Farming can be a real balancing act — and with soil, that’s no metaphor.
Farms that concentrate too many animals in one area can cause problems for their soil if they have insufficient means of exporting the manure they produce, according to Karl Czymmek, Cornell PRO-DAIRY program senior extension associate. He discussed nutrient use efficiency at the recent “Hemp, Alternative Forage, Nutrient Balancing” presentation at the New York Certified Organic (NYCO) winter meeting.
“Biological systems are never 100 percent efficient,” Czymmek said. “There are losses occurring.”
Even organic dairies, he added, cannot maintain 100 percent efficiency.
“The standard line is to adjust the pH for crops you want to grow,” Czymmek said. “When you look at macro- and micro-nutrients, they’re in the six to seven range of desired pH.”
Buckwheat, clover, corn, grasses/pasture, rye, millet, oats, sorghum, Sudangrass, and sorghum/Sudan hybrids all need 6.2 pH. Triticale peas, birdsfoot trefoil, wheat and barley all require 6.5 pH. It’s 7.0 for alfalfa and soybeans.
Czymmek headed research on 45 New York State alfalfa fields for soil pH. He found that 25 of 45 had a soil pH of 6.5 or less — nearly 60 percent of all the fields in the study.
“The average yield for these fields was 16 percent lower,” Czymmek said.
That kind of effect can truly impact profitability.
He said statewide, about 50 percent of the soils test deficient in phosphorus, and the remainder are optimal or excessive.
“Phosphorous shuts down pretty fast,” Czymmek said. “We hope more people have their fields in pretty decent pH. If you’ll have an optimized mass nutrients balance, it starts with pH.”
He thinks every farm needs a soil pH test, and it’s simple to perform.
“A soil test gives you an idea of where you are with fields,” Czymmek said. “It’s useful to know where you are at.”
He added that when soil is low for pH, growers miss a lot of yield. He wants more growers to meet their soil’s nitrogen needs, while watching the sulfur. For example, sandy soil low in organic matter and with no exposure to manure can deplete in time to the point at which its yields suffer greatly. But applying manure can amend the soil.
Using gypsum sulfate, the nutrients dissipate quickly; however, manure can last for the entire season.
Czymmek recommends spring manure application.
“Then you will have a full growing season effect,” he said. “You could apply in November or October, but you may not have a full effect, depending upon the weather.”
He believes many farmers don’t value the micro-nutrients in manure, including manganese, molybdenum, and copper. The effects last, too.
Cow manure, for example, loses only about half its organic nitrogen after a year, but still provides traces of nitrogen even in the third year after application.
Czymmek encourages farmers to keep spreading records to know how much manure they have to manage.
By figuring out the farm’s animal parameters, they can know what amount of manure they will have to deal with. Factors include the number of animals, body weight and production. If no spreading records are available, farmers can estimate that a 1,500-lb. cow produces 18 to 20 gallons of manure a day, or 7,000 annually.
According to Czymmek, to obtain the most value from manure, producers need to know: crop nutrient needs, what is in the soil and in the manure, how much manure the farm generates, how to credit nutrients from manure and other sources. He added that second year and greater year corn needs nitrogen the most and may be the most profitable place on the farm to spread manure. Grass hay fields and small grains also respond well to manure.