January 12, 2021

Industry Group Formed to Advance Agriculture Nutrient Management in the United States

December 2020 - Bloomington, Illinois - The Agriculture Laboratory Testing Association (ALTA) is an industry organization committed to ensuring the quality of data to agricultural communities through encouraging the development, use, and acceptance of proven agricultural testing methods.

  • In December 2020, the Illinois Soil Testing Association became the Agriculture Laboratory Testing Association.
  • The Agriculture Laboratory Testing Association's primary objective is to promote high-quality testing data to improve farm production, profitability, and sustainability.
  • To meet this objective, the Agriculture Laboratory Testing Association offers two Certifications: ALTA- SAC (Soil Analysis Certification) and ALTA-PAC (Plant Analysis Certification)

As a result of continued growth over the last 30 years, the Illinois Soil Testing Association (ISTA) re-branded itself as the Agriculture Laboratory Testing Association (ALTA) in December 2020. This industry organization will be a leader in ensuring consistency, precision, and accuracy across agriculture laboratories nationally. ALTA plans to reach this goal through outreach, education, and certification programs.

"The Illinois Soil Testing Association (ISTA) has changed its name to the Agricultural Laboratory Testing Association (ALTA) to reflect the scope and territories that our membership serves.  Our member laboratories offer a broad range of agricultural testing and services across the United States.  ALTA's mission is to support all types of agricultural testing laboratories so they may provide the best analysis and information.  We will support that mission by providing education and certification programs that help ensure quality and innovation in our industry."

Tim Smith, CropSmith, Inc., Laboratory Owner, ALTA President, Farmer City, IL

ALTA has developed two certification programs, one for soil analysis (SAC, Soil Analysis Certification) and another for plant tissue testing (PAC, Plant Analysis Certification). These programs were initially created by the Illinois Soil Testing Association and have earned respect in the region for creating a high standard for testing quality.  These programs' objective is to assure soil and plant analysis provided to Ag producers nationally are within laboratory statistical norms (consistent, precise, and accurate).  Based on this premise, certifications help ensure labs follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) code 590 of nutrient management guidelines for testing and recommendations.

"ALTA is a very important organization for our company because it provides validity to our test data and demonstrates to our customers that we can produce accurate results.  The meetings offer members targeted education and a collective forum for the exchange of ideas focused on the agricultural laboratory."

Greg Neyman, A&L Great Lakes Laboratories, Director – Green Industries Division, Fort Wayne, IN

 ALTA is positioned to lead the agriculture testing industry nationally, driving the discussion around how to ensure precision and accuracy of agriculture data moving into the next decade. Providing educational opportunities for members, engaging the public, and offering relevant certification programs are methods ALTA will help member companies grow while creating a sustainable future.

"The ALTA organization provides a forum for agronomists and testing laboratories to educate and advance Agriculture nutrient management in the United States.  Through workshops and laboratory certification program for soil and plant analysis, ALTA sets a standard of professional excellence."

Robert O. Miller, Ph.D. ALP Technical Director, former Affiliate Professor Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO

 In 1981 the Illinois Soil Testing Association (ISTA) was founded to help address Illinois growers' need for quality soil test information.  Over time the group grew to represent the region and was re-branded in 2020 as the Agriculture Laboratory Testing Association (ALTA).  ALTA's primary objective is to promote the interests of the agriculture testing industry in the United States and promote high-quality testing data that will improve farm production, profitability, and sustainability. ALTA works towards this goal by creating educational opportunities and laboratory certification programs.

Find Out More:  https://www.alta.ag/


December 21, 2020

Living Up to the Boy Scout Motto

A quick count through the calendar pages reveals 100 days until April 1 and the Boy Scout motto would remind us to plan well and be prepared to handle the spring planting tasks as accurately and efficiently as possible.  Much time and effort has gone into cropping plans, seed selection, soil sampling, fertilizer plans and data analysis since harvest but here are a few additional items that might pay big dividends during the heat of the battle next spring.

Create a list of the key vendors and retailers that will be involved with your operation and reserve some time to visit with each one and discuss your communication plans.  Employees that you have worked with in the past may have taken other responsibilities and new employees may be filling important service rolls and will play an important role this cropping season.  It is a good time to update phone contacts, email addresses and learn the preferred method of contact and the main responsibilities for key individuals.

Provide your vendors with names and contact information for your staff and their responsibilities such as field prep, fertilizer applications, herbicide management, planter operation and data management.

Discuss field maps and cropping plans with each one and point out best routes to access fields, best field entrances, preferred loading areas and best places to park equipment that is left overnight or parked during a weather delay.  Remind them of safety concerns such as overhead powerlines that may interfere with applicator booms, narrow field entrances and low weight capacity bridges that may not be suitable for trucks and equipment.  As much as possible, try to direct traffic away from homes, children’s play areas and light vehicle traffic.  Keep heavy equipment away from underground obstacles such as water meters, septic systems, drainage systems or other utilities that may not be designed to support heavy loads.

Consider data handling and transfer for items such as variable rate maps/recommendations, planter files, hybrid and variety selections and any operating files that may be needed for herbicide applications.  Consider sharing desired GPS headings, field obstacles or auto steer navigational information that will assist vendors in their work.  Have a plan in place for sharing needed electronic data with the proper operators at the proper time so equipment is prepared to run when the time is right.

Please keep the lines of communication open and help everyone implement the plan as safely and efficiently as possible this spring.

December 16, 2020

Maybe 2019 Was Not So Bad and The Bright Side of 2020... Agronomically That Is!

In past years, the end of the calendar year for agronomists and producers has been denoted by the beginning of the winter meeting season at the conclusion of the growing season. Like many things in 2020, the meeting season is a bit different this year. The in-person meetings have been canceled or replaced with virtual experiences, so the sharing of observations and lessons learn from the 2020 growing season is very different.  So, what was some of the big trends in soil testing for 2020 and did the agronomy fears at the conclusion of 2019 occur? We’re glad you asked!

The late fall of 2019 soil sampling continued uninterrupted into an early spring of 2020. Traditionally soil sampling increases at a rapid rate in late September and builds though October. The sample volume reaches a peak in mid to late October, then begins decreasing sometime late November. Sample numbers continue to slowly decline until weather conditions stops soil sampling in mid to late December. The mild 2019/2020 winter, combined with the late 2019 harvest, led to a slow ramp up in mid-November and samples continued to arrive at the lab at a steady rate all winter. The was no clear end to fall 2019 sampling, nor a defined beginning of 2020 spring sampling.  The fall 2020 soil sampling season has been, and continues to be strong, following a more “normal” sampling season. Something that has not happened 3 or 4 years.

One of the main concerns from the wet fall of 2019 was the potential for soil compaction. The wet year set the stage for compaction to occur during both the 2019 planting and fall harvest. The wet fall of 2019 prevented proper fall tillage to correct compaction from 2019, let alone compaction created in 2018 or 2017. The preplant expectation was that soil compaction would negatively impact on yield in 2020, especially if the weather pattern turned dry. For some areas 2020 was dry, but the reports of soil compaction related crop issues were not as severe as expected, leading to near average yields for  most growers.  There are many theories as to why the impacts of soil compaction was less than expected, they mostly revolve around overall improvements in soil management leading to improved soil structure in recent years. Producers took what preventative steps they could to reduce the impact of soil compaction in 2020 and it appears to have worked. Those areas that were unable to plant in 2019 were able to perform deep or primary tillage in the late summer early fall before the wet conditions began.

Also, many growers focused on earlier maturing varieties to avoid another late fall. This was a positive management strategy as many portions of the ALGL trade region ran behind schedule on GDU accumulation in the summer of 2020. With the timely 2020 harvest allowing for well timed soil sampling and fall field work, along with growing positively in the grain markets, the overall optimism for improved farm incomes in the coming years is growing. While we may want to forget 2019 for the agronomic challenges and likewise push 2020 from our memory due to Covid 19, that may not be wise for future management.

Inconstancies in soil sampling can lead to variation in soil test values over time. Challenging weather conditions in the spring and/or fall soil sampling seasons from 2017 though the spring of 2020 may lead to slight variations in soil test results. In the future when comparing soil test data sets that include samples collected in this time frame, the challenges of these year may shed some light on soil sample variances. More frequent soil sampling can reduce the impact of these variances by adding more data points to the analysis.  Repeated soil sampling provides a check and balance approach to soil fertility management.

While we all have been impacted by the Covid Pandemic, the bright point was the timely fall harvest leading to some very good conditions to complete fall soil sampling, perform fall tillage in good to near idea conditions, plant cover crops, and make timely fertilizer/lime applications.  The condition of the soil samples coming into the lab were some of the best sample quality we have seen in the past 3 to 4 years. Hopefully the fall soil sampling season of 2020 will provide some stability to long terms soil fertility management.

December 10, 2020

More Changes to the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations

The finalized document for the latest revision of the Tri-State Fertilizers recommendations for Indiana, Ohio and Michigan has been released. Various aspects of the revised recommendations have been released in small segments over the past 2 years. The summaries of the changes/updates to the recommendations prior to the release of the final document have noted that soil pH and liming recommendations would not change from the previous version released in 1995. Upon review of the final document, notable changes have been made to the university recommendations for soil pH management and lime application rates.

  • Now there are a set of lime recommendations for Ohio and separate set for Indiana and Michigan.
  • Lime rate recommendations for mineral soils, those soils with less than 20% organic matter and a cation exchange capacity of greater than 5 meq/100cc, have changed.
    • Indiana and Michigan lime rate recommendations have different values in the equations to calculate lime rates and rates have been increased by 10-20%.
    • The Ohio lime rate recommendations for mineral soils have new equations to calculate lime rates and rates have been decreased by 30-35%.
  • Organic soil lime rates, for those soils with greater than 20% organic matter, have changed.
    • Michigan and Indiana lime rates have increased 25-100%. In the previous version of the recommendations there was one equation for organic soils, now there are three.
    • Ohio lime rates have decreased 30-35% and the publication does not offer equations to calculate rates.
  • Weakly buffered soils were not specially defined in the previous recommendation document, but often classified through interpretation as soils with cation exchange capacities of 6 meq/100cc or less. The revised recommendation set reference to weakly buffered soils as those with a cation exchange capacity of less than 5 meq/100cc . The adoption of Mehlich 3 as the extractant used to determine potassium, calcium and magnesium levels will led to a 15-18% increase in cation exchange capacity by summation values reported on soil tests.

The final release the “Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations for Corn, Soybeans, Wheat, and Alfalfa” can be found at https://extensionpubs.osu.edu/search.php?search_query=974&section=product.

December 09, 2020

Not All Manure Is the Same – Poultry Litter

The nutrient characteristics of a manure is dependent the species of animal, the diet of the animals, and how the manure is handled. In recent years poultry litter has been elevated to a unique value status among the manures. It has gone from a waste product to a commodity of value, in some cases, garnering a premium over an equal amount of nutrient in the form of commercial fertilizer.  View full article →
November 30, 2020

Soil Sampling Lubricants

Fall weather is generally full of ups and downs. As the weather turns cooler and the wind picks up, many of you are rushing to complete last-minute soil sampling before the ground freezes. Cold and wet weather can complicate the sampling process, and can cause great frustration when samples begin to stick in the probe. However, using a lubricant can help to reduce the sticking of samples in the probe and make the process work a bit easier on the sampler.

A number of different lubricants have been evaluated over the years for their effectiveness as a sampling aid and their impact on the analysis results. Two of the most commonly recommended lubricants are either WD-40, or aerosol cooking sprays such as Pam. Either of these products act as a water dispersant, effectively creating a film on the metal that repels water and limits the sticking within the tube. From anecdotal evidence, WD-40 tends to be a bit more persistent on the probe than does cooking spray, and therefore tends to require less frequent application.

The effect of either material generally has a negligible effect on measured levels of macronutrients. There is some evidence that suggests micronutrient levels may be affected somewhat, but the effect is generally pretty minor. WD-40 tends to affect micronutrient levels less than cooking spray, so it is recommended when micronutrients are to be analyzed. This may be more significant in soils that are naturally low in micronutrients because the slight variation in levels will be a larger percentage of the total levels. However, if the use of lubricants results in better quality sample collection, the benefits of using a lubricant should greatly outweigh any potential for contamination from the lubricant itself.

November 03, 2020

The Power of Observation

It is often said that “you are never too old to learn” but a quick look into the history of ag technology reveals the limited tools and information available for learning a few short years ago.  Some of the earlier work in soil testing began in 1945-1950 and commercial fertilizers were not readily available until the 1960’s.  Producers of this era had limited learning resources available as the university extension programs were in their infancy and they had to rely on experience, personal observation and interaction with their peers to make management decisions.

Early gypsum mining operations began in the late 1800’s and it was observed that the grass and plants near the mine entrance were green and lush compared to areas away from the mine and it was likely due to the application of sulfur as the miners tracked dust from the mine and walked across the grass areas.  This prompted some of the first experimentation of applications of gypsum to crop land.  Sulfur deficiency was likely not well understood at the time but through the knowledge gained from direct observation they were able to improve crop production.

The concept of pH was developed in 1909 by a Danish scientist named Sorensen and the first electronic method of measuring pH was invented in 1934 by Arnold Beckman at California Institute of Technology working with a small start-up company called Sunkist.  They were looking for quick and easy method of testing the acidity of lemons.

My grandfather completed the 8th grade in 1927 as this was the highest educational opportunity available to him and he began farming in northeast Missouri at that time.  The only available fertilizer material was manure and he was beginning to experiment with lime applications approximately 25 years after Sorensen first described the concept of pH.  I remember him describing his lime recommendations based on his personal observations in this manner, “When the soil will not produce good sweet clover, add 2 tons of lime.”

He grew hay crops of sweet clover and lespedeza as he observed it was well adapted to the low fertility soil conditions at the time.  From a University of Missouri Extension publication, “Sweet clover has an extreme range of adaptation. About the only consistent requirement is one of high pH. Sweet clover needs a high pH, 6.0 or higher, for proper nodulation to occur, and it has a higher calcium requirement as well. Sweet clover is able to obtain phosphorus from relatively unavailable soil phosphates and will grow on soils where alfalfa, red clover or ladino will fail. Except for its high lime requirements, it is similar to lespedeza, which tolerates very low fertility conditions.”  It appears his personal observations led him to a very suitable cropping choice.

The fertilizer supply chain developed and improved through the 70’s and 80’s and the first yield monitor came on the scene in 1992.  Grid soil sampling and intensive management practices and management options continue to improve every season but it is important to stay grounded in the basics.  Keep learning and continue to hone your skills of personal observation.

Written by Stan Miles, ALGL Agronomist

November 03, 2020

Sample Shipping Tips to Prevent Delays

The Fall of 2020 has been the most conducive harvest seasons for soil sampling the Great Lakes region has experienced in several years. When harvest is efficient, fall soil sampling is efficient, resulting in sample volumes that can challenge our laboratory’s daily maximum capacity. While our goal is to keep a consistent turn-time for all samples, it is not always possible if challenges arise in the process. Following these tips can help reduce delays in the delivery of your results.  

  1. Use good quality new or lightly used, heavy duty boxes for shipping samples. The #1 cause of samples being lost is damaged boxes in shipping. Reusing Amazon boxes is discouraged because the cardboard is often too thin to withstand the weight of soil samples.
  2. Packing tape is cheaper than resampling. Be sure to use plenty of good quality packing tape. Make sure to use multiple strips of tape on all box seams including the vertical seam that joins the box together. This is the most damaged part on a box causing loss of samples. If you are reusing boxes be sure to reinforce all previously taped seams and joints.
  3. Full boxes with organized rows of samples hold up best during shipping. Loosely packed boxes stand the greatest chance of being crushed during shipping. Loosely packed samples also stand the greatest risk of losing sticker labels or having handwritten information worn off. Samples that are organized improve the efficiency of the lab process.
  4. If possible, pack entire fields in the same box. If this is not possible please indicate on the outside of the boxes by numbering or labeling with the actual field name. It is fine to have multiple fields in one box but try to avoid spreading multiple fields across multiple boxes. Doing this prevents delaying sample results for multiple fields in the event that one box is lost or delayed in shipping.
  5. Include completed submittal forms that indicate your account number, grower, farm, field, all sample ID’s, and the desired analysis package. Your samples can be processed more efficiently if the submittal forms are in the same box as the samples they represent.
  6. If you are using soil sampling software that allows for electronic submission, be sure to have your information synced, or uploaded prior to the samples being delivered to the lab.

If you have any questions regarding shipping supplies, or sample packaging, please contact your ALGL representative.

November 02, 2020

Effect of Spring vs. Fall Sampling on Soil Test K

Potassium (K) soil test levels have the greatest potential to vary between fall and spring. Soil test K levels are usually lowest in the dry conditions of late summer prior to harvest and peak in the early spring. Potassium is released from crop residues as the crop matures and crop residues degrade, and this release continues through the winter months. In addition, potassium is released from the soil through prolonged saturation and freeze/thaw cycles in the winter months.  With these processes combined, the question becomes how much higher soil test potassium levels will be in spring- versus fall- collected samples.

A simple approach is to select a location in a field such as a grid or zone sample location and physically mark it with a flag.  Collect 6-8 cores at a depth of 6-8”. It is important to pull the same number of cores at the same depth each time samples are collected. Collect the cores as close as possible to each other and the flag. Do this in the fall and in the spring.

In most cases, spring and fall potassium levels are usually within 5-10%. Spring soil sampling does not always result in higher potassium soil test level; this depends on crop residue release and weather patterns. Below is an example of some actual field data collected in northeast Indiana in a clay loam soil with a corn/beans/wheat crop rotation with fertilizer applied after the spring sample collection. The key to proper soil sampling is consistency. Sample the at the same depth, following the same crop at the same time of year.


October 29, 2020

Where Does the Dirt Go?

Editor's note: Some agronomists and soil scientists may find the language contained in this article, specifically the repeated use of the word "dirt", to be quite disturbing. While the author attempts to justify his use of such crude language, it may still be shocking to some. To be clear, the curator of this blog IN NO WAY condones the use of such language, and instead prefers the much more appropriate phrase "soil material".

The age old debate continues today, is it soil or dirt? Like a weed is a plant out of place, dirt is soil out of place. When the soil passes through the lab it becomes dirt. After the soil is dried and ground, the structure of the soil is functionally destroyed, so it becomes dirt. The dirt it becomes a slurry when it gets wet and rock hard when it dries out. While some have tried to find practical used for the excess dirt, the loss of soil structure severely limits the functional uses of the dirt.

Every spring and fall sampling season a common question arises, “What do you do with the soil/dirt when you’re done with it?” During the busy fall sampling season, we fill a large roll-off dumpster every other day of dirt. The dirt is taken to the landfill and used as part of the collective material used to line or cover the actual refuse in the landfill. The dirt in the dumpster is excess sample that is not used for analysis, and clean fill. The soil used for analysis leaves the lab in another much smaller dumpster as refuse.

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