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By Staff | Mar 13, 2015

While we might still be in for a few winter and spring surprises these 50- and 60-degree days are great for melting the drifts and raising the spirits of everyone in the Midwest.

One has to remember the late-spring snows in 1973 through 2013 to recognize that in the upper Midwest is fair game for Mother Nature to spring surprises upon us.

The main negative might be that it will create a sense of urgency for every grower who is recognizing there are only four weeks now until the first planters are historically in the field.

This year might be different, if the best forecasters are correct, the Great Lakes are at their greatest percentage of ice coverage in recent history and the ice depth is near record.

That makes for a few huge ice cubes serving to act as a refrigerant for our states. All we can do is to continue to get ready for the cropping season and be prepared for whatever arrives.

The negative thing with this abnormally warm weather is that fruit trees are already enlarging their buds, increasing their chances of being damaged by any 20-degree weather over the next two months.

Soil health

All of a sudden more farmers and crop advisers are asking more questions about soil health, what it means, what happens when a farmer improves it and what are the steps and costs of getting there.

Those are all very good questions. The word quality in any field means different things to different people.

Thus it’s hard for a lab director in Nebraska to describe in concrete terms to a farmer from Webster City how good the biological activity was in the soil in grandma’s North 80 when it was tested by the lab.

Until about 10 years ago, soil fertility was typically thought of in chemical terms for organic matter levels; soil pH, buffer pH; the levels of P and K using different extracting solvents; the levels of nitrogen in all or each of its three forms.

By using an IPC (inductively coupled plasma) instrument each of the mid-level and micro-nutrients can be determined.

So we had our soil analysis results, but it was all based on chemical terms. I like the phrase of a top farmer in western Iowa that many of you know when describing how plants take up nutrients – that plants don’t have teeth, so they can only pull them in in the liquid form.

When no-till became popular, articles in different magazines showed close-ups of little soil critters. Microbiologists began to tell the story that the life below ground was like a jungle, where every creature was prey for some larger critter and each had a role in the soil food web.

Now our knowledge base has been expanded even more, but the really smart people recognized that what we don’t know about soil life far outweighed what we do know about it.

Continued work by plant physiologists and soil microbiologists helped to figure out the relationships between different microbe species and then between those species and the plants we cultivate.

They found symbiotic relationships, where they helped each other; commensual relationships, where one gained more than the other; and parasitism, where one gained 100 percent of the benefit.

In this process they also found out there is sometimes a strong communication network between the same and even different species of plants as well as between the plants and the microbes living in the root zone, typically called the rhizosphere.

Rick Haney, a Texas microbiologist, formed the theory that microbes cycled about every 18 to 20 days in the soil, and that only when they died could the minerals their carcasses held be used as food and building blocks for the plants.

At first his theory sounded too wild, but further observations and trials proved him correct. The Haney soil quality is named after him. This completed the equation that many minerals are not available for plant uptake until they have been incorporated into the food web and become part of a microbe’s body.

So with the Haney test, the population size and species variation along with the level of activity and respiration are measured.

By measuring CO2 bursts they can gauge how active the biological components are in each soil sample, thus how fast the minerals in the soil will be released for plant uptake and use. With proper care and husbandry, soils can be made more productive by stimulating their contained biology.

Higher mineral levels can be translated into higher crop outputs, but only if there is enough biology to convert it into a usable form. Concurrently if any of the forms of fertilizer or pesticides have a harmful and/or long lasting effect on the soil biology, the productivity of the soils in the field can be hurt.

Depending on the added input, we can see there is a selective effect depending on the product. We are seeing there is a general lack of knowledge about each individual pesticide or form of fertilizer that would be applied to each field.

Farmers that are sending soil samples into labs are getting their analytical results back with the biological results expressed on a 1 to 50 scale with 1 being the lowest and 50 the best.

I have been told that many of the sandy loam, continuous corn fields being sprayed with certain herbicides are coming in with scores of 1 to 2.

It is leaving the observant growers with many questions about how to better those scores. Farmers from Iowa, Nebraska and other states will find themselves in the same boat once they begin to get that testing done on their soils.

Short term it may be shocking. Long term it will be best for their operations.

Human medicine

This story has a human physiology and medical counterpart. The details on this have only been postulated and researched over the last three to five years by many good scientists.

While I described what goes on in the soil with the many microbe species and populations, with the many interactions, is nearly exactly what is going on in the GI tract of the human being and most animals.

What is reported is that most humans have two to five pounds of bacteria in their intestines. Those microbes are responsible for digesting the food, extracting the minerals, forming the enzymes, vitamins and often the hormones that direct activities throughout the rest of the body and brain.

These microbes and their activity make up 70 percent of the immune system, as well as, determining the porosity of the blood brain barrier.

More research is being done, with the findings published in a multitude of countries by determined specialists. They are working on key questions about the effect of each bad or good food that gets eaten, then what happens when bad stuff ends up in the diet.

Their findings have been going a long ways toward proving clues to different medical issues such as why we are seeing so many chronic problems including autism.

We know refrigeration and sanitation was not as good 50 to 70 years ago, but those diseases were much rarer then.

Those specialists are going to keep solving the riddles and sleuthing the answers.

The pertinent question left is in which country are the contrarian opinions most likely to reach the public, which has the rights to access those answers.

After all, their lives are dependent on them.

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

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