Book of the Week: Hands-on Agronomy

The book Hands-On Agronomy, by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters, is a comprehensive manual on effective soil fertility management providing many on-farm examples to illustrate the various principles and how to use them. The function of micronutrients, earthworms, soil drainage, tilth, soil structure, and organic matter is explained in thorough detail.

The excerpt below details Neal Kinsey’s background, including how he met Dr. William A. Albrecht, and how he began to learn more and more about soil health.

Copyright 2013, 1993. Soft cover, 391 pages.

From Chapter 1: The Farming Dilemma

No one used the term killer agriculture or knowledgeable mining when I was a youngster growing up on a farm in southeast Missouri. We raised corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and a little hay. We also finished a few cattle. Now, a more mature sense of values brings the reality of our farming operation into focus. Sir Albert Howard identified the horns of the modern farming dilemma: partial and imbalanced fertilization, and toxic rescue chemistry.

Neither I nor my father heard or understood that dictum then, then being the 1950s and 1960s. All we knew was that the crops faltered—not occasionally, but year after year. My father had five sons and he concluded, “I hope you won’t even think about going into agriculture because it costs too much and I am not going to be able to help you get started. I hope you will go into business and be an accountant or something like that.”

Accordingly, I went to college with the intention of becoming an accountant. There was a problem with that. I couldn’t stand being inside four walls all the time. So I changed my direction while I was at the University of Missouri where I met William A. Albrecht, the legendary professor who contributed so much to what Acres U.S.A. calls eco-agriculture. Albrecht gave the Department of Soils its well-deserved reputation, but by the time I arrived, he had been retired—forcibly, I am told—in the wake of a great grant from a fossil fuel company. In any case, his classroom days were over, for which reason I was able to get more of his ear than might have been possible as classroom fare. He taught a private study course for Brookside Laboratory, and I decided to avail myself of this extra-curricular opportunity. He changed my entire way of thinking.

My family farmed a nice sandy loam farm at first, and then my dad had an opportunity to get a larger farm with some heavy clay soils. We had no irrigation. In fact there were none in the area at the time—that is one of the reasons we finally moved close to the Mississippi River, to what we call heavy clay gumbo soil. We had some sandy ridges, but most of the soil was heavy clay or “gumbo.” Farming that territory presented a host of new problems. Our soybeans grew only half-size before foxtail took over. Cotton sometimes grew knee high. When you talked to the old-timers they would recall cotton up to waist high and soybeans that bur­ied a man’s shoulders. Yields in either case were great. But when we started to farm the clay soils, foxtail took over, not just our acres, but the general landscape. No one had an answer. I remem­ber a next-door neighbor talking to my dad. “If we could find a way to market this foxtail seed, we could make some money,” he said, “a lot more than we could from beans, because I think we grow more bushels of foxtail seeds than we do beans.” I believe this was true in some years. Beans that used to make 40 bushels were making 15 bushels because the foxtail was taking over. Nobody had clean beans and then Randox came along from Monsanto, and we thought that was the best thing in the world. It at least kept the foxtail out of the row.

In those days, if you took a standard soil sample, the readout said nothing was needed. It usually came back with a notation that no lime was required, and that fertilizers were superfluous, other than nitrogen and a little starter on cotton and corn. These reports concluded that phosphate and potash were not needed to grow soybeans. For corn, only nitrogen and a maintenance level of P and K became the general recommendation. Some farmers who became clients when I started in the consulting business had grown nothing but soybeans for 20 or 25 years, always on the same soil. On the average, they made 30 to 40 bushels per acre, year after year, always without fertilizers, lime or other inputs. Most of the money was spent on herbicides when killer technology came along.

I wondered aloud, “Why did this happen?” So when a friend at the University of Missouri told me about William A. Albrecht, Ph.D., a contact was made. On the first visit to his office I explained where I lived. At some point during the visit the opportunity came to ask, “Why are our soybeans so short and why is our cotton stunted? Because it hasn’t always been that way.” I related how when farmers cleared out timber in our area and planted soybeans, the first year delivered a yield of about 50 bushels of beans. The next year the yield would drop down in the 40s and the next year it would be 30 bushels or so per acre, which is where it generally stayed. When analyzed for pH, P and K in the soil, the audits showed nothing wrong.

Dr. Albrecht knew soils; he had worked with and understood soils from all over the world—including all the basic soils of the Midwest. And he provided sensible, practical answers to my questions. “Well, now wait a minute. You live over by the Missis­sippi River and you are in that heavy gumbo soil? That is why your beans didn’t get very tall. They got tall in the first place because you had enough available calcium. Now, when you take a regular soil test and send it in, and if you just check pH, phos­phate and potassium, you will never find the problems. Actually pH is influenced by a lot more than calcium. Heavy clay soils are high in magnesium, and that is what is keeping your pH high. If you had known to check the various nutrients in the soil and put on the limestone needed to get your calcium levels up, then your beans would have gotten back the yield and reached the size they were in the first place. You are losing out because calcium is what puts all the other nutrients into the plant.”

One of my first clients had been our next-door neighbor during my high school years. He had grown soybeans on 750 acres every year for 20 years, plus! He told me he had never made a 40-bushel bean crop. He said he had always averaged 30 to 32 bushels per acre. After the first set of soil tests, he began to do what the Albrecht method taught should be done.

The first year we followed through on the program, this farmer averaged 45 bushels of beans per acre on the entire 750 acres. The second year, the average was 48 bushels of beans. We merely analyzed the soil in detail and found out what was miss­ing, and supplied what was needed in the proper amounts. But herein lies a problem. Most farmers do not trust a soil test. If a soil test is to be trusted, which one and why? This book will endeavor to provide answers for those who are truly searching for a soil-testing program that really works.

Want more? Buy this book here.

About Neal Kinsey

Neal Kinsey

Neal Kinsey

Neal Kinsey is a world-renowned soil consultant and technician, having practiced since 1973, when he completed a program of study developed and taught by Dr. William Albrecht. Neal Kinsey’s program is based on the system of providing soil nutrients to correctly treat the soil. He owns and operates Kinsey Agricultural Services, Inc.

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