Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is A Grower’s Guide to Balancing Soils, by William McKibben.

After consulting in the field of agriculture for over forty years, I can say that I have seen tremendous progress in the protection of our most valuable resource — soils.

We have gone from moldboard plowing all of our production fields and suffering tremendous soil loss to farming virtually all of our production fields with conservation tillage and no-till farming practices. We are not at zero soil loss and probably never will be, but it is truly remarkable how far we have come. People just getting involved in agriculture sometimes become impatient with the speed of progress, but I feel that we are at least 80-85 percent there. The last 10-15 percent is always the most difficult and most expensive.

What is it going to take to continually improve soil quality and production? Money is the number one factor. When crop prices are good, it is amazing the willingness of farmers to experiment with new ideas and techniques. Poor crop prices continually keep farmers in survival mode and unwilling to take risks. In general, I see farmers as fearing the risk of loss more than risk of gain. I have been to organic conferences that tout the high price of organic products as a reason for the commercial farmers to move to organic practices. I seriously doubt if those price advantages could be maintained if a significant number of farmers shifted to organic production. It is simply supply and demand. It would be beneficial if both the commercial growers and the organic growers would move closer to the center. Until both organic and commercial growers are being paid for quality instead of volume, significant changes will be minimal at best.

If everyone switched to organic production whether I seriously question we could feed the population that exists now, let alone in the future. This comment is not meant to besmirch organic farmers in any way. I know this is a bold statement, and there are several reasons.

  • We just don’t have nearly enough farmers to make this switch. Let’s face it — organic farming is labor intensive.
  • Tillage will have to increase to achieve weed control, and getting commercial growers to go back to cultivating row crops is probably not going to happen, at least without a large incentive package. This increase in tillage will also increase the potential for soil loss.
  • Currently I seriously doubt if there is enough non-GMO seed in the pipeline to satisfy the demand.
  • This is probably true for fertilizer as well.

I don’t really see a major shift in the number of commercial growers going into organic production — not only for the reasons mentioned above, but a three-year transition period would be financially crippling. There is a small shift in farmers planting into cover crops with reduced fertilizer and chemical inputs, but chemical control remains the backup plan. Unfortunately, due to current economic conditions, I do see the smaller and older farmer getting out of farming. This results in fewer farmers operating larger operations. Big does not necessarily mean bad, but it is the large operations that struggle with things like cover crops, doing away with fall nitrogen applications, and fertilizing just prior to planting. These large operations love no-till, which allows them to farm more ground. If no-till is resulting in stratification of the phosphorus and tillage is required to fix the problem, the larger operations will have more problems accomplishing this.

We need more diversity in our crops. Corn and beans only increase nematode, insect, and weed issues.

The onset of hemp will eventually bite into some of the corn and bean acres, but government involvement will drastically slow that process down.

I think we will see more urban farming, but that will only be for leafy greens and vegetables.

Technology is rapidly changing the way spraying, planting, and harvesting is being done. Farmers in general are on information overload. We have more data now on how the crop was planted — at what depth and rate as well as harvest moisture and yield, virtually by the square foot — but we know practically nothing about soil biology. Much of our soil chemistry research is from the 1940s and ’50s. Most of this information is still valid today but not being fine-tuned for the changes in varieties and farming practices in today’s agriculture.

Few people are using paste analysis, tissue analysis, and stalk nitrogen testing. There is no doubt that farmers of the future will need to be more technologically savvy from the equipment perspective, but they need to quit trying to micro-manage a soil system that is too complex and variable. Advancements in equipment technology is a wonderful thing, but it is not going to increase crop yields substantially. Yields are going to be dramatically increased through bio-engineering and balancing the soils. This will only be done when we use all the tools at our disposal, such as standard and paste tests, tissue analysis, stalk nitrogen, and available nitrogen testing — and do it on a zone basis. There still many farmers not even running the basic soil test, and those that do delegate it to the very people who are selling them fertilizer. Universities need to be turning out more independent consultants who practice the principles put forth in this book; however, that would require a huge change in attitude. The environmental challenges could be corrected with our current knowledge of soils, but this knowledge needs to be used and built upon if future generations are going to survive.

It is time to quit looking for the magic bullet and slapping BandAids on problems. It is time to get back to the basics of balancing the soil chemistry and improving soil organic matter and structure, and to leave the rest up to the Good Lord.

About the Author:

William “Crop Doc” McKibben is an Ohio-based consultant specializing in soil fertility balancing and managing crop yields, as well as livestock nutrition. He holds a master’s in soil science from Ohio State and has worked as an agronomist in the Midwest for more than 30 years, much of that with Brookside Laboratories. In addition to consulting to farmers, he has experience with municipalities, golf courses, and specialty crops.

Hear William McKibben’s speeches here.

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