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Archive | Soil Fertility

Tractor Time Episode 14: Neal Kinsey on Hands On Agronomy

GREELEY, Colorado (May 21, 2018) — It’s that sound again – tractors, the voice of Charles Walters, and that happy little strum. It all means we are launching into a second season of the Tractor Time Podcast by Acres U.S.A., the podcast for farmers who care about the Earth. My name is Ryan Slabaugh, and I’m lucky enough to be your host for a second season.

Neal Kinsey

Neal Kinsey

We have a lot in store this year. We are going to talk about a lot of eco-farming tactics and methods. We’re going to go back in time and listen to age-old talks that still apply today. We’re going to talk about with surveyers about the loss of farmland, and what you and I can do about it. Our goal this year is to also make sure we are talking with young farmers, to better understand how they see themselves fitting into the future of agriculture. Anyway, we’re so excited, we hope you are too.

Today’s episode, like our very first episode, starts with the voice of Charles Walters. Charles started Acres U.S.A. in 1971 as a vehicle to report on the challenges facing small farms, and to help give farmers a resource for good, healthy, ecological growing in the face of large-scale toxic takeovers of our methods.

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No-Till Growing: Vegetable Production

Robust spring cabbages at Tobacco Road Farm.

Over the last 20-plus years of vegetable growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we have constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of our crops and soils, and going no-till has been part of that journey.

About 3 acres of land is in vegetables, with half in year-round vegetable production and the other half cover cropped through the winter months.

The crop rotations are very close, with yields very high, so the intensity of production demands very careful soil care. To this end, soil amendments, fertilizers, inoculants and compost have been carefully selected and applied over the years.

Under this intensity of production, tillage was previously utilized to an excessive degree. This left the soil with a soil structure that was lacking in aggregation, tended toward surface crusting and with a plow pan always in need of mechanical breaking. The loosened soil of the tillage layer dried excessively in summer, leading to irrigation needs, and the soils’ air/water balance was constantly in jeopardy. Continue Reading →

Transitioning to Organic: Strategies for Success

The year two spring rye crop — note how few weeds are present. This rye grew well during the spring and early summer, and was ready for harvest in mid-July. Below shows the rye straw after the grain was combined. Yields were about 35 bushels/acre of rye seed the first year and 4 bales of straw/acre. This year, the yield was 52 bushels/acre of rye seed and 8 bales of straw/acre.

With conventional prices for corn, beans, wheat and dairy really low right now and both prices and demand for organic products high, a lot of growers are thinking about transitioning to organic.

For most growers, one of the biggest deterrents to going organic is the 36-month-long process of transition, during which time you can use only organic-approved inputs and practices, but the crops, milk or other farm goods produced can’t be sold as “organic” and receive the price premium.

In my opinion, chasing profits is not the right reason to go organic, and there is more to it than not adding prohibited inputs and getting paid more for your crops. Being a successful organic farmer requires a different mind-set, and the best time to figure out your approach to organic farming and set yourself up for success is during the transition period.

Before Transitioning to Organic 

If you’re considering transitioning to organic, the first thing you should do is sit down and think about why and then think about how. If your answer to why is that you are doing it for the money, maybe it’s not for you. Continue Reading →

When Less is More: Understanding Fertilizer and Solubility

The amphiphilic nature of humic substances allows them to work in water and hydrophobic environments, providing the critical conditions necessary for biological processes when they are closely associated with clays.

Make the gesture “just a little bit” by squeezing your thumb and index fingers as tight as you can; tighter, tighter — the amount of fertilizer you could hold between your fingers is about the amount dissolved in soil solution … per acre! That’s right; there is very little if any dissolved “plant food” in the water of a typical soil.

The amount of plant nutrients dissolved in soil solutions is so small that it is expressed as parts per million (ppm), not hundreds of pounds or tons per acre. While synthetic fertilizers are sold primarily on the basis of their water (aqueous) solubility, the emphasis on aqueous solubility is generally misunderstood and somewhat misguided.

It is generally known that over-application of extremely soluble synthetic fertilizers has been responsible for disrupting ecosystems and numerous environmental problems. What is not generally known is that all highly soluble soil inputs, including sulfates, chlorides and fluorides, disrupt the structure of water molecules, impeding the biochemical energy flows that affect the metabolism of plants, making them more susceptible to insect pressure and diseases and decreased water use efficiency.

It is also a well established fact that highly soluble phosphate fertilizers become “tied-up” soon after application. When there is an overabundance of dissolved phosphates in soil water, the soil system responds chemically by forming more stable forms of phosphorus, usually by chemically combining with calcium cations and complexing with lanthanides (rare earths) and organic matter. All of these materials can release phosphorus as plant nutrients through microbial activity.

Although water is critical to all life forms, there are numerous metabolic pathways in biological systems where it gets in the way and must be pushed aside; it’s called the hydrophobic effect.

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Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Windbreak Benefits on the Farm

Windbreak benefits extend beyond reducing wind erosion. Research reveals windbreaks can also be customized to meet your farm management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

Windbreak benefits extend beyond controlling wind to include soil moisture retention and additional wildlife habitat options.

A “national menace” is what Congress called wind erosion during the Dust Bowl. This menace caused an estimated loss of 850,000,000 tons of topsoil and spurred President Roosevelt’s large-scale Shelterbelt Project of planting tree windbreaks across the Great Plains to reduce future wind erosion.

Research shows that reducing wind erosion isn’t the only benefit provided by these windbreaks, and they can be customized to meet your farm’s management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

In a field adjacent to a windbreak, there is an area where a crop yield of 110 percent isn’t uncommon; it’s the area which Charles Barden, professor of forestry with Kansas State University and principal investigator of the Great Plains Crop Yield Study, dubs the “sweet spot in the field.” In this sweet spot, usually found in an area about two times the height of the trees and extending out 12-15 times the height of the windbreak trees, research has found an increase in yield of 23 percent for winter wheat, 15 percent for soybeans and 12 percent for corn.

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