I thought I would follow up on my nutrient management session at the National No-Tillage Conference in Cincinnati a few weeks ago.
This session had a lot of interest and questions, and the time got short, even though discussion followed for over an hour in the hallway afterwards.
With commodity prices and input costs, much more emphasis will be on doing the right thing with nutrients and application. This includes applying them in a way where they are not subject to loss and available for crop uptake. These nutrients are part of the “equity” of whoever owns and manages the land, and the grower that manages them properly will not only be more profitable in the short term, but will be building value in the soil they farm.
All soil is not created equal just because it is the same soil type. The condition of the soil can mean a vast difference in profitability — including not only the chemical, but also the physical and biological components of the soil.
Many times the chemical properties are managed the most because they’re the easiest to control.
But as crop values and inputs increase, the actual impact from the chemical (nutrient) side is reduced in proportion to the physical and biological properties of the soil.
The soil condition is the OPERATING SYSTEM for the crop, and determines the efficiency and recovery of nutrients from the soil. You can have a fantastic inventory of P and K on a soil test, and a poor operating system, and recovery by the crop will be inefficient and expensive.
On the other hand, if the soil condition is such that roots grow easily, soil microbial life thrives, water and air move freely through the soil, and beneficial chemical reactions occur with ease and frequently. A soil test that shows marginal P and K levels can easily out-yield a similar field with high levels of nutrients, and the profit difference is tremendous.
We’ve been led to believe that as long as your pH, P and K are within given ranges, and you apply calculated amounts of nitrogen when needed, everything will be fine.
Agronomy for today’s farmer is much more complicated than that. RECOVERY of those nutrients is much more important than the actual levels shown on a soil test, and our research plots prove that.
A soil that has good structure, ample microbial life, and a decent water infiltration rate (remember that air follows water into the soil as the water moves through it) needs less nutrients on paper than a soil with lesser structure and biological activity. Stress on the crop is much less in the good soil structure; stress from too wet, too dry, heat and cold, herbicides, insects, and disease. These stresses compound upon each other, and methodically reduce the yield potential of the crop.
You can help create this optimum soil structure condition by paying attention to the calcium/magnesium relationship in the soil, if you have marginal internal drainage and significant clay content in your soil.
Although both elements have the ability to purge hydrogen from the soil colloid and create an acceptable pH, their reactions with clay are quite different. Calcium has a flocculating property that supports good soil structure. Magnesium, much smaller than Ca, can “peptize” with clay particles and cause a sealing effect that makes water movement tough in the soil.
A word of caution: lower-exchange soils that don’t contain a significant amount of clay should not be managed in this way, as Magnesium is not a soil structure component in those soils, and is necessary in levels that support crop uptake without deficiencies.
Other management techniques that enhance the physical and biological properties in the soil are tillage that improves soil structure, and lack of tillage that reduces soil structure. Tillage usually breeds tillage, so be careful to ensure you are, in fact, improving the soil structure. Avoidance of compaction, proper planting without sidewall compaction, residue management, efficient nitrogen management, and use of cover crops should all be considered.
Over the last several years, our nitrogen plots have strongly supported this recovery enhancement in optimum soil-structure conditions. High-yielding zones are requiring much less nitrogen than low-yielding zones, and the difference is soil structure and recoverability.
Nitrogen is an easy nutrient to evaluate on this basis, because it isn’t stored in the soil to the extent of P and K.
We can evaluate applied rates to economic return in the year of application. We’ve shown that soils with an optimum calcium/magnesium relationship can produce corn at a rate of near .5 pounds N per bushel, while those soils with adverse Ca/Mg conditions may take as much as 2 pounds of N per bushel.
This makes a big difference to the bottom line. We were tipped off on this years ago by our consultant friends in the sports turf industry.
You also need to pay close attention to the timing of your nutrient application. We ask these crop inputs to be soluble in the soil so the crop has a good chance of recovering them. You can’t ask them to wait until planting time to become soluble, it doesn’t work like that.
I believe the timing and method of application have much more to do with off-site movement of nutrients than the actual rate applied. When I make a recommendation for nutrients, the only consideration is what the crop will need. We need to make sure those nutrients are properly applied.
If there’s a likelihood of off-target movement, don’t do it. Applying to snow-covered, frozen ground is a recipe for economic loss. You may find yourself replacing those lost nutrients at a price twice their cost. If a soil is well balanced and managed, a grower can skip a year of P and K and apply them at a time when we know they will become part of the soil. This also allows for purchasing nutrients on “down cycles” with the great commodity swings we are seeing.
Blanket application of nutrients and guessing without a representative soil test are fast becoming a thing of the past.
The profit potential of VRT applications of lime and fertilizer is greater today than ever, and enhancing your soils’ recovery rates will put much more profit in your operation.
And fortunately, enhanced recovery of nutrients is the solution to water impairment and environmental stewardship for agriculture.