The world of soil sampling continues to evolve.
Twenty years ago the answer, Michael Koenig says, was to send out a fleet of scouts, have them report back with their findings, and then return to the “hot spot” with the grower or an advisor to begin solving the problem.
Fast forward to the present, and, according to Koenig, President, ScoutPro, Urbandale, IA, the industry looks to myriad factors, such as Twitter, traps, imagery, and historical issues, to dictate its efforts in the field.
“We need efficiency because things continue to happen at a fast pace generally with agronomy,” he says. “We can plant faster, spray more acres in one pass, and our window to apply seems to become narrower (e.g., dicamba). Therefore, we are looking for the most cost-effective and efficient way to prioritize our days. In scouting, we’re striving to find the places we can do the most with our time.”
Talking points abound within the industry, most of which revolve around ROI.
One pressing issue for growers and ag retailers is where to sample and scout and where to apply that intel, Tyler Lund, Director of Sales and Marketing, Veris Technologies, Salina, KS, says. “You may have taken a soil sample in the middle of a square grid, but is all the soil in that square the same as what is in the bag headed to the lab? Unfortunately, no,” Lund says. “Instead, we need to manage the soil represented by our samples. Not what is in a convenient checkerboard.”
Knowing where to scout within a field is “absolutely the most challenging and important” task, according to Toby Goodroad, Market Development Director, Yara North America, Tampa, FL.
“Decisions made from soil sampling and scouting can change the yield potential of any crop,” Goodroad says. “There are many methodologies in which to accomplish this and no real standard in the industry. We have so much technology and data at our disposal that it can be overwhelming for some and confirming for others. There is no one answer except that you need to be making decisions based on what is most representative of the field, crop, and conditions.”
Growers and ag retailers should accept and acknowledge that soil sampling is no longer just a check-off task on a to-do list, Allan Baucom, Owner, Falcon Soil Technologies Group, Monroe, NC, says. “Progressive producers now consider soil sampling a required practice in their agronomic programs. This mindset demands quality, consistency, and timeliness, in addition to reduction of the sample area size and the propensity for annual sampling,” Baucom says. “This is to give known values instead of dealing with probabilities of nutrient availability. The tendency of environmental volatility is increasing this knowledge demand.”
Cost-effectiveness is an ever-present concern to all parties.
“Soil sampling in tight times needs to actually increase in occurrences,” Erich Eller, Owner, Forefront Ag Solutions, Huntington, IN, says. “This will find highs and lows in fields and allow for shifts in applicated products to find best ROI.”
In some cases, soil sampling may be efficient to the point in which growers have to accept harsh realities, Gregg Sauder, Founder, 360 Yield Center, Morton, IL, says. “As farm debt grows, and with scarce opportunities to sell crops above break even, there is great pressure on growers to reduce fertilizer and lime costs — mining soil reserves for short-term savings. Scouting and soil tests will uncover issues from these cost-cutting activities, and many may just rather not know the damage being done.”
Matt Powell, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer, Agworld, Windsor, CO, says that, with downward pressure on commodity price, the spotlight is on the actual outcomes, such as increased profitability and sustainability and reduced risk. “Simplistic soil sampling programs focusing only on agronomic theories will become more of a thing of the past as the industry gets better at linking this information together and proving real value,” he says.
The More Info, the Better
What advice does the scouting industry have for ag retailers?
For starters, the days of going into a field to simply count and identify pests and weeds is coming to an end, Aaron Hutchinson, President and Co-Founder, CropTrak, Tucson, AZ, says. “Expect to collect significantly more information about the main field and the area around it. Genetic crops, aggressive chemicals, complex labels, and other factors are making the task of making a recommendation harder, and the only way to protect your organization and client is to collect more information,” he says.
Sampling grids are getting smaller, according to Falcon Soil’s Baucom. “One-acre grid sampling and VRT (variable-rate technology) are rapidly becoming popular with progressive producers in many areas of the country. Even for large operations, this is no longer just a dream,” he says. “With technology that already exists within the market, it is possible for even the largest growers to sample consistently and efficiently on one-acre — and smaller — grids every season.”
Sauder and Eller both recommend that ag retailers react accordingly to problems that took root last year.
“The fall of 2018 has forced many growers to rethink their tillage and nitrogen plan for 2019,” Sauder says. “Ag retailers know there is a lot of catch-up work to do over the next few months. There can be long-term benefits to the forced shift to spring work: Growers can experience the increased efficiency in nitrogen use and uptake that can come from side-dress applications. As growers become more aware of nutrient-reduction strategies, they can experience how moving nitrogen application from fall to spring can not only reduce nitrogen loss but can also improve yields while lowering nitrogen costs.”
Eller notes that some of the first reported cases of disease in the Indiana area occurred in 2018. “Throughout the winter months we have been studying these diseases in other parts of the Midwest and how they impacted yields there. The goal is to stay ahead of these concerns and be able to treat when deemed appropriate,” Eller says.
Joseph Sisco, Field Representative, Mid-west Laboratories, Omaha, NE, stresses that the seasonality of a soil test has little impact on the data. “With adverse weather conditions last fall and currently a cold spring, taking samples has been difficult,” he says. “Note that the importance of taking a good soil sample outweighs conventional timing. With spring soil sampling right around the corner, the idea of taking spring samples in preparation for fall application may be suitable for your needs even if it had to be done after planting. Spring sampling would allow you to review your data to make a plan that provides the most for your operation.”
Ag retailers should not have to make big investments to be innovative, ScoutPro’s Koenig says, nor do they need sweeping changes to show how progressive they are.
“In general, technology should be an extension and improvement of what you are already doing as a company, not something that completely flips the way you do business,” he says. “I’m not saying that we don’t already know that, but have we thought about it? When we work with growers on recommendations, we don’t throw the book at a farm or crop year and try to improve. We pick a few things that are limiting factors and work to improve them a few at a time until something new surfaces. What are the limiting factors in your daily and growing season activities? Consider what things you’re doing that help or hinder the daily and growing season activities. Some things may be operational, some may be technology based, but they’re all things that should be considered.”
Whatever ag retailers do, Veris’ Lund says, they should put aside self-interest in favor of steering their customers in the right direction. “Retailers typically offer soil sampling and other services as a way to win customers and create loyalty. However, when a quick-and-easy but subpar service produces poor results, they can lose valuable customers. Doing things right is worth the cost and effort,” he says.
Looking toward the remainder of 2019, industry officials expect to see:
- Increased popularity in mapping cation-exchange capacity (CEC), pH, and organic matter. (Sauder)
- Integration. “We are only days into 2019, and the announcements of tool integrations are only getting faster. One reason is no one tool can do it all. Another is, whenever possible, auto-entry is being employed to reduce workload, multiple entry, and errors while collecting enhanced data sets.” (Hutchinson)
- Simple and efficient cloud-based soil sampling workflow management. (Baucom)
- Manure, specifically chicken litter, will create a “significant opportunity” for retailers and growers across east-central Nebraska as many broiler units are put into operations. “Retail agronomists will be challenged to assist crop producers in developing nutrient management programs around the new fertilizer source. (Sisco)
- Sensor technology and image recognition. “Both are still emerging, but we believe they will have considerable impact on the scale in which an individual can get across more unique acres that might not have normally been visited in the past.” (Koenig)
- An increased focus on soil and its role in productivity, stewardship, and general resiliency. (Lund)
- Several “very interesting” platforms, sensors, imaging, and crop nutrition solutions will start to find scale. “Adoption is very low for the most innovative solutions, and 2019 should be a year where we start to see separation in the ranks of various technologies.” (Goodroad)