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Digging deeper into soil health

Soil Health Test CoryMFA Precision Agronomy Specialist Cory Clermont pulls soil samples in a field in Martinsburg, Mo. Soil health testing is now available as a service through MFA’s Crop-Trak Complete and Nutri-Track precision ag programs. The sampling process is the same as traditional soil tests, but the soil health samples are sent to a different lab for analysis that includes such factors as microbial activity, soil respiration, aggregate stability and nutrient availability.MFA Precision Agronomy Specialist Cory Clermont pulls soil samples in a field in Martinsburg, Mo. Soil health testing is now available as a service through MFA’s Crop-Trak Complete and Nutri-Track precision ag programs. The sampling process is the same as traditional soil tests, but the soil health samples are sent to a different lab for analysis that includes such factors as microbial activity, soil respiration, aggregate stability and nutrient availability.Soil testing is nothing new to farmers. Agricultural scientists have been measuring key plant nutrients in soils since the late 1800s, as farms began to transition from subsistence to production systems. The first public soil-testing lab­oratories opened in the 1940s and ’50s, giving farmers an important tool to make better-informed crop fertility decisions.

Today, however, many farmers are interested in digging deeper into soil health, which can’t be measured by standard soil tests alone. Soil health goes beyond fertility and physical properties to focus on biology, which has been overlooked or ignored in common soil-testing procedures. To meet those needs, MFA is now offering a new soil health testing service through its Crop-Trak Complete and Nutri-Track precision agriculture programs.

“There’s been a big push over the past few years to promote regenerative agricul­ture and climate-smart programs, and farmers need to measure the health of their soils in order to see the impact of those practices,” said Landry Jones, MFA conser­vation grazing specialist. “Typical soil tests can’t give us that type of measurement. Growers already trust MFA for soil-testing services and fertility recommendations, and offering soil health testing is a logical next step in our customer partnering.”

A soil health test is much like a wellness exam in human health. It identifies areas that are doing well along with those that need some attention. MFA’s soil health reports will provide details such as microbial activity, soil respiration, nu­trient availability, and water-extractable carbon and nitrogen, which measures the portion of organic matter that dissolves in water and, therefore, is more accessible to soil microbes. Also measured is aggregate stability, or the ability of a soil to reg­ulate the movement and storage of air and water throughout the soil profile. The more stable the soil’s aggregates, the more productive the soil.

Growers who request soil health tests will also receive standard measurements of macro- and micronutrients and key factors such as pH and organic matter. Ultimately, an overall soil health score is calculated based on a combination of these different indicators.

“Most traditional soil tests rely almost entirely on soil chem­istry and are tied to the nutritional needs of the plant,” Jones ex­plained. “But most of the nutrients that ultimately end up in the crop are transferred by soil microbiology. What’s different about a soil health test is that it not only shows what is available to the plant and but also the potential of what’s available in the soil to be released through microbial activity.”

The sampling procedures are conducted like a regular soil test, Jones said, but MFA precision specialists and agronomists will package soil health samples separately and send them to Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Neb. Here, the soil is subjected to the “Haney Test,” which is designed to mimic nature in deter­mining what quantity of soil nutrients are available to the crop and accessible to the microbes. This test, which the USDA has adopted as its official Soil Health Nutrient Tool, was developed by Rick Haney, a researcher at the Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory in Temple, Texas.

“The heat and chemicals used in standard soil testing aren’t conducive to measure microbial life,” Jones said. “The Haney Test uses water and natural extracts, more like what soil would encounter in Mother Nature.”

Once the results are available, Jones and MFA’s new natural resources conservation specialist, Emily Beck, will work with the grower’s Crop-Trak or Nutri-Track specialist to interpret the data and provide recommendations. If needed, practices that can improve the soil health profile include using minimum till­age or no-till, planting cover crops, increasing crop biodiversity or implementing different crop rotations.

“Improving soil health doesn’t happen overnight,” Jones said. “The value of a soil health analysis is to provide a way to gauge benefits of conservation cropping practices or other manage­ment changes. The soil health movement is still pretty new and evolving, and there’s some uncertainty on how to truly quantify things. Our goal is to equip farmers with good, solid informa­tion now that will still be good, solid information down the road, whether that’s next year or five years from now.”

For more information on MFA’s new soil health service, talk with the precision specialists, agronomists or key account man­agers at your MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location.

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