Both inherent, dynamic soil characteristics affect management decisions
According to University of Wyoming Extension Educator Caitlin Youngquist, multiple factors influence soil differences between fields.
“How soil changes is based on how we manage it,” she said. “What about soil differences based on the origin of the soil?”
Youngquist noted that there are inherent differences between soils based on the rocks that were broken down to create it.
“If we think about soil in a simplistic way, it’s just old rocks that have been weathered and broken down over millions of years by bacteria, weather and some chemical processes,” she commented.
However, when looking at a broader picture, she explained that soil is also a living system.
“It’s a system of plants, insects and microorganisms. As farmers, this is particularly where we work. We are managing this living system,” continued Youngquist.
“We can think about the rocks we’ve standing on as the inherent characteristics of the soil,” said Youngquist. “We can’t change that. It’s like genetics.”
Alternatively, when looking at the living system of soils, Youngquist explained that it is a dynamic system.
“As land managers, we’re working to change this system within the constraints of the inherent characteristics,” she commented.
She noted that land managers cannot change the minerals in the soil from the rocks, but there are other characteristics that they can have a large influence over.
“We can add minerals with fertilizer, but it’s not something we have a lot of control over. We have a lot of control over our soil organic matter and soil compaction as a manager,” Youngquist said.
After determining what traits and factors a producer is working with, the next step is to determine what their production goals are.
“The next question is, where am I going? What are my goals? Where do I want to go with this?” said Youngquist.
She noted that every producer has goals, needs and limitations, with limitations coming from the inherent characteristics of the soil, such as texture or groundwater levels.
“If we’re going to grow hay, some of our goals might be related to how much we want to produce,” continued Youngquist. “With grazing, it could be related to what time of year I want to be able to graze and how many head I want to be able to graze.”
Once goals are set, producers then need to consider what is removed from the system at harvest.
She commented, “What do I need to replace to keep the system thriving?”
Youngquist explained that there are several resources available to help producers meet their production goals.
Extension provides multiple resources including bulletins, workshops and resources to help producers get in contact with industry experts and the most recent research.
“When we have information on what we’re growing, where we’re growing it and information from our soil tests, we can use bulletins to see how much fertilizer is recommended to use based on research,” said Youngquist.
Soil testing laboratories can be another excellent resource, she commented.
“They see a lot of soil tests, and they can over the phone walk us through some stuff, particularly if we have something that seems unusual or an unusual challenge we’re dealing with in terms of nutrients,” Youngquist continued.
Youngquist finds it helpful to use multiple recommendations to come up with the best strategy for a field.
“I’ll take the soil lab’s recommendations, bulletins and some other resources, wind them all together to say, based on these different recommendations, this is what we can get for our best guess for this particular crop,” she said.
Above all else, Youngquist recommended that producers learn to identify plant health through visual appraisal.
“The plants never lie,” she concluded. “Learning to identify the plant deficiency symptoms can be a very useful tool for us in managing our fields, and looking at rooting depth, particularly if we’re interesting in improving soil health or soil till and reducing compaction, will be very important.”
Youngquist spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days, held in Riverton in early February.
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.