Our Farm’s Soil: Where We Are and Where We Want to Be

Here’s where we are as of November 2010:

Soil Test Results

And here’s where we want to be:

a. Organic Matter:  at least 5%

b. Calcium: close to 3,000 pounds per acre

c. Magnesium: close 430 pounds per acre

d. Potassium: 150 to 200 pounds per acre

e. Sodium: 40 to 130 pounds per acre

f. Phosphate (P2O5): 400 pounds per acre

g. Sulfur: around 100 ppm

h. Boron: between 2 and 4 ppm

i. Iron: at least 150 ppm

j. Manganese: between 40 and 50 ppm

k. Copper: around 10 ppm

l. Zinc: around 20 ppm

Organic Matter

Our organic matter, currently less than 2%, needs to more than double to 5%.  We’re trying hard to protect our organic matter by mowing and mowing and leaving all clippings on the field.  We’ve done this for the past two summers, and we can see small but promising signs that soil microbes and earthworms are returning.  When we finally do get animals, our organic matter should start to climb sharply from the impact of hooves stomping plant matter into the soil and from the microbe-rich manure.  Can’t wait!

Calcium – Add Lots

Typical of soils in wet climates, our soil badly needs calcium.  Great pasture has at least 3,000 lbs of calcium per acre available to plants.  Our best field has under 1,400 lbs, so we have a long way to go.  We bought a fertilizer named TRIO, a.k.a. carbonized lime.  We’re going to spread it at a rate of 200 lbs per acre this spring and again this fall.  It has about 30% calcium, microbials and humic acid, which is nice carbon for the soil.  We’re excited to see what this can do for our land in terms of calcium, microbes and organic matter.  Because we don’t want to get outside the ideal base saturation range for calcium (more than 70%), we have to go a little slow.  I wrote about that here.

Magnesium – Add None

With sandy, low-organic matter soil, our exchange capacity is around 4 and 5.  This is really low and means the soil won’t hold many nutrients.  We want to eventually have close to 430 lbs per acre magnesium.  But our magnesium values, in the low 200s, are maxing out our base saturation percentages for magnesium.  We don’t want more than 20% base saturation for magnesium, or the soil gets unbalanced, and problems, such as magnesium locking up other needed nutrients and the soil getting too tight and non-porous, start to occur.  Because of this hazard, we’re not going to apply any magnesium.  We might never need to.  If our organic matter levels come up, it might make more magnesium available to plants.  Magnesium doesn’t leach out of soil in wet climates as badly as calcium does, so we might have plenty of magnesium anyway.  We just need more organics to make it available to plants.  We’re aiming for the ideal calcium to magnesium ratio of 7:1.  This ratio, with adequate organic matter, gives the soil nice tilth, meaning it’s neither too loose (compacts easily) nor too tight (water and air can’t get through).  So 430 lbs per acre with 3,000 lbs per acre calcium gives us this nice ratio.

Potassium – Add a Little, and be Careful

All fields except our Middle one are a little short (below 150 lbs per acre) on Potassium.  We plan to up the Potassium levels by spreading composted manure.  We’ve been getting free horse manure from nearby horse barns and composting it in big piles.  I know it has lots of potassium because I put a lot of it in our veggie garden and our potassium levels are now way too high (argh!).  The microbes in the composted manure will be good for our fields.  I’ll definitely get an analysis on the compost before I apply it so I don’t repeat the veggie garden mistake.

Sodium – Add a Little

We need at least 40 lbs per acre, and some of our fields are short.  There are wonderful sea salt fertilizers available out there.  Coming from the sea, they have nice amounts of all micronutrients along with 30% sodium.  We need massive help with micronutrients anyway, so we plan to apply one of these fertilizers.

Phosphate – Some Fields Need it

Two of our fields consistently show high amounts of phosphate while the other two don’t.  This might give a clue to our farm’s history.  The two fields with high levels are close to the house and outbuildings.  The previous farmers might have spread manure in these two fields so they wouldn’t have to transport it to the farther fields.  Who knows?  We’ll definitely need to apply soft rock phosphate to our East and West fields.

Micronutrients – Add a Lot

Boron, Copper and Zinc are in the worst shape, and some fields need iron and manganese too.  We plan to apply Boron, Copper Sulfate and Zinc Sulfate to our fields this summer.  These nutrients are needed in small quantities, but they’re essential for plant and animal health.  We’ll probably apply Iron Sulfate and Manganese Sulfate next year.  We’ll apply all of these very conservatively because with levels testing this low, they might just be tied up by something, such as lingering herbicides or mineral imbalances.

Why All the Trouble?

Our goal is to produce highly nutritious, very tasty food.  Taste and nutrition come from the soil.  We’re hoping that our current efforts and fertilizer expense will pay big dividends in the future such as little to no animal disease, fast-growing animals, high meat quality that attracts customers, and increased human health as well.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by weldon doe on May 28, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Who is the supplier for the trio?


  2. I live in NJ and we have the same issues with sandy soil. I have almost the same identical issues on my Logan Lab report. My exchangeable Hydrogen was ZERO! I never have issues with flooding. I am trying my best to build good organic matter which I’m already at 17%. I have several raised beds growing vegetable crops and I seem to always have trouble with the cabbage worm. It loves to eat all my brassica family plants. I also have issues with beans.. Something loves to eat the first set of leaves. My sulfur was also very low and I applied an amendment last fall. I do weekly foliar sprays of the ND Complete Liquid Feed. http://www.ndsupply.com/Nutrient_Density_Supply_Co./NDSC_files/NDSC_Catalog_2011.pdf
    Humic acid, seacrop, and dry kelp are added at planting.. I inoculate my root balls and seeds with mychorizzal fungi. I plant to cover crop over winter.
    My question to you is about biochar. It sounds like a great solution since it has a very large surface area and can provide a nice home for my beneficial bacteria/fungi and minerals. Did you ever consider using Biochar?


    • Hi Tony, very interesting. I also can’t grow brassicas to save my life. Kale and collards do okay, but broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc, forget it. My soil grows beans quite well, but i always have trouble with tomatoes – they get every disease known to man, despite many prescribed foliar sprays, starter solutions, etc. I always hope it’ll be better next year 🙂
      Biochar – yes we’ve considered it. We saw a biochar pit demonstrated on an amish farm in PA last year, and my husband is committed to building one here. I remember hearing that on-farm results with biochar have been mixed, but it’s definitely worth a try. Have you tried it?


  3. I’m a backyard enthusiast.. Currently seeking farmland in NJ. I just ventured into biochar and added it to one of my compost piles. I let the Biochar sit in my compost for over a month. Adding straight biochar, (from what I have researched) will leech available mineral nutrients.. Think of Biochar as a storage facility, making plants struggle if applied directly. But, if matured those nutrients then become available again. SO I just added a small amount of biochar/homemade compost that was aged over a month to some planters to see how it does.. Do you save your seeds? Once a disease is present in your soil, it will keep coming back and attacking vulnerable plants. I think that some of these seeds (even organic) are not strong seeds and can be susceptible to disease. But, if you save your seeds, they should acquire and adapt to your soil environment. Thanks for getting back to me.. Great blog and appreciate all the info.

    FYI: I did very well with Tomatoes, but got late powdery mildew on cucumbers and watermelon.


    • Thanks for the biochar info! I buy a different brand/variety of tomato seeds each year. I also transplant mater seedlings into thick rye/vetch cover crop mulch. Maybe the mulch contributes to disease somehow. Agree with you on the overall weakness of organic seeds.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: