Better farming, through better soil
CARROLL – In the quest for higher yields, one of the solutions is as simple – and complex – as soil health.
According to a speaker earlier this spring at a Carroll County soil health conference, enhancing soil health is a key to maximum nutrient uptake, which translates to maximum yield potential.
“Everything revolves around healthy soil,” said Bob Yanda, vice president of growth and development for Midwestern BioAg. “It doesn’t matter whether you grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa or hay.”
“The basic principles apply to them all.”
A biological farming approach that focuses on soil health by combining the best practices of conventional and organic agriculture can pay off in many ways, Yanda said.
“This is a systems approach that respects the natural processes in the farm, yields top-quality products, provides a living for the producer and sustains long-term productivity.
“It all starts with the soil.”
Soil health 101
Soil health involves biological, chemical and physical properties, said Yanda, who noted that soil is generally comprised of 5 percent organic matter, 45 percent minerals, 25 percent open space and 25 percent water.
When Yanda asked the Carroll audience if there were any livestock farmers in the room, he said every hand should go up.
“You all have livestock in your soil, even though we don’t always think of soil microbes this way,” he said, noting that are 4,000 to 8,000 pounds of microbes per acre in the top 6 inches of soil. “There are more microbes in one handful of soil than there are people on Earth.”
The soil is a living system, alive with trillions of organisms that manage nutrients and sustain life. The availability of soil phosphorus, for example, is controlled by soil microorganisms.
“The healthier the microbial population, the easier it is to release phosphorus,” Yanda said. “Whatever your farm, whatever your soil types, your goal is to have phosphorus available throughout the vegetative life of the plant.”
Yanda said he encourages growers to take a new look at biological farming and offered six steps for enhancing soil microbes and promoting higher yields. They are:
1). Set goals to improve soil health and yield. Defining yield-limiting factors is the first step to an effective crop production program.
Next, rank these factors in order of importance, then develop a production management system to address these yield-limiting factors, and implement the program.
“Everything starts with a soil test,” Yanda said. “Also, there’s more to balanced nutrition than nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The little things matter, too.”
2). Understand the soil/fertilizer relationship. Little things like micronutrients can make a big difference when it comes to soil health and yield potential.
Calcium is an often overlooked, but important nutrient, Yanda said. It mobilizes nutrients into the plant, improves soil structure, increases nitrogen utilization, promotes root and leaf growth, contributes to cell division in plants and promotes overall plant health.
Also, don’t overlook sulfur. It improves nitrogen utilization, makes soil nitrogen more available to plants, aerates the soil and improves soil structure.
“In addition, it lowers soil pH and plays a role in soil humus,” Yanda said. “For every pound of sulfur available to soil microbes, 100 pounds of humus is retained.”
Zinc is also important, since it improves phosphorus utilization, plays a role in enzyme functions, regulates plant growth, increases leaf size (which leads to more photosynthesis), increases corn ear size, promotes silking, hastens maturity and contributes to test weight.
Manganese improves nitrogen utilization, plays a role with pollination and assists with enzyme functions.
Copper assists with enzyme functions, in addition to regulating the plant’s immune system, controlling mold and fungi and increasing stalk strength.
Boron also increases calcium uptake, assists with sugar translocation and the formation of cell walls, enhances root and leaf growth and promotes flowering,
“Balanced nutrition helps maximize photosynthesis in plants, which contributes to yield,” said Yanda, who noted that adding lime may be necessary to bring balance to the soil and help the crop thrive.
3). Monitor results. While proper plant nutrition is vital, beware of too much of a good thing. Adding more N, P or K doesn’t automatically raise yields, said Yanda, who noted that too much N can hurt yields.
“That’s the more-on, or moron, approach – if something’s not working, just put more on,” Yanda said. “Nutrients in excess never drive yield. It’s all about balance.”
4). Manage crop residues. Soil health goes far beyond fertilizer. Green manures and cover crops can help build humus, the richest part of the soil.
Humus can hold seven to 10 times its weight in water, Yanda said.
“Don’t give up on cover crops,” he added. “They offer one of the fastest ways to improve your soil biology.”
5). Remove the negatives. Addressing drainage problems, fixing compaction challenges and managing other stresses that can limit the crop’s potential also contribute to higher yields.
“If you want your crop to reach its genetic potential, you never want the plants to have an unhappy day,” Yanda said.
In addition, tillage should be a thoughtful disturbance of the soil, not just a recreational activity.
“Any tillage pass should remove one or more yield-limiting factors,” Yanda said.
6). Test new products. Keep learning, and look for ways to implement new strategies to improve soil health and boost yield potential.
Progress has little to do with speed and more to do with direction, Yanda said. “There are many opportunities to move in the right direction to build soil health.
“Make it your goal to leave your soils better this year than they were last year.”
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