Testing is one of the primary tools that we use to grow better food. Why do we do so much testing?
Because food production systems are dynamic and these dynamic systems have feedback loops. We can monitor these feedback loops to a certain extent visually but get much more helpful data when we can measure this feedback with additional testing.
Most farmers are doing soil testing so what is different about our process?
The collection of soil samples with a soil probe is the same as any other farm but the testing process and results are much different. We utilize an independent lab in Red Deer called Future Analytics. This lab uses reduced chemistry rather than oxidized chemistry which is common in most soil labs. This allows us to see a broader range of nutrient balances and interactions. They have also found that certain balances and interactions are very important for healthy soils and plants.
Some key things we will be looking at on our soil test results.
-Humic to fulvic acid ratio
-calcium levels and availability
-micronutrient levels and availability
If you have some understanding about conventional agriculture you might be thinking “Why aren’t Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium on this list of key things that you are looking for?” Commonly referred to as NPK these three nutrients are the focus of conventional agronomy. We do look at these nutrients but secondarily to calcium and micronutrients.
Nitrogen: The higher the nitrate levels in the plant the lower the sugar levels. Because we are raising forage finished beef (grass finished on a diversity of species) we need high sugar levels to provide our energy for the cattle instead of starch from grain. This means that too much nitrogen will have a negative effect on our animals’ growth and health.
Plants have increased nitrogen requirements when other nutrients are out of balance, especially calcium. When we drive our crop production with calcium we need less nitrogen and have better uptake and utilization of micronutrients.
Also our crops are a diverse mix of species with a number of those species being nitrogen fixing plants. These plants and the microbes in their roots take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a useable form for the plants. Part of this fixed nitrogen is released into the soil and other plants are able to utilize it. All of our nitrogen needs are being provided by these plants, the rhyzophagy cycle and other nitrogen fixing microbes in the soil. Based on previous testing we are expecting that we will not have to apply nitrogen fertilizer next year.
Phosphorus: livestock manure is high in phosphorus. When our animals are out grazing they return this phosphorus to the soil by their manure. We also compost all of our bedding pack manure from winter bedding to return that phosphorus to the soil.
It also helps that we use mostly plants that have lower phosphorus requirements.
Potassium: Potassium is an easy nutrient to deal with. It is a natural part of the clay components of our soils. Plants are able to pull some of the potassium out of these clays and store them in their cells. Since potassium exists as a salt when those plants are left on the field as chopped straw or swath grazing the potassium is washed out into the soil and is readily available for the next year. The fields where we do the most swath grazing have an abundance of potassium.
Since we have begun our testing processes, and changed our regenerative management practices as a result, we have seen improvements year over year in improved quality of our production and in reduced inputs.