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Understanding Soil Tests for Determining No-Till Nutrient Needs

Founder of Ward Labs in Kearney, Neb., Ray Ward answers some questions about soil testing, carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling.


Pictured Above: THE CARBON CYCLE. Ray Ward says in the carbon cycle, soil microbes take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, which is, in turn, combined with water molecules to make food and energy for plants during photosynthesis. The plants discard oxygen as a waste product and the cycle begins anew

Q: Why are soil tests important?

A: Soil testing, ultimately, is about efficiency. If we start by maximizing the amount of energy we capture, all other steps in the process have a greater potential to yield profits. Farmers are capturing sunlight, but how do we do that to make our plants efficient, and make the rest of it efficient so we can make some profit? 

I worry sometimes that we hear people say that if we have healthy soil, the microbes will dissolve all the nutrients or minerals in the soil and we get all these nutrients.

But if you harvest forage or grain from the field, you have removed the nutrients from the soil. The bigger the yields, of course, the more sunlight you capture, the higher the yields, the more nutrients removed. And then, if you’re going to replace them, how much do you put back on and when do you do it? So it’s a big cycle you’ve got to think about, and soil tests can help you understand it. 

Q: How does organic matter factor into nutrient cycling?

A: Carbon and plant nutrients come from organic matter. When you build organic matter in the top…

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Julia gerlach web

Julia Gerlach

Julia Gerlach is managing editor of No-Till Farmer. She has a lengthy background in publishing and a longtime interest in gardening and mycology. She graduated with a B.A. in music and philosophy from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis.

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