Creating Product Confidence
Farming is a uniquely challenging industry. Growers have just one shot every year to reap the rewards of a successful harvest and only so much is within their control. Factors like weather and the complex interactions within the ecosystem introduce a lot of unknowns and create unforeseen complexities year after year.
We thought a lot about these challenges when we launched our first product, SOURCE™. Could we provide growers with more assurance about product performance based on factors like soil composition and management practices? Was there a connection, and if so, could we build a reliable tool to help inform product placement?
After reviewing and analyzing four years of data, the answer to that question was a resounding yes. We found that three key soil parameters could help indicate how well SOURCE would perform in a field. The Performance Optimizer was launched, using pH, organic matter, and cation exchange capacity (CEC) coupled with historical data to predict SOURCE performance and help growers decide where to place the product for the best results.
Why and how do these soil parameters impact SOURCE performance? Let’s take a closer look at the importance of each one.
Key Soil Indicators for SOURCE™
- Organic Matter
All soils are a mixture of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. The organic matter in soil is primarily made up of decomposing plant residue and animal waste and it is an important source of nutrients. It can provide not only the macronutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, but also a full spectrum of the micronutrients such as zinc, iron, and manganese that plants need.
Synthetic fertilizers can provide sufficient amounts of phosphorus, potassium, or nitrogen but don’t always include micronutrients. And where fertilizers are often prone to leaching, organic matter stays in the soil where it is broken down by microbes and its nutrients are released slowly.
Understanding how much organic matter is in the soil allows growers to select the best tools to improve their yield. It’s hard, slow work to increase the amount of organic matter in soil, but it can be done by adding cover crops and organic additives like manure or kelp meal.
- Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC)
The particles of clay and organic matter in soil have a net-negative charge and will attract and hold positively charged particles and repel negatively charged particles. Nutrients like ammonium nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium are commonly found in soil as positively-charged ions, or cations.
On a basic level, a soil’s CEC is a measure of its ability to retain nutrients. If CEC is low, the soil won’t be able to hold nutrients that are added to the soil and they will be prone to loss, damaging both the environment and a grower’s bottom line. Knowing the soil’s CEC can help growers better plan when to apply fertilizer and how much. For example, low CEC soils may do better with two or three smaller fertilizer applications rather than a single, large application. And since soil organic matter has a positive charge, adding more could increase CEC. Even soil acidity (pH), which we’ll touch on next, can impact CEC.
- Soil Acidity (pH)
Ensuring soil can hold the right amount of the macro- and micro-nutrients plants need is one thing; making sure the plants can access those nutrients is another, and pH has a significant impact on the plant-availability of nutrients.
Acidity or alkalinity is a measure of the concentration of positively-charged hydrogen ions; acidity denotes a higher concentration of H+ and alkalinity a lower concentration. Different nutrients are more or less available at different pH levels as they interact with the soil chemistry.
For example, if soil is too acidic, nitrogen and phosphorus become unavailable to plants, which can easily affect yield and crop health. Most plant nutrients are highly available when soil pH is between 6.2 to 7.3, or neutral acidity.
Soil acidity is based on a variety of factors, starting with the type of rock that formed the basis of the soil, and including other factors like vegetation, time, and weathering. There are ways to combat excessive acidity or alkalinity; lime or dolomite can increase pH and reduce soil acidity, and some nitrogen fertilizers can lower pH and make soil more alkaline. Because nitrogen fertilizer is a common additive for growers, agricultural soil often trends acidic, which is one reason it’s important that growers monitor soil pH.
It typically takes a few seasons to figure out if a new product works and where it works best. Using the Performance Optimizer can help growers cut down on that experimental time. We've done the work—we’ve taken years of trial data, and scientific and agronomic expertise, and given growers an opportunity to understand how SOURCE will perform in year one.
Diving Into the Data
Armed with these three key pieces of data, growers can choose tools to address their specific field conditions in order to boost yield and improve farm economics. Each field is unique and understanding the makeup of the soil is an important step to finding solutions that work.
To simplify the process, the Performance Optimizer helps growers predict where SOURCE Corn will have the greatest success activating the soil microbiome to turn on nitrogen fixation and phosphate solubilization, providing more nutrients to the plant.
Using data from four years of field trials on corn, the Performance Optimizer allows growers to input the pH, OM, and CEC for a single field and receive a performance prediction based on expected yield lift. Excellent performance is equivalent to an increase of 8+ bushels per acre; strong performance, 4 to 8 bushels per acre; and limited performance <4 bushels per acre.
Sound’s Senior Agronomist, Jeff Divan, says the Performance Optimizer can save growers time and money by helping them prioritize where to apply SOURCE on their farm.
“When a new product comes out growers begin testing it and self-validating, and it takes a few seasons to not only figure out if the product works but where it works best,” he says. “The opportunity to realize full-scale implementation and profit potential could take two, three, or four years.”
Using the Performance Optimizer can help growers cut down on that experimental time, Jeff explains. “We’ve done the work — we’ve taken years of trial data, and scientific and agronomic expertise, and given growers an opportunity to understand how SOURCE will perform in year one.”
Shawn Stricklin is Sound’s Data Platform Lead and part of the team that created the Performance Optimizer. “If you give us just three parameters we can predict what range of benefit you will likely see,” says Shawn. “If you have really high organic matter in your soil, you’re probably not going to see that much of a boost from SOURCE,” he explains. “But if you’ve got medium or lower level organic matter and you’ve got a good pH that permits some accessibility to nutrients, then you will likely see a boost from SOURCE.”
The relationships and interplay between pH, OM, and CEC are complicated, Shawn says. “One of the things we found is that when applying SOURCE, results are based on an interaction between many factors and not entirely dependent on any one of these factors.”
“If it doesn’t make sense to apply SOURCE on a given field, that’s fine — on to the next field,” says Jeff. The Performance Optimizer is about giving growers confidence and peace of mind that they are applying SOURCE on the right fields.
Shawn is optimistic about the future of tools like this one and looks forward to continually improving the Performance Optimizer. “Models like these get stronger the more data we have. Each season’s data will allow us to enhance the way it works,” he says.
The Performance Optimizer can simplify one of the decisions a grower might consider in a given year. Based on results, they can prioritize where to use the product and what fields to skip, ultimately improving their crop performance and return on investment.