By Gabe Brown and Shane New, Understanding Ag, LLC

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on economies all over the world.  Businesses are being closed, work hours reduced and many people have been laid off. The stock market has lost a full one-third of its value in a very short time.  This is causing most of us to take a long, hard look at our financial situation, both the way we earn our money and the way we invest it.

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So how should one react in these difficult times?  Do we pull any money we have invested in the stock market out?  Do we put it in a savings account? Should we put it in a bag and stuff it between our mattresses?  Do we purchase more stock? How do we make ourselves resilient so similar situations in future years do not negatively affect us to this degree?

The answer is closer than you may think: “Invest in Yourself.”  Who better to put your money on than yourself? Why not control your own destiny?  And you do that by educating yourself.  

We, at Understanding Ag., have the good fortune of visiting hundreds of farms and ranches every year.  We see many successful, profitable operations and others that are not profitable. The difference most often hinges on education.  Those who are willing to continually learn, and then apply that new knowledge, have the best opportunity to be profitable.

Where do we start?  It is our belief that the first thing one needs to do is educate themselves as to how ecosystems function.  Farmers and ranchers know how to plant seed, apply fertilizer, spray chemicals and harvest but very, very few truly know how ecosystems function.  This understanding is key to profitability.

Let’s look at a key factor in ecosystem function—nutrient cycling.  Most farmers believe that their soils are deficient in the nutrients needed to produce a profitable crop.  Their agronomists tell them their recommendations are based on the soil tests that were taken on their fields.  But……let’s take a deeper look.

In 2019, Understanding Ag. consultants took soil samples from 45 farms in the northern plains and prairie provinces.  Samples were taken to a 12” depth. Both Haney soils tests and total-nutrient extraction tests were done on all samples.  The results were surprising. The average pounds of nitrogen across all farms was 4,000! Phosphorus was 1,200#. Potassium came in at 11,000#.  That’s right, read those numbers again. The least amount of nitrogen on any farm was over 1,000#.

A myriad of micronutrients were also tested and their amounts were also impressive.  Obviously, nutrients are not a limiting factor. So, why can’t most farmers grow profitable crops without added fertility?  It is because much of the nutrients in the soil are in the organic form. In other words, plants are not able to access them.

What is needed to make those nutrients available?  Biology! Our soils do not lack nutrients, they lack the microbiology that is needed to “free-up” those nutrients.  This is where our education comes in. We have to understand the steps we, as farmers, can and must take to create the proper environment.

Let’s keep it simple.  The first step is to protect the soil.   This means reducing, preferably eliminating, tillage and leaving living plants and residue to cover the soil, which retains soil aggregation and allows moisture in the soil profile.  This moisture is critical for soil biology. Soil biology lives in and on thin films of water in and around the soil aggregates. These tiny micro-organisms are just like us, they need access to oxygen and they need to be able to exhale CO2.  Aggregates enable this critical process.

This is why we recommend proper soil tests be taken.  The Haney soil test, if done at a lab with proper equipment, measures the respiration of the biology in our soils.  From that number, we can determine how much biology is in the soil.

We need to also understand that soil microorganisms, like us, need to eat.  These microorganisms eat carbon which is provided to them via the roots of living plants.  This “food” shows up on the Haney test as water-extractable organic carbon. 

The Haney test will also tell us how many pounds of inorganic (water soluble) and organic (tied up) nutrients we have.  

If we know how much biology we have and how active it is, we know how much food we have for that biology and we know how many pounds of nutrients we have in the soil.  Now we can determine how much of those “tied-up” nutrients will be made available to plants via the biology.  

Nearly all producers are over-applying nutrients, costing them tens of thousands of dollars.  All it takes is investing in your own education and you will have the potential to keep more money in your pockets.  Now that will put a smile on your face. Investing in yourself pays!

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