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By Meryl Rygg McKenna, Rocky Mountain Certified Crop Advisers

Successful farming involves more than poking seeds into the ground and waiting for Mother Nature. 

Ideally, all land in production would contain the nutrients necessary to maximize yield. In reality, much of this region’s soil needs some help.

Chuck Gatzemeier, certified crop adviser based in Cut Bank, Mont. estimates that 80 percent of Montana farmers employ some soil sampling. Those who don’t may see sampling as unnecessary expense, not an investment that pays off in better crops.

The ultimate goal of sampling is to gather a nutrient inventory of each field as accurately and inexpensively as possible. For best results, the majority of fields to be cropped should be sampled, although experts say farmers need not test for every nutrient every year. Gatzemeier recommends a complete soil test at least every fourth crop year and nitrate testing every year. 

The nutrients required in largest quantities, or macronutrients, include nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulfur. These are the most common soil supplements.

Micronutrients are just as important, but in much smaller quantities. Some examples are boron, chlorine, copper, iron and manganese. Complete testing includes all known micronutrients as well as soluble salts, organic matter and pH levels.

Sample criteria

Industry and university studies conducted in Montana in the early 1980s showed best results from taking a core of soil from a minimum of 15 holes scattered in one field. A rule of thumb is to pull cores from 15 holes per 350-acre field and pull from 20 or more on fields 400 acres or larger. More acreage needs more holes for the best representation. 

Grid sampling is used in some places, but not much in Montana, according to Gatzemeier, because of the time and expense involved with the generally much higher sample numbers. The most common sampling in this region includes 15 holes per field, with some from the top, side and bottom of a hill, respectively. 

A type of sampling that is increasing in Montana breaks a field into three zones, the middle zone being an area that produces, say, 40 bushels per acre, with the poorest zone producing 30 bushels per acre and the best zone 50. Each zone is treated as a separate field. The soil amendment industry calls this precision ag or smart sampling. As a result, a producer can spread fertilizer at variable rates, according to zone.

Rocky or gravelly soil doesn’t allow the probe to go very deep, so soil testers likely need to add more holes to gain enough quantity for testing.

Soil testers take the core of dirt from the top six inches of the probe and put it into one bucket. The top six inches of dirt from each hole in that field will be added to the same bucket.

Where possible, soil from the probe from six to 24 inches deep is placed in a separate bucket to be tested for nitrogen, sulfur and, sometimes, chloride. Those nutrients are the most mobile – water easily carries them deep into the ground.

The 24-inch depth is sufficient for nearly all crops except winter wheat, which sends its roots deeper than spring crops. Testers take 24 to 36 inches, even 48 inches, if there is that much soil, to measure nitrogen in winter wheat fields. Most other nutrients are concentrated closer to the surface. These samples will be analyzed separate from the top six inches.

Testing specifics

Specific soil types call for specific testing. 

The amount of organic matter and soluble salts is important – certain crops tolerate saltier conditions better than other crops. The cation-exchange capacity (CEC) tells the availability of soil nutrients. Characteristics such as soil texture – sand, loam and clay – influence CEC.

Even from a distance, soil color gives clues about its content. Much of Montana’s soil is gray, meaning it is high in calcium and has a high pH level. White likely indicates a discharge area for saline, or salty, seeps. 

Because much of the region has only about six inches of topsoil, farmers do well to keep cover on it wherever possible, to prevent erosion.

Economic and ecological benefits

Cost savings from soil sampling comes from knowing which nutrients are present so fertilizer is added only as needed. This is especially true with zone sampling, which makes it possible to supplement at variable rates instead of covering the whole field at one rate. 

Nitrate concentration in groundwater is a real concern. Knowing how much nitrogen the soil needs can help farmers strike a healthy balance. Gatzemeier said most of the streams flowing into the Judith and Marias Rivers, for example, are higher in nitrates than they should be.

When recommendations from testing are put into practice, the very next crop will show improvement in health and yield.

Taking samples is easy compared to properly interpreting the results.

“That’s when we open up our manual,” Gatzemeier said. “We need to make recommendations according to the specific crop that will be grown on each field.”


Ten years ago, Montana State University published fertilizer rate recommendations for common crops, based on studies conducted within the state and region. Guidelines are available for various types of soil, telling what yield can be expected from a given amount of nutrients.

On leased land, many farmers choose to add only the nutrient levels that the immediate crop will take out. Landowners, however, may choose to start building up the soil toward the guidelines in the manual.

Decisions regarding soil fertility are increasingly complex. Remembering the four “Rs” of nutrient management can help: apply the right fertilizer source at the right rate at the right time and in the right place.

In these decisions, planning and paying attention to economics can really pay off. Suppose phosphorus is $200 per ton cheaper this year than last. This could be the time to apply extra to build up the soil for the future. 

Applying the right amount of fertilizer can maximize yields, improve protein percents in small grains and improve overall profits.

For more information on certified crop advisers, or to find one near you, go to

By Ryan Yates, American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Congressional Relations

Farmers, ranchers and environmentalists all agree that we must protect and recover wildlife facing preventable extinction. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is not getting that job done, however, and is long overdue for a makeover. With a recovery rate of less than two percent over four decades, the ESA needs to be modernized if it’s going to protect truly endangered species without jeopardizing private property rights and landowners’ financial wellbeing.

While farmers and ranchers in the western United States are all too familiar with the way the ESA can disrupt the local economy, communities throughout the rest of the nation are now facing similar problems as ESA listings and regulatory restrictions increase. Thanks to the leadership of Congressman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, the House has renewed its commitment to updating the 41-year-old law by passing the bipartisan Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act. 

In the meantime, however, the implementation of the ESA continues to place an undue burden on farmers and small businesses across the country.

The proposed listing of the Northern Long-Eared Bat, for example, could impact agriculture across 38 states and the District of Columbia. In response to the proposed listing, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau board member and Natural and Environmental Resources Committee chairman Jim Brubaker testified before the House Natural Resources Committee this fall. According to Brubaker, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has ignored the facts and subjectively linked species decline to common agricultural practices, like pesticide application, even though there is no evidence of manmade factors significantly affecting this bat species. The FWS even acknowledged that species population decline is actually the result of a widespread fungal disease called White Nosed-Syndrome, for which there is no known cure. 

As the scientific facts fail to support this proposed listing, ESA’s case is looking more like a backdoor tactic to ban pesticide use — despite the fact that pesticide applications are already well-regulated by state and federal laws.

The administration seems happy to keep extending the scope and reach of the ESA far beyond its original design to cover activities and situations not contemplated when the law was originally enacted. 

In Arkansas, the listing of the Neosho Mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussels threatens to clamp down on farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to manage their businesses. The proposed critical habitat for these two aquatic species would affect nearly 42 percent of the state’s watershed. In addition to the direct impact on landowners and farmers, the proposed habitat designation would also derail infrastructure projects, like repair and maintenance of roads and bridges, and could restrict other construction and development projects across the state.

In response to what’s going on in his state, Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before the Natural Resources Committee to lend his support to the Common Sense in Species Protection Act, which would require impact studies to be conducted before designating critical habitats. Agencies currently lack the accountability needed in this area and are not yet required to show full economic justification before designating land as a critical habitat. This makes it all too easy for the administration to throw new regulatory burdens on farmers and ranchers at the risk of the stability of the nation’s agricultural economy.

Congress needs to act swiftly and complete the work begun in the House to modernize the ESA, as well as target the administration’s continued efforts to expand the reach of the ESA through expansive federal rulemakings. Some small but important steps can be taken now to bring common sense to the ESA, from increasing transparency and making data available online to enhancing local participation in recognizing and protecting endangered species.

Farmers and ranchers are proud stewards of the natural resources and wildlife on their land, yet the ESA continues to punish them with unrealistic burdens and restrictions. Yes, federal agencies and citizens must take responsible action to protect wildlife legitimately in danger of extinction, but we must succeed in this task without endangering American agriculture in the process.

By Shaun Sims, President of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts

Our commitment and goal at the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts is to work for the Wyoming way of life, so it is fitting to have “Working for the Wyoming Way of Life” as our theme for the 69th Annual Convention coming up Nov. 18-20 in Sheridan. As elected conservation district supervisors and staff, we work day in and day out to meet our responsibilities to Wyoming’s natural resources – delivering conservation assistance, programs and projects aimed at enhancing some of the best natural resources in this country, if not the world. The districts do this by developing a relationship with our local landowners, homeowners and communities and working with a variety of partners and a myriad of local, state and federal entities. 

The whole purpose behind having a locally elected board was to ensure that the local perspective and local conservation priorities were addressed. Each of us is different in the challenges we face, all dependent on our resource base. 

The purpose of our annual meeting is to provide an opportunity to learn from one another, experts in the natural resource field and determine our collective voice on matters of policy and legislation. 

We are excited about this year’s convention. Two researchers from the University of California – Davis will be joining us to share their cutting-edge research. We will get to learn first-hand about what Dan Dagget, a conservative environmentalist, has observed about the conditions of rangelands across the West. We have many important topics and issues that will be addressed during our committee meetings and during Nov. 20’s breakout sessions. 

It is exciting to see the work districts are doing across this great state. Whether it is reclaiming a Brownfield site in the Laramie Rivers Conservation District, establishment of a Conservation Education Center in Lusk, tackling the mountain pine beetle epidemic in Crook and Weston County or restoring water quality and successfully delisting a waterbody in the Little Snake River Conservation District, just a name a few, the districts working with their local communities are accomplishing a lot. 

The Soil and Water Conservation Act was adopted in Wyoming in 1941. Districts began forming through an election process initiated by local people who recognized the value of a local government entity whose primary purpose and mission was to address the challenges faced at the time, primarily a significant event called the “Dust Bowl.” With our partnership and the outstanding technical assistance from our partners at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), districts, the landowners and those who have implemented high-quality conservation have successfully addressed many of these early challenges. This is a testament of what can be accomplished when we have a common goal and a dedication and passion for grassroots natural resource conservation. 

Over the past 69 years, districts have recognized resource challenges and opportunities change. However, we continue to recognize the most successful conservation work comes from working with those on-the-ground and from the grassroots level. 

Our convention agenda is packed with a really high-quality technical sessions and topics, as well as policy and legislative matters and educational opportunities. 

To learn more and register to join us in Sheridan, please visit our website at

By Randy Weigel, Wyoming AgrAbility Director

Whether a rancher, farmer, ag worker or gardener, those involved in agriculture are at risk for back problems. Back pain can result from damage to the vertebrae themselves. But most problems involve the intervertebral discs, muscles, nerves, tendons or ligaments. The most common problems affecting agricultural workers are those involving the lower part of the back. It carries a heavier workload than other parts of the spine.

Occupational risk factors

Ranchers and farmers are at a high risk for back problems. 

This is because their work often involves lifting, pushing or pulling heavy loads, such as machine parts, seed and feed containers and bales of hay. Whole body vibration when operating vehicles, particularly during field work can also cause problems. Both regular vibrations and sudden jolts can cause injury to the back.

Awkward working postures like bending, stooping, reaching and twisting in such activities as feeding, laying irrigation pipe, or picking crops can lead to back problems. Slips, trips and falls when working in wet, slippery, uneven or elevated conditions increases the risk of injury.

Repetitive tasks such as milking and handling small hay bales can cause back problems. Direct contact with unpredictable livestock may cause traumatic injuries to the back.

Preventing back problems

Many people do not think about the health of their backs until they experience pain. A few simple strategies can reduce the risk of back pain and injury. 

Advice on back health and safety is also available from health care providers, physical therapists and occupational therapists. If you wait until back pain becomes severe, it may be too late for preventative measures. 

To protect the back from injury, think about balance, posture and body mechanics during everyday activities.


Standing for long periods of time, especially on hard floors such as concrete, can aggravate the lower back. If you must stand, adopt a relaxed posture, keeping the head and trunk upright.

Move closer to the work area to reduce the need to lean forward.

Use anti-fatigue insoles or anti-fatigue matting if standing on concrete floors.

Alternately prop one foot then the other on a low bar, bucket or lower shelf of a workbench.

Vary body positions and activities throughout the day to minimize repetitive activities and sustained postures.


A good sitting posture means supporting the natural curvature of the back. The weight of the trunk should rest slightly backward against a suitable backrest. The seat should be deep enough to support most of the buttocks and thighs. 

Use chairs with armrests, if possible, since arm support can significantly reduce spinal joint pressure in the lower back.

Change positions or stand for short periods when possible.


Different sleeping positions create different levels of stress on the back.

Spinal joint compression is minimized when sleeping on the back with the lumbar and cervical curves of the spine supported. A pillow under the knees can also help. 

When sleeping on your side, keep a pillow between your knees and lower legs to help maintain better spinal alignment.

Sleeping on the stomach puts the greatest level of strain on the back and often involves turning the head to either side. This increases strain on the neck and adjacent muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Treatments for back problems

Most people with lower back pain initially have mild symptoms and improve with minimal treatment in a matter of days. However, about a third of sufferers experience a recurrence of pain within six months of the initial pain. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, if you do not notice some improvement in your conditions within 72 hours of self-care, you should see your health care provider. 

To self-manage pain, ranchers and farmers with back problems may need to make adjustments to their daily routines. Sitting, standing or driving for shorter periods, with more frequent posture changes and movement, may tend to aid recovery. 

Heavy and awkward lifting should be avoiding, especially when recovering from back pain.

In some cases, heat and cold may be helpful in reducing back pain. 

Cold therapy, such as the use of ice packs or frozen peas, is often used to soothe or numb acute injuries, such as sprains and strains. It can also reduce swelling due to inflammation. 

Heat therapy, such as a heating pad, may be used to stimulate blood flow to the injured area and to relax stiff muscles. Heat should not be applied to inflamed areas.

In many cases of back pain, a short period of rest, usually not more than a day, may be helpful. Extended bed rest is not only ineffective, it may significantly increase recovery time. 

The best course of action is to return to normal daily activities as quickly as possible while avoiding tasks with a high risk of re-injury.

Other options

Medications, including muscle relaxants, pain relievers or anti-inflammatory drugs, such as acetaminophen, naproxen and ibuprofen, may be prescribed by a health care provider or purchased over-the-counter. Be sure to follow dosage instructions.

Complimentary treatments are also an option. 

Chiropractic treatment may be helpful for patients with low back problems. Chiropractic adjustments may restore joint function and mobility and relieve irritation. Other treatments such as acupressure, herbal medications and therapeutic massage have also been used to treat low back pain.

Back problems are some of the most common physical impairments in agriculture and can be challenging to manage. So before making changes, seek the advice of appropriate professionals, including a health care provider.

Content for this article came from the booklet, BACK on the farm, BACK in the saddle: A guide to back health in agriculture, from the National AgrAbility Project. For a version of this booklet with more detailed information on managing back pain, visit

Randy R. Weigel is a professor, Extension specialist and director of Wyoming AgrAbility in the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 307-766-4186 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..