On a sunny July day, each acre of your fully leafed-out cornfield is generating more than 750 pounds of sugar. That sugar factory pumps about a fourth of its load into the roots, feeding a myriad of soil microbes. In turn, the friendly fungi and bacteria dissolve vital minerals needed to fuel big yields. That’s the fundamental picture that consultant Brad Forkner frames to describe ways you can economically keep that sugar factory at maximum production.
March 14, 2020 — To extract the most from Brad Forkner’s Jan. 22 presentation at Webster City Iowa, you’d need to watch his section of the conference video more than once. The barrage of ideas is a tad overwhelming the first time. Many farmers at the Central Iowa Agronomics seminar laid down their pens, unable to keep up with notes.
First, Brad focused on fundamentals. He asked for a show of hands: how many of the seminar’s 100-plus farmers do their own soil testing, or at least closely supervise the technicians collecting samples. Less than 10%. Brad’s point: With GPS mapping technology so advanced that you can vary fertility to match wide variations in soil types within fields, you can enhance crop-nutrition. You can do it by closely monitoring samples to insure you’re getting an accurate picture of what each “mini-field” needs. “The lab uses less than five grams of soil out of your sample bag,” he noted. “That five grams needs to represent what is really in the management zone.”
To emphasize the value of grid or zone sampling linked with variable-rate technology, here’s a field image courtesy of another consultant, Dan Denman of T. A. Precision in Cortland, Ohio. He specializes in showing the economics of varying fertility, seed and other inputs to match field conditions.
Fertilizer costs have not followed the downtrends in corn and soybean prices. One of our WakeUP clients in Nebraska reminded us this week, “You can’t have much control of the selling price, regardless of your marketing skill. To hang onto a profit margin, you have to focus on the cost side.”
Brad acknowledged the widening interest in humates, currently being promoted as a carbon source for crops. “To grow a crop, you need carbon, hydrogen and oxygen,” he said. He has traveled widely to study humate sources, finding wide variations in quality and soluble reaction. When he asked, “How many of you buy humates from China?” — nobody raised a hand.
Lignite and other raw humic materials vary depending on what kind of vegetative matter was buried, in what geologic age. Lignite from New Mexico — which Brad tested —claimed 80% humic and filmic acids. However, it proved only 65.3% soluble in sodium hydroxide. A significant fraction proved to be insoluble minerals, primarily silica and aluminum, because it was deposited under a later-formed lake bed. Brad found a superior source of humic material in Alberta, Canada. It had geologically “younger” composition, breaking down easily. The supplier claimed it had 85% humic and fulvic acids, and proved 91% soluble. It’s also virtually free of heavy metals, which occur in some of the Northern Plains humic deposits. Brad was able to register his humate product with OMRI and include it in organic animal feed (He is also an animal nutrition consultant).
Humates have both positive and negative bonding sites. They pull ions from soil particles and thus create bonding sites for nutrients. Humates encourage deeper root growth, which means deeper release of sugar exudates, and more abundant microbe populations. Brad said, “Why do we want lots of microbes? So we get lots of dead microbes, releasing the now-soluble nutrients they’ve extracted from soil. They also feed earthworms, and everything earthworms do is wonderful.”
Other researchers found that microbes have 10 times as much capability to dissolve soil nutrients, compared to the weak solvents in the root rhizosphere. Roots can take up mineral nutrients only when they’re dissolved.
If all mineral nutrients were easily dissolved in water, soil would lose its ability to provide NPK and the dozens of micronutrients needed. Brad notes that some currently available nitrogen “stabilizers” use chemical agents such as cyanide to kill fungi and bacteria before living organisms make N soluble.
Foliar-applied yield benefits don’t come from how much you spray per acre, but how much enters crop metabolism effectively. That’s especially critical with live biologicals, micronutrients and humic materials such as humic and fulvic acids. Brad encouraged farmers to look at using three foliar-spray technologies in a synergistic way:
— Electrostatic sprayers, which create an ionic attraction between spray droplets and the target crop. Less drift, more material reaching the leaves.
— Pursanova-treated water, which helps restore water to a natural, “raindrop” energy level. (Pursanova’s founder, Vatché Keuftedjian, had previously explained to this audience how his system enhances the performance of water in foliar sprays.)
— WakeUP Summer, which reduces water’s surface tension from 70 dynes to around 30 dynes, assuring clear-coat covering of leaves. Also, WakeUP opens the way for nutrients to quickly penetrate through the waxy leaf cuticle and mobilize through the crop’s phloem system.
“Put those technologies together, and we could really start cutting back our rates and have everything on target.”
One benefit of such a spraying program: More of the spray material applied with electrostatic attraction would reach lower leaves of the crop, instead of falling on the ground. If it’s the right mineral nutrition package, that could enable the crop to better defend against diseases such as white mold. “I’m a real fan of using cobalt, molybdenum, nickel — and selenium. All ground in the upper Great Lakes region is short of selenium.”
Other consultants stress that most Midwest soils are deficient in boron — and boron enhances leaf entry of other micronutrients. “Everybody wants to be around Mr. Boron,” quipped Brad.
His point about micros is consistent with Microbilogist Dr. Don Huber’s theme for many years: Micronutrient deficiencies trigger many crop diseases.
High-yield contest winners usually keep foliar-feeding or Y-dropping nutrients through the growing season, using tissue tests as a guide. The winners don’t harvest “dent” corn, said Brad: Their corn has fully formed kernels, round on top like popcorn, and high test weight.
“5% of your farm should be used for research on new products and techniques,” Brad urged. That’s considered a minimum among non-farm corporate firms. We applaud Brad for that: We’ve tried every kind of encouragement to entice farmers to run strip tests which are sensitive enough to detect a five or ten bushel gain. Just applying something to half the field tells you little because soil conditions overwhelm lesser influences such as a biological application.
Typically, it’ll take tests on your farm for two or three seasons to confirm the consistency of a given product’s performance.
Such on-farm research grows more critical for saving nutrient dollars as farmers amplify efforts to biologically break down stalk residue and capture nutrients with cover crops. If you’re doing that, the co-op’s NPK recommendations are less relevant: They’re typically based on bushels of crop removal, said Brad. “If the co-op agronomist hasn’t factored in residue breakdown, he doesn’t know whether the grower is doing a good job, a poor job or no job of it. And if the grower is recapturing potassium from a 200-bu. corn crop, why should he buy that fertilizer? I’m looking for somebody to help me figure out how to make an accurate analysis of the need to purchase, based on all those ideas.”