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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Microbial Identification-

Microbial identification is done with a microscope.

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

 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

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

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

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

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.”

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

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


Ag 101 Week 43


I had to have some help with this weeks’ post.  Here’s the backstory-

Since July I have had health challenges. It started with pain in my right leg and has now started in my left arm and hand. I have never liked typing; now it has just become physically painful.

I was going to ask my husband for help with typing, but he reluctantly had to go to Texas for work. So, I called a friend to see if they could help me and we ended up going to the emergency room instead. While waiting to see the doctor, she pulled out a notebook to start taking notes and being the amazing English teacher that she is, began with a Venn diagram.

I was called back before we could finish.

To make a very long story short after several visits to the doctor’s office the past few months, and a trip to the emergency room this past weekend I now have an appointment to see a specialist later this week and will hopefully have more answers, and a plan has to how to move forward.

I have had no desire to even think about this weeks’ topic let alone write about it.

However, I’ve committed to offering something every week.

I got the bright idea to finish the Venn Diagram add a few more notes and call it a day.

Not my original intention, but who doesn’t love a good Venn diagram about phosphorus!


My only regret- Not having my friend finish it. Her handwriting is so much better than mine.

Ag 101 Week 41

It’s Not Just Fairy Dust & Go-Go Juice – It’s Chemistry


Five years ago, when I told my Dad, I was going to work for an organic fertilizer company there was a long pause of silence.  After some more discussion he concluded that it must not be that big of a company so why not get back into the workforce with a small local business. Little did we know what I had gotten in to.

It was culture shock in more ways than one.

If you recall, I’m the girl that still thinks Kenny & Dolly are platonic and…

I didn’t come from the world of ‘organic/all-natural’ fertilizers. I came from a long line of tried and true conventional farming chemistries and practices that my family still uses today. Chemistries that are not even an option for or for that matter are even somewhat shunned by over 50% of the growers I currently work with. I almost titled this week’s post, “I Go Both Ways.” Because I work with all types of farmers/growers; large, small, conventional, certified organic, everything in between, and the list keeps growing.

Here’s why-

Agronomy is a universal language spoken between the soil and the crop. Fertilizers and amendments are chemistries, whether they are naturally or synthetically derived, that are used to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the soil and plants communication. Whether it is a by-product of industry, created in a lab, dug up from a mine somewhere from around the world, hauled out of the ocean, or an extract from a plant it is chemistry. All need to be used responsibly to ensure the future of farming, our food supply, and the environment.

As I started learning and getting more and more familiar with the world of organics I brought my dad to meetings so he too could learn and hear about the fascinating ways which they use all the amazing resources our world has to offer.

After one meeting, while we were having coffee, he said, “I guess I was wrong Monica. The way you explained things made me realize it’s not just fairy dust and go-go juice. You have a mighty big task ahead of you to get both sides to realize that and the farmers that use them to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Don’t be fooled; I still get the funny comments like, “Do you make them spin in three circles before sprinkling the fairy dust, or do they sprinkle then spin?” Or, “Why does go-go juice attract so many cats?” Better yet, “What’s Monica bringing to the family reunion? Fish and kelp, haha!” However, my dad has come a long way from the once staunch naysayer to one of my biggest supporters, and for that, I am very grateful.

Ask my neighbor; I also make several recommendations with conventional chemistries I don’t even mention in some circles. While we are working in our gardens, she graciously listens as I tell her about the fine line I walk between both worlds.

Considering I have ‘a mighty big task ahead of me’ and we are at a point in the growing season that farmers should be soil testing to make amending and fertilizing decisions, over the next several posts we’re going to talk about what makes up a bag of fairy dust otherwise known as organic fertilizer.

If you recall I’ve talked about how fertilizer blends are not always one size fits all. I do find myself recommending more amending and management options before fertilizers to most farmers. However, the more you understand what each component can do, the more informed decision you can make.

Just as I stated in Week 11 comparing fertilizer blends to pajamas, there are fillers added to them for specific reasons ranging from making up the volume to helping the product flow through manufacturing and spreading equipment. Those ‘fillers’ come with consequences both good and bad depending on whether you are aware of them and can plan in others areas of your fertility management. However, using a blend can extend a fertility plan and reduce the number of applications if careful consideration is made when choosing which one you use

Look at a bag of fertilizer as an engine, and each component in that blend is a piston, understanding the specific function of each piston is key to buying the right fertilizer and more importantly using it the best way. That knowledge along with a soil test and knowing the type of soil you’re working with is what gives you the necessary pieces of the puzzle in putting together a sustainable fertility plan.

Not quite the look I was going for, but thank you Google Images for the help

Not quite the look I was going for, but thank you Google Images for the help

The link below is a free e-book titled Understanding Amendments & Fertilizers I put together over a year ago. I’m in the process of updating it and offering this one to you as an intro to organic and all-natural amendments & fertilizers for signing up to receive news and updates.

Over the next several weeks we’ll cover nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace mineral components that make-up what goes into a bag of fertilizer, and you’ll see it’s not just fairy dust and go-go juice.

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

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

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. 


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

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

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

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

Direct any questions about the offer to:

or call 800-347-1566

You can also show them some love on Instagram at


* 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 


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


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.