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By Staff | Mar 7, 2014

Much of the Midwest is into the sixth month of winter. The conditions are getting a bit old as sub-zero temps are not as glamorous as they were back in October and November.

If it means anything the beginning of spring is now less than three weeks away.

One serious weather concern in the western third of Iowa is the continuation of the drought that has existed since 2011.

Either a wet spring where the majority of any precipitation infiltrates into the profile or very timely rains during the season will be vital to decent crops this season.

In recent seasons there have been more comments about so called flash droughts.

These refer to weather patterns so variable that one week our crops are sitting in flooded fields and in two weeks they are baking under hot and dry conditions with little moderating influence from the soil.

One has asked if the weather, plants, or soils are at fault.

Water usage

Several research projects have looked at traited crops and the results say that trait inserts result in much lower water use efficiency. Is that’s due to lower physiological efficiencies, poor development of water-conducting tissue in the stalks, stems, or leaves, or poor uptake of minerals needed to build good integrity into xylem and phloem tissue?

They are all valid questions that need to be answered for farmers, but no research being done except in foreign countries.

2013’s soils seemed to have sealed off when the ground froze and never changed, even when the top few inches were muddy and sloppy, the profile 3 feet down was dry and powdery.

Many dirt contractors saw this and commented that they had not seen this in previous years. With our soils containing moisture in the top 24-inches when it froze last fall and going through hard freezes we have to be optimistic that this spring’s rains enter the moisture profile for use during July and August when the dry weather is likely to return.

Biochar research

It is a proven fact through archeological digs that many tribes in South American countries produced and enriched their soils with a charcoal-type product known as biochar. It is a product that can be made from multiple plant sources as varied as wheat straw to bamboo or wood.

The process to make it is to burn the carbon-based material at low temperatures under controlled oxygen conditions.

In the end the blackish-gray particles are sized and applied to the soil. It provides a carbon source of soil microbes to live on and perform their task of producing organic acids that free up nutrients and hormones that promote plant growth.

Research on biochar is ongoing in many countries. In the U.S. several entities – University of Kansas Iowa State University’s National Lab for Ag and the Environment – have been doing such work for years in the quest to learn how much its use will boost soil health and productivity.

Thus far they are seeing good results. They have learned things such as multi-year applications of small doses are better than one large dose and that proper sizing of product granules improves the results.

In the past there have been many types of machinery used to produce biochar with most being batch machines.

Now a French-designed and Swedish-built continuous flow machine is entering the scene and it appears to solve several of the existing problems for companies needing to get rid of biomass and end users who have been seeking affordable and high grade product.

With their designs either as stand-alone or modular machines, it looks like such units will become popular as different countries and farming operations working on restoring soils that have been depleted, needing remediation, or getting restored begin to take action..

NASA engineer

I had the chance to spend an afternoon with a NASA engineer recently. He is a lab director of a major space science facility that lends support to space missions and satellites.

If the Hubbell needs to be rebuilt, repaired, or retrofitted he gets the call. I did learn that they currently have the capability to fly satellites around the globe snapping pictures that they can analyze using any of their 153 different spectrums.

One of these has been using a green filter which allows them to track phytoplankton populations in the oceans and seas. This little critter is responsible for making at least 80 percent of the conversions of atmospheric CO2 to O2.

The populations of these 02-converting bacterial populations around each landmass can be mapped and tracked to monitor any problems occurring near instantaneously.

\What else could be tracked from satellite in our crops or our daily lives? Many of the farm magazines glorify such ability, but if any group or company knows more than anyone else or any group, will that knowledge be used to your or their advantage? I think we can accurately guess the answer.

He did have a nice toy that I would like to have.It was a custom-built single ocular 3-D microscope. When you looked through the lens at grains of sand you could see all the grains perfectly and in clear focus.


I mentioned that with the switch back to more soybeans and the recent increase in prices it is becoming apparent to more growers that managing soybeans at a higher level could pay dividends this season.

The number one and two items in managing beans in any order are to apply a good fungicide to help control seedling diseases and to apply a premium inoculant to help the roots fix the 5.5 pounds of nitrogen per bushel that will be required.

I have gotten a few phone calls from readers wondering about last week’s article where I mentioned that the seed-applied corn inoculant known as SabrEx produced a 19.7 bushel-per-acre yield increase in corn trials in the On Farm Network.

That was not a misprint. That increase shows the organism does its job of increasing root growth and of increasing the plant available levels of several nutrients.

Products that give such an ROI deserve attention and usage.

Bob Streit is an independent crop consultant and columnist for Farm News. He can be reached at (515) 709-0143.

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