Biological Soil Test Could Be Valuable No-Till Tool

A new test offered by a Nebraska lab goes beyond simple microbial activity to identify types and ratios of beneficial soil organisms.

A test researchers use to delve deeper into soil microbial activity will soon be commercially available to no-tillers.

Soil phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) profiles are able to better define the soil community — revealing the types of soil organisms present, their concentration in the soil and the ratio of the microbial populations present.

PLFA profiles offer a vast expanse of information compared to the standard respiration method used to measure soil microbial activity.

Jill Clapperton, a rhizosphere ecologist and founder of Rhizoterra Inc., has long used PLFA profiles to study rhizosphere dynamics.

“With one sample, PLFA profiles give me the biggest picture of what’s going on in the soil,” Clapperton says. “It will help no-tillers determine if they’re making the right management decisions to promote a diverse, active soil-microbial community.”

Clapperton and fertility specialist Ray Ward, president of Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Neb., are collaborating to bring this test to no-tillers. They expect to start receiving samples at the lab in September.

The cost will be around $80 per sample, with a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours.

Using the Test

Soil biology is a constantly changing, dynamic system, so PLFA profiles will be useful to compare one practice to another within the same season, unlike comparing year-to-year changes as is done with chemical soil tests.

No-tillers will be able use the test to compare the side-by-side results of various management decisions.

For example, they could divide a field into three management sections and plant a different cover crop…

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Martha mintz new

Martha Mintz

Since 2011, Martha has authored the highly popular “What I’ve Learned About No-Till” series that has appeared in every issue of No-Till Farmer since August of 2002.

Growing up on a cattle ranch in southeastern Montana, Martha is a talented ag writer and photographer who lives with her family in Billings, Montana.

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