At The Farm GateFarmers know more, do more about Soil Health
My kids quickly mastered the abbreviations N, P and K during study sessions on the periodic table for middle school science. I couldn’t explain why K stood for potassium other than phosphorous already used the letter P. Regardless, the kids memorized the elements knowing they impacted their lives as much as course grade.
Every fall, our farm samples the soil in our fields for levels of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), organic matter, pH, sulfur and various micro-nutrients. We review the collected data to identify deficiencies that need treatment. Like humans, the soil needs certain nutrients for its best health and performance. Where doctors order blood tests, farmers order soil tests for a health assessment that helps determine nutrient availability to crops and the soil’s ability to support swift crop emergence and quality root development.
Armed with the know-how and technology, today’s farmers can do more than ever to improve soil health. While N, P and K remain the industry standard macro-nutrients of the soil, we’re now reviewing more components of the periodic table than previous generations. Micro-nutrients like boron (B), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn) and copper (Cu) have their place in soil performance. We also assess organic matter, soil tilth and porosity and determine ways to improve them.
Minimal to no mechanical tillage reduces soil disturbance. Water management structures in fields prevent topsoil erosion. Cover crops serve as a groundcover to hold soil in place, keep the soil active, store nutrients, retain moisture and improve the soil structure between cash crops. Like routine human exercise, we’re learning the soil’s health improves with year-round activity.
This fall, we’re using an additional tool on the combine to level and break up crop residue, making the residual plant material smaller for microorganisms to decompose. The primary goals: More organic matter and nutrients for the soil. Crushed stalks also prove gentler on tires.
After harvest, we order soil tests with site-specific coordinates using global-positioning technology. Our agronomist then writes prescriptions for machines to variably apply the rate needed across specific areas of a field, making the most efficient, productive and environmentally conscious use of elements from the periodic table.
About the author: Joanie Stiers farms with her family in West-Central Illinois, where they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and hay and raise beef cattle and backyard chickens.