the plants’ potential to establish roots adequate for proper nutrient and moisture uptake and is a function of compaction and plow pan depths. When looking at soil in your field, you can often see plow lines in ground that has been overworked. Using minimal till farming systems ensure less disturbance aiding in healthy microbial populations and supplying adequate oxygen to support a balance of diverse communities.

Chemical-

The chemical indicators include pH, which is directly related to biological and nutrient availability in the soil. Electrical conductivity is an indicator of overall plant growth response, microbial activity, and salt tolerances.  A measure of plant available nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) is an indication of potential soil fertility and potential for N and P loss.

Every one to three years you should have a laboratory soil test done for pH, OM, CEC, base saturation, macronutrients, and micronutrients tested.

However, using a pH-electroconductivity meter in the interim is a good idea to monitor soil health in the field. Several meters on the market do an adequate job for field use. They run anywhere from $99-to several hundred dollars. If purchasing one is cost prohibitive, check with your local extension service. Often, extension or conservation district offices have equipment for farmers to borrow for field analysis.

 

Biological-

The biological health of the soil is indicated by everything from plant growth to the presence of the tiniest of microbe’s unseen to the naked eye and everything in between. Good field indications of a healthy microbial population are the presence of earthworms and in a grazing system Dung Beetles. Something you don’t hear of often, and I think overlooked. Ask any grazer that I’ve walked their fields; I’m usually ignoring them while picking through piles of poo. All though small in size they make up for it in function and usefulness. Dung Beetles are natures manure spreaders. An earthy smell is an indication of balanced microbial life as well.

Where soil health can be assessed with field indicators, soil fertility is the quantitative measure of the signs earlier mentioned. Soil fertility is defined as the soils ability to supply essential nutrients to the plant. I’ll add that it should be done with sustainable economically minded practices and inputs that can be implemented by the farmer. The Cadillac of all farming systems and fertility programs are pointless if the farmer can’t pay for, comprehend, or implement them.

The measure of soil fertility is done through several laboratory tests and indexes quantifying OM, physical characteristics, chemical characteristics, and quantifiable biological populations. I often get asked what laboratory test a grower should do and how often. The answer is not always as straightforward as one might think. It ultimately depends on the level at which you want to manage your specific farm and are the costs involved justified. Far too often I see farms using highly specialized tests and achieving the same results another grower did with consistently monitoring field indicators. Each test is another layer of management that needs to show enough return on investment to be feasible.

The following tests are available nationwide. The following is not an exhausted list; it is a reference to tests I recommend or have used with growers. If you know of other, let me know.

Comprehensive soil analysis

Manure/compost analysis

Plant tissue testing

Diagnostic disease and insect testing

Sap testing

Brix level testing

Biological respiration testing

Biological Identification and population assessments

Each test comes with its pros and cons. If the level to which you manage your farm warrants the cost associated with each one then having the extra quantified information can be of value.

Grab a shovel, get out and walk your fields. Consistent field monitoring with consistent and applicable testing are management strategies necessary to achieve soil health and manage soil fertility leading to a successful and profitable farm.  

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Ag 101 Week 32

Three Things You Can Do Today to Increase Your Profit Next Season

 

No one has ever said farming is trouble-free. If it were everyone would be doing it. However, there are simple things you can do it increase your odds of being profitable.

 

1.     Create a Field Map

Often I start working with a new farmer and they keep records for everything else but don’t have a map of their fields or beds they are farming. It doesn’t have to involve an elaborate to scale rendering of your entire property, that can come in time.

What it should do is map out all the fields or beds that are currently being used and ones that are fallow or left for future production. The map should coincide with the history of the field including information like crop rotations, herbicide and pesticide applications, any amendment and fertilizer applications, notes about crop health, possibly include pictures, any soil test results, and notes regarding any normal or abnormal conditions related to the field.

Having field maps helps to create the framework necessary to establish a soil testing rotation that works for the crops and you. Field mapping will ensure tests are done promptly to reduce unnecessary costs for amendments and fertilizers.

Here is an example of a field map from a grower I recently consulted with.

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Nothing fancy, but enough with coinciding information I could make necessary decisions regarding their farm's soil fertility program for the next growing season.

 

2.     Get a Soil Test

During a recent interview for the Grazers Grapevine Podcast sponsored by the PA Grazing Lands Coalition. One of the questions asked was, “What if a farmer doesn’t want to get a soil test?”  Believe it or not, I have farmers that don’t test their soil regularly with lab tests. They are monitoring soil health by other factors and making soil fertility decisions based on crop health and quality.

I also have farmers that not only do regular soil testing; they invest in sap testing, Solvita testing, take routine tissue tests, and perform on-site Brix testing. The type of testing done or not done has to be a farmers’ choice and work with how they are managing their farm. Yield goals and crop management determine the frequency, timing, and type of tests used.  For more on soil testing refer to Week 24 at the following link

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/6/11/ag-101-week-24

3.     Crop Selection

Focus on what had minimal labor and input costs produced good yields, and sold at market.

Other factors to take into consideration are climate, soil capabilities, average rainfall, average growing degree days (GDD) for your area, and availability of disease and pest resistant seed varieties.

Three valuable resources are-

Soil capabilities

https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm

Weather monitoring

https://www.agweb.com/weather/

Seed Supplier

http://www.johnnyseeds.com/

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Ag 101 Week 31

Five Common Pits Falls New Farmers Need to Avoid

Every time I hear the saying, “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” it makes me laugh. I have fallen at the most inopportune moments and have had my fair share of mishaps, so I’m pretty much laughing at myself.

One time-

My husband and I were attending Rodale’s Organic Pioneer Awards Banquet, and I fell down the port-a-potty steps during cocktail hour. Facing cocktail hour for everyone to see. I was meant at the bottom by the executive director at that time; he graciously helped me up. I sat through dinner with ripped pants. I didn’t use the restroom the rest of the evening. I was suffering from post-traumatic-port-a-potty stress disorder and informed my bladder it could deal with it no matter how long it had to wait till I could get home and use my bathroom.

I want to know whose decision it was to face the port-a-potty towards cocktail hour, anyway?!

We’ve all fallen. It’s life.

Here are some common pitfalls I’ve seen new and even some experienced farmers fall in or for-

Pitfall Number One-

Balancing ego with humility or vice versa

Have enough ego to make you content not arrogant

Have enough humility to make you human not timid

Nothing about soil or plants work on our time or according to our plan. We have to take on management strategies to accomplish what it is we want to produce. It’s management to the nth degree. Soil wants to be what soil is – that’s dictated by its parent material, not you. Plants want to grow and reproduce whether you planted them or not– that’s why they flower and fruit.

It has very little to do with us. Work with it or against it; it’s your choice.

Finding a balance between ego and humility results in confidence

Finding a balance between the soils capabilities, the plants requirements, and your management style is what makes you a prosperous farmer.

Pitfall Number Two-

Knowledge overload in a world plagued with information diarrhea

Seek well vetted proven sources

Invest in an agronomy textbook like The Nature and Properties of Soil by Brady and Weil. Buy an agronomy guide published by your local extension office for reference. And seek out successful farmers that you can look to for ideas and inspiration.

The best social media resource I have found is a platform called Agfuse.

https://agfuse.com/

Agronomy is science applied practically. It is the science of managing the soil, the crop, and management strategies. It’s not about the latest trend on social media or buzzwords being repeated at all the conferences.

Soil doesn't follow trends; markets do

Pitfall Number Three

Stopping at just the soil test

Ever hear that story about the guy digging for diamonds, and he stopped something like 2 feet short, and right below was the mother load? I’m pretty sure I have paraphrased and taken some editing privileges beyond what I should have, but you get the idea.

First, don’t stop one test short of getting the entire picture. Don’t waste time and money by only getting part of the information needed to make critical soil fertility decisions about your farm.

Things to include are-

pH

Organic Matter

Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC)

Base Saturation

Macro Nutrients

Micro Nutrients

Two more key points to take into consideration:

-Using a local lab can ensure they have a better knowledge of soils particular to your region

-Staying consistent with the time of year samples are taken will provide a more accurate soil fertility program. Nutrient availability is often affected by soil temperature.

Want to read more about the six things every soil test should include, go to Week 24 at the following link

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/6/11/ag-101-week-24

Second, don’t just stop at getting the test done either. Far too often I hear farmers say, “I got my soil test results, but have no idea what it means.”

Find someone with an agronomic background that can explain what all those numbers mean and how to use that information to your advantage on your farm. Going beyond just getting a soil test takes you from being an average grower to an exceptional grower. It could also mean the difference between ending up in the red or the black financially.

Pitfall Number Four

                                    Not having an outlet to sell your product

You have to be able to sell what you produce to make money.

Spend time researching what a good product to sell in your area is; not the newest variety that’s all the rage in the seed catalogs. Not that you shouldn’t try new things, do it judiciously.

Look to other farmers who have a presence at the local markets and emulate it with your produce and personality but don’t copy it.

Believe in your product so everyone else will.

I’m stopping right here. This is not my area of expertise. I’m not sure if you noticed but I can’t half market my own business. I honestly thought marketing consisted of my fantastic smile and business cards.  

I’m an agronomist. I understand soil, plants, and care enough for the people who grow them to keep doing this day in and day out.

If you need marketing help look to people, who have shown a proven track record.

Here’s a list of people I look to for advice and examples-

Bootstrap Farmer Business Network found on Facebook, Instagram, and a Podcast

Farmhouse Creative Marketing found on Facebook and Instagram

3 Cow Marketing found on Facebook and Instagram

Pitfall Number Five

                                    Trying to keep up with the Jone’s

You had a great first year at market, and now you have some cash. What do you do with it? Seek out sound financial advice and follow economic principles that keep you in business not going out of business. Even if it means you don’t have the latest and greatest all the Rockstar farmers have or seem to.

Each farm is unique, each farmer is even more unique, and no farms’ financials are the same.

If you can’t understand it, implement it, or pay for it; you probably shouldn’t do it.

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Ag 101 Week 30

I Screwed Up –

And Lost Sight of My BMP's

 

It has once again been a busy week. I let writing a post go to the last minute. So, I went into my files and found a piece I had written a while back when I might have been frustrated and upset about a few things. Thinking it was kind of fitting, considering earlier this week I had seen some things on social media and had some conversations that frustrated me. I thought what the heck, why not add to what I already wrote and put it out there for everyone to read. I spent my Sunday afternoon editing and adding a few pictures. I may have included more terse remarks about the industry. There may be the possibility I even used the phrase ‘narcissist ego driven jackass.’ I realize that's a bit harsh on my part, sorry. And then, I hit the publish button. Oh yeah, when I do stuff, I do it.

Instantly I came to my senses and deleted it. I wish. Truth, my husband sat me down and explained somethings to me. Only then did I delete it.

I am extremely grateful for his wisdom and the fact he is willing to talk some sense into me on occasion. He helped me realize I was not following my own Best Management Practices; otherwise known as BMP's that I have established to run my business. Did it feel good to have some reckless abandon and let it all hang out so to speak? You bet! However, it serves no good for myself, my clients, or the people I would like to help. Nor would it help me achieve my ultimate goal. 

So late last night I had to come up with a new topic. I was pretty upset I had wasted a whole day for nothing and kept thinking if I had just stayed on course following the objectives I already set out for how I want to operate I would have avoided all that from happening. If I had followed BMP's,  I wouldn’t have had to get up early this morning to re-write the entire thing.

Am I human and screw up occasionally? Yes

However, it is much easier to get back on course when you have a set of guidelines or Best Management Practices to follow.

Farming is no different. It is far to easy to listen to the latest and greatest trends, getting off course from time to time. However, if you determine your BMP's , all your choices will have a base from which you operate and help guide you towards reaching your ultimate goal, even if you stray occasionally. 

 

Here are

five essential BMP’s important to consider in any farming operation-

 

Reduce Compaction – All this means is controlling the amount of traffic in a field or the area you are planting in. Compacted soil leads to poor drainage, inhibited root growth, and an overall decline in plant health and yield. Create walkways or roads to be efficient and help to reduce the number of passes you have to make through a permanent bed or a field. I’ve read statistics showing that 90% of a field can be compacted by normal field activities due to conventional tillage.  I know me just walking all over my garden can cause issues, but impacting anywhere up to 90%, that brings huge implications.

Incorporate Cover Crops – Cover crops are beneficial by for several reasons. They add organic matter, reduce erosion, help fix nitrogen, improve drainage and soil structure issues. They can also be used to suppress weeds and disease problems. Some may be able to be used as a cash crop as well.

The best resource I have found for information on cover cropping is at-

https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition

https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/mandan-nd/ngprl/docs/cover-crop-chart/

Manage Crop Rotations – It’s succession planting, and just like the rest of the BMP’s one can implement them on any scale. Use crops that make sense for your farming system, climate, and soil. The idea of crop rotations is as old as farming is, however with all the added complexities of modern farmer we seem to have gotten stuck in either no rotations or repeating the same rotations depending on your situation. Rotating through a diversified group of crops helps with soil nutrient management, insect and disease-related issues, weed issues, and has been shown to have a positive effect on the diversity and health of naturally occurring soil biology.

Nutrient Management- is the implementation of the 4R Principles I have covered in Weeks 6 and 14 here-

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/5/ag-101-week-6

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/3/28/ag-101-week-14

Managing nutrients will not only have a financial benefit not having to invest as much in inputs; the environmental implication will be beneficial as well.

The following are fundamental concepts to keep in consideration when developing soil fertility management strategies-

-Having a soil test done

-Determine recommended amounts of nutrients needed to produce the desired yields

-Take into account other nutrient sources such as cover crops and manures

-Take into account previous field history such as crops and previously applied amendments & fertilizers

-Keep records

Tillage – The best definition of tillage I have come across is; it is the mechanical modification of soil structure. Tillage can be used to suppress weeds, prep seedbeds, incorporate manure, amendments & fertilizers, and previous crop residue. However, it can be destructive to soil structure causing compaction, erosion, and overall soil health issues if not managed carefully. It is a management decision a farmer has to make based on their unique situation. No-till is not for everyone nor is conventional tillage.

Just as any business or organization has to have management strategies to follow keeping them on track, so does your farm.

 Every farm has that fence row where everything has it's place

Every farm has that fence row where everything has it's place