Learn How to Manage the Soil on Your New Farm

February 24, 2016 11:00 AM

Every time you buy or rent new ground, you're taking a risk. Unfamiliar land comes with many unknowns, including nutrients, soil type, past tillage, past drainage issues and more.

But adopting a few simple practices can make all the difference in your growing season success on a new field.

“First thing you need to do is get a soil test,” says Brian Kuehl, director of product development at West Central Distribution. “This is the most important—it’s the road map that tells you where the soil has been and where it needs to go.”

Your soil test will tell you information such as soil pH, nutrient levels, cation exchange capacity and water-holding capacity, to name a few. This might indicate you have some work ahead of you. Some soil health issues might just need a quick fix, while others could take more time. 

Soil pH Levels

“If you have poor soil health, look at pH first,” Kuehl says. “Low pH is easier to overcome.” Your soil pH plays an important role in how readily available certain nutrients will be.

“The ideal pH range is between 6.5 and 6.7,” says Matt Stukenholtz, supervisor of chemistry at Midwest Laboratories. “Below 5, many nutrients are not available, such as magnesium, high pH ties up nutrients as well, like zinc.”

Adding lime or sulfur to your soil can help adjust pH levels. Lime raises (more basic) your soil's pH and sulfur can lower (more acidic) the pH.


Soil tests also indicate the nutrient levels. “You might have one nutrient that is adequate and one that is high,” Kuehl explains. “Over-application of certain nutrients might tie up another.”

Use this information as a decision tool and talk with your fertilizer retailer to determine what you can do to balance your soil for the crop you’re growing. 

Cation Exchange, Water-Holding Capacity

Your CEC might take more time to change, but a soil test will tell you what you’re working with. You can begin working now to improve for your field’s future.

Finally, the soil’s water-holding capacity can tell you if you need to make adjustments such as adding irrigation or tile. For low water-holding capacity, adding irrigation or planting crops that handle drought stress will be your best bet. Fields with high water-holding capacity soil might pond more easily, so tile and water-tolerant varieties might help mitigate risks.

Soil tests tell you where the soil has been and how far it has to go to reach whatever level of productivity you want. “Give your crops a good, healthy start,” Kuehl says. 

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