Your soil has a unique story
Soil is the foundation of everything produced in agriculture. Getting the most from every inch is always the goal. But, how well do you know the variable qualities and yield potential held within all those inches of soil across acres of farmland? As the first step to strategically managing your fields, making your farm more economically and environmentally sustainable, it’s worth digging into.
Your soil is a living thing containing mineral and organic materials, air, water and numerous microorganisms that provide energy for plants and contribute to organic matter. The soil changes throughout the season and when you understand how it’s changing; you can manage it in ways that bring the most potential and the least waste to your operation.
Soil variability in texture, organic matter content, nutrient content, fertility, drainage, compaction and depth are essential determining factors in crop nutrient uptake, and therefore, in crop performance.
Because it’s the foundation of all you do, let’s break down the basics of soil variability.
Knowing which soil zone you’re farming in is important. It directly impacts your fundamental agronomic decisions, including fertilizer strategy. Here in the Prairies, land is divided into five general soil zones: Brown, Dark Brown, Black, Dark Grey and Grey wooded. Topsoil colour in any given area indicates organic matter content, precipitation and temperature, crop nutrients, rotation and herbicide options.
Mapping soil variability on the farm is becoming increasingly common to manage different soil types and crops.
Soil is composed of variable amounts of sand, silt or clay. Sand particles, the largest, can be seen with the naked eye, as can silt particles, intermediate in size. Clay particles, the smallest, require a powerful microscope to be seen. Loam soil is an equal mixture of each.
Soils are termed heavy/fine or light/coarse based on their texture and the amount of horsepower required to pull implements through. Generally, crop productivity is greater on medium-textured soils than those that are light or heavy. This is influenced by texture’s effect upon water holding capacity, water movement, nutrient supply, density and temperature of the soil.
When measuring soil’s acidity or alkalinity, we generally consider pH 6.5-7.5 as neutral, with lower values indicating an acid soil, and higher numbers an alkaline soil. Most Prairie soils sit between pH 5.5 and 8.5 with optimum levels for most plants and soil microorganisms ranging between 6.5 and 7.5. The pH influences nutrient availability and can directly impact plant growth while also affecting the breakdown rate of certain soil residual herbicides.
Also noteworthy are alkali soils, containing high concentrations of sodium. These are not to be confused with saline soils, which contain dissolvable salts that can be problematic as they keep water and dissolved nutrients, including fertilizer, from entering plant roots. When looking for indications of soil salinity, you can look to weeds such as kochia and foxtail barley, relatively drought tolerant pests that can, therefore, survive saline conditions.
The next level of success
With the basics covered, you can now take your knowledge to the next level using soil testing, an integral tool for nutrient and crop management. Testing indicates nutrient status, pH, salinity, organic matter and soil texture.
“Most farmers do get their soil tested,” Bilodeau says. “Typically, they look at the nutrient needs, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulfur and they go from there. That’s a good start.”
But soil testing can further serve as a diagnostic tool to deal with problems in the field, especially when working with an experienced agronomic advisor who can explain the interactions in the soil between the pH, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), texture and organic matter.
Where some nutrients may not change significantly year to year, nitrogen and sulfur – typical money makers especially in canola and the cereals – are two that can change significantly. That’s why it’s key to test your soil yearly.
You could perform your own tests but getting the job done requires the right equipment, and more importantly, valuable time and energy to get the most accurate results, often at the busiest times of the year. With so much at stake why not partner with a trusted resource to collaborate and take the guesswork out of getting the most consistent and reliable results?
Decisive Farming’s Sure-Check offers streamlined, effective year-round testing from the first soil sample to finished recommendations. Specific to each field, this program provides 0-6” and 6-24” soil analysis for each benchmarked point using GPS-referenced test markers to ensure an accurate representation of your field. With accredited lab analysis for over 20 different soil characteristics, knowledgeable agronomists and technicians build tailored fertility plans to match your equipment capabilities and production goals.
Strategically manage your fields
Once you understand the variable conditions of the soil across your farm, you can greatly improve risk management. “Soil is the fundamental beginning,” Andrea Bilodeau, senior agrologist with Decisive Farming, says. “If you don’t know what’s in the ground, you won’t know what to fertilize for. You can determine what you’re going to grow when you know.”
The benefits are numerous.
- Yield. “We are primarily managing risk so we can create a prescription to determine what your yield goals are,” Bilodeau says. “Producers have different goals. Some simply want to up their yields overall. Many want the best yield they can produce out of a specific area, but at a specific price point.”
Other yield goals may be based around quality, including increased protein levels or even maturity. In many cases these goals are either met or exceeded. In cases where they’re not, it opens up a conversation around using agronomy to find a solution.
- Decision Making. Knowing the various soil conditions across your farm, you’ll make more informed decisions and predictions from rotational changes to yield expectations. For example, a farmer may plan to plant a pulse in a particular field, but soil testing can reveal conditions, such as high residual nitrogen, that indicates they will not get their expected return. In this case, an agronomist can recommend a more appropriate crop for better results.
- Return on Investment. “The two most cost-effective solutions you can get for your farm to be making decisions every year are soil testing and seed testing,” Bilodeau says. “These solutions give you a wealth of information considering the amount of ground you’re going to cover.”
- Environmental Impacts. For one, when you understand your soil’s variable qualities, you can prevent losing applications to volatilization, denitrification and leaching.
Better understanding the variability in your soil also informs salinity, tillage and compaction management. “These are things we deal with on an ongoing basis for farmers,” Bilodeau says. “Soil tests will strongly show us these issues and how to manage these kinds of ground. There are different ways to address each that can be very successful or not.”
As farming continues to advance, these types of understandings have helped the industry improve soil management techniques from maximum to almost zero tillage. Now, conversations are increasingly common in different regions about compaction and soil texture, which can lead to better on-farm practices that reduce related issues.
Achieving your goals
Finally, as you work with a better understanding of your farm’s soil variability, remember that 4R Nutrient Stewardship can guide you to achieve your production, profitability, environmental and sustainability goals. “4Rs have given us a wonderful framework to look at these four key elements,” Bilodeau says. “They are fundamental to what we do.”
For example, using nitrogen inhibitors can ensure your nitrogen doesn’t convert to an unusable form and become available to the air or groundwater, thus protecting your investment for the crop, as well as caring for the environment.
Right rate – Matching the right fertilizer amounts to your crop needs is key and depends on both the prior state of the soil and which crops are being grown.
A prescription might recommend very low amounts of a product in lesser producing areas, while using more in higher producing areas to push yields. Interestingly, those lower producing sections are often the places where groundwater leaching is more prevalent. “By pulling back in our nutrient values there, where the crop is not going to use it, we’re using a better way of rate and place,” Bilodeau says.
Right time – We want to make nutrients available right when crops need them. This involves calculating the interplay of crop uptake, soil supply, nutrient loss risk and field operation logistics.
Bilodeau says timing ties into nitrogen inhibitors as well. “We’re pretty specific in our advice to folks about the timing and the weather they should be watching for.”
Right place – The goal is to keep nutrients right where crops can use them. This involves analyzing and tracking the interplay between roots and soil to see nutrient movement and mitigate nutrient loss from the field.
“Years ago, a lot of growers broadcast everything and would lose it to the air or the groundwater,” Bilodeau says. “This isn’t so common today. Fertilizer is typically either side-banded or seed-placed in a logical manner so that it’s available to the plant, in the exact place it needs it.”
As the future of agriculture continues to push producers to balance economics on the farm with environmental sustainability, knowing your soil provides a solid foundation for success.
Ready to integrate precision agronomy solutions on your operation? Call 1-800-941-4811 or contact us to get a custom nutrient plan for your farm and to try our variable rate program risk free* today!