Volatile prices, changing foreign markets and weather events represent some of the uncontrollable factors facing farmers every year. As you look to limit that risk by eliminating yield-inhibiting factors, you may want to start with the soil beneath their feet. Making sure your soil is up to the challenge of the upcoming season is the first step toward minimizing risk.
Soil fertility is one of the most important tools to maximize yield potential. Taking proactive care of the soil to ensure that it has the right combination and level of nutrients to support a healthy crop reduces the risk of pests or diseases damaging yield potential. To increase soil fertility, there are several key tactics to consider:
· It all begins with the soil test. Soil testing cannot be over-emphasized. Testing soils helps determine what type of soil you have and how best to handle its challenges, what nutrients are already available in the soil, and what nutrient deficits exist. Soil tests should be taken from the top 6 to 7 inches, and should be done in several areas around each field. Because soil testing is so important in planning soil fertility management practices, it must be done accurately.
· Know the pH levels of soil. The pH levels of your fields will impact nutrient availability and will therefore affect your overall soil fertility plan. Low soil pH can make it difficult for plants to access key nutrients like calcium, magnesium and molybdenum. It can also negatively affect nitrogen fixation. Meanwhile, high soil pH can reduce the availability of other nutrients like iron, boron, copper and zinc. Herbicide carryover can also be affected by both low and high pH levels. While it is difficult to lower a high pH level, knowing that pH levels are high will change your soil management approach and any risks associated with it. Low pH levels can often be raised with lime applications. Corn, wheat and soybean crops prefer pH levels from 6.0 to 6.5, while alfalfa requires a slightly higher pH level, between 6.5 and 7.
· Understand the importance of macronutrients. Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are known as the three essential macronutrients needed for plant life. All of them are needed for crops to develop healthily and continuously throughout the growing season. While some farmers use crop rotations to minimize the need for some of these macronutrients to be applied as fertilizer, it is still important to conduct soil tests at the start of the spring to make sure fields have adequate levels of N, P and K to get plants off to a strong start. Other important nutrients to keep a close eye on, and that are critical to crop health, are magnesium, sulfur and calcium.
· Enlist the support of micronutrients. While N, P and K receive the lion’s share of attention when discussing fertilizers, micronutrients are becoming increasingly important, particularly as new seed varieties are introduced to the market. Fine-tuning soil fertility with micronutrients can make a several-bushels-an-acre difference in yield. To better understand the role of micronutrients in crop health, see the periodic table of crop nutrition. When applying fertilizer, look for options that combine both macronutrients and micronutrients to obtain higher soil fertility. One important note to consider regarding macro and micronutrients: Even though scouting fields is the best way to determine the immediate health of plants, by the time a deficiency is seen in the field, some yield potential has already been lost. Proactively applying the right nutrients at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place is critical in maximizing yield potential.
· Environmental factors should factor in. Historic information is valuable when trying to increase soil fertility. Is a certain field susceptible to pests? Has there been a disease outbreak over the past several years in any area? Are your fields near a neighboring farm that has suffered with pest or disease challenges in recent years? These factors could and should impact the approach to soil fertility, as well as seed selection.
By laying the strong foundation of health in your soils through good fertility management, your crops will benefit, beginning the day the seeds are placed in the ground. Having the right nutrients available to your crops from the start will help develop a strong root system and aggressive growth pattern that will ultimately lead to higher yield potentials, and help manage a few of the risks inherent to farming.