Sales of foliar fertilizers have skyrocketed in the last several years, particularly among organic dairy farmers. Foliar products are readily available, easy to store, and many products are approved for organic use and formulated to provide humates, microbiological products, micronutrients, and other popular treatments. Advocates of these products say they offer an environmentally friendly, efficient, and cost-effective way to apply fertilizers. Yet much of the recent research done on foliar feeding has been unable to reliably document benefits to production.
Louceline Fleuridor has spent the last two years studying foliar feeding as part of her Ohio State master’s degree program. She partnered with organic dairy farmers to measure the response of forage and soils to post-cutting foliar fertilization on 19 on-farm sites. As with previous studies in Ohio, Fleuridor found no consistent evidence of benefits from using foliar feeding products.
"In foliar feeding, you apply fertilizer through the leaves, which is contrary to the traditional knowledge that plants will absorb nutrients through their roots,” says Fleuridor, explaining that leaves' primary function is thought to be photosynthesis. "It raises some questions."
On Thursday, December 19, Fleuridor met with participating farmers and Ohio State specialists for a discussion of the research trials and results.
Partnering farmers began the meeting by sharing their experiences with foliar products. Wayne county dairy farmer Jeff Miller began experimenting with foliar feeding on one of his pastures five years ago. He decided to spray half of his pasture to see what would happen and because he couldn’t afford to spray the whole field. But when he noticed how much quicker his herd began to graze in the foliar fed area, he decided he couldn’t afford not to spray the whole field. Other farmers relayed similar experience, noting increases in crop yield, forage health, palatability, and harvested hay quality that coincided with the use of foliar feeding.
Yield gets a lot of attention in studies, but quality and palatability are also important, especially on dairy farms where forage is not the end product. Past studies have noted other advantages to foliar feeds, including decreased nutrient runoff, better absorption efficiency of micro- and macronutrients, reduced instance of disease, and, in a 2000 study on wheat, increased grain protein content.
"Forage quality is where we really expected to see changes, but we didn't," said Ohio State soil fertility specialist Steve Culman, who provided technical assistance on the project.
Fleuridor's study examined a variety of forage quality measurements, including in-field measurements for sugar content (Brix), as well as lab analysis for crude protein, stem:leaf ratio, fiber content, relative forage quality, net energy of lactation, and estimated milk/ton.
In addition to sharing individual and overall test results with the participating farmers, Fleuridor also spent time explaining how researchers use randomized plots and statistics to separate actual treatment differences from differences that happen randomly or from variations in the field. Fleuridor noted that there were some differences between the treatment and control in the studies, but the results were inconsistent and didn’t reveal a cohesive pattern of increased yield, plant health, or milk production for the sites in this study.
Culman cautions farmers to inform themselves before using foliar feeds. “If you’re looking at adding these products, look at the formulation and know what you’re getting. Foliar products tend to supply only a small amount of nutrients.”
Most of the farmers in the study plan to continue using foliar feeding, feeling that these products have caused improvements on their fields. They did note mixed results with some products and a need for additional labor. Several of the participants also stressed that other soil problems need to be fixed before turning attention to foliar feeds.
As for Fleuridor, she feels there are many factors that could have contributed to the mixed results in this study, including weather and soil conditions when the products were applied. She recommended that future studies use a consistent forage composition, and suggested a focus on clover may be advisable, based on farmer feedback.
This study was sponsored by The Ohio State University Paul C. and Edna H. Warner Grants for Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Valley FAFO (Farmers Advocating for Organic), and SoilBiotics. Organic Valley FAFO is currently accepting grant proposals for on-farm research projects. The deadline is February 15, 2020. Read more: https://www.organicvalley.coop/why-organic-valley/power-of-we/farmers-advocating-organics/
|Ohio State researcher Louceline Fleuridor applied foliar feed treatments at spring green up and 10 days after each cutting. Applications were made in the mornings when temperatures were below 75 degrees F.|
A smaller than usual corn harvest is underway in Ohio. A smaller than needed portion of the harvest continues to be organic.
According to annual acreage reports from Mercaris, a company specializing in market data and services for organic and non-GMO, the 2019 harvest will see a record number of organic grain acres, despite the notoriously poor spring planting season (1). But the firm also predicted a 12% decrease in actual organic corn yields, compared to 2018, which will lead to increased imports and costs for organic livestock farmers.(2)
For decades, consumer demand for organic food has grown annually by double-digits (3). While still a comparatively small portion of overall agricultural production, organic corn acreage in the U.S. increased by more than 55% between 2011 and 2016, driven mainly by demand from organic dairy farms (4). Despite the large increase in production, organic grain was imported to the U.S. in 2016, indicating the potential for future growth (5, 6). Currently, Ohio ranks in the top 5 states for number of certified organic corn growers, and in the top ten for acres harvested (7). However, relatively little is known about the management practices of these farms.
As part of an interdisciplinary study on soil balancing, Ohio State researchers surveyed certified organic corn growers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Indiana in the spring of 2018. These four states collectively represent one-third of all U.S. organic corn growers and produce about 20% of the nation’s organic corn.
Responses show the majority of organic corn growers in this region are dairy farmers. More than half of the organic corn grown in 2017 was used as on-farm livestock feed. Most (70%) respondents harvested corn as grain corn; 36% harvested corn as silage (with some doing both). Other uses were rare. A surprisingly large number (nearly 2/3) of the growers use horse-powered equipment, indicating they are likely members of Old Order Amish or similar Plain communities.
The survey examined the use of soil amendments, crop rotations, cover crops, various tillage and cultivation strategies, yields, selling costs, and management priorities. Manure and compost were by far the most common practice, used by 89% of all organic corn growers. Other amendments were used by fewer than half the growers. Tillage practices were chosen for weed management, but most other management decisions focused on soil health.
Reported yields varied widely, ranging from 25 to 250 bushels per acre for grain and 5-34 tons per acre for silage. According to the data collected and estimated from survey responses, very few farmers lost money on the fields reported on for this study.
Farmers with more years of experience raising crops organically tended to have higher net returns on average, suggesting that economic performance can be expected to improve over time for transitioning farms. About 40% of respondents had less than five years of experience farming organically.
Researchers received a 57% response rate (859 responses), yielding a margin of error of 2%.
This work is supported by Organic Agriculture Research & Extension funding grant no. 2014-51300-22331/project accession no. 1003905 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Read more at go.osu.edu/orgcorn.
That’s how Dr. Emilie Regnier describes giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida). Regnier, an associate professor and researcher in weed ecology, has completed two USDA-funded studies and a survey of certified crop advisors regarding giant ragweed. Capable of reaching a staggering 17 feet tall and responsible for making millions of allergy sufferers miserable, giant ragweed is on the minds of many this time of year. Regnier’s work has shown the ability of giant ragweed to adapt to changes and expand its range both culturally and geographically.
Many of our worst weeds have been introduced from areas where their spread is controlled by natural predators. Giant ragweed, however, is native to North America and has plenty of natural predators, including, at one time, the indigenous people of North American, says Regnier. Just about every part of it is regularly consumed by something. So how is it that giant ragweed remains such a problem?
Most of its advantages center on an uncanny ability to adapt. Giant ragweed shows a great degree of genetic diversity. Anyone can observe this, says Regnier. If you were to collect seed from five different plants and pile them into 5 piles, chances are that the seed from each of those plants would be different in appearance (size, number and size of points, color).
“It’s almost like each plant has a fingerprint,” she says.
This physical variability is something you can see, but it indicates diversity in other characteristics. Former Ohio State graduate student Brian Schutte showed seed dormancy in giant ragweed had wide variation. Most ragweed emerges in early March, but he found some seeds with emergence windows reaching into July and August. This variation makes it easy for giant ragweed to escape weed control methods.
Giant ragweed’s genetic diversity has allowed it to respond and benefit from changes in land use and cropping systems. Initially considered a riparian plant growing along ditches and waterways, giant ragweed is now frequently found in the midst of row crops. Regnier’s survey of certified crop advisors showed that, over the last 30 years, giant ragweed has expanded to fields outside of the corn belt in all directions. It is one of several weeds developing resistance to common herbicides—an issue much in the current spotlight. Ragweed has also benefitted from changes in what Regnier calls the “architecture of modern agriculture,” as soybeans and shorter corn varieties have become more common in rural landscape over the decades.
“The selection for crop species that are shorter, and therefore don’t lodge as much, has lots of benefits; but, on the other hand, it reduces their ability to shade out weeds,” she says, “That might be one of the cultural reasons that giant ragweed has become worse as a weed.”
Don’t despair! Giant ragweed does have some weaknesses, says Regnier. As an annual plant, giant ragweed is completely reliant on seeds to reproduce. Since flowering time is strongly driven by the hours of daylight we know it will begin around mid-August.
“If you can control the plant so that it’s not big enough to flower at that time then you can prevent the reproduction of seeds.”
Giant ragweed typically requires pollen from another plant, so one plant rarely causes an outbreak. And happily, giant ragweed is not a prolific seed-producer, nor a seed that remains viable in the soil for long periods of time. Most giant ragweed seeds lose viability in the first year but can survive longer if buried by deep tillage or stored underground by earthworms and rodents. Even seeds that are produced, are often consumed by mice and voles and sometimes by insects.
What if you already have a giant ragweed problem?
Knowing giant ragweed’s weaknesses can help solve an existing problem.
- Since most giant ragweed emerges in early spring, having a competitive cover crop or perennial in place in March can reduce its emergence. Alfalfa or mixed hay should be able to control ragweed effectively by providing competition in the spring and with mowing events to set back late emerging weeds. Since the seeds rarely survive longer than one year, including a forage crop in rotation should help prevent ragweed problems.
- Alternatively, a crop could be be planted later in the spring after most of the ragweed seeds have germinated. The false seed bed technique uses repeated bouts of light tillage to germinate then terminate weed seeds in the field.
- Taller fast-growing crops densely planted can help shade out later emerging giant ragweed plants.
- Giant ragweed seeds can float and are often cached by mice and other rodents. Managing the weed in non-crop areas through mowing can help prevent its spread into planted areas.
- For more on information and resources on organic weed management, visit go.osu.edu/eco-weed-mngt
Although giant ragweed is less problematic in tall crops like corn, this weed can certainly outgrow field corn varieties, reaching a staggering 17 feet tall.
Giant ragweed seeds are relatively large (3/16 to 7/16 inch long and 1/8 to 1/4 inch wide) and encased in a woody hull with a distinctive set of points at the top and smaller points or ridges around the middle of the hull. Left on the soil surface, these seeds are a favorite treat of mice and other small rodents.
|Giant ragweed typically emerges in March. The first (cotyledon) leaves have an indentation at the base and are fairly large -- 3/8 to 5/8 inch wide, 1 to 1 3/4 inches long. The first true leaves are ovate, lobed and directly across the stem from one another. The second pair of true leaves shows the more familiar shape of giant ragweed. Leaves have stiff hairs that point toward the leaf tip and usually form 3 distinct lobes but can have up to 5.|
Photo of young ragweed plants is from the Ohio State weed lab, courtesy of bugwood.org
Other photos by Ken Chamberlain, Ohio State, College of Food Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
written by Andrea Leiva Soto, Horticulture and Crop Science
Ohio State researchers compared an organic system to a conventional one, looking at several soil quality indicators such as bulk density, organic matter content, and nematode populations. After four years, the organic system had fewer harmful nematodes, especially during the hay phase of the rotation. Mineral nitrogen was more abundant in the conventional system, while microbial nitrogen prevailed in the organic system. Soil bulk density did not differ between systems, even though intensive tillage was done in the organically managed fields. However, despite the high carbon inputs added to the organic system, organic matter was only slightly higher compared to the conventional system.
Nematodes have a bad reputation for damaging crops and garden plants, but some can be quite important for plant growth. Certain kinds of nematodes eat bacteria and fungi that cause plant diseases. Others decompose organic matter, providing plant nutrients. Studies indicate that nematodes supply 27% of the soil nitrogen that is available to plants. Today, nematodes are increasingly used as an indicator of the status of the soil food web. The soil food web is a complex network with organisms that provide services to the farm ecosystem like regulating pests, nutrient recycling, modifying soil structure, or even breaking down man-made chemicals.
Organic matter additions have been shown to influence nematode populations. Adding green manure cover crops or decomposed animal waste can decrease root-feeding nematodes. Additionally, organic amendments are known to increase soil nitrogen, organic matter and microbial biomass, and reduce soil bulk density, leading to less soil compaction. As a result, roots explore deeper and have more oxygen available leading to more vigorous growth.
However, the intensive tillage practices used to incorporate amendments or control weeds, disrupt the soil ecosystem, affecting the populations of beneficial microbes and nematodes. Synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and soil compaction can also cause similar undesirable effects.
To better understand these kinds of interactions and develop insights into how best to manage them, a study at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, Ohio, compared conventional and organic farming systems and how soil characteristics, nitrogen cycling, and nematode populations are affected by each system.
The conventional system used chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and reduced tillage in a corn–soybean rotation. The organic system incorporated fresh straw, beef manure, poultry compost, and intensive tillage in a corn–oat–hay rotation. Soil samples were taken in the spring before soil inputs, and in autumn after crop harvest. Samples were taken from between and within the crop rows. Then for each sample, the nematodes were counted and identified, and soil bulk density, organic matter, and nitrogen were measured.
Results: After four years, the organic system had fewer harmful nematodes, especially for the hay phase of the rotation. Mineral nitrogen was more abundant in the conventional system, while microbial nitrogen prevailed in the organic system. Soil bulk density did not differ between systems, even though intensive tillage was done in the organically managed fields. And despite the high carbon inputs added to the organic system, organic matter was only slightly higher compared to the conventional system.
Take Home Messages
- When you are transitioning to organic, it is important to reduce synthetic inputs gradually. The soil system needs time to build different sources of nutrients to be sustainable in the long-term. It is known that after the transition period, organic farms have more nitrogen in the soil compared to conventional farms, mainly due to a build-up of the microbial nitrogen pool, but these benefits will not be available immediately.
- Organic amendments and crop rotations can decrease harmful root-feeding nematodes in the soil. And by including hay in the rotation cycle, you can decrease these nematode populations even more.
- Intensive tillage can reduce the soil-related benefits of organic farming. On the other hand, organic inputs should significantly increase soil organic matter and decrease soil bulk density. In the organic farming system discussed above, the benefits of the large organic inputs were diminished by the intensive tillage routine. Rather than seeing a decrease in compaction level, the soil bulk density remained the same. And there was only a minor boost in soil organic matter. Decreased use of tillage in organic farming would better take advantage of the benefits that an organic system can provide.
Read more about it:
This study was conducted at Ohio State in the early 2000s. Published results are availabe online.
Briar, Shabeg S.; Grewal, Parwinder S.; Somasekhar, Nethi; Stinner, D.; Miller, Sally A. 2007. Soil nematode community, organic matter, microbial biomass and nitrogen dynamics in field plots transitioning from conventional to organic management. Applied Soil Ecology 37: 256-266.
Read more news and information on organic agriculture research at offer.osu.edu.
Based on an article from Organic Seed Alliance by Kiki Hubbard. Read the full article here.
New varieties of disease-resistant cucurbits are commercially available as a result of Cornell University's Eastern Sustainable Organic Cucurbit Project.
Through participatory efforts with farmers and regional seed companies, Extension researchers developed new varieties with organic producers in mind, focusing on resistance to common diseases and pests, but also on production and culinary characteristics important to organic farmers.
“All of our successes with DMR are owed to farmer input,” says project director Michael Mazourek. “We took moderately resistant material that we had at Cornell, moderately resistant material identified by organic farmers, and people are seeing the literal cross-pollination of these partnerships in DMR varieties now available to growers.”
‘Trifecta’ muskmelon stood out for its excellent eating quality and yield–even under levels of downy mildew pressure that defoliated most commercial melon varieties. The variety also exhibited good bacterial wilt resistance and was less prone to damage from striped cucumber beetles. ‘Trifecta’ is currently available for sale through Common Wealth Seed Growers and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
DMR401 cucumber, a downy-mildew resistant (DMR) slicing cucumber variety, now available for purchase through Common Wealth Seed Growers, High Mowing Organic Seeds, SeedWise, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
DMR264 cucumber, excellent resistance to new strain of downy mildew, smaller and bred for warmer climates with severe pressure from downy mildew. Available from Common Wealth Seed Growers.
Additional varieties are being tested for release.
The Eastern Sustainable Organic Cucurbit Project has received funding from the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative, as well as the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), and the Clif Bar Family Foundation. Read more about the project at eOrganic.
Recordings are available from the 27th Annual Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference, held in Ada, Ohio, in March 2019. This two-day event brought together speakers in a variety of subject areas – many of which will be of interest to organic farmers.
Videos are available on the conference’s You Tube Channel.
Here are some of the offerings:
Cover Crop Panel: Addressing Cover Crop Seed Issues
Sarah Noggle, OSU Extension, Paulding Co., Moderator; Jay and Ann Brandt, Walnut Creek Seeds; Don Grimes, Ohio Seed Improvement; Cody Beacom, Bird Hybrids
Protecting Identity Preserved Crops In The Field:
Managing Pollen Drift to minimize contamination of Non-GMO Corn
Dr. Peter Thomison, OSU Extension Corn Specialist
Enhancing Mycorrhizae And Metarhizium Fungus
Jim Hoorman, USDA-NRCS, Soil Health Specialist
What Management Practices Most Influence Soil Health In Corn Production?
Dr. Christine Sprunger, OSU Assistant Professor, SENR
Enhancing Beneficial Insects With Pollinators
Dr. Stephanie Frischie, Xerces Society Agronomist / Native Plant Materials Specialist, Plymouth, WI
Can Weeds Be Managed With Calcium Amendments?
Dr. Doug Doohan, OSU Professor, HCS, and Andrea Leiva Soto, OSU PhD Student, HCS
Elephant In The Room: Why Do So Many Farmers Practice 'Soil Balancing' Despite The Lack Of Scientific Evidence?
Dr. Doug Jackson-Smith, OSU Professor, SENR, and Dr. Caroline Brock, OSU Senior Research Associate, SENR
The Effects Of Manipulating Ca:Mg Ratios On Ohio Crop Yields And Soil Health
Dr. Steve Culman, OSU Assistant Professor, SENR, and Will Osterholz, USDA-ARS
Weather Pattern Effects On Conservation Practices
Dr. Aaron Wilson, OSU, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center
Return On Investment With Using Gypsum
Dr. Subbu Kumarappan, OSU Associate Professor, ATI
Gypsum Is More Than Calcium: Summary Of Ohio Field Crop Responses To Sulfur
Louceline Fleuridor, OSU MS student, HCS
Use of compost and a mixed species hay crop are recommended.
For farmers transitioning from a conventional to an organic farming system, decisions made during the three-year transition period can influence important factors of future production, such as soil-borne pathogens, soil fertility, and soil structure. In this study, compost incorporation strongly affected physical, chemical, and biological soil health factors and, overall, the soil food web. Using a mix of perennial hay during the transition was most successful in reducing disease-causing pathogens in the soil. Highest available N and yields occurred in the plots using high tunnel vegetable production.
Materials and Methods
A three-year study was conducted in Wooster, Ohio, to evaluate four common rotational strategies used during transition from a conventional to an organic farming system. The four organic transition strategies evaluated were: 1) tilled fallow, 2) a single planting of mixed species perennial hay, 3) low intensity open field vegetable production, and 4) intensive vegetable production under a high tunnel.
Each transition strategy plot was split in half with 15,000 lbs./ac composted manure applied each year to one half.
At the year of certification, the fields were planted to tomato, with two smaller plots of soybean.
- Compost treatment increased organic matter of soils in all treatments, lowered bulk density, and increased NO3-N, and microbial biomass-N.
- The addition of compost boosted plant vigor for tomatoes for all transition strategies, but had an inconsistent effect on suppression of soil-borne diseases.
- Transition cropping strategy was the main factor influencing bacterial community structure in the soil and the rhizosphere.
- Bacterial communities involved in disease suppression were more abundant in soil previously cropped with hay compared to tilled fallow and low-intensity vegetable production. This was true for both tomato and soybean crops.
- Overall, the mixed hay was the most effective in decreasing damping-off for both tomato and soybean crops.
- Tomato yield during year four was much higher in the high tunnel plot. The hay treatment also showed better yield than the tilled fallow and open field vegetable production.
Why Researchers Think the Hay and High Tunnel Treatments Did Better
Disease suppression might happen in two ways. One involves specific action against pathogen populations. For example, brassicas (cauliflower, kale, turnip, radish, cabbage) suppress soil-borne diseases by exuding sulfur-rich substances that are toxic to many pathogenic soil organisms. And certain species of nematodes eat bacteria and fungi that cause plant diseases. Disease suppression can also occur from high competition for available resources. In both cases, the disease suppression is associated with the overall composition of the microbial community (bacteria, fungi) present in the soil and the rhizosphere.
The hay crop used in this experiment was a combination of Festulolium (a rye fescue hybrid) under-sown with alfalfa, red and white clover, timothy, chicory, orchardgrass, and plantain in equal proportions. Researchers concluded that the above-ground diversity of the hay mix supported an increase in beneficial soil organisms that compete or interfere with pathogens, thus, reducing incidence of disease in future crops.
The highest yields in this study were from the high tunnel plots. While some of the increase resulted from extending the growing season, soil analyses also found a higher level of available N in the high tunnel plots. Researchers think this was a result of maintaining the soil food web in a biologically-active state during the cold early spring months in northern Ohio. The monthly mean soil temperature inside the high tunnels was warmer by 35–41°C from January to May while from July to September it was marginally lower than the outside soil temperature. (Based on top 4 inches.)
For more information on using tunnels in vegetable production, visit the Vegetable Production Systems Laboratory’s Crop Enivronments page.
Prepared by Louceline Fleuridor and Cassandra Brown
Based on summaries of the following papers:
Benítez, MS; Baysal, F.; Rotenberg, D.; Kleinhenz, M.D.; Cardina, J.; Stinner, D.; Miller, S.A.; Gardner, B. B. 2007. Multiple statistical approaches of community fingerprint data reveal bacterial populations associated with general disease suppression arising from the application of different organic field management strategies. Soil Biology and Biochemistry Volume 39, Issue 9, September 2007, Pages 2289-2301
Briar, S.S., Miller, S.A., Stinner, D., Kleinhenz, M.D., & Grewal, P.S. 2011. Effect of different organic transition strategies for peri-urban vegetable production on soil properties, nematode community, and tomato yield. Applied Soil Ecology, 47, pgs 84-91.
Baysal, F; Benitez, MS; Kleinhenz, MD; Miller S.A.; Gardner B.B. 2008. Field management effects on damping-off and early season vigor of crops in a transitional organic cropping system. Phytopathology, Vol. 98, No. 5.
"Soil balancing is complex, it's prevalent, and it's shown the capacity to endure. It also raises very interesting, and sometimes difficult to answer, questions. All of those are reason enough for us to chat, but as we address those questions we’re also very likely to learn about soils, about crops, about farms and farmers, and the people who advise farmers and supply them."
- Matt Kleinhenz, Ohio State, vegetable production specialist
Below are a few notes and quotes from our first two Soil Balancing call-in conversation. Recordings of both calls are available at our website, go.osu.edu/SB-call-in, where you can also find details about our final call-in event on December 12, 2018, 1:30-3:00 p.m. eastern time.
What We Think Soil Balancing Does
“The physical and biological aspects of the soil have more impact on an ultimate yield than actual N, P, and K does. So we're in working with these heavier clay soils. Our main goal is to minimize stress and duration of stress on the crop, so we're trying to preserve yield, because we continually stress this crop and most of the stress on those clay soils comes from water.“
- Joe Nestor, Nestor Ag, LLC (November call-in)
Joe Nestor works as an independent crop consultant in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana. He estimates about 70% of the soils he works with are heavy clay. His main goal using soil balancing is to improve water infiltration for less stress on crops.
“As we reduce flooding in the fields, we end up with a healthier crop in many cases -- a crop that survives, versus a crop that dies out under flooding conditions, and as a result, fewer weeds. When the crop dies or when the crop is not vigorous what grows in those in those areas of the field are weeds primarily. And we've all seen those dead areas in the field that come up in foxtail and other weeds.”
- Doug Doohan, Ohio State, weed specialist (October call-in)
Doug Doohan theorizes that soil balancing might affect weed populations indirectly through improved soil structure and infiltration. He cautions that there is no hard data on this yet, but it’s a research question be is studying based on conversations with farmers.
What Soils Does SB Work Best On?
“I think guys that have promoted the Albrecht balance have kind of given people the idea it works in any soil and that's really not the case. And so I think some of that has drifted into the research facilities in thinking that it works in all situations and that's not the case.”
- Bill McKibben, consultant, Soil Tech, Inc. (October call-in)
Although McKibben says he grew up as an “Albrecht guy,” i.e., focused on the 65% Ca, 15% Mg base saturation recommendations, his experience has shown him this technique is much more effective on clay soils.
However, by growing and incorporating a mixed species cover crop into his soils, vegetable grower Bob Jones reports significantly increasing the CEC on his sandy loam soils. He also uses compost teas and mineral applications, rotating fields in and out of production. He feels this increase of organic matter combined with increasing his Ca:Mg ratio has led to improvements in soil and crops.
“We're raising the CEC, we're raising the organic matter levels, we're getting the calcium up in that seventy to seventy-five percent ratio with magnesium in line with that of 7:1 and that seems to be— We seem to be seeing a very marked improvement in the quality and the shelf life of the product that we're growing.”
- Bob Jones, The Chef's Garden (November call-in)
Focus on the Crop, not Just the Numbers
“The number one goal, the number one objective, needs to be to grow a really healthy crop…. So in terms of priorities sometimes the lab report might indicate that we have a soil that is severely out of alignment and we need to make major adjustments, but the budget doesn't exist and it's not possible to make that happen. In those cases, the priority always needs to be to grow a really healthy crop first and then fix the soil over time as we're able to.”
- John Kempf, consultant, Advancing EcoAgriculture (October call-in)
Other consultants chimed in, saying it’s important to get out in the field and see what’s happening. Both Kempf and McKibben recommended a Paste Analysis test to examine how nutrients are moving into the soil solution and becoming available to plants.
"I can only say what works on our farm. Going back to the question of the truth, what's the truth on your farm? Then go with that. And you can only do that by experience. My father told me a long time ago that the best fertilizer you can put on a field comes from the soles of your feet and that means walking through the field and seeing what's going on and listening to the plant. The plant’s the best test mechanism we have. Does the plant look healthy?"
- Bob Jones, The Chef's Garden (November call-in)
On-Farm Experience vs. Research
“If the universities have a different opinion than the farmers, I normally go with the farmer opinion. They may not know why something is working, but they do know that it does work. And maybe the researchers…. they may not have the whole system, where a farmer would.”
- Will Glazik, organic farmer, Cow Creek Organic Farm
Glazik spoke in detail about how he applied soil balancing on his fifth-generation family farm: how his inputs changed over time and what improvements he saw. He looks to researchers to answer questions about ‘why’ something works, which helps him replicate a practice at his own farm.
“Scientists, I think, legitimately, have a healthy skepticism about what they might consider anecdotal reports of things that people say, especially when it comes…with the sales interest in mind, and they want us to validate that. On the other hand, farmers have a very healthy skepticism and legitimate skepticism of science, and the degree to which scientists’ work is directly as applicable or useful in their work, and that's why they turn to farmers often and legitimately to get advice and counsel.”
- Doug Jackson-Smith, Ohio State, natural resources and rural sociology specialist
Doug Jackson-Smith says that if soil balancing is to move forward, farmers and scientists must work together and bring the on-farm experience to science, and science to the on-farm experience.
Why Aren’t More Universities Studying Soil Balancing?
Steve Culman said many scientists feel this topic has already been decided. But his review of published literature and farmer input, made him think there was more to study. Other panelists theorized that Soil Balancing was an unpopular topic for study because there were few products (and sales revenues) tied to it or because previous research was done on soils poorly suited for the technique.
“I think that the beauty of science is that we… claim to be a self-correcting enterprise. It might take a year or two, it might take ten years, it might take decades. We believe that truth is the foundational thing that we're after, and that, if we have it wrong now, that in time and with additional evidence, we're going to change the way we think about things.”
- Steve Culman, Ohio State, soil fertility specialist (October call-in)
"You're asking, should we be doing more research and generating more numbers. I think so in this regard, because it is a question that I get at almost every soils talk I give. Can I improve my drainage by increasing the calcium-magnesium ratio?"
- Josh McGrath, University of Kentucky (November call-in)
Join the Conversation
- Read more details about future Call-ins
- Register for December call-in.
- Read about the basics of soil balancing and Ohio State's project.
- Listen to full conversation (below).