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The solution’s in the soil

Joe, a dairy farmer near Millet, Alta., who grows 900 acres of barley silage and barley for milling in a rotation with canola, had called me with his predicament in April, 2011. He’d been experiencing problems with poor emergence and a wavy-looking top to the stand had given him second thoughts about the wisdom of purchasing the land.

I’d driven out to see the field for myself. I saw that the soil had been worked and was dark grey to black in colour. It had a clay loam texture and a fairly mellow structure.

One by one we’d crossed possible causes off the list. As there were multiple gas wells on the land, I thought it may be a reclamation issue, but Joe said the yields seemed to be poor continuously across the field.

As Joe’s crop was in its third year of barley, I thought disease pressure could be hurting yields. But there were not enough signs of disease pressure to explain the problem. I ran a germination test on the barley seed, but the seed checked out as well at 95 per cent.

But not all problems are visible to the eye. I ran a soil test on the field, following a hunch. Sure enough, the test results showed macronutrient values that were far too low, low CEC (cation-exchange capacity) levels, and a moderate sodium concentration. Higher sodium levels are difficult to change and could be limiting yield potential, but we could work with the low nutrient levels and CEC by adjusting the nutrient management strategy.

Once we’d determined the source of the problem, we were able to come up with some changes to Joe’s management practices. As Joe is a dairy farmer, I told him to spread cow manure on the field to increase his organic matter and therefore increase his CEC levels in the field. This would also increase the nutrient and water-holding capacity of his land.

In the short term, I told Joe he could supplement all of his macronutrients and then use a foliar nutrient application — his soil’s poor CEC levels would struggle to supply the nutrients when the plants needed them.

We factored in the costs of spreading manure on the field, came up with a value for the land, and decided that the poor crop yield could be remedied — making the purchase worthwhile.

In the end, the yield in 2012 was about 40 bushels per acre, the same as the field’s average, but the fertilizer rates were reduced and replaced with low rates of foliar fertilizer, so the cost per acre was reduced overall.

“Now that we have a grasp on the cure, we can plan for the 2013 crop year and the land purchase,” I told Joe.

We’d both been reminded of something that’s easy to overlook. The first year a farmer takes on any field, they should have a soil test with CEC and micros done, not just to assess the value of the land, but to determine the fertility treatments that should be applied to that newly-farmed land — rather than waiting for problems to arise.. †

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