February 2023 Caring for Soil Skin

The interface between the soil surface and the atmosphere above it is a critical juncture.  Both vital air and water must cross this boundary to supply the root system beneath the soil.  Numerous measurements have indicated that 60% of the roots are within 4 inches of this zone.  Raindrops strike this interface with the force of little bombs, exploding the soil surface into tiny particles that then plug the porosity of the interface and stop air and water from crossing.  If this wasn’t bad enough, most tillage systems are designed to pulverize the soil surface to kill emerged weeds and to provide a fine seed/soil contact for rapid germination.  This makes the soil skin more susceptible to sealing of the surface pores. Except for semi-aquatic plants, oxygen at the root surface is critical for roots to use plant energy to grow and absorb nutrients. Air moves through the pores in the soil unless they are plugged.


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December 2022 Fixing Compaction

The last newsletter covered how compaction forms in your fields.   The yield loss and increased cost for a unit of production are real.   Bigger tractors, even with more tires, and an attitude of we have to get this done, have increased the size of wet areas in the fields and turned even well drained soils into something much less.  The popularity of the vertical tillage that farmers have been told they can go on the field anytime and it will dry it, results in tremendous compaction issues.  One farm I worked with actually ripped the legs off of a deep tillage unit when they tried to remove the vertical tillage compaction.   My research crop had only rooted 2 inches deep on that farm.

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September/October 2022 Compaction

As we traverse corn fields chopping or combining, it is a key time to see if you have maximized yield.  Several times in trials on farms I found I could pull corn plants up with no effort.  The majority of roots were in the top 3 inches.   Fall soil sampling (the best time) to maximize fertilizer inputs smartly and effectively, will often show the soil limitations as the probe hits compacted layer or can’t go in the ground at all. Soil compaction impacts root depth and available water.  It can severely limit the available nutrients.  They are there but can’t be reached.  As farms and tractor size get bigger and “we HAVE to get this done” attitude, compacted soils will come up and bite you in the backside.  We often blame bad weather (too much or too little rain). Use shovel to feel the compaction and to look at roots’ growth and pattern.


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August 2022 Maximize Winter Forage Potential

For a number of farms, the forage supplies this year may be very tight.  First the lack of rain, and then too much rain to late.  The last newsletter covered what we can do this fall for an emergency forage crop.  There is one crop you can plant this fall that can give you high yields of very high-quality forage earlier in the spring than any other crop – winter forage.  Winter grains, specifically winter triticale, have been increasing acreage at a tremendous rate for the past 12 years as more farmers put their money there because the crop makes money.  A bonus is that the very high digestible winter forage, when added to the ration as summer heat comes on, eliminates the formerly common “summer slump”.


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July2022 Last Chance Forage


The dry weather has produced spotty crops.  One area will have rain and decent crops while just a mile away the crop is struggling from the lack of water.  What we have seen is that regardless of weather, farms that rotate frequently, and build their soils structure and organic matter with intensively managed winter forage, their crops are doing much better despite the conditions


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June 2022 Why Sorghum

Corn is in, or not.  The weather has been in a wild swing cycle that we have seen before.  No, burning an agronomist at the stake will not help! With any shifting weather patterns, not putting all your eggs in one basket (or one crop) could give you a much more stable forage supply.   One of those alternative crops is the often-ignored Brown Mid Rib forage sorghum or sorghum-Sudan.  It is planted when the soil is warmer than 60F and the forecast is for warmer conditions.  This occurs after most if not all haylage is harvested.  Taking first cutting followed by sorghum is one way to increase the yield from a runout hayfield.


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May 2022 Season Compression


In the north-central and northeast half of the US, the season is shaping up more and more as one of the springs where we go from winter to summer in less than a week.  Snow one day, short sleeve shirts two days later.  The longer-term forecast just a week ago had this region as colder and wetter than normal. The forecast has now been changed to hot and dry.   The supreme irony is that by the middle of May we will probably be at average growing degree days. This will mean that the manure that couldn’t get spread because it was too wet, the corn that couldn’t get planted because it was too cold and wet, and the winter forage and haylage that was growing very slowly, will all switch to “need to be done now!”

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April 2022 Managing Through Challenging TIme

This is a difficult newsletter to write with so many factors affecting the farm in play.   It is even more difficult with your farm business on the line.  We have been through both low and high milk prices and high grain prices times before.   Farms survived then and will now but not without some change.  An old farmer is saying that “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.”

If you are not there, one of the key steps is to maximize the milk produced by the least expensive feeds.   In short, you want more money for your efforts which is not the same as more milk.


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March 2022 Nitrogen on Winter Forage


Most farms growing winter triticale forage with the high yield management package, are getting yields above what they expected yet the protein is less than what they want.  With the high soy meal prices, the lack of forage protein hurts.  Reality has caught up with them.  As we pointed out last year in the March 2021 newsletter; a three-ton winter forage dry matter yield will remove 192 lbs. of Nitrogen at 20% crude protein.   Insufficient nitrogen (and sulfur) will not only limit the protein of the crop but also drain the soil of available nitrogen so when corn is planted after, it does poorly for the first couple of weeks.  A band aid answer is to put some popup nitrogen fertilizer in with the corn seed.  The better answer is to put enough on the winter triticale and any not used will be there to supply the corn.


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February 2022 Phosphorous Use


With the price/supply squeeze coming tighter during spring fertilizer purchases, farmers are looking for options that will still support high yields. The November newsletter touched on soil testing to see what is needed in your soil, not what you guess it needs.  It has been clear from looking at soil samples over the past 40 years, that fields with regular manure applications are testing high to very high in phosphorous.   This is especially true for fields that are daily spread or spread without immediate incorporation.  The nitrogen fractions volatilize and are lost while the phosphorous mostly remains.  Thus, more manure is applied to meet the nitrogen needs of the corn and so excess phosphorus, above and beyond the maximum needs of the crop, accumulates.   The high to very high soil test in phosphorous means that the odds of getting an economic return on starter phosphorous is nearly 0.

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