cows in field

When Correcting Your Soil Costs Too Much

By Neal Kinsey

What good is a soil test if it costs too much to follow the advice given?

More often than not, this is a major complaint concerning fertilizer requirements, even from those who believe they should follow the recommended advice as closely as possible.

The first step to correctly answer this question is to determine what the grower has in mind to accomplish. Without understanding what is actually wanted from a soil test, it is possible that the best approach for that specific situation is not what the one making the recommendations has in mind.

Most soil samples are taken in a hurry, sent in a hurry and results are expected “in a hurry” as well. Consequently, very valuable information that could be most helpful for recommending the best program to the farmer or grower may not have even been provided.

As an example, Kinsey Agricultural Services provides a soil worksheet to be filled out as completely as possible by all of those who send samples for analysis and recommendations. The requested information is important to understand and needed to make the best recommendations and to minimize delays in getting the results back in the shortest possible time. When the proper information is not supplied it often results in added delays in order to determine what to do.

On that worksheet, in the lower left hand corner is a box listing four types of recommendations that can be requested. Excellent, Building, Maintenance and Minimum are shown there with a note that the program to be used for attaining an excellent soil will be used if no box is checked. Some just do not take the time to consider this as important and fail to check the appropriate box. But many actually feel that Excellent is the program they want to follow, and it truly would be best provided enough funds are available to cover the cost. But most only want the excellent program until they see how expensive that is to accomplish. Then they have a program that is needed for providing the best results from that soil for growing high yields and excellent quality, but it costs so much some just throw up their hands and say the program is too expensive.

When you get the best, it will generally cost more. This is especially true where crops have been grown over and over again without adequately replacing all of those nutrients that have been removed. When growing crops for years on the same land without replacing what is taken out year by year, it will usually cost quite a bit extra to try and put it back as soon as possible. How many years has it been, if ever, since needed sulfur and micronutrients have been adequately applied on soils that are still shown to be sorely deficient? We see soils that have received manure or compost or small amounts of various trace elements in purchased fertilizers for years that still fall into that category.

However, when funds are limited, does that mean there is no other approach that can still be utilized based on the soil test? The needs are still there, but under the circumstances, which ones should provide the greatest advantage for producing the best crop? Most growers want an excellent soil. But playing catch-up on what has been taken and not replaced for years can add significantly to the cost. That’s when most start thinking more in terms of a minimum program of fertility. Yet the minimum program should only be considered when you have absolutely no other choice, and even then, keeping in mind that it is only a very temporary solution. That is because when actually using such a program, you are removing nutrients that are presently adequate for producing the crop without replacing them. Depending on whether those levels are good or barely adequate could make a big difference in the condition of the next crop that needs to be grown there.

There is still an additional choice that can be made when it costs too much to apply everything to build the soil toward achieving its top potential in the shortest period of time – which is what the “excellent” fertility program is intended to accomplish. If growers cannot do that, then spend the available budget where it will make the most difference for the crop to be grown.

Most fertilizer programs are designed with no real regard for what nutrient levels are in the soil. Whether levels are good or bad, or for those who do not even know what those levels would need to be, farmers and growers are led to believe the best approach to fertilizer use is to feed the plants. And that feeding program is too often based on what amount of fertilizer it requires to grow that yield, regardless of what the soil test shows to be there. When this is the case, soils that are in excellent shape get the same recommended fertilizer program as those that are in poor shape. As a result, how many farmers have been led to believe that they only need one fertilizer program to grow each crop on the entire farm? In such cases, who really needs a good soil test anyway? Just put on what it takes to grow the expected proven yield and hope things get better, or maybe at least stay the same.

The Albrecht system of soil fertility is designed to feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant. If the level of a nutrient in the soil is sufficient to grow the crop then skip that one and go on to the ones that are more limiting as that will make more difference in terms of improving yields. This involves a program of prioritizing needed crop nutrients. Whatever is determined as priority #1 is supplied first, then #2 and then #3, until the budget is used up. Using such a program enables the grower to put the money that is available where it will make the most difference.

Furthermore, materials that actually build the available levels of a needed nutrients in the soil should be applied to crops (regarded as “soil feeders”) instead of plant feeders. Plant feeders are types of fertilizer that must be picked up by the plants quickly, otherwise they will be tied up and remain in a form that is no longer useable and thus will not build in the soil and will not show up on a soil test as available for the next crop. As the soil feeder types of fertilizer, plus effective soil amendments are used to build sufficient nutrient levels in the soil, then they are no longer the most needed and can be placed further down the list concerning where to spend the allotted budget for that crop or field.

Prioritizing fertility needs in a crop can be quite different for grass, vs, legume, vs. mixed grass/legume pastures, vs. oats, vs. corn silage. But is such a thing really even possible, or just another ploy to get farmers to use this service rather than some other one? Start small. Split a field and use the current program on half and then use the testing for the prioritized nutrient program on the other half. Determine to carry through with the test for three years on good soils. It takes even less time on poorer soils. But check to see whether the extra testing and expense is worth the difference before making full use of the program.

It works and it works very well. That is the way we have built our business.

Neal Kinsey, from Charleston, Missouri, USA, owns and operates Kinsey Agricultural Services, Inc., a company which specializes in soil fertility management. The program is based on the system of providing soil nutrients to correctly treat the soil and the plants that grow there, using soil chemistry to correct the soil’s physical structure to build the “house” which enables the biology to flourish. Our business includes working with most major food and fiber crops throughout the world. Consulting includes soils received for analysis and recommendations from every state in the United States and from over 75 countries, principally from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Great Britain, Germany, Austria and France. Detailed soil audits will determine specific fertilization programs based on each individual soil and its fertility requirements.

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