cows in field

An Interview with Neal Kinsey

By Sonja Heyck-Merlin

Neal Kinsey, internationally known expert on soil fertility management and the owner of Kinsey Agricultural Services, will be presenting at the 17th Annual NODPA Field Days on September 28 & 29, 2017 in Truxton, NY, and ahead of the NODPA Field Days, we wanted everyone to learn more about Neal via the following interview, which is based on questions submitted by a number of organic dairy farmers.

Please introduce yourself:

I was born on a farm in southeast Missouri in the same county where I currently live. I am the eldest of 12 children, and I spent my childhood with my grandfather while my father served in the military. Once my father came home he also started farming. I am married with two daughters. My business, Kinsey Agricultural Services, was launched as a part-time enterprise in 1973. By 1976, I had grown my business enough to pursue it full-time. What we do at Kinsey Ag. is advise in terms of soil fertility. We sell advice, not products.

How did you come to be interested in agronomy?

The principal crops on our family farm were alfalfa, corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, melons, pasture, and hay. When new ground was put into production on our heavy clay soils, it would always go into soybeans. We sent soil tests to University Extension which would always come back saying we didn’t need to apply anything to grow soybeans. The first time the land was put in soybeans, it would make 50 bushel/acre. We would do another soil test which again said we didn’t need anything, and the second year we would make 40 bushels. Do another test, and again we’d be told that we didn’t need anything, and make 30 bushels the third year.

The question I had is why did we go from 50 to 40 to 30 bushels and the soil tests always said we didn’t need to add anything? At the time, I was enrolled in a Master’s program of Food Industry Logistics at the University of Missouri, and I was able to pose this question to many people. I was referred to Dr. William Albrecht, professor emeritus of soil science.

In response to my question of the decreasing soybean yields, Dr. Albrecht said that the problem was we hadn’t conducted a detailed enough soil analysis. In 30 minutes, he told me why we hadn’t been able to produce the proper yield. I took that information home, and in one year’s time we went from 30 bushels back up to 45 bushels.

I also discovered that Dr. Albrecht taught a private correspondence course in soils, which I then enrolled in. After that, I began working with area farmers as a soil fertility specialist. Meeting Dr. Albrecht completely changed the course of my career.

Please give us a description of your agronomy philosophy:

One of the Laws of Thermodynamics states that life can only come from life. Life only comes from life, and our life is based on what we grow for food. It is my philosophy that the quality of food provides the quality of our life.

Why is that? Because the soil is alive. That life provides the means for providing life to the plants that grow there. That quality of life in the soil provides the quality of life for the plants we grow. The plants and how they grow and develop provides the quality of life for those who consume them. In other words, we are what we eat.

We have to feed the equivalent weight of one average sized cow per acre in living organisms before our crops gets all of what is required to grow properly. This is the thing too many people forget- the soil life eats first, and the plant crop eats second. The plants survive on what’s left because the microbes get as much of what they need as possible first.

If we don’t feed that average sized cow per acre in addition to our crop, we start shorting ourselves. We are not feeding our soils properly. We have to feed the life of the soil in order to get the life back. Feed the soil correctly to properly feed the crop, which provides our nutritional needs accordingly. To do that, the living organisms in the soil need the proper environment. They need the ideal physical structure, the right amount of air, water and minerals. They need that to accomplish their work. Most soils don’t naturally have that proper environment.

Ideally, 45% of the soil is mineral content, and that mineral content is what provides the nutrients for the plants we’re growing. In the end, we want that physical structure but the chemistry of the soil (the effects each nutrient has on all the other nutrients) determines the physical structure of every soil.

What is the ideal physical structure we’re trying to achieve? It’s 25% air, 25% water, 45% minerals, and 5% humus. Once the physical structure is properly provided for, we have the right amount of porosity in that soil, the right amount of space to provide the proper relationships between air and water that is needed to nurture the microbes and all the organisms that feed the plants.

Using soil chemistry to provide the proper nutrients also provides the correct physical structure, which is what we need to build a house for soil biology. Use the soil chemistry to provide the proper physical structure, which then builds the house for biology, which includes the plant roots and anything else that supports the plant.

What experiences led to that philosophy?

One session with Dr. Albrecht stands out. Dr. Albrecht was discussing colloidal humus. When you take all the organic matter in the soil and break it down to its smallest components, it’s the organic colloid. That collection of organic colloids is what we call colloidal humus.

When he analyzed the mineral content of colloidal humus, it analyzed out exactly to the same nutrients as the most fertile soil. Dr. Albrecht explained that when you look at what produces the best grass, corn, or whatever crop you want to grow, these standards are basically the same all over the world.

What he found when he analyzed the humus was that your soil needs 60-70% calcium depending on whether it’s sand or clay. Every time he analyzed the colloidal humus, the calcium was between 60-70%. This is right where the most fertile soils should be. When he analyzed the magnesium, it was between 10-20%, right where we say the most fertile soils should be. Same for potassium and so on.

When he said this, all of a sudden I thought that when you start looking at it, whether it is our bodies, or what we consume, or what is there for nutrients to grow what we consume, overall it should look just like the most fertile soils. If we can get the soil into that kind of situation, we’re providing the best nutrition for everything, for the whole earth.

The second revelation relates to a relationship I had with a medical doctor from California, Dr. Joe Walters. At age 55, he was told he had six months to live and medical science was unable to solve his disease problems. He was an allergy specialist, his wife had a PHD in nutrition. With his grim prognosis, he came home and told his wife that if we can’t solve this problem with nutrition, then I guess I will be dead in six months.

They did solve it with nutrition, and I met him 15 years later. After this experience, Dr. Walters focused his career on working with about 1500 patients- movie stars, athletes, and statesmen, and they paid him to tell them how to stay well. Dr. Walter’s goal was to treat people in order to help them prevent illness. The first message to his clients was that he couldn’t help them unless they were ready to start eating organically. Mind you, this was in the 1970’s. Whatever you eat, he said, you should know how it’s grown because that is the key to staying well.

I got acquainted with him through one of my clients with a 15- year old daughter who was told she had six months to live. Someone told him about Dr. Walters and two years later when I met the family, she was back to perfect health. I’m not saying that you can solve everything like this but I have seen that there are things that can be.

My client took me to meet Dr. Walters and also asked me to pull some soil samples from his large organic garden. It had two sections, one part grew great, the other part he struggled to grow anything. I analyzed the garden and discovered that the problematic area had an excess of some nutrients.

After explaining to him about his magnesium and calcium levels, he said, that’s exactly what the human body needs to be healthy. What he said went right down to the same thing that Dr. Albrecht was talking about- what we need for the healthiest plants is also what people need to stay healthy.

All of a sudden, I began to put this together and realized that the better off we can make our soils, the better off we make the people who consume the food grown in the soil.

Can you describe the scope of your business?

There are three parts to our business.

The first is farm consultations in which we provide analysis and recommendations to growers. We work with growers of nearly every major food and fiber crop in the world. We also work within the timber, landscaping, and potting mix industries. The scope of our work has to do with anything that relates to soil fertility and growing plants. We have received samples from soils in 75 different countries. The greatest volume of samples comes from California. Missouri has historically been second, but in 2016 New Zealand ranked second. We take thousands and thousands of samples. We collect the most from corn growers. Second is pasture/hay, followed by wine grapes, then soybeans, cotton, and wheat.

The second scope is offering support to 50 consultants located across 20 countries. They are independent contractors, but through their association with us, we can help them understand the soils they are dealing with and what to do to improve them. At Kinsey Ag., we try to put all the information together and help our consultants face the challenges unique to their clients.

Third, it is my goal to teach as many people as I can. We conduct classes all over the world. There are two introductory courses which each run three days. In a few days, I am leaving for South Africa to teach an introductory course. There are also two advanced courses- one for sandy soils and one for clay soils. We are also working on a new course which will teach people how to correct soils that have excessive amounts of nutrients.

What do you think is the most prevalent wrong direction in the management of soils?

What I feel is that we have forgotten that we must feed the soil and then let the soil feed the plant. The soil is the plant’s stomach. When we neglect what the stomach of the soil needs, we’re going to have trouble. No matter what we put on our crops, our soil is going to be lacking unless we put on enough to feed that average sized cow per acre. Most soil tests are designed to feed the plant and don’t take into consideration feeding the soil.

I believe there are two specific soils management issues for organic producers. The first is that too many organic farmers rely on pH to tell them whether to spread lime or not. There is a difference in using pH for liming versus the actual calcium saturation of each soil. Many soils with extremely high pH still have a severe calcium deficiency. If you have a calcium deficiency, that takes precedence over everything in the soil in terms of nutrition.

The second issue is that many organic growers short themselves in terms of nitrogen. Most organic farmers do not have enough resources to provide the amount of nitrogen they need. If we don’t get the proper amount of nitrogen, we won’t get the proper amount of growth and proper utilization of other nutrients.

Can you describe the differences between soil health in the Northeast vs. the Midwest?

In terms of nutrients, one difference I see between the two regions is the Northeast tends to have lower pH’s than the Midwest. In the Midwest, where we tend to have high pH’s, the limestone is often left off when it should be applied. Overall, I think the Northeast tends to have a better balance in terms of having enough calcium and magnesium because growers are more concerned with their low pH levels.

Second, we tend to use more sulfur in the Midwest because when we stopped the practice of burning high sulfur coal, we began to notice sulfur deficiencies.

What are your thoughts on climate change and its impact on soil health?

I think any change in climate does affect soil health, whether it gets hotter, colder, wetter, or drier. I think farmers should concentrate less on climate change and more on asking themselves how they can help their plants withstand the challenges facing them, be it heat, cold, wetness or dryness. If that is our focus, we can use soil health to impact climate-related challenges on the farm, more than climate change will impact us.

Soil type is based on the physical aspects of a soil. Soil health is based on the biological aspects. Soil fertility is a combination of these but we must look at the chemistry as the driving force for the physical and the biological. To prepare for any aspect of climate change, more attention has to be given to the influence on soil chemistry.

The chemistry is the part of the equation that we can most easily measure to determine what to do to affect the most beneficial change in soil structure and biological activity.

Too many of the crops we grow are not suffering from adverse weather conditions, but because we are not building up our soils with a sufficient enough nutrients to withstand so much of what is blamed on weather and climate.

Please give us an idea of how a farmer might get started on a path to improving soil health:

Someone once told me you can’t manage what you can’t measure. How do you manage the fertility of a soil if you don’t know how to measure it? People make the assumption that any soil test will test the same.

Taking a representative sample is key. When you pull a sample, don’t mix a bunch of soils together. If it doesn’t look the same and grow the same, don’t mix them. Take a sample from a large area that has all the same soil characteristics. Also, be sure to sample from the proper depth. If you’re collecting a pasture sample, only collect samples from the top four inches of the soil.

Soil testing must be done properly and you must have trust in whomever you look to for recommendations. Testing is important because it shows whether we have solved the problems or not. Soil testing will prove if you’re making progress and if you’re using the right materials.

Can amendments be added to stacked manure, and then applied together?

Here is an example why I would exercise caution when adding amendments to stacked manure. If you want to add limestone, keep in mind that unless it’s pelletized or some kind of real pulverized lime, it will be three years before you see the total amount of calcium that will come out of that manure. If you put limestone in stacked manure, it’s a good idea to know the tonnage added and calculate how much calcium will come out of that manure over the next three years. If we don’t know that, when we look at the manure or where it has been spread, our soil analysis will be inaccurate because we’ll continue to see a calcium increase over the next few years.

Amendments can be added, but I would want to know what was in the manure and what materials you’re thinking of adding before I’d think it was necessarily a good idea.

To improve soil structure, do you have a favorite cover crop for soils where there can be a lot of winterkill?

Daikon radish would be the best if you’re looking to penetrate and loosen the soil and make it more friable. Daikon radish helps to increase the air space and porosity in that soil.

Small grains like wheat, rye or oats are another option. We have found that if you plant a crop of small grains in the fall after you have spread compost or manure, that those plants can take 85% of the nitrogen up into the plant and hold it there. When they decompose in the spring or get worked into the soil, the nitrogen is preserved and not lost to leaching. The nutrients that have been through a plant already are the most easily taken up and utilized by the next crop you grow.

Please describe a few of the main topics you will be covering in your talk at the NODPA Field Days:

The topics I plan to emphasize are:

  • Nutrient needs of grass and what farmers aren’t being taught to increase both production and quality.
  • Importance of micronutrients in pasture, hay, and silage.
  • Distinguishing between fertilizers that are soil feeders vs. plant feeders.
  • The same fertilizers are not effective depending on their form and soil conditions.
  • Understand the Law of the Maximum.
  • Judging the differences between compost and manure and how you handle them differently.