Five-year soil balancing project results

Another wet spring, and many farmers postpone field work awaiting drier conditions. Could improved drainage be obtained through the application of common gypsum? This is one of the claims made by many consultants and farmers who use a practice called soil balancing.

Ohio State’s five-year study on soil balancing has been mentioned in previous VegNet articles. The project involved multiple long-term field tests, as well as interviews and surveys to better document practices and beliefs surrounding soil balancing. Despite a lack of past research proving soil balancing’s effectiveness, we found that the practice is used heavily by organic and conventional farmers in our region to reduce weeds, and improve soil quality, crop quality, and yields. While we were unable to demonstrate improvements in crop yields or quality, we did see limited effects on soil quality and weed populations in some of our test sites during the final year of the study.

Defining Soil Balancing

Traditionally, soil balancing strives to keep base cations calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and potassium (K) at a recommended ideal ratio (typically 64:10:5). Although long practiced by farmers, soil balancing is not recommended by most researchers and Extension educators. Our study indicated around half of organic corn growers in the Midwest used a soil balancing approach, but more than 75% of the Extension researchers we surveyed felt soil balancing had no scientific merit.

It’s true that most soil balancing studies done in the past 20 years have reported the practice had no effect on production. However, our research reveals several potential gaps in these studies. Consultants and farmers we interviewed commonly reported that soil balancing improved overall soil quality and structure, which led to improved drainage and reduced weeds. While farmers also reported improved yields and profit, it was generally not the first improvement they mentioned. Interviewees noted that these improvement often happened gradually over several years. In short, past research may not have captured long range positive effects. Most recent studies were short-term, lasting one or two years; were conducted in a greenhouse rather than field; focused only on improved yields; and were conducted on limited types of soils. (Chaganti and Culman, 2017)

We also found that many farmers pair cation balancing with other soil improvement practices such as cover crops and biostimulants. The goal, according to the “balancers” we spoke with, is to improve the physical and biological properties of the soil.

Field Testing

Using both on-farm and Ohio State research station sites, we collected data on soils, weeds, and crops, while applying a variety of soil amendments to change Ca:Mg ratios. We measured crop quality using Brix, color, size, and other characteristics specific to individual crops. Vegetable crops included tomato, butternut squash, cabbage, popcorn, and edamame. Agronomic field crop trials were conducted as well.

We were unable to document any treatment effect on yield or crop quality. In the last year of testing, we did see effects on weed populations (either lower weed populations overall or lower populations of foxtail on “balanced” soils) and on soil root resistance (indicating improved soil structure with higher Ca saturation). These effects appeared only on some fields, but they do support our hypothesis that the positive results of soil balancing are related to improvements in soil structure and drainage. We hope to continue monitoring these fields to see if results become more consistent over time.

Recommendations

For now, we are unable to officially encourage or discourage the use of soil balancing. The following recommendations are based on field trials and on the experience and advice of our stakeholder advisory committee.

  • Soil test data is critical to making informed decisions about what to apply. Some Ohio soils may already have large concentrations of Ca due to Ohio’s limestone bedrock.
  • Watch your pH if using lime. Gypsum is a better choice to change the Ca level without affecting pH and it also provides sulfur.
  • Soils with a CEC below 10 may develop deficiencies. In soils with a low holding capacity for cations, excess Ca can lead quickly to deficiency levels of K, and possibly Mg. We did work in fields with Ca saturations well above 80% and observed K deficiencies in the soil and vegetables in these situations.
  • Consider economic factors. The higher your CEC, the more time and amendments will be needed to increase the Ca:Mg ratio. At some point—depending on the amount of change needed and the value of your crop—using soil balancing becomes an expensive practice.
  • Any time you try a new practice, monitor the results. If possible, try using the new practice on only part of your farm and compare it with a similarly managed area to see if the new technique is making a positive contribution over time.

With widespread use of the practice, soil balancing is a pertinent area for research and cooperative education. Our team hopes to continue studying the practices and long-term effects of soil balancing on a larger variety of soils. Drawing on experiment data and the experience of farmers and consultants, we will work toward guidelines and toward a mutual understanding of soil balancing.

Read more about this study at the Soil Balancing Project Site or the Vegetable Production Systems Laboratory. This work is supported by Organic Agriculture Research & Extension funding grant no. 2014-51300-22331/project accession no. 1003905 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

 

Growers and Researchers continue to Study Grafted Vegetable Plants

In Ohio, full-time study of grafted vegetable plants as products (i.e., sources of income) and production tools began more than ten years ago. Much has been learned and the popularity of grafted plants continues to trend upward. However, growers and researchers continue to ask many large, detailed, and tough questions about the roles of grafted plants in commercial production going forward. “Do grafted plants pay?” may be the most often asked and significant question. This brief article cannot address that question definitively for all readers due to the specific circumstances of each farm, field, crop, planting, season, etc. However, peoples’ collective understanding of the pros and cons of using grafted plants and of conditions leading to a good return on investment after using them is improving. As it does, success with grafted plants improves and their use increases. Regardless, additional research is needed. The three panels below briefly summarize a portion of the vegetable grafting research underway in Ohio in 2019. Please contact us if you would like to learn more about this work and stay tuned to VegNet and other outlets for updates.

Matt Kleinhenz, ph. 330.263.3810, email kleinhenz.1@osu.edu

Grower, Gardener, Educator, and Researcher – All can Gain from Vegetable Grafting

Grafting is an ancient technology currently coming of age, helping vegetable growers and gardeners and educators and researchers in Ohio and the U.S. address some of today’s most significant challenges. Find out more at two upcoming programs.

The Muck Crops School on January 10 in Willard, OH will include a presentation by grafting expert Dr. Richard Hassell of Clemson University. He will outline progress made in developing rootstock (RS) varieties resistant to Phytopthora capsici, a devastating disease of pepper, tomato, melon, and other major vegetable crops. In grafting, root systems of RS varieties are spliced to the shoots of scion varieties, creating physical hybrids that often out-perform ungrafted versions of the scion variety, especially under stressful conditions. Indeed, creating physical hybrids opens key opportunities in production, research, and education. Contact OSUE-Huron County (https://huron.osu.edu/home) about attending the Muck Crops School on Jan 10, 2019.

The Ohio Produce Network program on January 16-17 in Dublin, OH will include two sessions on grafting, both occurring on January 16. Session 1 will feature presentations and discussion led by six additional experts: Dr. Chris Gunter (NCSU), Dr. Matt Kleinhenz (The OSU), Dr. Sally Miller (The OSU), Cameron Way (Way Farms), Chuck Mohler (Sweet Corn Charlie Farms), and Ed Kerlikowske (http://lifegivingfruit.com/). A representative of TriHishtil (http://www.trihishtil.com/), a major supplier of grafted plants, may also participate. Together, the six presenters and discussion leaders will provide a comprehensive, up-to-date, and stakeholder-focused summary of grafted plants as sources of income and production tools. Session 2, later on Jan 16, will deliver individualized training in making grafted plants, a straightforward process that can be completed in many settings. See http://www.opgma.org/ohio-produce-network/ about attending the OPN on Jan 16-17, 2019.

Contact Matt Kleinhenz (330.263.3810, kleinhenz.1@osu.edu) for additional information about these programs and see http://www.vegetablegrafting.org/ and http://u.osu.edu/vegprolab/research-areas/grafting-2/ for more information about vegetable grafting.

Biodegradable Mulch: Your Next Production Tool?

Vegetable extension-research personnel from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Iowa met on October 5, 2018 to discuss ongoing work and to plan follow-up activities … all toward helping improve short- and long-term farm success. Biodegradable mulch (BDM) was among the most talked-about topics. Dr. Annette Wszelaki of the Univ. of Tennessee led the BDM discussion and she provides comments for VegNet readers below. Also, note that Dr. Wszelaki will expand on these comments and summarize the large amount of research that her and other teams in various states have been doing with BDM, including on commercial farms, at the OPGMA-led Ohio Produce Network Meeting in Dublin, OH in January-2019. That presentation will be an excellent opportunity to gain a thorough update on BDM and its possible place in your toolbox.

Comments and Photos by Dr. Annette Wszelaki, Professor and Commercial Vegetable Extension Specialist, Univ. of Tennessee

Plastic mulches provide many advantages for vegetable production, such as weed and disease management, earliness of harvest, increased yield and quality, and moisture retention. However, plastic mulch use is not without disadvantages, including the cost, labor and environmental issues associated with plastic mulch disposal. Biodegradable mulches (BDMs) offer a potential alternative if they can provide similar advantages to plastic mulch without the disadvantages.

BDMs can look similar to traditional polyethylene mulch (i.e., stretchy and black or white-on-black) or in the form of paper (brown or black, sometimes with creping to give it stretch). They can be laid with a standard mulch layer. BDM’s are designed to cover the soil during the production season, and then begin to degrade as harvest nears. At the end of the season, BDM’s can be tilled directly into the soil. There they will degrade into carbon dioxide, water, and the bacteria and fungi that eat them. The degradation rate varies depending on environmental conditions, but by spring, most remnants will have disappeared.

At the University of Tennessee, we have been working with BDM’s on a variety of crops (tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers) for 10 years. We have found comparable yields and quality to traditional plastic mulch with these crops, but not all biodegradable mulches and crop responses are equal!

Want to learn more about biodegradable mulches? Come to the session Could biodegradable mulches replace plastic in your production system? at the 2019 Ohio Produce Network in Dublin, January 16-17, 2019. In the meantime, please contact Annette Wszelaki (annettew@utk.edu or 865.974.8332) or visit www.biodegradablemulch.org for more information. Many thanks to Jenny Moore, Jeff Martin, the East TN Ag Research and Education Center Farm Crew, and many students along the way for their contributions to this project.

Figure 1. Creped paper biodegradable mulch just after field laying.

Figure 2. Stockpile of polyethylene plastic mulch on a Tennessee tomato farm.

Figure 3. Biodegradable plastic mulch in the newly planted pepper field.

Building a Shared Understanding of Soil Balancing

Everyone would welcome a holistic, reliable, and relatively straightforward way to enhance and maintain soil health on many farms, regardless of their size, product, management approach (conventional, organic) and other characteristics. Some farmers and consultants have long said that Soil Balancing (SB) is that way, a means to loosen and enliven soil, provide essential nutrients, limit weed problems, and enhance crop yield and quality. However, university researchers have largely been unable to support that overall claim or recommend Soil Balancing as the guiding philosophy when making soil, fertility, weed, and certain crop management decisions. With USDA support and the help of many growers, consultants, and others in the industry, an OSU team has been taking another look at the situation, possibly the most comprehensive, collaborative, and long-running evaluation to date.

As outlined in three previous VegNet articles and other references on SB, the philosophy calls for achieving an optimum ratio of calcium, magnesium, and potassium in the soil. This may require large amounts of limestone and/or gypsum and multiple years to “move the needle” on soil chemistry, physics, and biology (and their follow-on effects on weeds and crops) in a positive direction. Regardless, some see the payoff as significant. Importantly, evaluating the economics of Soil Balancing is one component of the OSU-led effort, which began in 2015 and is set to provide valuable new insights. Look for summaries in upcoming publications, programs, and other resources.

A Stakeholder Advisory Committee including farmers, consultants, and university professionals from Ohio and other states has guided the OSU team throughout its work, helping to design experiments and interpret and share findings. Committee members and others visited project research plots on farms near Wooster and at the OARDC and discussed project emerging project findings on August 9 and 10. In this picture, the group discusses the status of plots containing butternut squash, edamame soybean, and dwarf popcorn. For more information, see https://u.osu.edu/vegprolab/research-areas/soil-balancing/ or http://organicfarmingresearchnetwork.org.ohio-state.edu/network_activities/soil_balancing/ or contact Matt Kleinhenz (330.263.3810; kleinhenz.1@osu.edu).

Pumpkin Hybrid Review – 2017

In an effort to help growers select and grow the best pumpkins for their operation, the Integrated Pest Management Program planted a demonstration trial at the Western Ag Research Station in South Charleston to highlight foliage, handle, fruit size, and fruit quality. There were 20 entries from four companies in the trial, with emphasis placed on hybrids that offered some type of disease resistance, primarily to powdery mildew. The intent of the trial was primarily for growers who attended the pumpkin field day to observe differences in plant and fruit quality in person, in order to generate a visceral opinion and appreciation for the hybrid.

The trial was originally direct seeded June 1st, but due to mice damage and flooding rains, was replanted with transplants June 16th. Approximately 75 pounds of nitrogen was side dressed as liquid 28-0-0 on June 9th, with no P or K applied per soil test recommendations. Strategy and Dual were used pre-emerge to control weeds, with shielded applications of glyphosate followed by hoeing and hand weeding throughout the season. Once powdery mildew was detected in these plots on July 24th, they were sprayed on a 7-10 day schedule with a standard fungicide program that alternated several modes of action, per OSU recommendations.

While specific trial data was collected, because it was not replicated or randomized, all calculations for yield and fruit size should be seen as estimates taken from one site, under a specific set of weather conditions. When making decisions about hybrid selection for 2018, this information should be combined with other trial data from around the state or region. This trial was not irrigated, and received above average rain fall for this location based on historical records.

Group shot of pumpkin hybrid trial, large fruit in top row, medium sized fruit in middle row, and small fruit in bottom row.

To obtain average fruit weight, 3-5 fruit of each hybrid per plot representing the largest, smallest, and average sized fruit were chosen and weighed. All other marketable fruit in plot were counted and used in yield calculation, which was based on a 15’ row spacing, 35’ length of row, with plant spacing 3-4’ apart.

If you have additional questions about the trial, contact me directly at jasinski.4@osu.edu.

Yield data from pumpkin hybrid trial, see above for yield estimates. *indicates reduced stand in trial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seed companies and other pumpkin hybrid attributes from 2017 trial. PMR = powdery mildew resistant, PMT = powdery mildew tolerant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Pumpkin Field Day Approaching!

We are under two weeks until the annual Pumpkin Field day on Thursday, August 17th, from 6-8PM at the Western Ag Research Station in South Charleston.

Pumpkin plots at the research station.

This year’s field day will offer beginning and experienced growers valuable research updates regarding disease management, insect management, weed control, and showcase some new pumpkin and winter squash varieties.  Celeste Welty (entomology), Claudio Vrisman (plant pathology), Bryan Reeb (weed control), and Jim Jasinski (IPM Program and emcee) will be on hand to share their knowledge and answer your questions. There be presentations on how to identify and control weeds, insects, and diseases on this crop.

The field day will feature some traditional and new projects on the wagon tour, including a seven-treatment powdery mildew fungicide demonstration trial, a powdery mildew drip irrigation trial, a pumpkin variety trial with 20 hybrids ranging from small to large fruit, and a winter squash variety trial with 11 entries. This season has been marked by periods of heavy rain and cooler than average temperatures, resulting in seven hybrids that are a little behind schedule in terms of growth, having yet to produce any fruit. I anticipate by the field day they will have produced some fruit for you to see, although it may not be mature.

After the formal presentations, attendees will be encouraged to walk around the plots and interact with the specialists and other growers.

There is a fee of $5 per person; refreshments and handouts will be provided.

Pre-registration is requested by August 15th at www.surveymonkey.com/r/pumpkin17.

Here is the rough agenda for the field day:
5:30  Begin check in
6:00  Welcome, introductions, outline of field day
6:05  Board wagons and head to the plots
6:10  Orientation to plots, begin presentations
7:10  End formal presentations, begin plot walks
7:55  Board wagons, complete evaluations
8:00  Field day ends, travel safe!

See the preliminary flyer below for a few more details. Looking forward to seeing you there. Contact Jim Jasinski (jasinski.4@osu.edu) or 937-462-8016 for more information.

Pumpkin field day flyer.

Can Microbial Inoculants (Biostimulants) Enhance Vegetable Yield and/or Quality?

Currently, growers can choose from among nearly two-hundred microbe-containing crop biostimulants advertised to enhance yield and/or limit crop stress. That’s difficult. The production and sale of these products are largely unregulated (unlike biopesticides used in biocontrol). Also, research-based and grower-focused information on biostimulants is limited. People look for input and resources to help them select, use, and evaluate the efficacy of microbe-containing crop biostimulants when applied to field- or high-tunnel grown crops. Contact Matt Kleinhenz and watch for newsletter and other updates regarding various grower-university-product manufacturer efforts to provide that assistance.

That’s a Great Idea! Can I/We Test It?

Every season is an experiment of sorts for growers as they test the idea that the farm can come out on top despite natural, market, human (e.g., labor), and other challenges. Dealing with or reflecting on those challenges leads to questions before, during, and after the season. Questions often relate to inputs, practices, or other components of production and how they influence efficiency, profit, and/or the long-term health of the farm. Conducting an experiment is one way to address a question. Like farming, successful research relies on the best methods.

Now is when many on-farm studies are started and it’s never too soon to double-check objectives and methods. Many experienced investigators, including growers, consultants/advisors, and input suppliers are comfortable with their approach. However, very useful (and, often, free) resources are available to others with questions about on-farm research. As you consider approaches and resources you may use, keep in mind that all research involves comparisons but not all comparisons are done scientifically. Only accepted research methods provide the benefits of scientific comparisons. Non-scientific comparisons can be useful but in different, perhaps more limited ways.

Guides available at the links below explain key principles, and research practices proven to be successful. Many more resources, especially experienced farmer-investigators, are available. Examples in the guides below may not fit your operation perfectly, but messages in them are likely to fit.

Currently, we partner with vegetable growers in Ohio and seven other states in documenting effects of microbe-containing crop biostimulants on crops and farms. We are also part of a national network of investigators that work with growers and others to describe the performance of grafted plants under a wide range of conditions. And, we work with growers and university colleagues to develop a better, more common understanding of the Base Cation Saturation Ratio approach to soil management and its effects on crops, weeds, and farms. Contact me or check webpages (http://u.osu.edu/vegprolab/research-areas/vegebiostimsferts/, http://www.vegetablegrafting.org/, and http://organicfarmingresearchnetwork.org.ohio-state.edu/network_activities/soil_balancing/) for updates on those efforts. In each of them, from planning through sharing lessons learned, we try to follow procedures outlined in the guides below and other resources.

http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Bulletins/How-to-Conduct-Research-on-Your-Farm-or-Ranch

http://ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/docs/pdf/on-farm_research_guide_rvsd.pdf

http://cropwatch.unl.edu/2016/10-steps-farm-research-success