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.

October 21, 2020

2021 ALGL Winter Workshops Canceled…

The ALGL Winter Soil Fertility Workshops for 2021 have been cancelled. This decision was not taken lightly with the long tradition of these workshops. A key value of the in-person workshops is the personal interactions and conversations that take place during the workshops and we feel those interactions could be lost in a virtual platform. With the increased number of virtual offerings during the current pandemic situation, there are many virtual offerings already. While this may seem early to make such a decision, the lead time to secure meeting locations and finalize logistics required a decision to be made by the end of October. With the growing uncertainty of public health projections for January through March we are not left with many options other than to cancel the 2021 workshops in the best health interests of our staff and customers. We are already starting our planning for the workshops to return in 2022!

October 01, 2020

The Real Value of a Written Plan

Nutrient management is dynamic and challenging, so why write a nutrient management plan if it might change? What is the value of writing down what you might already be doing? All too often when we write a plan, we get to focused on the final product when the value is found in the journey. 

For example, fertilizer rate recommendations are built around crop removal, which is yield multiplied by a crop removal value for the given crop. If the soil test values are below the target level, we apply crop removal plus some additional fertilizer to build the soil fertility. Likewise, if the soil test level is above a high target level, we apply less than crop removal to lower soil test levels. If this seems too simple to even write down, let alone put into a nutrient management plan, you need to take a closer look and think through the steps.

Yield goal is a simple concept, but specifically how do you determine a yield goal value to be used in the fertilizer rate calculations? Is that the running average of the past 3 years for the given crop? The last five years with the minimum and maximum yield removed? Is it the field’s APH? Is it the average for the field, the farm, the overall operation? Do you add 5 or 10% to the yield to reflect increased crop potential? Does the crop removal reflect what was removed last year, or what will be removed in the coming year? Is the crop yield averaged across the field or based on calibrated yield maps for last year or the last few years for the given crop? This is only one of many decisions that are being made when determining how much fertilizer to apply.

Writing a plan on how soil fertility is to be managed forces you to think through these fundamental details. While this may only seem to be practical for those producers writing their own plans, this is true for all nutrient management plans. If you are an independent consultant, have you documented how you manage soil fertility for your clients? If you are an ag retailer or cooperative, have you documented how you develop soil fertility recommendations for your customers?

Also keep in mind that this written plan is a living document, it can and will change. The second key value in a written plan is the evolution of the plan. As you implement the plan, situations and challenges will arise that will force you to question the plan. When this happens, document in the plan what occurred, and what the revised direction on the subject is. With this information you can revisit the topic and evaluate if the new direction accurately addressed the challenge or created others.

The ALGL agronomy staff is ready to discuss the various aspects of soil fertility to support you in your development of a nutrient management plan.

October 01, 2020

The Chemistry of Fall Colors

Sometimes we as agronomic professionals become a bit anesthetized to the amazing and complex natural systems that we work with every day. The myriad of intricate chemical, physical, and biological interactions that make our soils function to support plant growth, clean our water, recycle nutrients, and overall sustain life on this precious planet are awe inspiring. And the plant, that "simple" form of life that has existed in different forms over millions of years, and that we as professionals have harnessed to feed  the world, is a delicate and complex machine, capable of utilizing light from the sun and elements in our atmosphere and the soil to feed almost every other form of life on the planet.

While most of the time these lowly systems work without much pomp or fanfare, every fall they put on a show for all of us to enjoy.

The tourism industry is gearing up for 6-8 weeks of high traffic, full restaurants and hotels and increased incomes as travelers head to their favorite locations to view the fall colors. As days become shorter, temperatures become cooler the chemistry of the changing tree leaves begin to reveal the spectacular fall scenery.  The National Park Service fall foliage map published September 21, 2020 show areas across northern MN, WI and MI at or near peak fall color and the prime viewing will move southward over the coming weeks.

Arborists have discovered some of the key environmental conditions needed to bring out the best colors are adequate summer rainfall with good growing conditions followed by a dry fall with cool nights, warm daytime temperatures and good sunlight.

Chlorophyll (green), carotenoids (orange), flavonoids (yellow), Anthocyanins (red/purple) and tannins (brown) are present in the leaves during the summer growing season but chlorophyll dominates the light spectrum absorbing reds, yellows and blues while reflecting the green color that we see.  Chlorophyll production slows during the early fall and anthocyanin production increases which allows the vibrant colors to come into view. In late fall tannin content increases giving many of the leaves a dark brown color and the bright reds and yellows slowly disappear.

These chemical processes involve many of the same components that we see in crop production, ornamentals and foods. Anthocyanin is produced and stored in corn leaves early in the season when nights are cool and plant growth is slow and it reveals the same purple colors in corn leaves that are apparent in the trees during the fall. Carotenoids give carrots their orange color and the yellow flavonoids give egg yolks their bright color.  Many combinations and variations of these same chemical components make up the bright flowers and unusual leaf colors that we see in ornamental plants. Tannins that give leaves their brown colors are responsible for the signature flavor of a green persimmon and they give tea leaves a variety of flavors.

The staff at A&L Great Lakes Laboratories would like to wish you a safe a prosperous harvest season and we hope you take some time to enjoy the beautiful fall colors.

October 01, 2020

Is Your Account Up to Date?

With harvest in full swing through much of our region, fall soil sampling is ramping up also. As the number of samples coming into the lab keeps increasing, we want to make sure the data is flowing back to our customers as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This past summer, ALGL agronomists were not able to make the in-person visits that we traditionally do. The purpose of these visits is to make sure that we are providing the best possible service for our customers. It also gives us the opportunity to address any changes that may impact the delivery of your data. This means making sure that we have up to date contact names, e-mails, proper export data formats, etc.

If you or your company have had any changes recently such as mergers, personnel changes, new software packages, new billing systems, or a change of physical address, please be sure to contact your ALGL representative to make sure the information in your account is up to date. 

September 04, 2020

Celebrating Retirements - Diane Thayer!

We introduced you to Brian and Diane Thayer last Friday. This Friday, we focus on Diane.

Brian and Diane Thayer

Diane started working at A&L Great Lakes after graduating from college in June 1985. She worked as a lab technician in the Ag Lab. She left ALGL in 1987 to stay home with the kids until 1994 and then returned as a part-time lab technician in the Ag Lab. In 1999, she moved to the fertilizer lab and worked part-time until 2008 when she took the full-time role as Fertilizer Chemist.

She said what she likes best about being a part of the team is something she would not have expected when she started as a fertilizer chemist. She was completely terrified of taking phone calls. The best part has been getting to know her clients and being able to help them. She will probably never get a chance to meet many of them in person, but she will miss the interactions. She will also miss the relationships she has with her co-workers. They have laughed, argued and worked together in good times and in bad.

Diane’s favorite memory is meeting her husband Brian. Aside from that, she has fond memories of the ALGL Olympics—a day set aside for the staff to compete in groups. Each team competed in relay games where they did the job that they did not usually do. They were able to see what it was like to do another person’s job in a fun, competitive way.  The day ended with a barbeque and a cornhole tournament.

When she retires at the end of September, Diane plans to spend more time with Brian and her grandchildren. She would also like to do more traveling, take some classes, and do more gardening.


Best wishes, Diane. We will miss you!

Relationships. They’re the most important things we help grow.

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