Kansas Corn

Soil Health

Soil health is an important part of any farmers operation. Healthy soil regulates water, sustains plant and animal health and cycles nutrients. Kansas Corn is continuing to improve the principles of soil health by partnering with researchers and soil health professionals.

Meet the Researcher

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Dr. Chuck Rice

Dr. Chuck Rice is a Soil Microbiology profession at Kansas State University where he works alongside the Soil Health Partnership in Kansas with a Graduate Student who helps to advance the soil sciences field.

Dr. Rice specializes in soil microbiology, carbon cycling and climate change. Dr. Rice also serves on the Soil Health Partnership Scientific Advisory Committee where he helps lead integration, sustainability and precision management incentives.

Dig into the Basics

The Dos and Don't of Soil Sampling

Soil sampling can be a great step in the pursuit of healthier soils, but it is not always easy to get soil sampling right. The correct procedures yield the best data, and the best data helps farmers achieve the healthiest soil.

But how do you get the best data?

Dr. Nick Ward of Ward Laboratories, Inc. helped farmers understand how to best sample soils on their farm in an April 28 Soil Health Partnership (SHP) Soil Sessions webinar, “Quality in, quality out: the Dos and Don’ts of Soil Sampling.”

Most importantly, Dr. Ward reminds farmers that data is knowledge. The data available from proper soil sampling can impact future fertilizer applications, environmental compliance, diagnosis of problems, and overall sustainability. The question is not should I sample my soils, but how can I best sample my soils.

“You can’t make good decisions without data,” he said.

Farmers have numerous opportunities to make specific choices about how they will collect the soil data from their farms. Soil sample depths vary. Some farmers work from a 0-6” depth and some from a 0-8” depth. Dr. Ward teaches that “constant depth is the most critical thing when we’re out soil sampling.”

Whatever depth you choose, just be sure to be consistent throughout the field and year over year to provide the best data. And when you are thinking about testing before or after tillage, just remember that consistent depth is paramount, so sample the same every year in a way that you feel most confident you are achieving a consistent depth.

Soil sample locations can vary. Many farmers chose to sample in a grid pattern, taking the samples where the lines of the grid overlap. This allows for the sampling of the same exact location over time in order to pinpoint changes in the soil, but some farmers choose to sample more heavily in certain zones or problem areas. Still, other farmers composite sample their fields, meaning they select the areas of the field to sample at random.

“Composite sampling should be doable for just about everybody,” Ward said. “Grid sampling is the most intensive practice, but it’s going to give us our most robust data set to make decisions from.”

Your soil health strategy should inform the decisions you make for how and where to sample. The most important reminder is to always be consistent.

How often should you sample? It will depend on your sampling strategy, says Ward.

“If you do something more intense like multiple zones or a grid sample, maybe doing that every 3-4 years would be a good practice.  But if you are not going to build a dense data set spatially across your field, maybe it is more important to take a dense data set in time.  So, that’s sampling a composite every year in different spots.”

This one-hour webinar will answer many questions and help farmers really nail down the sampling strategies that could work for their farms and soil health goals, as well as guide them with the return on investment for the effort.

By SHP Staff, see article here.

Cover Crops: Where Do I Start?

Cover crops are an effective tool to improve soil health. Cover crops can reduce loss of excess nitrogen and phosphorus, reduce erosion, build up or recycle nutrients, assist with weed control and provide forage or grazing. However, implementing cover crops should not be taken lightly and requires lots of planning, adjusting and typically requires a total management shift and rethinking the entire cropping system.

As we discussed in a previous blog, when it comes to implementing cover crops, much depends on the risks a farmer is willing to take and the time they can dedicate to managing a cover crop. Implemented properly, cover crops are a great tool for farmers looking to improve soil health on their farms.

Below are a few things to consider when getting started with cover crops:

  • Set goals for the cover crop. Taking up excess nutrients, forage and breaking up compaction are just a few possible goals.
  • Consult the experts. Cover crops are not viable in all growing regions, but use the resources available to see if it can work on your farm. SHP Field Managers are eager to help implement new soil health practices.
  • Be patient. There is a learning curve with any change in farm practices.  Be flexible and prepared to make adjustments as necessary.
  • Tillage typically becomes less desirable unless strip tillage is being used, especially in corn and soybean cropping systems.
  • Scout your cover crop fields. If you are not already getting out there, make sure to check-in on these fields. Changing your farming system can bring new challenges as well as improvements in the field, so you will want to be out there to see changes when they happen.
  • Adjustments will potentially need to be made, including the timing of nutrient application and adjustments to the planter.
  • Talk to other farmers in the area that have experience with cover crops on their farm. Learn about what works well for them, and what has not worked as well. While each farm is unique, it is valuable to learn from peers.

To ensure success with cover crops establish goals, be detail oriented, be open to making adjustments, scout often and think about the cropping system as a whole when making decisions.

By Iowa Field Manager Lisa Kubik, see article here.

Listening to our land through Plant Tissue Testing

Today, we are more in tune with listening to what is going on around us than we were 20 years ago. This is particularly true when it comes to our fields. Whether it has been the wide adoption of soil sampling, yield monitors, or even the advent of infield sensors like moisture probes, we have come a long way in learning how to listen to the messages that our fields give us. These messages (or our willingness to listen to these messages) have unlocked a lot of yield for us in these last 20 years, as we have seen the average corn yield in the U.S. go from 140 to 170 plus bushels per acre. But for a majority of growers, I can think of another area that we could be listening to more: plant tissue testing.

When it comes to fertility testing, soil health, or any other test we do in our fields, we are taking a “picture” of what is happening at a moment in time. In the case of a soil sample that is taken in the fall, we know that there are nutrients in the residue that will not show up on that soil test, but if we take it in April, it will be a different set of results. In general, we accept this as part of the process. The same is true with plant tissue testing. Plant nutrient levels can and often do change based on plant maturity, the part of the plant sampled, the hybrid or variety, and even the weather we have in the hours and days leading up to the test.

For me, I look at plant tissue tests in one of two ways. It is either to monitor the health of the plant for a specific set of parameters, or it is to look at the health of the plant to  diagnose a problem within the plant.

Today, I feel like most growers that use plant tissues are testing solely as a diagnostic tool, akin to going to the doctor. I know I only am going to go to the doctor if I am sick. When I do go, I want answers right now. I also want a course of action or medicine to cure the problem. Many growers and agronomists apply that line of thinking directly to tissue samples. We go take tissue samples if the crop has poor color, is weak, or is struggling. Then, we look to that single test for answers and action.

I challenge you to think of a different course of treatment. I know my physician would be quick to say that, while important, the doctor’s visit when ill should not make up the entire health care plan. An annual physical can help be proactive and take care of little things before they become big things. That is where the monitoring potential of plant tissue testing unlocks additional, and perhaps greater, value.

Sampling at predetermined times and intervals identifies deficiencies, excesses, issues and successes in time to “take action” if needed to help reach yield goals and manage economic risks. Again, it is a bit like an annual checkup. If you indicate that your plant is at growth stage x, then the lab of your choice will compare the values of your plant with their standards (universities and private labs have their own values, and they differ slightly from one to another) and advise how healthy the plant is or if there are indicators that raise concern. Late-season samples serve as the report card to tell us how well we did getting nutrients from the soil to where they needed to be in the plant. This report card can help identify where we need to focus for upcoming growing seasons.

It is important to remember there is a difference between soil and plant deficiencies. If you are tissue testing once or twice per year, it can be a good idea to take a soil sample and even a soil health sample at the same time and place as the tissue sample to help bring clarity to the process. Not only does it give you soil nutrient baselines at the same time but it can also reveal issues like compaction, insects, nematodes, or other variations from “healthy” soil that could be contributing to the above-ground symptoms that you would miss otherwise.

The real power in any testing, whether soil, soil health, or tissue, is in establishing a cadence. Using the same lab, sampling in the same area, and doing it at the same time each year build a pattern. Once you have a pattern, you can study it to find the answers that you are looking for. Remember, do not be discouraged by having values that are outside of target ranges. It doesn’t mean that you or your trusted advisor are doing a bad job.

Finally, remember that this is a part of tuning the machine that is your ecosystem. Just because you show a deficiency of a micronutrient or an excessive amount of something else, it doesn’t definitively mean to go spray a foliar product or cut a rate in the future. It might mean those things, but it first means to study the system and theorize on your why before you decide on your response.

By Keith Byerly, see article here.