Evaluating Sustainable Ag Products in Relationship to Cation Exchange Capacity and Base Saturation

Final Report for FNC99-274

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1999: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


My farming operation consists of small 55 acres farm that I own and 16 acres of rented ground. My operation is designed to support a freezer beef enterprise, which consists of buying 3 to 5 day old bucket calves from dairy farms and raising them to 900-1100 pounds. I intend to sell directly to individuals. Live animals are delivered to a local butcher shop with customers picking up the finished products once processing is completed. I have been selling the animals by hanging weight instead of live weight. Since our animals are dairy origin instead of beef, I feel it is a much fairer process for the customer.

I am growing alfalfa orchard grass mix hay on most of my acreage with close to 10 acres in corn each year. Wheat is planted behind the corn in the fall to provide straw for bedding purposes. Alfalfa and orchard grass are planted in the standing wheat each spring thereby completing the rotation. I have been farming in a manner that is as close to natural or sustainable as possible. The only commercial fertilizer I use is a nitrogen product, either urea or ammonium sulfate, to get the desired amount of nitrogen for my corn crop.

I am following the hay crop with a corn crop with this ground being covered with manure, so I am only using 50 pounds of actual supplemental nitrogen per acre. The starter fertilizer is a pellet product made from composted chicken manure with other natural products such as rock phosphate, potassium sulfate, and humate added to it during the composting process to end up with a guaranteed analysis. I am also applying a mixture of fish, seaweed, and a dry soluble fertilizer directly on the seed at planting time. No herbicides or insecticides have been used on a regular basis. I’ve been planting open pollinated corn so I save my own seed and plant it untreated with the only problem being that crows love untreated seed. I have used herbicides as an emergency treatment on soybeans when I raised them. My farm has a history of Johnson grass so I have used a contact herbicide to control that in bean fields.

Each fall I make it my intention to completely cover my farm with some source of organic matter. I live only a few miles form town so I have been able to get leaves dropped off each fall. I pile them to let them decompose for a year and then haul the remaining product on my hay fields. With the worm activity I have on my farm, it is hard to find much evidence of leaves by late spring. This process has been used since we started farming in 1996. We now have a very good worm population across all the acreage. We also try to keep all ground covered with a growing crop over winter. I normally will not plow any ground in the fall. I feel a growing crop aids in water retention and also provides a more stable environment for soil life. I can say with a great amount of certainty that we lose very little to erosion, as most water that leaves our farm is clean due to cover crops. It is also evident according to a forage report that what we are doing is working. We had an alfalfa test come back with a RFV of 202 with 130 being the top end for most Ohio grown hay (much of it in the 70’s or 80’s). This was a 5 year old stand with an estimated 85 to 90% of the original stand.

The primary goal of this project was to find a product or products that would help balance the mineral profile of our soils as well as change the soil density thereby improving drainage and root penetration.

When planning the project, the fields were divided into plots of equal size with different products applied to individual plots. One plot was left as a control with no product applied. Soil tests were taken of the individual fields before products were applied to have information to compare with when the season was completed. Penetrometer readings were also taken and recorded along with approximate locations.

Field 1
The first field was divided into 2 separate fields for this project. The front half of the field was then divided into 2 plots. One was treated with humate and the other plot was the project control.

Field 1A
The back half of the first field was divided into four plots with all four receiving rock phosphate. The first plot and third plot were treated with humate in addition to the rock phosphate. This left alternating plots as comparisons.

Field 2

The second field as divided into 4 plots with all 4 receiving hi calcium lime. Plots 1 and 2 received rock phosphate in addition to lime. Plots 1 and 3 received humate in addition to the other treatments.

Field 3
The third field was divided into 4 plots with all four receiving a chicken compost product fortified with potassium sulfate. Plots 1 and 2 received rock phosphate in addition to the other treatment. Plots 1 and 3 received humate in addition to the other products.

Field 4
The fourth field was divide into 4 plots with all four receiving gypsum. Plots 1 and 3 received humate in addition to the gypsum.

Field 1 was 5th year alfalfa, orchard grass hay
Field 1A was open pollinated corn
Field 2 was 2nd year alfalfa, orchard grass hay
Field 3 was wheat with alfalfa under seeded spring 2000
Field 4 was 4th year alfalfa, orchard grass hay

As the hay crop was harvested, brix readings were taken. Samples were checked in several different locations with their average recorded. This allowed comparison between treated and untreated plots. When the season was over penetrometer readings were taken and recorded in the same approximate location as before.

Brix readings were also taken from the field of corn in treated and untreated plots. Forage samples were taken from field 1 and 4 to see if they would correlate with the soil samples and brix recordings.

Soil was evaluated in Field 1A through observation of pits dug in the fall of 1999 as well as the fall of 2000. This allowed visual evaluation of soil structure as well as root growth in both treated and untreated plots. All of the soil on this farm seems to be of a very tight structure. It was my hope that a soil treatment could be found that would drastically alter the soil structure and improves the crop quality at the same time.

This project involved several people in differing capacities. There were two students from the local Vo-Ag program that helped extensively in taking penetrometer readings. This turned out to be a rather time provided the penetrometer. I have to say I am greatly disappointed in the lack of knowledge demonstrated by our local OSU Extension Service. Throughout the course of the project, I was confronted with observations that left me with questions that I have yet to be answered. One in particular being this; How does an increase in brix reading translate in to dollars and cents? Apparently, no one has that knowledge, which I think, is a sad testimony to agriculture, as we know it today. Very few people care about the quality of their products as long as they have plenty of it.

I did have the opportunity to work with personnel from Ohio State University Horticulture and Crop Science. My questions to the head of that department sparked enough interest that he visited my farm. We spent an afternoon taking soil samples and discussing various aspects of the project. That meeting in turn has generated some interest from an organization entitled “Innovative Farmers of Ohio.” It is my hope that in years to come I can broaden my acquaintance with more people of this nature to share some of the experience I have gained.

Results were varied but for the most part were what I expected. In Field 1, where the humate was applied, we saw an increase of phosphate, potash, magnesium, and calcium over the control plot. Trace minerals were affected as well. A forage sample was taken that correlates with the soil tests. Brix readings were taken several different times throughout the course of the summer on these two plots as they are the closest to the house. The brix reading was consistently higher in the treated plot over the control. In addition, one corner of this field has always had a wet spot that would accumulate and hold rain for days at a time. This fall we had 3 ½ inches of rain in less than 24 hours with no ponding at all in this field. We also had a considerable increase in exchange capacity. The forage sample had an RFV of 209 with the average for Ohio being less than 100.

Field 1A had similar results. We had an increase of phosphate, potash, magnesium, and calcium on the humate treated over the control plot. This field was corn with a higher brix reading on the treated versus the untreated. Trace minerals were considerably different from one plot to the other. This field was the one with test pits dug before and after. The topsoil seemed to be more porous afterwards compared to before. Also, there were vast differences between treated and untreated. The topsoil was sticky and smeary in the untreated. The soil was very porous and sponge like in the treated. Root growth appeared to be greater in the treated section with the subsoil more crumbly rather than smeary. Two days after the pits were dug there was water in bottom of those treated compared to no water in the bottom of the untreated indicating that the rain had soaked in the treated portion. Also the soil samples that were taken indicated much greater percentage of water retained in the untreated versus treated including the water was not moving through the soil.

Field 2 presents some real questions. Where the humate was applied we saw a decrease in calcium and magnesium with much less noticeable change in potash and phosphorous. This field showed drastic differences as you view the re-growth of what would have been the fourth cutting. Where the humate was applied, we saw increased grass pressure in the form of Johnson grass and foxtail. Where no humate was applied, the field was almost completely clean. Brix readings also corresponded to these observations. Where the brix readings were lowest, we had the most weed problems. Apparently, the high rate of calcium from the lime tied up the soil energy suppressing the soil biological activity as well. Having seen the problem, I then recalled one of the persons I have worked with stating you should never apply lime during the growing season for that specific reason. I fully expect a reversal in these observable characteristics next growing season. Once the soil energies have a chance to stabilize, I expect these poor plots to be the best next year.

Field 3 fit more into the ideal of what I expected on all the fields. Where the humate was applied a considerable increase in phosphate, potassium, and calcium was noticed. Exchange capacity was increased drastically on the first plot and significantly on the third plot. This field also had the best brix reading of all the fields with the greatest range between treated and untreated. This field was in wheat, which made 60 bushel per acre with no supplemental nitrogen. Stubble was clipped and straw baled the first week of July. A cutting of hay was made the end of August averaging thirty five 65# bales per acre. Brood cows have practically torn the barn apart to get at this hay. The re-growth after late August was virtually weed free.

Field 4 again raised some questions. Gypsum being a very calcium product has again apparently tied up some soil energy, as calcium levels were not increased significantly. Phosphate as well did not show much improvement. A forage report was taken on this field and it correlates with the soil tests. The forage report had a RFV of 166. Brix readings, however, were higher on the humate treated portion of this field. All in all, I believe where the humate was applied that the crop quality was improved. Through visual observation there was no significant yield difference this year between the treated and the untreated plots, however I believe there is a vast difference between crops raised on a natural program and a conventional program. The sixteen acres of rented ground has been farmed conventionally. Livestock will not eat the hay harvested off that field if they can possibly get at hay from the home place. In addition, brix readings off that field have never been as high as those have off my fields. This year, two cuttings are all that were harvested off the conventional. 3 cuttings came off the home farm with what would have been the 4th cutting left in the field for lack of a place to put it.

One of my biggest surprises was that the penetrometer readings for all the plots were, for the most part, inconclusive. There were a lot of variations, both in the spring or fall, with very little of a pattern to show that the soil density had changed drastically. Here again, it may take more time for this to show up. It is another area I hope to monitor. I have included in my report, a summary of the data compiled from the penetrometer readings that were put together by an unbiased party.

Having received this grant and being able to evaluate different products has been a very educational experience for me. While I have not seen exactly what I expected this year, I believe more of that will come in time. When working with soils what is done today can affect what happens years down the road. One of the greatest revelations for me was all the variables that can be involved in a project like this. I have found out since I applied for this grant that there are more ways to analyze progress than I ever imagined. Everything from soil tests, penetrometer readings, brix readings, forage reports, tissue tests, etc. I have become quite intrigued with the possibilities. Working with those people I expected to be able to answer my questions and finding out that they don’t have the answers makes me all the more determined to continue on my own as I am able. This confirms my suspicions that there is more to alternative agriculture than what we catch at first glance. This causes me to believe that there are opportunities galore for persons interested in this field. It also makes me more determined to continue farming in cooperation with nature. I believe if agriculture is to survive it will happen with a program of this sort and not with chemicals, etc.

I believe my research has indicated the humate product has been beneficial in changing soil structure. It has also shown that it can help unlock some of the minerals tied up in our soils in unavailable form. It will take more testing in years to come to determine what the long range outcome of this product will be.

One of the greatest advantages of a grant like this is it allowed me to try multiple products on basically all my acreage. With the low income in farming today there is no way I could experiment with more than one field or one product on my own. I now have products in place in multiple plots where I can hopefully monitor progress in years to come. The greatest disadvantage to a project like this is the record keeping and paperwork involved. In addition, the costs of monitoring the progress in years to come. Just this season I have expended over $600 just to monitor my progress. It also takes a lot of time throughout the summer when time is always at a premium. If I were to share information with others, I would have to ask them if they are willing to examine things with a fine tooth comb. There are so many things that correlate with each other that you cannot tell someone about it in five minutes. I also believe if someone is willing to take the time and do some experimenting on their own, they can experience some fantastic results.

I have to say I am disappointed in the ability to reach people with the message of sustainable agriculture. It seems most people simply are not interested including those who claim to be addressing conservation practices. Going into this project, I talked with several people including area Vo-Ag instructors. Most of the people I contacted thought it was a worthwhile project but when they were invited to examine the results, they were not interested. I have made contact with personnel from Ohio State University who are interested in the research I have conducted. I have also made contact with personnel from Innovative Farmers of Ohio who are extremely interested in the work I have done. I am hoping I will have the opportunity to share more of my results with them in the future. I have talked with the manager from the company that supplied the humate. This is the first time they have had someone use a grant to run test plots on their product and be able to verify information associated with the use of the product. I have talked with several local farmers that could not come for the scheduled field day, which was attended by one person. Our first day was rained out and then it got to be into the harvest season with too many people not having the time to come. I have also planned to write an article to be published in Acres, USA; a publication dedicated to sustainable agriculture. I continue to talk with anyone who will give me a few minutes about the benefits of sustainable practices. It seems that increasingly more farmers are coming down with cancer so when it is suggested that it could be from chemical use, people are becoming willing to listen to an alternative story.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.