By Daniel Davidson
DTN Contributing Agronomist
A farm is a good place to conduct product and concept testing. Each spring I set goals to learn something new in the field. I'm always looking beyond yield -- I want to know why a technology works.
You don't have to be a card-carrying agronomist to conduct trials. It just takes curiosity, a little time and the desire to break your own yield barriers in a profitable way.
Over the years I have done a range of testing on vertical tillage tools, fertilizer, soil products and other inputs. Recently I have upped the ante by throwing in some replicated trials, multiple treatments and doing more measurements.
My current passion is soil health. I firmly believe increasing the size of the soil's engine by improving soil health is a worthy goal. I've been looking at gypsum, compost, cover crops, residue management/decomposition, vertical tillage and changing the biological makeup of the soil. However, anecdotal observation isn't enough. I need to use some novel tests to measure change.
Last year, I use the Haney and PLFA (phospholipid fatty acid) test to measure some of these practices and was fascinated with what I learned.
My tillage study showed that vertical tillage can improve soil aeration, which increases respiration and nutrient recycling, and was even better than no-till. Just to be sure my test results weren't a fluke, I want to repeat that study again in 2014. If my theories are correct, certain types of vertical tillage can boost soil health as measured by respiration and nutrient recycling and yield.
I have been using gypsum for 10 years and have seen how it changed soil tilth both alone and in combination with other products. I have seen change in soil tilth and it is softer and more mellow and with a better aggregated structure.
This year, I am testing different rates of pelletized gypsum and synthetic gypsum with a polymer from Specialty Fertilizer Products (SFP). The promise is it that keeps the calcium and sulfate available in the soluble water phase for the entire season. So, I am measuring calcium and sulfate in the soil and in the plant.
Last summer I did a pilot project with this product. The amount of sulfate and soluble calcium was 2 to 3 times greater after 65 days and over 8 inches of rainfall.
Can a spray cocktail degrade cornstalks to point where they literally blow apart at planting? Many of us think so, but is it true? There are a number of products on the market, as well as recipes for making it happen. The problem has been validating those manufacturer claims.
This year I plan to try a few of these products and use some novel approaches to measure change in the residue and in the soil.
The great thing about farming is the learning never ends. It's a great profession for curious people. If you don't want to set up your own experiments, there are plenty of seed company and university researchers looking for cooperators. Every spring is another opportunity to go back to school. I'll keep you posted on what I'm learning.
Dan Davidson can be reached at AskDrDan@dtn.com
Follow Dan Davidson on Twitter @dandavidsondtn
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