How much growers and their retailers utilize soil testing and scouting varies greatly. But they should step up their game here, say experts CropLife® magazine touched base with for news in these disciplines. Why? Soil testing gives producers insights on how and where to best spend their limited fertilizer dollars. And scouting, especially during times of tight margins, can be a way to make better pest management decisions.
Deeper Into Soils
Tools for soil analysis are multiplying, highlighting the importance — and new discoveries on the complexity — of this foundational crop “input.”
“We are encouraging growers to look at soil quality more holistically,” says Dr. Harold van Es, Professor at Cornell University and lead inventor of the Adapt-N nitrogen modeling program. “Traditionally, soil testing has focused on nutrients and pH, that is, the chemical aspects of the soil. With soil health testing we are now also looking at biological and physical properties of the soil.”
A variety of nitrogen modeling products, years in the making, are now available to make the most of soil test information. The Adapt-N model uses data on texture, organic matter content and pH taken from the tests — and in the future will include results on biological soil health indicators). Each of these variables are important for simulating the nitrogen dynamics in the soil and ultimately for calculating an optimum fertilizer rate.
The model can actually do a virtual Pre-sidedress Nitrate Test (PSNT). The conventional PSNT is an in-season test that is often used to determine if additional fertilizer nitrogen is needed for corn crops. “The Adapt-N virtual PSNT is scalable, real-time, occurs in any weather, involves little or no cost — and is embedded into existing knowledge of any field or subfield,” explains Steve Sibulkin, CEO of Agronomic Technology Corp.
Results of an actual PSNT can also be entered to help improve and update calibration in the model’s simulations. “Part of the point of Adapt-N is that the simulations greatly reduce the need for soil sampling, saving labor and costs,” points out Cornell’s van Es. They monitor soil nitrate levels in the top 12 inches and have been shown to accurately track with measured results.
It’s important for growers and retailers to understand soil variability when they choose a soil sampling plan, emphasizes Tyler Lund, Director of Sales and Marketing for Veris Technologies. “If Iowa State University research finds that soil pH can vary from 5.2 to 7.2 within a 2.5-acre grid, how confident are we that we have picked the right spot in that grid to take our sample?” he asks. “Similarly, if you have a planter that can change seeding rates rapidly but you are sampling every two to five acres, it just doesn’t match up. We need to match the scale we measure to the soil so we can manage our soil.”
To use input-saving technologies like nitrogen modeling, variable rate seeding and dual-hybrid planting, it is crucial to first map the variability of a field. Lund says Veris soil sensors mounted to tillage tools and planters, as well as on utility vehicles, make it easy to collect high resolution soil data.
Resources at Your Fingertips
Scouting has gotten a lot easier, and maybe even fun. Today’s smart devices give retail field staff access to a wide range of pictures to help identify issues, plus they give users the ability to take photos of problems to share. All information can be georeferenced.
“Imagery being downloaded as a background layer increases our effectiveness, too,” says Erich Eller, Independent Crop Consultant and President of ForeFront Ag Solutions. Scouts can see 100% of the field and key in on areas of concern.
The number of apps available to help with all factors affecting crop continues to grow, almost exponentially.
Eller says his team uses the SST Sirrus app for iPhone as their main point to log scouting information. It syncs directly into the company’s main software to track fields all season long. They use other apps — chosen from hundreds on the app store — that do tasks like degree unit calculation, insect forecasting and weed identification and that can supply plant images to help with crop nutrient deficiency diagnosis. They were free on the app store.
Eller is also looking into a new app that can put an economic value on problems found. It can answer questions on the estimated loss if a pest is left untreated at its current population, current stage of crop and current GDU. The software helps answer the question: Is it worth the cost of treatment?
ScoutPro is releasing a single app for scouting this year. Stuart McCulloh, Director of Customer Success, explained that in the past, customers used an app for each crop, but moving forward they will have one app with 20-plus offerings, with more to come.
ScoutPro will also be finalizing and releasing its Directed Scouting platform for the growing season as well. The goal is to “use the right map for the right time,” says McCulloh. Scouts using the ScoutPro platform will have access to a variety of mapping softwares, aerial imagery providers, and scouting.
Some farm management software companies are developing their own scouting and sampling apps. Agworld has programs available for iPhones, iPads and the Web. Its “Scout” app is easy-to-use and intuitive, says Zach Sheely, President.
He’s found Agworld’s customers want everything, and everybody, to work together, seamlessly, in one system. “We’ve designed our soil sampling and scouting tools to integrate into the greater workflow, allowing the advisor and grower to commit to a plan and execute the plan in perfect synchronization.”
For example, users want to know “if I create a variable rate fertilizer recommendation in Agworld, based on my soil samples, how does that contribute to my overall season plan and ensure that I remain profitable?” They want to manage their risk and commit to a scheduled scouting program that will ensure they do not miss finding a pest, and that they and everyone who works on or with their farm don’t miss an application which can lead to crop loss.
While scouting has become easier, the problems growers are finding are getting more difficult, says Warren Pierson, Field Extension Specialist with Iowa State University. Different pests such as Palmer amaranth and bacterial leaf streak in corn are becoming issues. Then too, hybrids and varieties don’t stay on the market as long as they did in the past which makes it more difficult to get to know them for scouting for disease and insect issues, he points out.
Once again in this new era of climate variability, there’s talk of how higher winter temperatures may impact the growing season.
“As for soil environment, we’ve seen soil temperature hit the mid to upper 50s for multiple days in February in lots of areas, including the central Corn Belt. In fact, it was the warmest January and February on record. That will trigger some microbial activity and mineralization that we don’t normally see,” says Allan Baucom, Owner of Falcon Soil Technologies. He suspects spring soil sampling results will skew higher if warmer than normal temps continue.
Warmer soils could also lead to compaction issues that would have been less severe with the freezing and thawing of the soil profile, notes Mark Anderson, President of GVM, maker of the AgriProbe. And many retailers are afraid growers will begin planting too early. They could still encounter a late frost which would force a replant in some corn crops.
Missy Lindquist, Director of Precision Agricultural Services at SGS North America, cites another concern: Soil moisture. “With very little snowfall in most areas this past winter and lack of rainfall, we could be in for some drier soil conditions this spring. We’re also hearing weather predictions for not enough rainfall — leading to drought in some areas,” she says.
Pest pressure may also be higher — though any projections can be complicated. ScoutPro’s McCulloh points out that overwintering/hibernating insects “awake” or hatch across a wide range of temperatures and timings. “While we may have a few pre-mature insects, most will survive, but be less numerous. Some insects that hatch or come out of hibernation early in the spring have the ability to survive through short spurts of cold, less than freezing temps,” he says.
Word of increased pests may cause a trade-off of fertilizer cuts in exchange for insecticide, says Falcon’s Baucom. “There is a lot of V2Pro and V3Pro traited corn on order. And there’s a lot of debate on what should go in the ground with those trait packages. Our Falcon clients go straight to the soil test results when those conversations begin,” he says.