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What good is a soil test if it costs too much to follow the advice given?
By Neal Kinsey, Owner and Senior Consultant, Kinsey Agricultural Services
More often than not this is a major complaint concerning fertilizer requirements, even from those
who believe they should follow the recommended advice as closely as possible?
Provided the soil test properly represents the fertility level of the area in question, the first step to
the correct answer to such a question is to determine what the grower has in mind to
accomplish. Without understanding what is actually expected from the information on a soil test,
it is possible that the best approach for the farmer or grower’s specific situation is not what the
one making the recommendations has in mind.
Most soil samples are taken in a hurry, sent in a hurry and results are expected “in a hurry” as
well. Consequently, very valuable information that could be most helpful for recommending the
best program to the farmer or grower may not have even been provided or properly considered.
As an example, we provide a soil worksheet to be filled out as completely as possible by all of
those who send samples for analysis and recommendations. The requested information is
important to understand what is needed to make the best recommendations and to minimize
delays in getting the results back in the shortest possible time. When the proper information is
not supplied that lack often results in added delays in order to determine the proper way to
On that worksheet, in the lower left hand corner is a box listing four types of recommendations
that can be requested. Excellent, Building, Maintenance and Minimum are shown there with a
note that the program to be used for attaining an excellent soil will be provided if no box is
checked. Some just do not take the time to consider this as important and fail to check the
appropriate box. But many actually feel that Excellent is the program they want to follow, and it
truly would be best provided enough funds are available to cover the cost. But other than on
small plots and gardens, most only want the excellent program until they see how expensive that
is to accomplish. Then they have a program that is needed for providing the best results from that
soil for growing high yields and excellent quality, but it costs so much some just throw up their
hands and say the program is too expensive.
When you get the best, it will generally cost more. This is especially true where crops have been
grown over and over again without adequately replacing all of those nutrients that have been
removed. When growing crops for years on the same land without replacing what is taken out
year by year, it will usually cost quite a bit extra to try and put it back as soon as possible. How
many years has it been, if ever, since needed sulfur and micronutrients have been adequately
applied on soils that are still shown to be sorely deficient? We see soils that have received
manure or compost or small amounts of various trace elements in purchased fertilizers for years
that still fall into that category.
However, when funds are limited, does that mean there is no other approach that can still be
utilized based on what the soil test shows as needed? The needs are still there, but under the
circumstances, which ones should provide the greatest advantage for producing the best
crop? Most growers want an excellent soil. But playing catch-up on what has been taken and not
replaced for years can add significantly to the cost. That added expense is what causes most to
start thinking more in terms of a minimum program of fertility. Yet the minimum program
should only be considered when you have absolutely no other choice, and even then, keeping in
mind that it is only a very temporary solution. That is because when actually using such a
program, you are removing nutrients that are presently adequate for producing the crop without
replacing them. Depending on whether those levels are good or barely adequate could make a big
difference in the condition of the next crop that needs to be grown there.
There is still an additional choice that can be made when it costs too much to apply everything to
build the soil toward achieving its top potential in the shortest period of time – which is what the
“excellent” fertility program is intended to accomplish. If growers cannot do that, then spend the
available budget where it will make the most difference for the crop to be grown.
Whether intentional or just trying to help, too often farmers are led to believe soil fertility is too
complicated to understand and follow. Leave it to the “experts” who know what is
best. However, most fertilizer programs are designed with no real regard for what nutrient levels
are in the soil. Whether levels are good or bad, or for those who do not even know what those
levels would need to be, farmers and growers are led to believe the best approach to fertilizer use
is to feed the plants. Regardless of what fertility levels show to be in the soil, that feeding
program is too often based on a “good pH” and what amount of N-P-K fertilizer it requires to
provide the expected yield. In too many cases this may also include a smattering of trace
elements added in such miniscule amounts it would not even come close to solving any real
When this is the case, soils that are in excellent shape get the same recommended fertilizer
program as those that are in poor shape. Or even in some cases with GPS applications, the
problem areas may get more or less of the same mix, depending on the philosophy of those
giving the advice. As a result, how many farmers have been led to believe that they only need
one fertilizer program to grow each crop on the entire farm? This may sound good, but does it
provide the real needs for the best crop and yield? If such is the case who really needs a soil test
anyway? Just put on what it takes to grow the normally anticipated crop yield and hope things
get better, or maybe at least stay the same.
Does this really make good sense? Farmers tell us from time to time, a “feed the soil approach”
may work where you are, but it will not work here, because our soils are different. Well, yes they
are! But how many farms have the same soil on each entire field? Soils may be considered as
different for many reasons, but there is one thing you can prove about different soils over and
over again. When you see variations in soil color, soil texture, plant growth or any other obvious
difference, the fertilizer nutrient content will generally be different as well., and what is required
to grow the best crops there will also vary – sometimes in small amounts, but generally in
significant quantities of actual need. How small of an area that is losing ten to twenty bushels of
wheat, corn or soybean production is it worth to isolate and correct on your fields?
The Albrecht system of soil fertility is designed to feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant. If
the level of a nutrient in the soil is sufficient to grow the crop then skip that one and go on to the
ones that are more limiting as that will make more difference in terms of fertilizer costs and
improving yields. We find many soils where magnesium is needed more than P or K for the next
crop, but how many consultants can really determine there is such a need, let alone how much to
use, when soils already appear to have too much? This involves a program of soil testing that is
exact enough to enable prioritizing all needed crop nutrients. Whatever is determined as priority
#1 is supplied first, then #2 and then #3, until the budget is used up. Using such a program
enables the grower to put the money that is available where it will tend to make the most
As a consulting company, we do not sell or make money on the sale of needed fertilizer and soil
amendments. We sell the advice farmers and growers need to make the best crop. Our priorities
are not affected by what the fertilizer company has on hand to sell. What the soil needs most to
grow the best crop is what motivates our concern and the recommendations we make for each
soil and crop.
Furthermore, materials that actually build the available levels of a deficient nutrient in the soil
should be applied to crops (regarded as “soil feeders”) instead of plant feeders. Plant feeders are
types of fertilizer that must be picked up by the plants quickly, otherwise they will be tied up and
remain in a form that is no longer useable and thus will not build in the soil and will not show up
on a soil test as available for the next crop. As the soil feeder types of fertilizer, plus effective
soil amendments such as limestone, compost and manures, if available and called for on each
soil, are used to build sufficient nutrient levels in that soil, then as they are built up, they will
then show up as no longer the most limiting. Therefore, based on the current levels shown on the
soil analysis, nutrients that are sufficient can be placed further down the list concerning how best
to spend the allotted budget for that crop or field.
Now it comes down to the question of whose knowledge should you trust? Prioritizing fertility
needs in a crop can be quite different for grass, vs, legume, vs. mixed grass/legume pastures, vs.
oats, vs. corn silage. Even more variations are possible between fertility for specific vegetables,
as opposed to apples, fruits, nuts, grapes, melons or bananas. But is such a program really
possible, or as some well-established sources claim, is this just another ploy to get farmers to use
this service rather than some other one?
Start a small test and learn for yourself what really works best. It is not so hard to believe what
you see with your own eyes. Split a field and use the current program on half and then use the
testing for the prioritized nutrient program on the other half. Determine to carry through with the
test for three years on good soils. It can take even less time on some poorer soils, but three years
will show even better results there too. First check to see whether the extra testing, time and
expense is worth the difference before making full use of any new program.
“Feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant” has made the greatest difference for those using our
services in terms of higher quality and more profitable crop yields for all types of growers and
their various crops. It works and it works very well. Start small, prove what works best, and
grow from there. That is the way we have built our business.
Neal Kinsey, from Charleston, Missouri, USA, owns and operates Kinsey Agricultural
Services, Inc., a company which specializes in soil fertility management. The program
is based on the system of providing soil nutrients to correctly treat the soil to correctly
feed the plants that grow there, using soil chemistry to correct the soil’s physical
structure to build the “house” which enables the biology to flourish. Our business
includes working with all types of food and fiber crops throughout the
world. Recommendations and consultations include soils received for analysis and
recommendations from every state in the United States, every province in Canada and
from over 75 other countries, principally Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South
Africa, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Ireland, Switzerland and The
Netherlands. Detailed soil audits will determine specific fertilization programs based
on each individual soil and its fertility requirements