Farm Progress

Organic matter, soil health and no-till yields can't be built without these key 4R ingredients.

John Vogel, Editor, American Agriculturist

November 1, 2016

2 Min Read
WHERE ARE YOUR SOIL NUTRIENTS? Without adequate no-till residue or cover crop management, friable surface soils and nutrients can still be whooshed away by heavy rains, noted Eric Rosenbaum.

During a recent 4R field day hosted by Growmark/FS at Hershey, Pa., Eric Rosenbaum, certified crop adviser for Rosetree Consulting, described a common observation by no-till farmers: After you no-till for years, you feel good about having 2 to 3 inches of loose, friable surface soils.

“But without proper management of crop residues, you won’t be able to get maximum performance,” noted the Schillington, Pa., agronomist. “Just one 4- to 5-inch downpour can wash that top soil away.” Particularly in wheat and soybeans, cover crops may be needed to avoid that problem.

Nutrient stratification is another no-till concern, he added. Phosphorus levels tend to increase in the top 2 to 3 inches and decrease 3 to 8 inches down. Expect that stratification to increase and be magnified with continuous no-till. Less stratification is likely with potassium (potash).

Consistent depth and placement of seed and pop-up and starter fertilizers is critical, emphasized Rosenbaum. With the right/wrong conditions, you can lose 60 to 80 bushels per acre with incorrect placement.

That’s where the 4R concept becomes crucial to nutrient management. In brief, choose the right source of fertilizer and nutrients based on field-specific data, apply them at the right rate and at the right time and in the right place.

If P and K levels concentrate in that top 2 to 3 inches, crops will be more susceptible to drought conditions. Continuous no-till, by itself, won’t increase soil organic matter.

And, Rosenbaum pointed out, soil organic matter levels don’t provide enough information on nitrogen availability. Better soil biological tests are more predictive of N availability via organic matter.

Cover crop N-holder
Mark Goodson, Pennsylvania State Conservation agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, shared recent results of cover crops on holding soil nitrates at two different soil depths (see graph). Bottom line: cereal rye, crimson clover plus radishes and radishes progressively “sucked up” nitrates from surrounding soils down to the 12-inch depth, compared to wheat fallow and even crimson clover alone.

For more on the vital link between no-till and cover crops, see Cover crops pay back 7 ways in no-tills stealth mode and No-till is not enough to build healthy soils.

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About the Author(s)

John Vogel

Editor, American Agriculturist

For more than 38 years, John Vogel has been a Farm Progress editor writing for farmers from the Dakota prairies to the Eastern shores. Since 1985, he's been the editor of American Agriculturist – successor of three other Northeast magazines.

Raised on a grain and beef farm, he double-majored in Animal Science and Ag Journalism at Iowa State. His passion for helping farmers and farm management skills led to his family farm's first 209-bushel corn yield average in 1989.

John's personal and professional missions are an integral part of American Agriculturist's mission: To anticipate and explore tomorrow's farming needs and encourage positive change to keep family, profit and pride in farming.

John co-founded Pennsylvania Farm Link, a non-profit dedicated to helping young farmers start farming. It was responsible for creating three innovative state-supported low-interest loan programs and two "Farms for the Future" conferences.

His publications have received countless awards, including the 2000 Folio "Gold Award" for editorial excellence, the 2001 and 2008 National Association of Ag Journalists' Mackiewicz Award, several American Agricultural Editors' "Oscars" plus many ag media awards from the New York State Agricultural Society.

Vogel is a three-time winner of the Northeast Farm Communicators' Farm Communicator of the Year award. He's a National 4-H Foundation Distinguished Alumni and an honorary member of Alpha Zeta, and board member of Christian Farmers Outreach.

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