Talking Dirty with The Accidental Agronomist - Take One

The Homesteader Edition

After writing about agronomy for a year, I decided I would do something different.

Even though I have gained two more chins due to the number of prescription drugs I have been on for the past six months and my complete lack of technical skills, I decided I would start doing video interviews with all types of people either directly or indirectly involved in agriculture.

Nothing scripted or even really edited, just a one on one conversation about agronomy.

For the first interview, I sat down with a friend I’ve known for a while now to get her take on what agronomy means to her as a homesteader and let her ask a question or two as well.

Meet Diane, a backyard gardening homesteader from somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Ag 101 Week 52

The Golden Rule

Can you believe it! This is the last you will hear me using the phrase, The 52 Weeks of Agronomy.

Unless I turn it into a made for TV movie or a fiction novel and travel the world doing book signings.

I don’t think that is happening anytime soon. I tried to watch the video I made for week 27 and convinced myself the only saving grace was I didn’t take my clothes off. It’s so bad I’m not even putting a link to it. My family is still petitioning me to remove the link to it altogether.

It has been a wild journey getting to this point. After taking some time and re-reading several of the posts, I can say I’ve laughed, cried, and wondered” What the heck was I thinking when I wrote that!?

However, one thing keeps coming to mind when I look back over the last 52 weeks.

Soil, much like people, follows one golden rule. You know, that rule we all heard about as kids.

Treat other’s the same way you want to be treated

Or, in agronomic terms

Give back to the soil what you have taken from it

It’s that simple. There is no complicated formula, no fancy terminology needed, no industry jargon to convolute and be confused by. Just give back what you have taken.

Why should you give back…?

Soil is selfish, and plants are horny

To keep soil productive and plants reproducing you have to continually manage the fertility needs of both. Giving soil back what it needs to support the plant's recreational activities that ultimately benefit us.

That’s it — nothing more, nothing less.

Just a simple exercise of reciprocity between the farmer and the land using all the information we've covered over the last 52 weeks

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Ag 101 Week 51

Agronomic Testing Options

My titles have not become any more creative, but I get my point across.

This is the second to last post of the 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m slightly relieved. At the same time, I’m looking forward to having more time for other projects that do not require typing, or at least me doing it.  Maybe one will require me wearing out a red pen ripping apart someone else’s grammar. Who knows!?

What I do know is that we have come to the time of year farmers have questions. They have them year-round, now they have more time to ask them.

One of the most recent questions I’ve gotten is regarding the different types of agronomic testing available to farmers and growers.

The following is part of an email conversation with a grower I work within Maryland-

The farmer asked,

“I was thinking about doing a sap sample of the grass and clover in the field and also a Brix's reading at the same time. What are your thoughts?”

My response was,

“As far as the sap and Brix's testing, from an agronomic standpoint they won't change any soil fertility recommendations I would have. Everything I look at and take into consideration is based on soil tests in conjunction with tissue testing depending on the type of crop, farming system, and whether the grower will see an economic return for the costs of the tests. I'm looking at the actual nutrient levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, etc. There are so many variables like time of day the sample was taken, what part of the plant was sampled, and what calibration standards were used, it would make it difficult for an agronomist to base a soil fertility assessment on sap and Brix's levels. 

Tissue testing utilizes dry matter - it’s a picture at the moment at that part of the plant sampled as to what is there

Sap testing utilizes the fluid portion of the plant; it's similar to a blood test - keep in mind that fluids are constantly moving and every nutrient moves at different rates 

There are always variables in any kind of testing; you can't mitigate for everyone. However, soil and tissue testing are the best tools currently an agronomist has to look at what is going on at that moment in time.

That being said, and due to the fact, you are testing sugar and protein levels in the plant with the Brix's test, from a forage quality standpoint, the results may be of value to an animal nutritionist when determining rations and taking animal health into consideration.”

Here are some common agronomic tests, followed with a brief description and some of my thoughts on them.

Standard soil test- I talk in detail about what a soil test should include in week 24

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

Soil health assessments conducted by universities include soil typing and physical analysis of samples similar to what Cornell offers at the following link

 http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/testing-services/comprehensive-soil-health-assessment/

In general, I recommend a standard soil test and use the link at the Web Soil Survey

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

Using both of those is comparable to Cornell’s package costing considerably less

 Soil paste test-

In general, this test shows what nutrients are immediately available to a plant because they are not bound to a colloid.

It is also one of the most accurate tests for measuring soil salinity which can be a common problem in soils in the central and western part of the country.

Some agronomist’s feel a standard soil test plus the paste test is the most accurate way to determine soil fertility needs. In my experience, it is farm, soil type, and management dependent as to whether you will see a return on investment for the extra cost.

 Plant tissue test-

As stated before in my email response; tissue testing utilizes dry matter - it’s a picture at the moment at that part of the plant sampled as to what is there.

It is a good measure of the nutrient status of a particular plant at that moment in time giving you a picture of what may typically be happening. It is a good indication of the efficacy of your fertility program as well. Tissue tests are dependent on timing, plant temperature, and growth stage the sample was taken.

Typically, guides are offered for the plant stage at which a tissue sample should be taken based on crop type. The sample is taken when the plant is actively growing, so timing is critical.

Spectrum Analysis offers a detailed guide to plant tissue testing

 https://www.spectrumanalytic.com/services/analysis/plantguide.pdf

Plant sap analysis-

This is the best analogy I have come up with for sap testing-

Sap testing utilizes the fluid portion of the plant; it's similar to a blood test - keep in mind that fluids are constantly moving and every nutrient moves at different rates 

The following is an interesting article regarding sap analysis

 https://www.specmeters.com/newsletter/if-plants-could-talk-vol-4/

I believe it can be a useful in-field test. However, there are variables such as operator error that would make me uncomfortable using it as the sole means of making fertility recommendations.

There are a few labs in the states that conduct sap analysis. One of them being

 https://www.crophealthlabs.com/

Brix test-

A brix test is the measure of the sugar content found in a plant tissue sample that has been pulverized, and the aqueous solution from that is then put in a refractometer and read.

Once again as with the sap testing, I believe it has in field use especially in a grazing operation. However, the variables associated with it make it suitable for field use and not what I would base a sound soil fertility program on.

I work with growers that use it in the field to help with harvest decisions with a tremendous amount of success. Using well-calibrated equipment with consistent protocols for testing has saved them time and money ensuring they harvest at that crop’s peak quality and nutrition levels.

Just as with plant sap analysis I believe it can be a useful in-field test. However, there are variables such as operator error and calibration protocols that would make me uncomfortable using it as the sole means of making fertility recommendations.

Soil Biological testing-

   Co2 Burst test-

This test is a soil health indicator, measuring the amount of microbial respiration.

The following pdf is the best explanation I have found

 https://www.wardlab.com/download/biotesting/Respiration_Information.pdf

I would recommend growers use this in conjunction with soil nitrate tests to make a comparison and better calibrate any side-dress nitrogen applications that might need to be applied during the growing season.

The following is a well-written extension guide from Penn State explaining pre-side dress soil nitrate testing

 https://extension.psu.edu/pre-sidedress-soil-nitrate-test-for-corn

  Microbial Identification-

Microbial identification is done with a microscope.

There are several consultants that provide soil microbiological identification services at the following link

 https://soilfoodweb.mykajabi.com/p/find-a-consultant-lab

 Water testing-

Water can be the carney in the coal mine especially when it comes to greenhouse management. pH is the most critical aspect of water testing in term of a soil fertility program and soil health. However, with water and its natural pH due to its source, comes with its dissolved elements that could be beneficial or not depending on the situation. The best measure to determine the impact irrigation water will have is through testing.

The following are links to labs I regularly use for soil and water testing

 https://www.spectrumanalytic.com/

 http://www.waypointanalytical.com/

Entomological/ Pathological testing for field crops-

Before I started the 52 Weeks Series, I wrote a post titled “What’s an Agronomist, Anyway?”

Here’s an excerpt-

“On any given day as challenges and questions are posed to me, I have to think like a biologist, a chemist, a botanist, sometimes a pathologist, and if I’m really confident an entomologist. Usually, I defer to experts on the pathology and entomology. I know enough to be dangerous and kill stuff. “

As an agronomist, I kill stuff or keep it alive depending on what the farmer wants me to do.

What I can also say is I have been doing this long enough to make a definite diagnosis like thrips, aphids, blights, rusts, etc. However, when it goes beyond the obvious, I send a sample to the local land-grant university for identification. That’s what they are for, as well as other services.

Some good references to have on hand to make common identifications easier are-

Introduction to Plant Diseases: Identification and Management by George B. Lucas & Lee Campbell

Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw

The Ortho Problem Solver by Michael D. Smith

 Forage test-

Ask an animal nutritionist or forage specialist. I can’t be an expert at all things.

In week 44 I discuss potassium and admit what my dad refers to me as

 https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/10/29/ag-101-week-44

With that in mind here are basic ratios I look at when interpreting a soil test for forages-

Calcium to phosphorus 1.7:1

Calcium to magnesium 2.7:1

Calcium to sulfur 2.1-1

Potassium to calcium 1.5:1

Potassium to magnesium 4:1

Protein to sulfur 50:1

Nitrogen to sulfur 8.8:1

Potassium should be between 3.0-3.5% Calcium between 70-75% of the base saturation

One of the best agronomists who has an extensive forage background and one I’ve had the pleasure to be around and learn from is Dave Wilson from Penn State Extension.

Here’s a link to two articles he has written

 https://extension.psu.edu/shopby/dave-wilson

In summary-

This is in no way an exhausted list. There are several tests that are similar but have different names based on the lab offering them.

I am not suggesting that every farm needs to be doing all the mentioned tests. Each one mentioned is another layer of management in the overall plan of how you are running your farm. They are not meant to be used in every case all of the time. Every farmer needs to weigh if the results from the analysis will yield an adequate return on investment for their operation.

Just as the title states, they are agronomic testing options.

Ag 101 Week 50

Leaves Never Lie

 

Neither does my tongue. Here’s the story.

I’ve been going to acupuncture every week now for the past month. Every week Brian the acupuncturists asks to see my tongue. He reads it like I read leaves when I’m on a farm or in a greenhouse.

For the past two weeks, I have been getting a gallon of what is hands down the best ice cream I have ever had since the time I was in doing farm visits around the O’Brien, Florida area. The ice cream I had at one farm would blow your mind. I could be considered somewhat of an ice cream snob.

Every time I’m standing in the kitchen eating some while thinking everyone else is preoccupied, my daughter inevitably comes around the corner and says,” Brian’s going to ask to see your tongue.” I respond with, “I know and I’ll tell him the truth.”

This week I go to acupuncture, he asks to see my tongue, it has a greasy film, he gives me a look, and I confess to the fact I’ve been eating the best ice cream found in the state of Pennsylvania every day for the past several weeks. We have a conversation much as I would have with a grower. I leave realizing the error of my ways and how my ice cream eating is only holding back my progress.

When I do farm or greenhouse visits, I’m often looking at leaves more than I’m listening to the farmer. Well, I’m doing both sometimes simultaneously. All because much like my tongue, leaves will always tell me exactly what I need to know. They are the first indicator of everything from management decisions to fertilizer and amendment applications or the lack thereof. It all goes back to week 7, Thinking Like an Agronomist. Being observant and asking questions to put the pieces of the puzzle together

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/7/ag-101-week-7

Leaf appearance is also a determining factor for deciding the necessity of further analysis such as sap, tissue, pathology or entomology testing.

You can google resources for all types of leaf issues. The following are the best I found and I still use them.

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

An app I’ve used is called Plantix.

Plantix for Android

Plantix for Android

You can pick up to four crops at a time, submit a post for others to comment on and use pictures from your phone. The library is fairly extensive for some common and uncommon issues.

The next time your walking around your fields or greenhouses look at the leaves, they never lie.

Ag 101 Week 49

Finding Balance

 

I’ve spent the majority of this week starting to organize our house and get things together in one central location to be cleaned out.

After years of accumulating, collecting, and accepting the well-meaning ‘donations’ from family members I’ve made the decision that I’m over it. If we haven’t used it within the last several months, we never will, and it’s out of here.

All the effort and time spent towards the great clean out and maintaining our regular schedule has not left much time for coming up with a topic let alone writing about it.

However, early this morning, after my husband left for work and I started thinking about what I needed to do today, it dawned on me what I could write…Finding Balance. It’s what I’ve been working towards all week. Finding balance between us and all the stuff we live with.

Everything we do is about finding balance. Everything from health, food, money, relationships, work, kids, how much stuff we have in our homes, and even agronomy is about balance.

I wrote a post several months back titled “Soil Doesn’t Follow Trends.”

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/15/soil-doesnt-follow-trends-markets-do

The last sentence of the post reads,

“Start paying attention to the soil they (the farmers) have and work with it to apply science and technology in practical ways to harness its natural abilities.”

Finding balance in agronomy is taking the latest in science and technology and applying it practically to meet your soils and plants needs while being sustainable practices you can do. These things do not necessarily mean keeping up with the latest catch-phrases, hashtags, or trends that make their way into agriculture.

One aspect of balance in agronomy is what I do when I start working with a farmer to develop a soil and crop fertility plan. I’m often asked what method or school of thought I use to balance soil nutrients.

I do not prescribe to one philosophy or method for developing a soil fertility plan. I take each farm, farmer, soil type, and crops being grown into consideration. I keep up with what the latest and greatest is and who the current rocks stars are, but just as I feel soil doesn’t follow trends, nor do I.

What I have done is spent years listening to and learning from all different types of agronomists and ag-related professionals from across the industry.

I have several of my favorite resources listed at the following link

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/resources/

Here are a few more that I use frequently-

Ball Redbook Vol 1 Greenhouse & Equipment Vol 2 Crop production

The Ideal Soil v2.0 By Michael Astera

A&L Laboratories Agronomy Handbook

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms edited by Charles L. Mohler & Sue Ellen Johnson

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Ag 101 Week 48

Buy One Get One Free

 

This post isn’t about a great deal on fertilizer or an early order discount program. I happen to be writing it on Black Friday, and that was the best title I could come up with.

What we’re talking about are amendments and fertilizers that do double duty.  The ones you get more bang for your buck out of. The ones that you could use by themselves or with others.

In addition to that topic, everything I’ve been talking about over the past year is all starting to come together.

In week 2 – Soil Health vs. Soil Fertility I started laying the groundwork for what I saw as a need in the agricultural industry. Farmers need to have an understanding of basic agronomic principles to be and remain a sustainable and financially viable business while utilizing the incredible resources offered to them by mother nature herself. 

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

I followed that up with a post about the difference between amending and fertilizing in week 5

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

In week 11 I discussed the similarities between fertilizer blends and pajamas – one size does not fit all. In all seriousness, the fact that fertilizer blends can contain fillers is the real story. A farmer or gardener needs to be knowledgeable of how fertilizer fillers are capable of altering soil chemistry.   

 https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/3/3/fertilizers-and-pajamas

Moreover, we’ve talked about the need to understand how, when, what and where to fertilizing in weeks 6 & 10

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

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/25/ag-101-week-10

So, what are some amendments and fertilizers that do double duty-

Fish/Crab/Shrimp Meal-

Typical analysis ranges from 5-30%N 4-6%P

Typically, fish varies from 5-9%N depending on whether it is a meal, powder or liquid

Crab and Shrimp range from 10-30%N with 11-18%Ca depending on the shell to meat ratio

Crab makes an excellent addition to a fertilizer blend for the extra calcium, and the addition on an enzyme called chitin that has been shown to help control nematodes in the soil. This also makes it an excellent fertilizer for tomatoes.

Bone Meal-

A typical analysis is 3-4%N

It is also a good source of phosphorus at 15-27% and calcium.

When mixed with a calcium source like aragonite, it supplies immediately available and season-long calcium.

Soybean Meal-

A standard analysis is 6-7%N ~2%P

It’s a good source for full season nitrogen supply as well as phosphorus

Soybean meal has been shown to burn new seedlings and reduce germination rates potentially. Care should be exercised when timing the application

Alfalfa and Cottonseed Meal -

Typical Analysis 1-2% K 2-3%P Slow to medium release

These are an all-around season long supplier of not only nitrogen, a small fraction of phosphorus, and potassium as well.

Alfalfa and cottonseed meal can be cost prohibitive in an organic system. However, if used effectively the benefits can out weight the price.

Benefits of alfalfa meal-

-Helps build organic matter

-If used as a cover crop it fixes nitrogen

-Alfalfa adds essential nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, boron, iron, zinc, and magnesium

-Alfalfa feeds soil microbes

-It can be a compost stimulator

Some advantages to using cottonseed meal-

-Cottonseed meal is an excellent option for acid-loving plants like blueberries and roses. It’s a fertilizer, soil conditioner, and acidifier.

Both alfalfa and cottonseed meal both have growth stimulating properties that aid in overall plant health.

Sol-Po-Mag-

Typical analysis 22%K 22%Sulfur 11%Mg Medium to fast availability.

Much like SOP, it is relatively soluble depending on particle size.

SOP covers sulfate, potassium, and magnesium deficiencies at once

Kelp-

Typical analysis 4-13%K Slow to medium release

Kelp can be used as a liquid concentrate, powder, or meal. It can be attributed for being part of all five of the previously listed roles K plays in plant health. If I could only recommend one product, kelp would be it. That being said you still need to use it judiciously as not to decrease its efficacy.

Greensand-

Typical analysis ~5% K Prolonged release

Greensand is a good source of potassium, trace minerals, and soil conditioning properties. When I got into organic agriculture and was working for a fertilizer company, I had never heard of anything like greensand. They would explain greensand as being magic. It could loosen tight soils and tighten loose soils. Not being satisfied with the supernatural explanation, I came to learn the power of greensand is in the structure. It has a unique layered structure unlike any other clay giving it the ability to correct a variety of soil structure issues. Hands down I would use greensand before any others. I often recommend a 50/50 mix of greensand and kelp.

Liming products-

I talk at length about liming materials in the following post

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/11/4/ag-101-week-45

Another critical point to remember is these materials are used as fillers in fertilizer blends to help products flow better or add to the volume of product for packaging. Just as with other chemistries listed in the NPK value, these interact with the soil and alter the chemistry as previously mentioned.

Manures-

Raw manure is the most nutrient dense. The longer it composts it losses its nutrient value. Over applying it, can lead to not only environmental issues also pest and disease challenges.

Typical analysis ranges depending on the manure, however, if used judiciously from a trusted source it can be a great building block for any fertility program adding not only organic matter but nutrients as well.

 Vinegar-

Vinegar is to a farmer as a gym sock and paperclip are to MacGyver. You can do anything with it from kill weeds, clean and disinfect tools, use it as an extract for kelp, greensand or aragonite, and use it to mitigate pH issues in fertigation systems.

For even more ideas go to week 18

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/4/29/ag-101-week-18

Ag 101 Week 47

Trace Minerals

 

Would you believe after this post there are only five weeks left in the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series!

Since I’ve started writing, a lot has happened not only professionally but personally as well. Last year I came on the speaking scene pretty strong presenting at four fairly significant conferences. This year I have had seven proposals rejected for silly reasons like they didn’t like my title or they felt I was redundant. Funny thing is, I said the title was not set in stone and I had never spoken at that particular conference before.  I’ve been called everything from a charlatan to a rock star. It has been brought to my attention that I should ask my family to purchase Grammarly for me as a Christmas gift. Even through all of that, I gained readers all over the world, doubled my email list, recorded a couple podcasts, presented for gardening clubs, and kept writing. Last but not least, I can now say I have clients in six states, and the consulting side of my business is steadily growing.

I’ve also gained a new appreciation for my health and hope to keep up with the small but necessary steps to get past some challenges I’ve had. I have completely given up coffee, alcohol, refined sugars, and processed foods along with some other changes without harming anyone in the process.

Moreover, that leads me to this week’s topic.

Trace Minerals- Small but necessary elements that are critical for plant health.

Roles trace minerals play in plant health-

The amount of trace minerals in soil is related to the parent material and the amending and fertilizing history

Trace minerals are often referred to as micronutrients because they are required in relatively small amounts by plants and the people and animals consuming them

It has been up to debate has how nutrients such as sulfur are viewed. For the sake of this post, I’m going to cover it.

Trace minerals have been linked to the following functions

Sulfur (S) – Sulfur is needed to manufacture chlorophyll and the synthesis of nitrogen. It also encourages overall plant growth and vigor.

Boron (B) – Boron aids in cellular growth and helps to regulate the uptake of nutrients. It is essential for water absorption and the translocation of sugars. Boron and zinc have been linked to aiding in the vegetative and reproductive stages of berry development.

Copper (Cu) – Copper works to help plants metabolize nitrogen and is essential for iron utilization. It has been linked to bacterial and fungal suppression as well.

Iron (Fe) – Iron assists in the creation of chlorophyll and protein synthesis

Manganese (Mn) - Manganese is known as an activator for several enzymes responsible for plant metabolism as well as nitrogen transformation. 

Molybdenum (Mo) – Molybdenum plays several critical roles in a plants ability to metabolize nitrogen.

Zinc (Zn) – Zinc is required in seed production. It has also been linked to aiding the vegetative and reproductive phases in berry development.

Potential sources of organic inputs for trace minerals

Kelp-

Kelp can be used as a liquid concentrate, powder, or meal. It is a powerhouse of trace minerals and plant growth stimulating hormones. If I were reduced to recommending one product kelp would be it. That being said you still need to use it judiciously as not to decrease its efficacy

Greensand-

An excellent source of potassium and trace minerals along with built-in soil conditioning properties.

Azomite-

Azomite is a hydrated sodium calcium aluminosilicate broad-spectrum soil remineralizing product

Aragonite-

Raw aragonite brings with is biology from the sea, acting as a built-in inoculant as well as containing several trace minerals

Redmond Salt-

Redmond salt is an unrefined product containing more than 60 naturally occurring minerals

Chelated liquid forms-

This group of products can be mineral specific. The most common that I have worked with are Baicor Liquids. Care should be taken that your plants show signs of apparent deficiencies through tissue testing before applying to determine necessity and rates

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Ag 101 Week 46

Efficacy

 

 ef·fi·ca·cy

/ˈefəkəsē/

noun

1.     the ability to produce a desired or intended result.

"there is little information on the efficacy of this treatment"

synonyms:

effectiveness, success, productiveness, potency, power;

Before moving on to talking about trace minerals and sulfur, I wanted to discuss a word I find myself using often. I even found myself having a conversation about this topic with my acupuncturist this week.

I arrived for my appointment, and he noticed I have a cold. He told me before we could move forward working on my leg and arm; we would need to treat the cold, so it doesn’t go any deeper into my system. That alone is another topic for a post, but I’ll save it for later.

As we were discussing some options for herbs I could take, he spoke about a common over the counter remedy that contains Chinese herbs for colds. He mentioned the reason why people do not see the results they want is twofold – timing and overuse. As I was sitting there listening to him, I thought, “Umm, that’s much like issues some growers experience.”

To realize somethings full efficacy; it’s ability to produce a desired or intended result, you need to use the right source, use the right rate, have the right timing, and in the case of fertilizer, amendments, hebicides, and pesticides have the right placement.

A chemistries efficacy becomes even more critical in the case of trace minerals because they are required in such small amounts.

I’ve spoken at length about the right rate, timing, and placement in the following two posts

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

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/25/ag-101-week-10

Since week 41 I’ve talked at length about the right sources

The best example of chemistry losing its efficacy is in the case of herbicides. We have heard year after year of more weeds becoming herbicide resistant and even developing into superweeds. More and more I am hearing about common chemistries on the organic side of agriculture losing their efficacy as well. Things such as copper, Bt products, and even my favorite kelp are having to be applied at higher and higher rates to see any results.

So, how does a farmer avoid overusing inputs-

1.     If possible, use cultural practices such as mowing, minimal tillage, removing debris, etc.

2.     Identify the problem correctly, whether it is a pest, disease, or nutrient related

3.     Use the proper chemistry for the issue

4.     Rotate with several chemistries that work synergistically with each other

5.     Most importantly do not use more than the recommended amount of the chemistry

6.     If chemistries are needed, follow the 4R Principles laid out in the previous weeks 6 & 10 links

Remember the adage, “If a little is good, more must be better.” Isn’t always the case.

Ag 101 Week 45

Calcium & Magnesium

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

One of the fascinating aspects of soil nutrient balancing is the interactions each mineral as within the soil matrix and other nutrients. The Mulder Chart is an excellent illustration of that. It also shows the certain dominance cations like calcium and magnesium have over others.

If you recall in week 39, we discussed pH and how you use pH to adjust cations and anions. The relationships they have with each other need to be taken into consideration as well as the roles they play in soil and plant health.

 https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/9/23/ag-101-week-39

Calcium and magnesium are two of the major players when balancing soil nutrients. Their ratio is one of the most talked about in the world of soil nutrient balancing. Whether you are of the school backing the ideal 8:1, or some variation of, it can’t be denied the importance of both to not only plant health but soil health as well.

If you recall in week 29, we discussed cation exchange capacity (CEC), and I use two side by side fields to illustrate the power of calcium

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/7/16/ag-101-week-29

It’s calcium’s critical role that brings it front and center in not only soil but plant health as well.

Here are nine critical roles it plays

1.     Calcium is a flocculating agent that helps stabilize clay and organic matter leading to aggregate stability.

Calcium and to some degree magnesium, help chemically bind clay and organic matter helping with better drainage and erosion control by making the soil more stable.

2.     Proper moisture balance, created by aggregate stability in soil leads to a healthier microbial environment

3.     Calcium can neutralize excessive soil conditions, dependent on the source, leading to more robust root growth

4.     Reduce weed pressure

5.     Reduce leaching of other nutrients

6.     Calcium has also been likened to a nutrient filter whereas it regulates the movement and availability of such nutrients’ as sodium, phosphorus, iron, aluminum, and boron

Specifically, in plants

7.     Calcium is responsible for proper cell division and cell wall development.

8.     It plays a role in nitrate uptake and metabolism

9.     It represents a role in enzyme metabolism

Calcium is not mobile on its own in the soil or the plant, leading to the need to be continually supplied. It is transported through the xylem in the plant and dependent on water to complete the process. This is why tomato blossom end rot is not a calcium issue as much as it is an irrigation issue. Without a consistent water supply, calcium cannot move into the plant, hence rendering it calcium deficient.

Magnesium is just as vital to a plants’ health. Several roles it plays are-

1.     It is the central element in the chlorophyll molecule

2.     Carries phosphorus into the plant

3.     It activates and is a component of plant enzymes

4.     Aids in plant oil and fat formation

5.     Helps control nutrient uptake by the plant

6.     Aids in nitrogen fixation

One of the main concerns with magnesium in forage crops is grass tetany. It is a metabolic disease when an animal is deficient in magnesium.

Factors that lead to it are-

1.     Low levels of magnesium in the soil

2.     Soils higher in potassium

3.     Long periods of cool or cloudy weather in spring

4.     Poor soil drainage

5.     Moving animals from indoor to outdoor feeding

Magnesium can be often overlooked due to the fact it does not always translate to a higher yielding crop, just a more nutrient dense one.

Potential organic sources of calcium and magnesium

Aragonite- Typical analysis is 33-40% calcium

Aragonite is a readily available calcium source. It can be applied in the spring and be available that growing season. It also has a far greater liming effect than once realized, while providing trace minerals and biology to the soil. Raw aragonite brings with is biology from the sea, acting as a built in inocculant.

High Cal Lime- Typical analysis is 38% available calcium

Best used when there are no need for magnesium. Sometimes referred to calcitic limestone

Dolomitic Lime-Typical analysis is ~21% calcium ~11% magnesium

Use when both calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are needed

Oyster Shell- Typical analysis can be as high as 96% calcium carbonate

Used as a source of calcium and trace minerals

Wood Ash- Typical analysis is ~32% calcium oxide 3-7% Magnesium

Wood Ash is considered a liming material, supplying about 50% calcium carbonate. Care should be exercised that it is not over-applied due to its rapid reactive nature

Gypsum- Typical analysis is 18-23% calcium 18-29% sulfur

Gypsum is used to correct alkaline and sodic soils. It can improve the structure of heavy clay soil and supply calcium and sulfur when a pH adjustment is not necessary. Can be used to add calcium if magnesium is not needed and soil tests show lower sulfur. Does not remediate sodium issues alone, irrigation is still needed

Bone Char- Typical analysis is ~25% calcium

Has varying amounts of NPK, but is also high in calcium. Bone char has more surface area to bone meal making it more reactive especially at higher temperatures

Crab Meal- Typical analysis is 11-18%

Crab meal is a slow-medium release nitrogen source. It can also be a calcium source depending on how much shell is mixed in. Crab meal also contains an enzyme chitosan, which helps plants build a robust immune system, increases germination rates, and repels parasitic insects and nematodes. Due to the expense, it is often used in fertilizer blends more than a stand-alone.

 Epsom Salt (Magnesium Sulfate)- Typical analysis is 10% magnesium 18% sulfur

Epsom salts are a good source of magnesium and sulfur. Can be used as a dry application or foliar. Care should be taken when you spray so not to burn plant tissue

 Sol-Po-Mag- Typical analysis is 0-0-22 11% magnesium 22% sulfur

Sul-Po-Mag is a medium to fast release source of sulfur, potassium, and magnesium. It is also known as K-Mag or Langbeinite

Aragonite & Epsom Salt

Aragonite & Epsom Salt

Ag 101 Week 42

Nitrogen

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Last week I said I was going to start and break down what goes into a bag of fertilizer. If you recall, I likened each component to a piston in an engine. Put the right pistons together, and you get a locomotive engine, put others together, and you get a Yugo.

You buy a bag of blended fertilizer, and you are getting a mix of nutrients that supply a plant with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - NPK. In some cases, you can get some magnesium, calcium, sulfur, and trace minerals. I’m sure most of you know that already.

So, I want to go over a few questions I get; then we’ll take a look of some more commonly used components within the organic or softer chemistry area of fertilizers.

Why are the numbers, otherwise known as NPK values, so much lower in organic fertilizers than conventional?

The numbers representing NPK are a ratio of the percentage of available nutrients. The amount of the nutrient that is soluble and readily available for the plant to use. The more solvent, the higher the number and the more significant amount that the plant can uptake sooner. In the case of organic fertilizers, you have to also consider variabilities due to the fact components are naturally sourced materials, i.e., mined from clay deposits or animal by-products. Nature is not always consistent. One of the best benefits of organic fertilizers is a more extended nutrient supply over the growing season given the fact they are comprised of soluble and insoluble forms of nutrients. Given adequate moisture, biological actively, and crop type a natural fertilizer can take you through from planting to harvest. Once again, I stress it is crop specific and dependent on other management decisions. I will often suggest a split application if at all possible or fertilizing with a liquid to get through a season depending on all the variables.

Keep in mind from week 5 when fertilizing you are feeding the plant and the soil. Some are hungrier than others and at a different rate.  

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

What is the difference between soluble and insoluble nutrients?

A soluble form of a nutrient is readily available to the plant for immediate uptake. Insoluble nutrients are held in the soil longer and need to be converted to plant available forms by the bacteria and fungi present in the soil. Other factors determining the rate at which they become soluble are soil moisture, temperature, and pH.

 What does it take to ensure a fertility program is effective?

1.      pH management -You want to manage pH to accomplish two things

First be in a range for optimal nutrient uptake based on soil type and crop variety while staying slightly acidic to help make nutrients available through mineralization and biological activity.

2.      Irrigation management

A fertility program is only as effective as your irrigation.

3.      Good amendment & fertilizer practices

Fertilizing is strategic and should be applied at the right rate, time, location using the right source. I discussed that in weeks 6 & 10

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

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/25/ag-101-week-10

You could say I’m finally getting around to talking about the fourth – the source.

Let’s talk about nitrogen-

Nitrogen is used for several functions in the plant including the production of proteins that lead to tissue development

It also plays a role in chlorophyll production.

It is critical in leading to the vegetative growth in a plant but can become problematic when over applied for several reasons.

Such as-

Environmental issues

Increased insect pressure

A plants’ inability to retain blooms, such as in tomatoes

Balancing a plant’s need for nitrogen at the time it is required by the plant is a matter of timing it’s application. Even though it is abundant in the air we breathe, unlike phosphorus and potassium, it is not found in sufficient levels in the soil because it is not present in the parent material giving soil its properties.

By themselves, plants cannot use atmospheric nitrogen. It has to be converted by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the form of NO3¯ or applied in a plant available form at the right time.

Due to the fact, the form most available to plants has a negative charge, it is not held in the soil and is more sustainable to leaching. If you recall, the cation exchange capacity is a soil’s ability to hold onto positively charged ions.

Nitrogen management is centered around optimizing nitrogen fixation by the soil biology and minimizing loss by using good management practices such as timing and location of fertilizers and manures.

With some conventional forms of nitrogen such as ones that are ammonium based, except ammonium sulfate, they have an acidifying effect on soil. Meaning they lower the pH. This can be an issue with over applying it and repeated long-term use. It is often not seen immediately but as somewhat of a cumulative effect based on cropping history, moisture, temperate, etc.

Over the past several years I have not seen that to be as much of an issue with organic sources. However, I have not found much research or data on the subject either. It should be noted that everything you put into the soil at some point in time effects it, whether immediate or long term.

Let’s talk about some common organic nitrogen components used in fertilizers.

First, I’m going to start with a three that are conventional component equivalents. Meaning they are still a naturally derived source, that can be used in an organic system but is more soluble and available to the plant quicker rather than later making them somewhat similar to that of conventional chemistries.

Blood Meal

It typically has an analysis of 10-13%N

It has been shown to have deer and rabbit repellant properties when used as a top dress. However, it may attract other animals such as raccoons and dogs.

Blood meal is primarily hemoglobin, which is a protein, and iron. In my experience, I have found the concentration of iron not to be an issue, just something to be mindful of

It can be cost prohibited to use it as a single source of nitrogen. However, when added to a blend It is a rapid release source making it a significant component when used with other mid and slower release forms

Chicken Manure

Of all the manures it is, in general, the one highest in nitrogen typically ranging from 2-8%

Keep in mind the analysis of manures of any type can be extremely variable based on source and solid to liquid ratios

It is available in several forms from liquid to pellets and relatively inexpensive depending on what part of the country you are in

It is also a good addition if lime and phosphorus are needed

Sodium Nitrate (Chilean Nitrate)

It is water soluble at a guaranteed 15% total N availability, with 2% potash, and 1% sulfur. The new formulation has allowed for ease of shipping because it is no longer considered a hazardous material.

The fact it is readily solubilized in water makes this the best choice for a starter fertilizer, especially for corn. It gives corn the boost it needs to get out of the ground even if planted into soils that might be cooler than what is generally required to get the best germination rate.

It can be an expensive insurance policy if not used accordingly and applied with good seed to fertilizer placement at the right rate. This is when cleaning, calibrating, and using the right equipment are essential as well.

I highly recommend using it in a blend as opposed to a straight source of nitrogen for several reasons. First, it can be expensive. Second, it is available almost immediately to the plant, making it the first to be used during the growing season, leaving the plant with nothing in reserve for the next several weeks that nitrogen is vital to develop enough vegetation for the plant to efficiently and adequately be able to perform photosynthesis. Remember it is a balance between vegetative growth and reproductive growth.

Next, the following have medium to slow release rates of nitrogen. They are relatively insoluble.

Fish/crab/shrimp meal

Typical analysis ranges from 5-30%N

Typically, fish ranges from 5-9%N depending on whether it is a meal, powder or liquid

Crap and Shrimp range from 10-30%N with 11-18%Ca depending on the shell to meat ratio

Crab makes an excellent addition to a fertilizer blend for the extra calcium, and the addition on an enzyme called chitin that has been shown to help control nematodes in the soil

Peanut meal

A typical analysis is 8-9%N

Can be cost prohibitive and not allowed due to allergen restrictions

Bone meal

A typical analysis is 3-4%N

It is also a good source of phosphorus and calcium

Feather meal

Typical analysis 11-15%N

Apply early in the season to take advantage of slower release rate providing nitrogen over the course of the growing season

 Soybean meal

A typical analysis is 6-7%N

A good source for full season nitrogen supply

Soybean meal has been shown to burn new seedlings and reduce germination rates potentially. Care should be exercised when timing the application

 Manures

For years now, agricultural manures have gotten a lot of press. After taking the PA Nutrient Management courses, I concluded – shit’s complicated. Gone are the days you cleaned the barn and piled it out of the way so you could spread it when you had more time. Raw manure is the most nutrient dense. The longer it composts it losses its nutrient value. Over applying it, can lead to not only environmental issues also pest and disease challenges.

However, there is one manure that is gaining popularity with tobacco and cannabis growers, and its bat guano. It is cost prohibitive to use on a large scale, but I feel it is important enough to mention as a potential source of not only nitrogen but phosphorus as well, while being low in salts.

A typical analysis is 5-12% depending on the source

It is fast acting and soluble in water making it a great addition to a liquid program for cannabis especially vegetative and flowering stages

I have several growers using it in sub-irrigation systems for starting organic tobacco. They like the fact its water soluble and doesn’t seem to burn the way other fertilizers have a tendency to do if not managed correctly.

 There are several other sources I could mention that are used for nitrogen such as corn gluten, alfalfa meal, legumes, and cottonseed meal.

We’ll cover those and more during the time remaining in the 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series.