Soil Testing

Last week  I mapped and soil sampled a farm that had been in CRP for many, many years. I think it has been in two sign ups, so about 20 years.  There was also a 20 acre bean field across the road that was sampled as part of that farm.  I pulled out three samples and took pictures of them to show the difference in an eroded clay knob in the CRP, slopping hill side in the CRP and semi flat area of the soybean field.

Below are the three pictures. The quiz is this…….  Can you see the difference in drainage in the three pictures?  Can you see the difference in OM in the three pictures?  Can you see why this farm was in CRP and the other one was still farmed?

First the eroded clay knob in the CRP.


Next the slopping hill side in the CRP.


Last the Soybean field across the road.


In the recent past, I read a lot of books. I mean, back a couple years ago I was reading two or three books at a time. I would pick one up and read until my head got full then I would pick up another title unrelated to the one I just sit down and read on it until my head was full of that particular book. Then I would pick up the first book and finish it and then on to a third book before I finished the second and so it went from there. The last two years I have not read that much book wise. While there are a lot of titles I want to get to, I just don’t have the time or more importantly the interest to read books the last couple of years.


Art of Balancing cover.indd


I picked up a book between holidays on soil fertility called The Art of Balancing Soil Nutrients by William McKibben. Both the title and the author caught my eye. I had meet Bill with my early affiliation with the laboratory that performs most of my analysis some 20+ years ago. So, knowing the author and also knowing how using the phrase “soil balancing” gets an agronomist all shook up, so I thought I would give the book a look.

The basic description of the book on the Barnes and Noble website I found it on said “A practical guide to interpreting soil test results for farmers and other stewards of the earth wanting to understand what nutrients are available to plants and learn how to more effectively grow crops, turfgrass and other plants.” Ok, pretty generic but it still didn’t run me off yet.

Reading the Preface also yielded “I view the information contained in this book to be a starting point….” which I found refreshing because other books by other authors on “soil balancing” are either written from the absolute standpoint or are so far out in left field you can’t read them.

So, based on the Preface alone, I threw down my $25 to give it a try. Heck, I might learn something, right?

So here is my book review.

The book is a basic introduction to soil testing and nutrient recommendations using Cation Exchange Capacity for the basis of both interpreting the soil test values as well as making the nutrient recommendation. McKibben talks about using both the basic cation saturation ratios (BCSR) and strategic level of available nutrients (SLAN) approach to balance the nutrients in the soil. He applies these methods to both low and high exchange capacity soils and explains how it differs based on CEC.

While only 8 chapters long, the book could be broken down into three sections: 1. Taking the soil sample and reviewing soil nutrients, 2. Balancing soils with low and high exchange capacities and 3. What I will call “other stuff”, paste test, irrigation water and figuring out really high exchange soils. I must admit that the last three chapters didn’t do much to hold my interest as we don’t have any irrigation around here to speak of, and any very high exchange soils and my experiments with the paste test were pretty much useless several years ago. That doesn’t mean I didn’t pick something up out of those chapters, I just didn’t spend a lot of time reviewing them.

Bill does an excellent job discussing and explaining soil nutrient balance in a way that even a beginner could understand. His examples are clear and concise which I liked very much. Bill shows examples of using a compromise between SLAN and BCSR to make a recommendation for nutrient amendments for the soil. I like this approach very much even though I lean more to SLAN than BCSR. He uses some “absolute” numbers for nutrient levels, esp. micro nutrients, which is fine but I find that one guys “desired values” are not necessary mine and don’t believe that one should take these numbers to heart. Only you know your soils and soils reaction to amendments, don’t take numbers out of a book as an absolute.

On a scale of 1-10 I give the book a solid 9 and highly recommend it to any agronomist as a basic introduction or refresher. It is by far the best book I have read for SLAN and BCSR soil testing and recommendations. It sticks to the title and premise of the book without going off in left field by having us use “magic dust”, “alternative ag techniques” or hugging trees. It educates and does exactly what the Preface says: “…a starting point….”, a very good foundation to begin refining your recommendations for your farm and soils.

Worth the time to read and the $25 to purchase.

At the end of 2012 I began testing an Apple Ipad with GIS Roam for pulling soil samples.  Initial testing indicated that this platform and software is every-bit as good for GPS directed soil sampling and mapping as Farm Works or SMS.




There are several things I really like about the Ipad for this application.  Fist it is very small and light so it doesn’t bounce around on the ATV while sampling rough fields.  Second it has a very readable screen in bright light conditions.  But most important I can display the areal images as backgrounds while I am sampling.  This isn’t new, but with the cellular turned on, I can zoom in and out on the areal photos as well as see road maps etc.



GIS Roam is a great little program for the soil sampling.  It allows you to do most of the same field mapping features as the other ag specific programs do and you can import and export shape files.  The ability to import and export files comes with the addition of a purchased module or add on program.  However GIS Roam itself is FREE and the module is only $10.



I will try to post more info on testing this program as I get back in the fields here in the next month and follow up on some of the mapping will do with it and show some screen shots.

Well harvest 2012 is all but in the bag so to speak.  I have about 3 acres of beans that are still too green to cut and a frost will help them along.  I will get them when I get them at this point.  With only about 10 acres of subsoiling left to do and the tillage will be put to bed for 2012 as well.

It rained last night and that brought our rain total for 2012 up to 28 inches here at the farm.  We are still about 20 inches behind for the year with the year running out……..

Trying to sell seed and finish pulling soil samples, but it’s hard to get guys to meet this fall as most everyone wants to get done and not talk about another year right now.

The first deer season for shotgun is this coming weekend.   I think I will go hunt just to have something to do that doesn’t require thought and is pretty relaxing.

Promise to start posting more as I am getting back in the mood for the blog after a hard and stressful year.

Got up this morning and went and fed cows.  Nope, not mine but a friends who had to be away for a few days and didn’t have anyone who could fill in for him.   Was kind of fun actually.  Had to spear four bales of hay to be put out in the feed  lots for the cows and then put out some ground feed for the steers.

It was a welcomed change of pace and interesting to watch the livestock go through their habits when they hear the tractor coming and hear the bulk bin auger run.  Pavlov was right…….. !

Then if was off to sample for the second day at Ridgeway.  Off the tile fields it is a bit wet down at 5 plus inches.  Rain in the forecast the next few days has everyone sitting on go.  Still lots of spraying and fertilizing going on but little or no field work.

The weather says go, but the calendar and field conditions have everyone standing by.  Some farmsteads look like the flight deck of a aircraft carrier.  Everything is lined up along the driveway ready for take off.

Worked at soil sampling east and north of Ridgway, IL today. Saw some planters running up and down the roads but didn’t see anything being planted.  I would say if it doesn’t rain they will be running hard this weekend.

In several fields I had to dodge tornado/storm debris, lots of insulation, shingles, small boards with nails in them and the occasional toy or Christmas decoration. Not sure where it came from, guessing Ridgway or Harrisburg as none of the structures near the fields I was in were damaged.

The fields with tile are very dry and would work good, but the fields with no tile were very wet at the bottom of the probe.


“The more complex the mind the greater the need for simplicity of play.”  Capt James T Kirk

Its been a few days since I have had time to update my blog so I thought I would do so with a long post so “be warned those who enter here!”  With the level of activity and constant variety of jobs to be done I feel the need for simple play but there is no time right now it would seem.  Nor is there anyone who wants to play either.  This rain would normally indicate a time to stop and rest, but rain isn’t welcome right now because of the list of things that must be done is not getting any shorter.

The new shed/warehouse/shop has a concrete floor now.  The final pour happened yesterday and it looks truly beautiful.  Concrete will be a welcome departure from rock and asphalt.  The heat in the floor will be a welcome wonder for winter work that doesn’t seem to get done now because of the cold in the other shed.  There is still a lot of work to be done on the shed but its getting closer.


I got in one good day of soil sampling on 2012 ground this past week before I had to pull out and head to a Pioneer meeting.  The ground is sampling nice for the most part but is kind of funny in a way for March.  With the lack of snow and shallow freeze/thaw that we get here in southern Illinois in a normal winter the ground is very “fluffy” in a lot of areas.  That is dependent on if there was fall tillage done, but there is a good 3-4 inches of fluffy ground on most fields I have been on.

Everyone says they are ready to go to the field and plant corn, or so they say.  Yet I can gather that most don’t have their seed corn yet and they keep forgetting that its March and not April.  This very mild winter has got everyone mixed up and if it keeps this up till April I suspect we will see a lot of corn go in the ground sooner rather than later.

I did manage to slip in getting another field chisel plowed yesterday evening after I got back from my meeting.  The ground is hard in these wheat fields and its no wonder why.  The wet conditions last summer resulted in ruts from wheat harvest, double crop bean planting and from the bean harvest.  Its ground is packed tight!

A side note is that while the big tractor is working in the field, out of no where come these seagulls.  I have no clue where they came from. They are not hanging out around the farm anywhere, and the lake is several miles away.  Yet they seem to show up within minutes of the tractor going to the field and disappear just a quickly when I shut it down.  They don’t hang around.  Strange birds for sure.


BTW in case I didn’t gripe enough its week 2 without any acetylene yet………….

If all that wasn’t enough, we have also been trying to get details on the new business finalized.  That also isn’t getting done as fast as I want but it is going forward and we will be ready to go live soon, I hope.  I guess if I wasn’t so busy with everything else I could get that done as well.

Speaking of simple play. What has happened to my “gun” shows on the outside channels?  I mean even my favorites are not worth watching as of late on TV.   It seems that every show is now doing the same topic week after week.  I mean come on guys show me something new or original, not the same thing program after program with the same bad “experts” talking about and using the trendy words or latest fad in “tactical cool”.  I have no interest in hanging an espresso maker off my AR’s rail.

Worse yet some have fallen into this “prepper” mentality as well.  All I need is another show with the end of the word being  preppers or bunker preppers or salt and preppers or what ever, with some gun play involved.  First off your guys don’t have a clue, second you make gun owners look bad and three you can’t be for real.  I mean anyone who is so scared of the EOTWAWKI would not be on national TV or even a gun show showing the world what you have laid in for an emergency.

Nothing on TV at all anymore.

Simple is what I need, simple play.

Progress was made today on many fronts on the farm it seems.

First off after two unsuccessful tries the roof is now complete on the new shed.  I am happy about that!  It looks like about one more good day and then the whole thing will be closed in, minus the doors.  I am told next is concrete.  So we are getting ever closer to being done.

Second I got the NH3 bar all but ready for side-dressing.  It has been a hit and miss job so to speak.  Minus a few little details its about ready.  But it will have to wait a while because one of the needed repairs to it will require a torch.  Why wait on a torch?

I ran out of acetylene and went to get another cylinder at the “air and acetylene company” (omitting full name to protect them) and they were out.  Out of acetylene.  How could you be out of acetylene?  Well its in short supply and they wont have any until Thursday.  Short supply?  What? Has there been a run on acetylene?  Well no, we just haven’t had much on hand lately (ah back to my no inventory pet peeve).  Well isn’t your company name “air and ACETYLENE company”?

So I wait until Thursday to finish the tool bar.

I then spent the rest of the day working on my truck getting ready for soil testing season to start.  Which looks like it could start this week.  Next is to work on the ATV and then I will be ready to go, sort of.

The new enclosed trailer is here now and I have to find time to get it outfitted for soil testing and other activities.  But I will use my old trailer until I get time to fix it up right.

That pretty much sums up today……..

The barn crew worked on our shed again today and we are now 3/4 roofed and 1/2 sided.  The mud is a problem for the lifts, but I hope that with a few more days of work that they will get it buttoned up.  Then the mud wont be an issue.  The biggest issue today was the wind……it picked up 10 sheets of roofing and knocked it off the lift and bent it.  New roofing wont be here until Wednesday now.


Over the weekend we got to shoot a Ruger LCP, the little .380 with a laser sight on it.  Man was I disappointed.  You can skip the laser because it is pretty much a belly gun at best.  I mean at best that’s all it is.  We had a terrible time hitting paper at 7 yards.  The double action trigger pull was horrid as well.  I guess I am spoiled with my Glock.

Got the new hitch put in the truck and got a new trailer on the way for the soil sampling rig.  Will have to make some mods when it gets here……but that being said it will be a very nice addition to the fleet for this summer.

I didn’t get to the farm show at Louisville this year but it seems like everyone else did…….. wasn’t able to get much accomplished last week work wise.  From what I hear, there was all kinds of expensive stuff there this year… its a good thing I didn’t go!

Now that the meeting schedule is pretty much down to one here and there I want to get cracking on soil testing work and getting equipment ready for farming the next few weeks.  My hope is my “to do” list gets a lot smaller the next seven to ten days!

Instead of the “Year in Review” recap that is typical this time of year, how about something different…….

My Top 5 Blogs of 2011

#1  ICCA Board works to kill off CPAg Certification

#2  Combines, Grain Bins, Grain Trucks and Bush Hogs

#3  Harvested Nitrogen Plot Today

#4  Corn Harvest Begins for Some

#5  My New Bag Phone

My Top 5 Categories Viewed in 2011

#1  Cutting Board Portable 

#2  Soil Testing

#3  Field Scouting

#4  Ham Radio

#5  Guns

2011 was a record year for

Almost 27,000 unique visitors who made 77,000 visits this year with 835,000 page hits while they visited.  December, November, September and May were the biggest months for visitors and page content viewed.

Thanks for visiting!  Thanks for commenting!  Thanks for telling your friends about us!

We are going to try and ramp it up a notch for 2012…….stay tuned!


I realize I am pretty simple minded, or at least I think I am.  So it mystifies my simple mind when every year about this time we have a panic attack initiated by the fertilizer dealers.

Prices are going up, buy now before we run out, I dont know what its going to cost me to replace what I have in inventory, we dont know about the supply.  Panic Panic Panic.  The sky is falling.

I realize in some years that these statements might be true.  But as with the little boy who cried wolf, I aint buying it anymore.  I mean I am buying fall fertilizer, but I am not going to make a panic or impulse buy.  For some reason I dont think the big dealers think you are going to make an impulse buy either.  I think its just a way to lock in your business and not let you shop around for better prices or service.

I mean lets review:  Dealers know what the crop outlook is for the area, they know how big the crop is or isnt and how likely you will be to buy based on yield.  They know what the supply outlook is and delivery outlook is and they are going to buy and fill up based on this.  They know what the outlooks are for financing and carry in the market.  They know how much we buy based on economic factors, yield, new equipment cost etc..  In other words every dealers has a very good idea of how much they are going to sell and need to buy so there is really no need to panic to hurry up and make a purchase based on any of the above mentioned factors of why the salesman says you should buy.

So where is the panic?  I don’t see it.  Unless they are such poor managers that they don’t look at all these factors.  If that’s the case, then they don’t need to be in the fertilizer business.

The only thing that the dealer doesnt know and we dont know is what the fall weather is going to be like.  THAT will have an impact on what gets spread and what doesnt a much as yield and cost.

To be fair, my dealer hasn’t pushed the panic button on me yet and I don’t expect him to either.  Its just funny watching the big Coops and big dealers sales people run around like chickens with their heads cut off yelling ” the sky is falling the sky is falling”.



I seems that we are bombarded with experts at every turn anymore.  If there is no one to serve as an expert, someone seems to always self appoint themselves.  In some cases there are gatherings of experts walking all over each other trying to get to the top of the expert pile.  Most of these folks while possibly well meaning or even good hearted generally have no clue what the heck they are talking about or they come across so absorbed in their own self promotion that they are not tolerable.

Case in point #1:  I got a notice that a person to whom I have a very casual knowledge of had passed away.  Upon following a link to read what happened I found a gaggle of experts on a discussion board that not only knew what happened to him and how it happened, but his life story in many details.  The kicker is that the 4 or 5 pages of comments were dominated by three or four people who were telling all the other people they were wrong.  The funniest post was were one person commented on the deceased’s connection with Illinois, to whom the lead expert on this fellow admitted he didn’t know he had any ties to Illinois then wanted proof that the commentator knew what he was talking about.  Funny to me but I can just imagine how sad it might have been for any of the family members who might have happened upon this mess.  I do know the “one”  head expert mentioned above in this discussion, he is an expert on everything he talks about, just ask him.  He is one of the skid-marks in the underwear of life that we, regrettably, cant dispatch in a burlap bag with a concrete block  tied to it over a bridge into the river.

Case in point #2:  While I was trying to find some ballistic information online I came across a discussion on how the .17HMR was not suitable as a coyote round and would not kill anything bigger than a prairie dog.  Having dispatched coyotes, at range, with my .17HMR I thought that I must hurry out into the fields and tell these coyotes go get up and run along, despite the smell and decay, as they must be mistaken that I had killed them.  The expert was using all kinds of “math” and “physics” to show that the .17 lacked the punch and power to take a dog down beyond 50 yards etc so forth at nausea.  Despite testimonials and the comments of a real hunting expert (a person acknowledged as knowing what he was talking about), this fellow held to his guns that you needed a big gun to kill coyotes at range.  Maybe coyotes in Ohio wear bullet proof vest or their fur is like Kevlar due to difference in their winters or something.  Despite this expert, I still dispatch ole wile coyote with a .17HMR at every opportunity.

Case in point #3.  I have been bombarded with propaganda to attend a farmer/consultant field day on growing corn and soybeans like a “high yield expert”.  I do attend field days, when there is something to learn or there is a topic of interest.  Its just part of the learning and educational process that farmers must go through if they are going to compete and stay profitable.  That being said this particular field day is a big JOKE.  Its put on by a couple of self promoted and self proclaimed experts whom I wouldn’t let on my farm.  One half of this Abbot and Costello team I have know and been some what acquainted with for over 10 years through a friend.  They are only about the sale and what they are selling today is better than what they sold yesterday.  Did I say this was a joke already?  What do they know?  NOTHING.  Most of what they are going to present is either stolen from universities, picked from other companies with similar products or services and other field days or is not proven with independent non biased research and is only being used to end up selling a couple of products that they get kick back for.  Yet, with no industry certifications or qualifications, they have set themselves up as experts, and got the backing of people who should know better,  on growing high yield crops and are fleecing attendees for big money when its all said and done.

Case in point #4.  The University of Illinois Extension.  A complete Chinese fire drill of experts who have never “been there or done that” trying to tell the world how much they know about the real world.  Nuff said there.

Yes, I have had my fill of experts this year already.  That is why I wont be going to any more field days, conferences or meetings other than a very select few for the remainder of the year.  That is also why I have assigned junk and spam status to a lot of emails from experts and why I have erased several talk and discussion boards from my internet favorates.

The result of riding myself of so many experts is that my blood pressure is much lower lately.

Trust me, I know what I am talking about…………..


Its hot. I mean its real hot. The heat index the last few days has been well over 100 and in some cases over 110. By noon its hard to breath when your outside.

And outside is where I have been the last two days trying to get the spring soil sampling done. Normally I would have it all done but with the crazy rains and weather I still lack about a weeks worth of sampling. With the hot weather its cut my output to about half what I normally want to get done in a day. That sucks.

With the hot weather its also getting difficult to get the probe in the ground as the wet fields that were worked and planted wet are drying out. Again this slows things down.

Monday I also lost my cell phone in a field of soybeans. This is the first time I have ever lost a cell phone. It doesn’t bother me to much except for all the numbers that I hadn’t got backed up lately etc that are now lost. Oh well.

A drive around the country side shows some farmers still planting soybeans. Some have indicated that they will keep trying for another week.

The spring just keep going on…………..

Thanks to Luke Baker, Agronomist at BLI for contributing to this post.

Just a follow up on the N testing and the trend we are seeing here in Southern Illinois.  I continue to see PSNT (Pre Sidedress Nitrogen Test, the nitrogen test I am running to test for nitrate and ammonium N) return at values less than half the original amount applied.  I have even seen samples return that are within the range of what we would see as “background noise” or what we would expect to see from a DAP application or from residual N from a legume.

Again this continues to be true of Anhydrous, Urea or Liquid, stabilizer or no stabilizer.  The fields tested so far have ranged from those fields not planted or just planted to fields where the corn is ~ankle high or about three-four leave stage.  N has been applied anywhere from mid March through Mid to late April prior to the rains at the end of April. I attribute this to mainly two factors:  Soil temperatures above 60 deg F and half a years worth of rainfall over a two week period.

There have been claims that the pre-sidedress nitrogen test (PSNT) does not pick up on N that has been applied with N-Serve. This is wrong.  All N-Serve does is “poison” microbes to stop nitrification.  The PSNT measures ammonium and nitrate in the soil, thus, we will be able to measure any nitrate and ammonium that was applied as fertilizer because N-Serve only influences the microbiology.  This is also true of other stabilizer for urea or liquid N.  They do not keep the N from being detected in the testing procedure.

Could there have been loss of spring applied ammonium treated with a stabilizer?  Most certainly.  In a study done near Brownstown, Illinois (this is available on the N-Serve website) anhydrous was applied on March 15th and April 1st.  Samples were taken on for ammonium and nitrate on May 13th and the found that for the March applied N 53% of the total was in the nitrate form when treated with N-Serve.  This N is now available for loss.  However, this is better than the sample not treated with N-Serve where 100% of the ammonium was all ready in the nitrate form.  For the April application, both N-Serve and no N-Serve treatments showed a conversion of ammonium to nitrate of about 50%.  In this case the N-Serve did not out perform just anhydrous alone.

Was there loss this spring?  More than likely yes.  How do we know? When PSNT’s come back low we know there was a loss.  For example, if 200 pounds of N was applied in April and the PSNT results come back 20 ppm nitrate and 5 ppm ammonium there was loss.  Typical background levels of soil nitrate and ammonium are aroud 5 to 8 ppm for nitrate and 1 to 4 ppm for ammonium.  The field that had 200 pounds of N put on is now only showing 100 pounds of N (20 ppm + 5 ppm x 4 [4 is the depth factor] = 100 pounds of N per acre).  Also, if the N-Serve was still being effective we would see much higher ammonium levels (25 to 40 or more ppm of ammonium) than we did in the above example.

Once N is in the nitrate form it can rapidly be lost to leaching and denitrification under saturated conditions (which you guys here in Southern Illinois had for many days at the end of April first portion of May).  Most of the PSNT analyses that I have looked at from Southern Illinois appear as if farmers are going to come up short on N even though they applied 150 to 200 pounds of N as anhydrous with a stabilizer.

In fact, some samples have had complete loss of N because the PSNT is showing only normal background levels of soil N (8 ppm of nitrate and 1 to 2 ppm of ammonium). In these soils, another 150 pounds or so is likely to be needed for good corn yield.  These fields have corn that was just planted or just coming up.

Do I need more N?  Most likely yes. In my above example showing 100 pounds of N per acre, 80 of those were in the form of nitrate.  If the weather continues wet this N can be lost rather quickly too.  One recommendation that I heard was to “fly on” urea at tasseling.  This would give you quite a bit of bang for you buck.  However, you need rainfall to get the urea into the soil.  If the weather turns dry…as I heard that it might the urea would just sit on the surface and volatilize (be lost to the air), which does your corn no good.  Side dressing N now or later with a high boy so that it gets into the soil is a much better option.  If sidedressing now, it may be wise to use a stabilizer to limit N loss if weather is expected to stay wet for another few weeks.

Who needs Vegas when you can be a farmer?  Don’t guess or rely on the past to assume what is left in your fields.  This year you are going to be very short.

Don’t guess, soil test.


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