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What healthy plants actually look like

For most crops, we don’t even know what vigorous and healthy plants actually look like anymore.

We are used to observing eggplant with a single blossom per node, and leaves that are six to eight inches across, and consider that to be normal. I suppose that depends on how you define normal.

Here are some eggplants from an AEA grower in 2005, an example of the potential healthy plants can deliver. Four uniformly sized buds on a single node instead of the usual one, with a leaf size that can deliver enough photosynthates to size all of them and bring them to market.

2020-06-24T07:06:22-05:00April 28th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

Untapped yield potential on corn

How much can you increase photosynthesis levels beyond what is considered ‘normal’ today? Beyond what is common?

How much higher might national corn yields be, if the right incentives were aligned to produce the desire for higher corn yields? Could we have a 350 bushel national average yield? Don Huber suggests we had the capacity to do so with knowledge that existed in the 70s if we had the collective desire.

From our interview on the podcast episode here.

John: What is the potential for plants to increase the volume of photosynthesis?

Don: The potential is 100 percent. I mean, fivefold, tenfold—depending on where we are now and what plant we’re talking about. There a number of different ways to do that.

I mentioned plant morphology, but you can also do it by increasing light intensity. You got a lot of leaves on a garden plant—a mature corn plant at tasseling time—that aren’t getting very much sunlight. They’re not photosynthesizing at their potential because of that lack of sunlight. That’s where morphology comes in.

Plant spacing—we can increase the number of ears on a corn plant. There is tremendous work being done at Purdue, for instance, in corn breeding/genetics—they’re producing five and six ears on a corn plant. If you increase the efficiency of that plant, you don’t need as high a population. You can minimize that crowding and that shading effect.

We can reduce the allelopathic effect of our plants. To increase the population in corn, it’s very critical to have even germination. If you delay germination six to eight days, you automatically reduce the size of your ear by the allelopathic effect—that auto-intoxication effect of the root exudates on an adjacent plant—by as much as 80 percent.

John: Wow!

Don: When the John Deere MaxEmerge planter came out, I remember how it was almost an instant success because it increased the soil-seed interface—the contact that gave you that uniform emergence, to minimize that allelopathic auto-intoxication suppression that you otherwise had from those higher populations. We got an increased corn population and maintained full yield potential without the allelopathic chemicals reducing the overall production potential of that particular plant.

There a number of things we could do if we needed to. Right now we’re concerned about a surplus. The biggest thing is that necessity is still the mother of invention. But there’s plenty of potential there.

In one of our brainstorming sessions at Purdue we asked Charles Tsai what the biochemical genetic potential of a corn plant was. And a couple of weeks later, when we were all together, he said “I’ve got your answer.” We were shooting for 350, 400 bushels in our research. We knew that a lot of our better farmers—back in the late ’70s—had the potential for 550 or even 600 bushels. We were trying to design some systems for them to achieve that on a field basis.

And Charles sat down, and we said “Well, is 600 bushels a realistic figure?” And he said “You’re all pessimists. The biochemical genetics of the corn plant are about 1100 bushels.” That’s what we could do if we managed the environment and the plant in a proper manner and provided the expression.

We probably won’t come close to achieving that until the necessity is there. The limiting factor is the innovation of man. And as long as we’re doing okay—as long as we don’t have that burr under our saddle to look at both the genetics and the environment—we won’t have the need to maximize the expression of that genetic material.

John: What yields did you end up achieving on your yield trials?

Don: We could get 400 bushels. We had farmers that were getting 350. Of course, the average was still 75 bushels. They were doing three or four or five times what the average was on a major piece of land. They were able to do it because they recognized that they were managing an ecology. They started out with the soil. They had a beautiful soil.

I remember visiting Herman Warsaw’s farm. You could take a steel probe and you didn’t have to lean on it. You just pushed it in the soil three feet. He had that system working very well. In some of his neighbors’ fields you’d get the probe down three or four inches and you’d have to really put some pressure on it. To get it down a foot and a half you’d be driving it in.

I can’t tell you how many of the old ping tubes are still sitting out there in the field. Those were tubes that you could drive into the soil to collect soil samples—at three and four feet. And we had to get it into our soils using a sledgehammer. Then the problem was pulling it out. You would tear the metal off of the tube with a jack, and finally you’d just crimp it over so that it wouldn’t tear up the tire, and then you left it. A lot of them are still sitting out there in those fields because we didn’t have that concept— the soil wasn’t a major part of the management program. In general, we would look at the nutrients and forget that all parts of the ecology needed to be managed—to have better percolation, to have biology, to have air exchange—and most things have to take place if you want to capitalize on the genetic potential of the plant.

John: What were the plant populations that growers were using to achieve 350-plus bushels per acre?

Don: You had the old Pioneer 3532 seed—a hybrid that picked up 95 percent of its nitrogen by tasseling time and then merely recycled it. On sandy soils it was a great hybrid because you couldn’t maintain your nitrogen availability in those sands. It would take it up and store it, but it had a yield potential of about 125 bushels at 24,000 plants, which was our standard at the time. But you could increase the population of that particular variety because it didn’t have the allelopathic effects from the root exudate with high population. It had a fixed ear. So, as you increased the population, you still maintained that same ear length. It wasn’t big like your higher-yield hybrid, but it was very stable and it tolerated high populations. So they got the yield up by increasing population.

With our other varieties—our high-yielding varieties that were hybrids—there you had a flex ear that related to the environment more dynamically. The higher the yield potential, the more nitrogen you want as ammonium. For the 3532 variety a 50-50 ratio of ammonium/nitrate was optimum for it. And you get into the higher yield and the 250- to 300-bushel yields, you want 75 to 80 percent of your nitrogen as ammonium and only 10 to 20 percent as the nitrate source of nitrogen, because you want as much photosynthesis as possible to go into the kernel. When the plant utilizes nitrate nitrogen—and most plants can utilize either form equally well—it takes 15 to 20 percent of your photosynthate to reduce nitrate nitrogen back to the amine form so that the plant can utilize it.

And so the higher your yield potential, the more ammonium nitrogen you want—to provide those amino acids for that growth, and your enzymes and everything—and less nitrate nitrogen. We always found that there was a benefit to some nitrate nitrogen because it serves as a buffer—both to limit the drain on carbohydrates—if you have a high uptake of ammonium nitrogen, nitrate will tend to balance that—but also as a stable form of nitrogen. If you run short, then you can use some of that photosynthate.

If you have molybdenum and your other nutrients available, you have part of the function of your nitrate and nitrite reductase enzymes. Again, you have a different physiological pathway. And if you’re saying, “Well, I’m going to get most of mine from an ammoniacal source,” you may forget that you also have to have molybdenum for some of those other enzymes that aren’t quite as dynamic or quite as involved as they are if you’re relying more on the nitrate source.

Those are some of the things you could do to enhance that overall photosynthetic efficiency—the form of nitrogen is going to influence your soil biology and your buffering capacity in those areas.

2020-04-25T14:20:06-05:00April 27th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

Corn root system development

We routinely harvest only a fraction of the genetic potential our crops are capable of. Few of us actually know what a really healthy crop actually looks like anymore. Here is an image that describes what is possible.
This is a photo of corn root system from Al Trouse, from a demonstration conducted at the National Soil Laboratory at Auburn University.
The photo and notes below were shared by Jim Martindale from Cursebuster, who heard Al Trouse’s presentation to a group of Brookside consultants approximately 1979 or 1980.
In this demonstration, soil was sifted into a growth chamber so it would have a uniform density (other than gravitational pull). In this growth chamber with uniform soil density, the seminal roots reached the bottom of the chamber (6+ feet) in a few days.
Growing roots extend very rapidly though the soil until they encounter any change in soil density. When they encounter either an increase or decrease in soil density, they temporarily stop extending, and then slowly begin growing once more. If the soil density is uniform, they will extend very rapidly during the root systems establishment phase. Each growing root tip will extend for 72 hours, and stop growing after that period. The rapidly growing tips grew to the bottom of the growth chamber in 72 hours or less.
During the establishment phase, plants expand their seminal root system as widely and deeply as possible. This phase lasts for about 40 days, until the ear embryo begins to form. The outer root system boundaries are established during this phase. Future root growth does not expand past the established borders. What might this mean for cultivation close to the 40 day mark? Disturbing root systems at this point doesn’t seem like a wise idea.
Once the embryo begins to form, the root system shifts to the expansion phase, where fine roots emanate from the seminal root mass that has already been established, and fill the zone inside the established boundaries. This root system expansion period lasts until pollen drop. After the plant has dropped pollen, no additional root system development takes place.
The normal precipitation rate for Auburn University for the growing season was added with no fertilization.
Yields were estimated at 400 bushel per acre at normal plant density.
Each of the large blocks in the photo below ris 12 inches, total depth from the surface is 78 inches.
We have lots of upward potential left. I have never seen a corn plant in the field with a comparable root system.
2020-03-26T07:07:14-05:00March 26th, 2020|Tags: , , , , |

Matching seed with soil quality

Much of the available genetics for commodity crops today are bred to perform well on imbalanced soil and are unlikely to perform as well on biologically healthy soils as varieties bred for those environments.

Here is a quote from Arden Andersen, Science in Agriculture –

Now, a poor seed will not produce good seed on poor soil, but it will produce the quantity of poor seed it was bred to produce. A poor seed on good soil results in impedance to the flow of energy back into the soil. A good seed on a poor soil causes impedance to the flow out of the soil into the plant. Therefore, seed matching is very important. The analogy can be made to two people talking to each other on their CB radios. If both CB’s are tuned to the same frequency, communication is successful. If one or the other is out of tune and can either transmit or receive but cannot do both, communication is unsuccessful. I have experienced seed matching on many acres, and without exception, those farmers employing anhydrous ammonia, potassium chloride, must use certain hybrids to obtain the desired volume of yield. The feed value is very poor, but that is of little concern to these farmers because they are selling the crop. Farmers who have well-balanced soils on biological mineralization programs will fail using the same hybrids. They must use seed grown on similar programs in order to achieve maximum efficiency.1

Back to John ~

My personal experience with alfalfa has been that the varieties bred and optimized for biological systems exceed the performance of varieties bred in the standard system across al soil types and management systems. However, mainstream alfalfa fertilization practices may not be quite as systemically damaging as annual commodity crop production.

I believe there is a lot of eagerness and desire in the market for more vigorous varieties, bred for biological systems, in many crops.

1. Andersen, A. B. Science in agriculture: Advanced methods for sustainable farming. (Acres USA, 2000). Page 83

2020-03-16T14:08:28-05:00February 28th, 2020|Tags: , , , , |

Yield: six thousand pounds of beef per acre

What is the genetic yield potential of forages and vegetative crops, rather than reproductive crops such as corn and tomatoes?

These vegetative crops do not have the same genetic constraints as reproductive crops. For these crops, the limit to growth and yield is the photosynthetic capacity. When optimal CO2, water, sunlight, and nutrients are provided grasses and forages can be extraordinarily productive, as described in this cover article of Acres USA in early 1977.

Original Acres article:

Moving cows from pasture to pasture has a long and respected history, notably in Australia and arid territory where overgrazing is a capital sin. Its application to irrigated and rain belt pasture has seldom been tested on a controlled basis.

Last summer, C.J. Fenzau of Boise, Idaho divided a 31-acre field into single acre plots. He put 272 cattle into the first single acre plot when the grass was knee-high on April 5, 1976. By the next morning the first plot had been mowed down much like a city lawn. During that single day the cattle had eaten the whole plant-the rich upper part, the leafy mid-part, and the fibrous stem. This gave the animals a total ration, a well-balanced ration at that. 

“If you put cattle on fresh young pasture,” Fenzau told Acres U.S.A., they eat the high protein buds the first day. The next day they get a little less value, and so on. In four or five days of milking, you see a cow on pasture give more milk than any grain would ever produce. As pastures go down, farmers put in grain. This animal is fighting her own droppings in the pasture. She is compacting the ground. When you’re stripping a plant, you’re putting it under stress each day, and you have less leaf capacity for photosynthesis. But in 30 days a plant has a chance to grow back all the leaves in their full working power for more productivity.”

On the second day, the cattle were moved to acre No. 2. The first acre was then given a shot of irrigation water. This melted away the still-soft droppings and set the stage for at least 30 days of growth. There was a second irrigation during the 30 to 35 day growth period. 

The growth period was stretched to 35 days as cattle were shifted from acre No.2 to Acre No. 3, 4, 15, 20, whatever. During May, June, and July only 20 of the 31 acres were used. Cattle couldn’t mow down the grass fast enough. 

“We’re looking at having 400 head of 500 to 600 pounders there next year to utilize the grazing potential of those 31 acres to the optimum,” Fenzau summarized.

What does this amount to in terms of beef production? Over the scales, Fenzau logged in 2.4 to 2.5 pounds of grain per head per day. A total of 2.25 or so on 400 head means 1,000 pounds of beef per day. This multiplied by 200 days comes to 200,000 pounds of beef off 31 acres, or in excess of 6,000 pounds of beef per acre.

Needless to say, the best fertility management has to underscore such heads-up farming. This management has only one name—scientific eco-farming.

~~

These results were achieved in 1976. Today is 2020. 44 years. Who will follow through and test what new forage genetics are capable of when provided optimal water, CO2, sunlight and nutrients?

This is without question the most efficient protein production per acre.

 

2020-03-16T13:51:42-05:00January 9th, 2020|Tags: , , |

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