Welcome to the People of Soil Health, a podcast that unearths the community, exploring the financial, economic, and environmental benefits of soil health. From farmers to researchers, meet the people committed to understanding soil health practices and improving the land. Here's your host, Senior Director of the Soil Health Partnership, John Mesko.
John Mesko (00:30):
Welcome back to the People of Soil Health podcast. Here at Soil Health Partnership and for many farmers across the country, spring is the season for soil sampling. And that's why I'm excited to welcome Nick Ward to today's show. Nick holds a PhD in agronomy and is the president of Ward Laboratories based out of Kearney, Nebraska. Nick, thanks for joining me today.
Nick Ward (00:52):
Thanks, John. I'm glad to be a part of the podcast.
John Mesko (00:56):
Yeah, it's great to have you on. And, this is the first time we've had somebody from a soil lab on, and I think in full disclosure, Soil Health Partnership does a fair amount of work with Ward Labs and have always been really happy with the results, and we enjoy working with you guys. But, for those who are listening that are not familiar with Ward Laboratories and the work that you do, tell us a little bit about what you and your team do.
Nick Ward (01:21):
Sure. So Ward Laboratories is a full service ag testing lab. We're based in Kearney, Nebraska. We were founded in 1983 by Dr. Ray Ward and his wife, Jolene. We started with just basic soil sampling, but as the needs changed, and as farmers came to them with needs, he continued to add services. So we could help with feed, forage, water, manure, all sorts of testing, anything that goes into an ag operation, anything where data can provide good insights and actionable information, but we try to provide a number for you there.
John Mesko (02:06):
That's great. And I can also say from personal experience, I've sent soil samples from my farm and plant tissue analysis and these sorts of things over the years, and I'm always impressed with how quickly the results come back and really appreciate how you guys are efficient in your work on that. And it's helpful to know that it is more than soil. You guys are doing manure sampling, as you said, and other kinds of sampling so that as we move forward in agriculture, data and measurement becomes so much more important and you guys are a big part of that. A lot of farmers are familiar with soil sampling for nutrients. That's pretty common. But when we talk about soil health, we're talking about other indicators. Tell us the kinds of things that you guys are measuring and the relative importance of those.
Nick Ward (03:00):
John, that's a great, great call out there. So, when we want to think about soil health sampling and what we're trying to do, the main thing is to try to look at soil from a perspective other than just our plain macronutrients, PK, or maybe sulfur micronutrients. On soil health, we're wanting to look at biology. We're wanting to look at things that drive zoobiology. So if we want to think about one of the more basic indicators, a CO2 respiration test. Here we're just measuring the amount of CO2 given off from a soil within a 24 hour period. That gives us an idea of how active the soil could be from a biology standpoint, the bacteria get going and they kick out, as a respire, they're kicking out CO2. So that measurement is a quick indicator, a broad indicator of how active our soils are.
Nick Ward (03:55):
The next one would be what those microbes are feeding on. So for that, we're looking at carbon and nitrogen, a little bit more than just totals, but more water extractable organic carbon and water extractable organic nitrogen. These are the food sources that those microbes will be feeding on. So by measuring these pools, seeing the ratio of C to N, we can gauge how much food is there readily available, what kind of stores we have, what kind of release we might anticipate from a nitrogen side of things. So those are really two of the more basic ones, two of them that we've been doing for about 10 years now. But there's plenty of things to explore here in the future. I know NRCS has come out with some guidelines last year. We're interested now in water stable aggregates, oxidizable carbon, permanganate oxidizable carbon. So the list just seems to be getting bigger and it's really a fun world to explore right now on different ways of evaluating the soil.
John Mesko (05:03):
So tell me this, Nick. We have a pretty elaborate protocol for how we go about pulling soil samples at The Partnership, but for a farmer out there that wants to do this kind of testing for themselves, is there anything different in the way the soil samples should be pulled for some of these soil health indicators as opposed to traditional soil sampling that's looking at nutrition and nutrient availability, pH, that sort of thing?
Nick Ward (05:30):
Yep. Great question. So when we're looking at some of these soil health indicators, the one thing that we often do with nutrient sampling that we had tried to shy away from, from soil health measurements, is try not to use any sort of lubricants on the soil probe when collecting soils. Those do contain some carbon. So, if we're trying to look at small amounts of carbon, that you don't want to have any interference there. The other thing would be depth, and sampling depth is a big issue. We want to focus on the root zone of those plants. So sticking in a zero to six, maybe a zero to eight inch sample range, but then being consistent on that depth across your field, not only the one field you're sampling, but between different fields. That way you've always got that same background uniformity in your analysis. So sample depth is a huge key there.
John Mesko (06:33):
Absolutely. I'm probably going to reveal my age with this next statement. When I was doing soil sampling in my first job out of college, I rode a three wheeler across the field in the fall for a fertilizer retailer that I worked for. We're pulling soil samples based on a hand drawn map of the field and its layout. So, I would draw out where there was maybe a small hill or a clay knoll or a valley or a waterway. I would draw that by hand on a piece of paper, and then I would put an X everywhere where I took a soil sample. It's a little different than that now, as we all know. And one of the things that, at the time I was doing this, it was always, you had to soil sample in the fall. That was something that wasn't really an option. But now we see a lot of people, including Soil Health Partnership, doing spring soil sampling. Give me your thoughts on spring versus fall. And even some of the changes, maybe, that have come about with this geospatial technology that we have at our disposal now.
Nick Ward (07:42):
Yeah, that's a great point. The old debate of fall versus spring sampling is something that always is at the top of our mind. The main thing for me is just when you select a time period of sample, try to always go back to that same time period. The fall sampling for nutrients is a great way to make sure we have fertilizer plans and fertilizer pre-purchase before the end of the calendar year. That's a great method for financial needs to make sure that everything's taken care of. But the big thing, and there's some good research that was out of Iowa State, this is probably 10 years ago now, but just showing how as that residue sits in the field, and we get winter moisture, potassium can wash out of the residue.
Nick Ward (08:36):
So, if you take a sample in the fall and you took a sample in the spring, you shouldn't be shocked that there would be differences there. With the soil health measurements we're trying to do, a lot of it is focused, again, on some of those biological components, the CO2, and some of the C to N ratio. A lot of our thought there is to be sampling the soil when it's warmed up, and then there's some more activity going on. So maybe pausing and waiting until the spring time when we get soil temperatures closer to 50 to 55 degrees, and then going and sampling.
Nick Ward (09:14):
That will provide a more accurate picture of what that first seedling that starts growing, what it's going to be seeing. Or if there's a crop that gets going, you know what it's going to be experiencing when it's growing. But always try to pick a time period when it works best for you and try to try to be true to that year in and year out. I'm going to be a spring soil sampler kind of guy. I know that I've got more time in the spring. That's just going to be my time to go do it. It doesn't even have to be by date. It's more of a, "I waited until the frost was out of the ground for about two weeks. And then I went."
John Mesko (09:52):
And how often do you recommend? At Soil Health Partnership, that's part of our protocol, the frequency of soil sampling. Sometimes we make a decision that maybe the soil health indicators aren't changing really rapidly. So maybe it's something we don't have to do every year. In another cases, we may want to. But in general, what are your thoughts and guidelines for farmers on the frequency of pulling samples?
Nick Ward (10:21):
Of course, if you ask a soil lab how often you should sample, we're going to tell you every year,
John Mesko (10:27):
Twice a year. Why not?
Nick Ward (10:31):
But, in all honesty, I think it is critical to try a sample every year. Now, the extensiveness of your sampling, certainly that's variable. If you want to do a grid sampling program, do that once every four years, maybe, but try to come back to some of those spots every year. The idea is what we want to do is establish some trend lines and not be caught up on year to year changes as much. And when you sample, say every four years, you might get some values moving up and down and maybe causes you panic or relief. But we want to make sure that if we got a good trend line established, because we've got samples every year for 10 years, now we're really able to draw some conclusions. We're able to see, yes, I am building organic matter. I am maintaining my phosphorus soil test or I definitely am seeing a drawdown in potassium. Those are the kinds of things that you really can't see if you're spaced out too far in your sampling. So really, every year to really build that trend is really key.
John Mesko (11:49):
Yeah. And that's certainly central to the work that we're doing. And really every farmer is looking for what their trends are over time. It's one of the pillars of sustainability to know what path you're on. Are you sliding downhill in terms of the way the soil is responding? Or are you on the uptrend? Are you staying flat? These are trends that everybody needs to understand that's going on in the soil. It occurs to me that, in the last 10 years especially, the interest in soil health and the explosion of the available data that is there through various mechanisms and the manner and the means we have to be very precise about where something is on the ground, a geospatial point on the ground. I am just curious what has happened in the soil testing industry. I'm assuming we're seeing a huge growth in the amount of soil samples processed and handled and the amount of data that's being created because of the ability to reference those locations. I'm curious if you could just share with us a little bit. What's going on industry-wide?
Nick Ward (13:12):
Yeah. A great point. I think the grid soil sampling geospatial data has really been able to drive a lot of interest in a lot of soil samples, not only for us at Ward, but probably for all the soil labs out there in North America. It really has increased our volume over the last, really now, almost 20 years, but that, I think, is really key. And especially in ag in a time of lots of environmental concern crossed the large corn belt region. Farmers are going to need to think about being able to defend their decisions and prove why we're doing what we're doing and having good maps of nutrient loads in the soil to justify, Hey, obviously we eat, we know that we can't go put on a blanket rate. We know for a long time now, that that's not correct. But now look and see, based on doing some spatial sampling, we know that there's areas that are high producing, high yield and they're removing a lot of nutrients and we need to focus our applications on those areas.
Nick Ward (14:18):
And we know there's some areas that aren't quite as good producing. So we can cut back in those. Or knowing that this area is closer to a waterway, so we're going to make sure to maybe have a little bit higher critical value there that we might not want to apply quite as much or something to that. The geospatial work has really driven a lot of samples and soil testing, but I think it's going to be the key in helping both retailers and farmers both on showing why they need to continue to apply fertilizer and be the real justification on why, "Yes, I need to be fertilizing and yes, the nutrients are going where they're needed." And that would be a great contribution to the general public that may be a little bit disconnected with some of the stuff that we're doing in production ag.
John Mesko (15:19):
Yeah. I think you're really speaking to the return on investment of soil sampling. I referenced my one season of pulling samples way back in the day, but the purpose of that was we got all these soil samples and then I was also a salesman. So, that winter, I got the soil lab results and then put together fertilizer recommendations for my customers and went and sat down and sold them fertilizer for the coming year. That was the process. So we wanted to show the farmers that their return on investment in the soil sampling was that they get an accurate fertilizer recommendation and it would result in increased yields or maintaining yields where they wanted them to be. But you're talking about a return on the investment of soil sampling beyond just the economics of fertility and yield and production.
John Mesko (16:18):
There's a hard to define, I think, return on investment in, as you say, understanding where those nutrients are going and are they all being used and this sort of thing. So I'm curious your thoughts on how we demonstrate the value beyond just the production end of things, for what we're doing in terms of helping people understand the sustainability aspect.
Nick Ward (16:47):
Yeah. And I think that's key is that being able to show that we have the need and that we apply based on that. We're not just going out there and wildly spreading things across the field. And I think from a... That's hard to measure. But as we tell our story in agriculture to those that are in the city, or those that aren't quite connected with what we're doing, these kinds of tools or demonstration items show to them that no, we are being good stewards of the environment. We are trying to do things the correct way to the best way that we know how, and that we're being diligent with our resource. And I think sometimes that return on investment is hard to measure, but it's just as critical as knowing why you're spending the dollars, is defending the decision to apply. So it's something that's hard to define, really, for us, but I think it's going to be something that it continues to be critical as we go ahead.
John Mesko (18:00):
Yeah, I agree. There's a lot of work being done around soil health and its impact on the environment and that has more than just farmers interested. So certainly there's a return on investment there beyond the production of commodities. Speaking of costs, sending a person out with a soil probe or sending a machine out with a soil probe to pull samples out of the grounds is a fairly labor intensive effort, fairly expensive to do that relative to other ways that we collect information. I'm curious, from your perspective, where we might see the future. I know for example, in our work, we are able to download satellite maps of various stages of cover crop growth. The detail that's on these satellite photos now, where we can drill down and see very precisely what is actually growing in that field, not just that there's something green.
John Mesko (19:05):
But we are actually able now to start to see what it is in precise detail. That's just one example, but what does the future look like for assessing soil? Should we be investing in soil probe companies, or is there going to be some interesting or are there some new, interesting things coming in the future?
Nick Ward (19:28):
Yeah, that's great, great point. And I think the technology in satellite imagery or drone imagery will really just help direct us better. You mentioned your example of getting on the three wheeler and riding across and finding different landscape features. Well, that takes time when you're just kind of driving around looking at things, but if you've got an image of the field and you can identify clear areas that are growing differently, that's really going to direct you to spend your time efficiently than in the field. And you're going to say, I've got three areas identified where I need to go visit on this 80-acre field. And I think it's key to farming that the farmer, or whoever's being the steward there, gets out there and actually sees the soil. There's more than just collecting the sample.
Nick Ward (20:22):
I think it's probing the ground, seeing how the soil comes out, just seeing how the conditions are. The power of observation is really profound sometimes. And I think, just that effort of collecting the sample, connects you with that piece of ground. You might see something there that sparks interests, like I saw this spot on the map during the growing season. It didn't seem like things were growing real well, but now as a visit, I see some strange weed pressure, or I see maybe some lichen or moss growing on the soil surface. That might take a spark in interest and make something to where you want to think deeper or investigate that spot a little bit more. So I think there's some excitement there, and there's some need there, to always be in the field.
Nick Ward (21:16):
As far as future things to come, I know we're always trying to look at new methods or refine the methods that we currently have here at the lab. And the pipeline is full of new things to look at, different ways to evaluate nitrogen availability through like an ACE protein test, different ways to assess the microbial community through some biological testing. So there's always some new things to come about. How do we use that information? Maybe some of that is still needed to be done, but I think going back to that, that's going to really couple though with being able to be in the field and see that condition and then get those numbers back. That has some power that sometimes we don't value as much as maybe we should.
John Mesko (22:08):
Yeah, that's true. There's no substitute for being out there, walking on the soil and feeling it under your feet and observing it, like you say, touching it. Yeah. There is no substitute for sure. I'm excited for that news, because I think, we lose a little bit of perspective sometime if we put too much emphasis on some of the technology that's out there. Well, Nick, it's great to talk with you. I really appreciate you being a part of the podcast. The work that you all do there is critical to the work that we do at Soil Health Partnership and helping farmers to understand the impact of the changes that they want to make in their farming practices. And so, I appreciate all that you do. And I appreciate you being on the podcast today.
Nick Ward (22:55):
Oh, once again, John, thanks for having me. And hopefully we're set up for a good successful crop year here in 2021.
John Mesko (23:03):
Absolutely. Thanks, Nick.
Nick Ward (23:05):
Yep. Thanks John.
John Mesko (23:06):
Thank you for listening to the People of Soil Health. If you're looking for more soil health resources, visit our website, soilhealthpartnership.org.