Alfalfa 101: Feeding Alfalfa Plants, Alfalfa Soil Types and Seeding Alfalfa

By Harold Willis

The place to begin with growing really great alfalfa and other forages is at the beginning—with establishing the stand. If the plants do not get off to a good start, they will likely be sickly, have disease and pest problems, yield poorly, and the stand may die out quickly.

Soil Types for Alfalfa

And the place to begin with establishing the stand is obviously the soil, because soil fertility and soil conditions play the major role in plant growth and crop yield—and most of all, crop quality. When you feed high quality forage to your livestock, they not only will produce more on the same quantity (or less) of feed, but they will also be healthier, and who can’t do with lower vet bills and fewer dead animals?

What kind of soil, fertility, and soil conditions do alfalfa and other forage crops need to establish a good stand?

Organic alfalfa seeds.

Alfalfa Needs

Alfalfa requires a well-drained soil for maximum produc­tion.1 Soils two feet or more in depth are also necessary for best growth, since alfalfa is capable of developing a deep root system if root growth is unrestricted. Soils in which rooting depth is limited by either a shallow hardpan, a high water table (poor drainage), or bedrock are less suitable for alfalfa production.

Hardpan and Alfalfa

Have you ever dug up an alfalfa taproot and been surprised to find it bent at a right angle six or eight inches below the surface? This is dramatic evidence that a hardpan severely restricts root penetration, the use of deep nutrients, and therefore plant growth. The vast majority of farmland today is plagued by hardpans, as evidenced by water accumulating in low spots and even in high spots and on slopes after a rain. A hardpan not only restricts water penetration (and thereby increases water runoff, erosion, and flooding), but it also seals off the lower layer of soil from air. Good soil aeration is vital for healthy soil because roots need oxygen and so do the beneficial soil microorganisms (bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi), which are tremendously important for maintaining healthy soil and for growing healthy, high quality crops.

Aeration and Alfalfa

In order for the soil to be well aerated (and to overcome a hardpan), the soil must be loose, spongy, and crumbly. In other words, it must have good structure or tilth. Good soil structure can be obtained and maintained for the long run by having an adequate amount of humus and the beneficial soil organisms that produce it. Humus is decomposed organic matter—the plant residues and manures which should be returned to the soil. When organic matter is worked into the upper layers of the soil, a “volunteer army” of bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, and worms should be there waiting to attack it and convert it into dark, fine-textured, rich-smelling humus.

Humus: Abundant Humus in Soil Provides Many Benefits

  1. It is a storehouse of essential plant nutrients (especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur) and growth-promoting substances (hormones and vitamins).
  2. It helps make some nutrients more soluble and available to plants. Nutrients are released slowly throughout the growing season, as the plant needs them.
  3. It contributes to good soil structure (tilth) by producing small crumbs (aggregates) of soil particles, allowing good air and water penetration. Water-holding capacity is also increased, and therefore drought resistance. Erosion from both water and wind is reduced. The soil is loose and easy to work.
  4. It protects plants from diseases, pests, toxic chemicals, high salt levels, and drastic changes in pH (acidity/alkalinity).

Soil organic matter is an important soil characteristic that improves tilth, water intake and water-holding capacity. The usual measure of humus on laboratory soil tests is percent organic matter, al­though this does not distinguish between fresh, unrotted organic matter and true humus. By digging in your soil, you can see if last year’s crop residues and manure are rotting quickly to form humus. If they are not, the problem may be due to “dead” soil without an adequate population of the humus-forming microorganisms (possibly because of toxic agricul­tural chemicals) or to tight, poorly aerated soil, causing anaerobic condi­tions (little or no oxygen). Compaction from use of heavy farm machinery is a contributing factor to anaerobic soil. Reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals and increasing humus content will alleviate these problems, but if your soil is so tight and “dead” that organic matter will not decompose quickly to form humus, then you can break out of this vicious circle by use of a soil conditioner to loosen soil and stimulate soil life. Depending on your soil’s needs, some rock fertilizers can help condition soil (calcitic lime and soft rock or colloidal phosphate) or some commercial soil con­ditioners can be beneficial (although some kinds are not so helpful or can even do long-range harm). Inoculating the soil with beneficial bacteria and other organisms may help (if the soil conditions are already fairly good, and not toxic).

Desirable levels of organic matter on soil tests are from 2 – 5%, or even up to 10%, provided the soil is loose and “alive” with organisms.

A stubborn hardpan can be broken up by subsoiling or by plowing a little deeper each year, but a good earthworm population can do a better and quicker job of it.

Nutrients for Alfalfa Crops

The mineral elements that are most essential for good stand establishment are calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Calcium is needed for cell division, cell wall formation, and root growth. Phosphorus is used for energy transfer and other metabolic func­tions in the plant, and also it increases root growth. Adequate phospho­rus is especially critical for stand establishment. Potassium is required to activate many cell enzymes and for food transport in the plant.

Nitrogen application in the nitrate form will help to establish alfalfa if your soil is low in nitrogen. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria which will later develop in legume root nodules require the trace elements molybdenum (Mo), cobalt (Co), iron (Fe), and copper (Cu). In properly fertilized soil with adequate humus and soil organisms, these trace ele­ments should not be deficient, but the soils in some parts of the country are deficient in one or more trace elements, so some may have to be added. Be sure not to supply too much, because trace elements are only required in very small amounts, and some are toxic to plants or animals in too large amounts or in out-of-balance soil. Natural fertilizer sources such as manures and rock fertilizers can often supply trace element needs, and a good microorganism population will make them available to the plant.

Test Alfalfa Fertilizers

But how can you know how much of what kinds of fertiliz­ers to apply if you have no idea of what your soil needs? So before you do anything, you should have your soil tested by a reliable testing lab. Un­fortunately, different soil testing labs differ in their testing methods and  interpretation of results, so you can send the same soil sample to two labs and get two different sets of numbers and fertilizer recommendations. Because of the prevailing beliefs about crop fertilization, most labs tend to recommend relatively too much potassium and too little calcium and phosphorus. The best soil testing methods for determining plant needs are those that test for readily available (soluble) nutrients (see Chapter 3).

Guidelines for Soil and Alfalfa

It is impossible to give definite recommendations in this book without knowing what your soil needs, but the soil should have a high level of available calcium and phosphorus. If your soil needs these elements, good sources are calcite lime plus soft rock phosphate. These plus an application of organic matter (6 to 10 tons/acre of fresh cattle manure, or 1/2 to 1/3 that amount of poultry manure, or 1 to 3 tons/acre of compost) will take care of most nutrient needs of alfalfa and other forages. The organic matter will provide enough potassium as long as calcium and phosphorus are high. Fresh organic mat­ter should not be applied in excess nor be plowed in too deeply (below 5 to 8 inches) because it may not decompose properly, but may putrify and release toxins. It should be worked into the upper several inches (the aerobic zone).

The soft rock phosphate should be applied before or at the same time as the lime, since by itself, the lime tends to leach downward. They should not be plowed under deeply, and can be left on the surface.

Liming Alfalfa Crops

If you live in a part of the country with low magnesium soils, dolomitic lime (calcium-magnesium carbonate) should still not be used; it has the disadvantage of being harder and slower to break down than calcitic lime, plus its high magnesium content can lead to tighter soil and nitrogen depletion if in excess. Calcitic limestone (cal­cite, calcium carbonate) has none of these disadvantages and should be used instead.

The more finely ground the lime is, the more rapidly it becomes available and the less that is needed. Mesh sizes of 90 – 99 or finer give al­most “instant” availability, but they are hard to spread on windy days, and special spreaders may be needed. The old “E-Z Flow” and Gandy spread­ers and the larger Stolzfus and Webster spreaders will handle fine lime.

Alfalfa pH

Standard recommendations state that alfalfa should have a soil pH of 6.5 to 7 or 7.5, which is above the average for most crops (6.2 – 6.8). Actually, not so much attention should be paid to the exact pH figure because (1) the pH of soil changes constantly, even from day to day, and (2) the pH readings produced by a soil testing lab depend on the meth­ods used. For example, if the soil samples are finely ground before test­ing, the pH readings will be somewhat higher than under field conditions because small lumps of lime will be ground up and made more available.

Perhaps one reason a higher pH is recommended for alfalfa is that alfalfa requires high levels of calcium, and large amounts of lime are ap­plied to raise pH, automatically supplying the crop’s need for calcium.

Low pH (below 6.0) can have detrimental effects in reducing or eliminating growth of beneficial soil bacteria, including nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but high quality forage can be grown on acid soil, provided it has balanced and high fertility.

Preparing Alfalfa Seedbeds

The best seedbed for forage establishment is firm and moist. Firmness will prevent loss of essential moisture; however, a crust is very detrimental to seedling emergence. Good tilth and humus content will prevent crusting. Fall plowing and spring disking and harrowing work well in most areas; however, fall plowing is not recommended in areas where erosion could be increased (steep slopes and high rainfall). Since shallow seed placement is necessary for good emergence, the use of a corrugated roller or packer will provide firmness.

Which Seeding Method for Alfalfa?

Whether you want to use broadcast, drill, or band seeding methods may depend mainly on your situation and available equipment. With good soil conditions, any seeding method can give good results. Under less than ideal conditions (low fertility or dry weather), band seeding (placing a band of seed directly over a band of fertilizer 1-2 inches deep) has been proven superior.

Companion Crops for Alfalfa

In northern and eastern parts of the U.S., most alfalfa is sown with a companion crop (nurse crop) in spring seedings (not in summer or fall seedings). Besides providing an additional crop, companion crops protect the soil from erosion and keep out weeds before the alfalfa is established. However, companion crops can have disadvan­tages: they can compete with or inhibit the alfalfa seedlings by competing for light, moisture, and nutrients. Therefore, less leafy species or smaller seeding rates of companion crops should be used.

Commonly used companion crops are flax, peas, spring wheat, spring barley, and early maturing oats. Winter wheat, winter barley, win­ter rye, and late varieties of oats are poor companion crops for alfalfa.6 Early mowing, grazing, or harvesting of small grain companion crops before the boot stage will help reduce competition with alfalfa.

The percentage of grass in legume-grass mixtures should gener­ally be less than 25 – 40%, up to 50% in pastures, because too much grass will lower the protein content of the hay and may require more nitrogen than the legume can supply. Legume-grass mixtures that do well together include (from Univ. of Wisconsin-Extension Publication A2906,1978, p. 4):

If no companion crop is used (direct seeding, clear seeding), weeds and erosion could be problems on poor soils. On steep slopes, a thin mulch of straw or manure will help reduce erosion. If the available phosphorus level of the soil is about twice as high as potassium, and if the soil is well aerated, weeds are not generally a problem. If you wish to use a herbicide for weed control, consider that most toxic chemicals tend to upset the soil’s beneficial microorganism population, which can lead to humus de­pletion and lowered soil fertility. The use of a surfactant or wetting agent can allow you to greatly reduce the amounts of herbicides used.

Alfalfa Seeds

To get your forage crop off to the best start possible, use high quality (high test weight) seed and a suitable variety which is adapted to your climate. Yield, winter-hardiness, disease and pest resistance, and maturity time are factors to consider in choosing a variety.

Inoculating Alfalfa Seeds

Legume seed should always be inoculated with the proper strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria to insure development of root nodules. The extra cost is small, while the benefits are great. Pre-inocu­lated seed can be purchased or you can apply the inoculant at seeding time. Inoculant or inoculated seeds should be stored in cool temperatures (below 60°F in a refrigerator is fine) and used as soon as possible (not over six months after purchase).

Generally, seed treatment with fungicides is unnecessary for small-seeded legumes and grasses.

Alfalfa Planting Depth

Optimal seeding depth for legumes and grasses is less than one inch. In fine-textured and moist soils, seeds should be planted closer to the surface, from 1/2 to 1/4 inch. In summer or drier pe­riods or in sandy soils, deeper planting (¾ to 1 inch) is recommended.

Seeding Rate for Alfalfa

There are several factors to consider regarding seed­ing rates:

1. Moisture. If the soil will not have much moisture later in the year (especially sandy soils), lower seeding rates will reduce competition for moisture among the seedlings. Adequate humus will increase available soil moisture.

2. Soil conditions. Low soil fertility or acid soils will require higher seeding rates to insure that enough seedlings survive. Proper fertilization and adequate humus will overcome these problems.

3. Species and variety. Different grasses and legumes and their varieties differ in their germination rate, number of seeds per pound, and growth-form (some spread out in growth more than others). Some useful information is provided in the following table, from Iowa State University:

University of Wisconsin recommendations for alfalfa seeding rates are 10 – 12 pounds of live, pure seed per acre for pure stands, 15 pounds per acre if quackgrass may be a problem, and 16 – 18 pounds per acre if you wish to harvest in the year of seeding.

Use the number of seeds per pound to figure seed mixtures. For example, it would take only about one-fifth the amount of orchardgrass seed to equal bromegrass.

Timing for Alfalfa Planting

The timing of stand establishment must be adjusted to your local climate and possible crop rotation schedule. In the North and Northeast, the best time is spring; otherwise dry summer weather may not allow enough growth to survive the winter (companion crops should not be used for late seedings because they compete with the leg­ume and slow the establishment). In the South, late summer is the best time for seeding.

Source: How to Grow Great Alfalfa

Basics of Alfalfa: The Queen Forage Species

By Harold Willis

Alfalfa has been called the “queen of forages” because of its remarkable ability to produce high yields of nutritious, palatable forage under a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. (J. C. Burton, p. 229 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Alfalfa and other forage crops are an important and vital part of the agriculture of the United States, especially in the high dairy areas of the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, as well as along the Pacific west coast. Forages are also important wherever livestock are fattened. In 1969, the total acreage harvested for hay and seed in the U. S. was 27.1 million acres, of which 26.6 million were used for alfalfa. Out of this, over 60% was grown in the Great Lakes region. (J. L. Bolton, B. P. Goplen, & H. Baenziger, p. 24 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Kinds of Forages

Besides alfalfa, other forage species most often grown include red clover, sweetclover, birdsfoot trefoil, Ladino clover, white clover (all of those are legumes), plus smooth bromegrass, timo­thy, bluegrass, reed canarygrass, and orchardgrass (the latter five are grasses, in a different plant family than the legumes).

Other forage crops that are not grown as commonly or that are restricted to certain parts of the country include, among the legumes: al-sike clover, sour clover, crimson clover, lespedezas, vetches, soybeans, field peas, cowpeas, peanut vines, and kudzu; and among the grasses: fescues, redtop, meadow foxtail, sudangrass, Johnsongrass, sorghum and its hybrids, millet, proso, tall oatgrass, wheatgrasses, bluestems, grama grasses, buffalograss, switchgrass, lovegrass, ryegrasses, needle-grasses, Bahiagrass, Bermudagrass, carpetgrass, Dallisgrass, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and corn (maize).

Since alfalfa is by far the most widely grown forage species, this article will mainly deal with alfalfa, although most of the legume forages are about the same in their growth requirements. To simplify matters, we will briefly list the characteristics of the non-alfalfa forages first and then concentrate on alfalfa.


The plants in the legume family have the distinct ability to provide a home for a type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Rhizobium, in the swol­len nodules that can form on the legume’s roots. These bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship with the legume and are able to capture (fix) nitrogen gas from the air and change it into ammonia, which the legume uses to produce proteins. There are many varieties or strains of the bac­teria, and only certain ones can successfully form nodules on a certain species or variety of legume. Although the bacteria are generally com­mon in fertile soil (which has not been sterilized by toxic chemicals), it is best to plant seed that has been inoculated with the right strain of bacteria to insure successful nodule formation.

Most legume forages are perennial plants (they live more than one year), although some sweetclover and alfalfa varieties are annual (live one year). Most legumes are characterized by deep taproots and growth of several stems from a crown region near ground level. The stems grow and elongate at the tips, but when the crop is harvested or grazed, new stems grow from buds in the crown.

Birdsfoot trefoil. Long-lived perennial; moderate-yielding with good midseason growth and late maturity; fair drought-tolerance and gener­ally poor winter hardiness; does well on poor soils; tolerates continuous but not close grazing; difficult to establish. A related species is called big trefoil.

Red clover.

Red clover. Short-lived perennial (2 years in North) or annual (South); moderately high yielding with fair midseason growth; fair drought-tolerance and winter hardiness.

Sweetclover. Biennial (lives 2 years) or annual; high-yielding with only moderate top growth the first season and little late growth the second season in 2-year varieties; good drought-tolerance and winter hardiness; does well on poor soils; not very palatable to livestock be­cause of coumarin content; makes poor hay; does not tolerate close cutting or grazing.

White clover and Ladino clover. Rapid-growing perennial (Ladino is short-lived); low-yielding with early spring and poor midseason growth; poor drought-tolerance and good to moderate (Ladino) winter hardiness; tolerate continuous grazing.


Grasses are characterized by comparatively shallow, diffuse root systems (with many roots, but no main taproots). The growing points for leaves and seed stalks are at ground level, so cutting or grazing will not injure them. Most forage grasses are perennial, while many weedy grasses are annual, as are crop grains (oats, wheat, corn, etc.).

Bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass. Long-lived cool season peren­nial; low-yielding with early spring and poor midseason growth; poor drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; tolerates continuous grazing.

Bromegrass, smooth bromegrass. Long-lived cool season perennial; high-yielding with moderate spring and fair midseason growth; moder­ately good drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; weakened by heavy grazing; difficult to establish.

Orchardgrass. Cool season perennial; high-yielding with early spring and moderate midseason growth; excellent drought-tolerance and fair winter hardiness; coarse and unpalatable at maturity.

Reed canarygrass. Cool season perennial; high-yielding with early spring and good midseason growth; very good drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; poor palatability at maturity; difficult to establish.

Tall fescue. Perennial; moderate-yielding; good drought-tolerance and fair winter hardiness; poor palatability in warm summer months; weakened by heavy grazing.

Timothy. Cool season perennial; moderate-yielding with poor mid­season growth; fair drought-tolerance and moderate winter hardiness; low palatability at maturity; weakened by heavy grazing and cutting.

Will Winter: Pasture, the Profit Maker, from the 2006 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show (53 minutes, 51 seconds). Listen in as professional livestock consultant Will Winter discusses ways to manage pasture profitably.

Alfalfa, the Queen

Long-lived perennial (except annual varie­ties); high-yielding with early spring and good midseason growth; good drought-tolerance, some varieties very winter hardy; cannot be grazed in seedling stage. What’s it all about?

Alfalfa is the oldest crop grown solely for forage. It is native to the mountainous regions of southwestern Asia, in the vicinity of Iran and the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. It was grown in ancient times by the Arabians and Persians, and was then introduced into Europe and from there into Central and South America by the first Spanish explorers and settlers. Although grown to a small extent on the East Coast of the U. S. in the 1700s, alfalfa really succeeded in North America after seed was brought in the early 1840s by settlers sailing around Cape Horn to California. The name “alfalfa” comes from Arabic and means “best fodder.” It is often called lucerne in other parts of the world.

For anyone who feeds livestock the growing of high quality, healthful forages should be your number one concern. That is what will give the maximum production by your animals, as well as pro­moting their health and well-being. Also, high quality hay can be an excellent cash crop in many parts of the country.

Let’s see how you can do it.

Source: How to Grow Great Alfalfa

Tools of the Trade — Using Refractometers & Penetrometers

By Gary Digiuseppe

Forage producers can measure the percentage of sucrose and other soluble content of their grasses with the use of a refractometer, although the accuracy of the reading can be dependent on the cost of the instrument.

Martin Capewell, owner of Agriculture Solutions LLC in Strong, Maine, says an analog refractometer costs around $50-$200, while a digital model can run anywhere from $190- $10,000. A “simple, hand held, decent” digital refractometer, Capewell says, costs about $350 and will last a long time provided it’s properly cleaned and maintained and protected from extreme temperatures.

All refractometers work by passing light through sap or juice extracted from a crop, and then measuring the angle of the light as refracted by a prism. The readout, a percentage of soluble content, is called Brix, named for one of the originators of the method, Adolf Brix. The Brix reading is determined by where the line produced by the light refraction crosses the scale on the device. Technically, Brix is the percentage by weight of sucrose in a solution, but the refractometer can’t differentiate between sucrose and other dissolved solids.

The scale is calibrated relative to a temperature of 20°C, and Capewell says refractometers are either temperature compensated or non-temperature compensated. “The great thing about one with automatic temperature compensation is that it gives you the correct Brix reading, and you don’t have to do that formula yourself,” he says.

pentrometer in use in field

An analog refractometer has to be held up to a light source to be read; digital models use an internal light source. “When you click the ‘measure’ button, within about 3 seconds you can get an exact reading to one decimal place,” said Capewell. “It’s much more accurate, quicker and easier to use.”

In order to extract a sample for measurement by the refractometer, the farmer crushes several blades of grass in a vice grip or garlic press that should have a filter so the crusher will not push the solid material through the holes.

Cheryl Pike of Pike Agri-Lab Supplies in Jay, Maine, says there are devices specially designed to squeeze juices out of plants or fruit for sampling purposes. If a garlic press is used, it should be sturdy and made from stainless steel. “Most of the cheaper garlic presses won’t stand up to it, especially if you’re talking about pasture and trying to get the juice from grasses.”

Pike says most recommendations for an acceptable Brix reading are at 12 or higher. “The higher you have that number, it’s going to be a higher quality grass,” she said. “There have been studies showing the feed quality values matching the Brix reading. They are positively correlated — as one goes up, the other goes up.” Some studies indicate higher sucrose levels in pasture grass increase a ruminant animal’s conversion rate of feed to milk.

Temperature is just one of four variables that affect the reading. Concentration of dissolved solids, the atomic weight of the substances in the liquid and the number of covalent bonds, which are higher when components like amino acids and proteins are present also play a part. However, the farmer just needs to know if the meter is temperature compensated and to adjust for temperature if it’s not.

“If you have a very watery substance, it would read lower than something that has a lot of solids dissolved in the liquid,” said Pike.

In short, says Pike, “The more nutrition you have in your juice, the higher the reading will be … the more complex, and the more desirable things that are in our vegetables, fruits and grasses are the things that make the reading go higher.”

To ensure an accurate readout, Pike cautions that some inexpensive instruments they tested from overseas suppliers were not very accurate. “You get what you pay for.”


Another popular tool for farmers is the penetrometer, which measures resistance in soils. In addition to providing farmers with an idea of the tilth and oxygen content of soil, Capewell says it can also be used to determine the depth of the hardpan layer, so the producer can tell how much room a plant’s roots will have to grow.

He says in order to operate the penetrometer, push it into the soil at a constant rate while keeping an eye on the dial that shows how much resistance it is facing. “It might go up to 200 pounds per square inch (psi),” he said. “You’ll know that you’ve got oxygenation as you’re pushing it in, and you’ll certainly hear it go ‘thud’ as you’re hitting a harder layer. You can continue to push it past that point to see how hard it is to push through that, too, but when you hear it go ‘thud’ you can mark on the penetrometer where it met the harder layer, and you can see how deep your topsoil is and how good the tilth is.”

Penetrometers start at $250 with digital models being more expensive. They’re made of stainless steel and should last a number of years, but the tips may need replacing if they’re used very frequently. Capewell explains, “If you’re pushing into something all the time, you may hit rocks, and it may get blunted over time” which would affect the measurement. Luckily, the tips are inexpensive to replace.

Pike adds that plants do not perform well on ground where 300 psi or higher is required to push through the soil. The penetrometer produced by her company has marks along the length of the probe every 3 inches so the operator can record the depth at which the 200 psi, 300 psi mark, or hardpan is reached.

Finding the hardpan would be useful in a situation where the ground has been plowed. She says when that layer has been detected, “People are using different treatments, not necessarily just the plowing, that are supposed to either lighten up the soil or alleviate hardpans.” The penetrometer can be used before and after to gauge the efficacy of those treatments.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

How To Select Your Soil Lab

By Susan Shaner

Soil lab selection: How does anyone choose the right laboratory? Aren’t they all the same? Should you send a sample to several different labs and average the results? How do you get the samples to a lab and what is the turnaround time? Some homework needs to be done here.

These are all questions that I hear on almost a daily basis. All labs are not the same. This does not mean that one laboratory is better than another. They all provide a different “menu” of services. It is important to find a lab that provides all of the services that you require. Are you just looking for a soil analysis, or do you also need an irrigation water test or tissue analysis?

Laboratories can also choose from a number of methods or “recipes” to obtain results. Which method would be best for your soil type or crop? “Presentation” of results can also vary greatly from one laboratory to another. It is important that you can read the report and make use of the information it provides. These are all questions that you should consider before choosing a laboratory.

Menu of Services

Packages with various soil parameters are usually available, plus some a la carte choices. This will vary greatly from one laboratory to another. I think we all agree now that there is a lot more to soil than pH. Therefore, look at what is included in the soil package you are requesting.

soil sample

Important parameters include pH, organic matter, exchange capacity and base saturation. Also important are the major elements calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and phosphorus.

Important minor elements include sulfur, boron, iron, manganese, copper, zinc and aluminum. A complete soil analysis including all of these parameters may cost a little more. More information will provide better insight into your fertility situation. If you base your decision on cost alone, you will probably get what you pay for. An inexpensive analysis may only include pH, phosphorus and potassium.


Methodology is the most confusing area when comparing laboratories. There are several different methods for almost every parameter on a soil analysis. Laboratories choose methods that are best suited for the geographical area that they service. Most labs will offer different methods upon request to accommodate most customers; you will have to know what to request first.

Sending the same sample to several labs for comparison will be quite confusing unless you do your homework to determine what methods are used. I have talked with several customers after they have submitted the same sample to different labs without understanding the differences.

They have been very unhappy and disappointed with the outcome. Let’s look at a good example of different methods — for example, phosphorus. There are nine phosphorus test methods that I am aware of. All of these methods were run on a specific soil sample and produced results anywhere from 10.5 to 656 ppm. If you know how to interpret the results for each of these tests, you should come up with the same recommendation. If you do not have the correct threshold levels for the method provided, you could make a big mistake in interpretation.

Presentation of Data

What units of measure do you feel comfortable with? Do you prefer graphic results, high and low distinctions or an actual value found?

Soil reports come in all shapes and sizes. Some reports are very colorful and show your results in a graphic form. Various reports show values as low, adequate, or high. A number of reports show actual values found for each parameter. Reporting styles also vary regarding the reporting of desired levels, sufficiency levels and base saturation percentages. What style are you most comfortable with? A combination of these styles may be most helpful.

Units of measure can vary from parts per million, pounds per acre, pounds per 1,000 square feet, or kilograms per hectare.

It is very important that the laboratory is aware of your sampling depth if you will be receiving your results in a pound per acre or pound per 1,000 square feet format. The sampling depth will affect the value reported. It is vital to be aware of units when comparing reports from different laboratories. You have to compare apples to apples. Looking at a phosphorus example again will explain this. A laboratory may report phosphorus at 50 ppm P and another may report it at 229 pounds per acre P2O5. These two results are the same; however the units are the difference.

Does the soil report offer a recommendation? Where did it come from? Some recommendations are generic computer recommendations that give a ballpark range for optimum levels of nutrients. These may or may not be for a specific geographical area. If you are growing a unique or exotic crop, then you may need some specific advice. Inquire about the services of an independent agronomist.


How do you get your sample to the lab? Most labs will provide a soil sample bag or suggest a suitable alternative. Soil laboratories receive hundreds of samples each day. Be sure to acquire the appropriate paperwork from the laboratory to submit with your sample. Incomplete information will only delay the processing of your samples. Packing your samples for shipment is very important. Be sure to pack the samples tightly in a box. Pack newspaper or other packing material around the samples to keep them from bouncing around in the box.

If samples can move around during shipment, they sometimes break open and can be destroyed. Resampling will add to your cost in time and money.

How long will this process take? Turnaround time in the whole soil testing process is imperative. Laboratories under stand that your test results can be time sensitive. Don’t hesitate to contact the lab if you have an emergency situation and need “rush” service. To determine your approximate turnaround time, consider the time it takes to get the sample to the lab (two-three days) and perform the analysis (three-four days).

Turnaround time varies from one lab to another and also varies by season. You may want to contact the lab to inquire about their current turnaround time. How do you get your report? You do not want the report held up somewhere after you have already waited through shipping and testing procedures. Reports are usually emailed or made available on the internet on the same day the testing is completed. Be sure your correct email address and/or a fax number is submitted with your samples to get your results as soon as possible.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when looking at differences in laboratories. Laboratory instrumentation is continually improving. More parameters can be detected in a short amount of time and detection limits keep getting smaller. More efficient and “green” procedures are always being investigated.

Embrace the advancements. Visionaries like Dr. Albrecht are still being cited in soil analysis circles. If he was continuing his research today, I believe he would embrace the latest technology and tools available.

So, the question still looms … which laboratory is best for you? Take the time to do your homework. It will be worth the investment and you will receive the value that you expect. Explore laboratory websites, call a lab and ask some questions, ask your friends about their experiences. Make sure you acquire the appropriate paperwork and instructions from the lab that you choose.

When you have selected a laboratory that meets your needs and you are comfortable, stick with it. Jumping from lab to lab will only discourage you on your quest to improving soil fertility.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Plant Stress & Proline

By Larry Zibilske, Ph.D. 

In his 1995 State of the Union speech, President Bill Clinton highlighted a USDA program addressing plant stress as an example of wasteful “pet project” government spending. We knew then, and know even more now, that plant stress is a very significant yield-and-quality-robbing factor in agricultural crops to which little attention has been paid.

We try to optimize fertility, irrigation, weed and pest management practices to achieve the best production under the constraints of environment and economics. However, it has become clear that plant stress comes from everything we try to control; it is additive and it can be cumulative — resulting in loss of yield and quality potential.

For the grower, visual detection of plant stress often comes too late to do anything more than damage control by preventing further loss of yields and quality for the season. One visually obvious “too late” example is dropped squares and bolls in cotton. Another is shed flowers and pods or a predominance of two and three-bean pods in soybeans if stress is present early on, or empty pods if stress occurs later.

In plant health, as in human health, there are signs, although they may not be obvious, that stress is present. The trick is in detecting and interpreting those signs – ideally, before they can be seen. This is evidenced by many of us having annual physical check-ups and blood (in the case of plants, sap) tests to detect “hidden” problems. Certain biological signals accumulate in the plant during periods of stress. They are produced in response to environmental stresses such as water, light, temperature and salinity. Their appearance signals that something is hindering normal plant growth and development with consequent loss of yields and quality.

Test tubes in a row of plant proline samples
Samples ready for instrument analysis. Even without precision and absolute instrument analysis, comparative differences in proline (plant stress) levels can be clearly seen.

One of the common stress molecules in plants is proline. Proline is an amino acid normally produced during protein production. In times of stress, plants over-produce this molecule which can be measured with whole leaf analysis. Elevated proline indicates stress responses have been initiated by the plant. The excess proline stimulates metabolic changes in the plant to cope with the stress.

However, proline is not only a signal but also directly helps maintain internal cell turgor, preventing electrolyte losses by supporting good osmotic balance. Proline also reduces the undesirable reactive oxygen species molecules (ROS) which, in times of stress, can overcome the natural ability of plants to dispose of these harmful molecules that are normally produced during metabolism.

Good crop nutrition is fundamental to warding off harmful effects of environmental stresses. Therefore, proline is both a plant stress response and a signal. Increased proline production allows a plant to marshal its physiology to accommodate the stress. But generally, the internal changes the plant makes to manage stress reduce its productivity in favor of survival advantage.

In short, high proline values are simply symptoms of larger problems in the plant. The primary use of the proline data is to formulate a plan to ameliorate or manage the stresses causing the proline response. With high proline, the plant is telling us that something is wrong.

stressed plants in the field
A dramatic field example of extreme plant stress resulting in unusually high proline levels, with the leaves on these sugar beets having collapsed. While this is a remarkable situation, the point of proline testing is to prevent unplanned crop performance-robbing stresses long before they happen.

We don’t want to eliminate stress, but control it so that the plant can continue to grow and produce well during the season. Elimination of stress is not a goal because the plant uses certain stresses as timing functions for several important metabolic processes.

While the overall concern is in reducing chronic or unanticipated stresses, there are certain conditions during crop development under which induced and carefully controlled plant stress can be of great financial benefit to the grower: Scheduled and managed stress can result in higher nutrient content of the crop (premium quality), greater yields, or both. This is demonstrated by field results.

healthy sugar beet leaves
For comparison, healthy sugar beet leaves.

Accordingly, the goal is not to minimize stress across the board throughout the season, but to carefully time the inducement, control and manage it.

Regardless, carefully managing overall stress responses during growth promotes better total plant performance. Your lab’s in-season recommendations will include steps to minimize destructive unplanned stresses and manage desired ones detected by increased proline production. As an example, for a low-moisture stress, the lab may recommend increasing potassium fertility to increase internal water use efficiency. Additionally, based on other plant tests, other nutrients may be recommended to maintain canopy structure and function and to reduce or eliminate disease and insect pressures.

The plant lab uses the proline test to monitor total stress in crop plants. If stress levels are high, the results, together with sap and tissue nutrient test results, guide the lab in prescribing changes to your management that will control those stresses. Remember, elevated proline levels indicate stresses that are most often caused by multiple factors. Your lab will consider those factors to formulate a complete remediation plan that addresses all stresses.

Proline may have other effects on plants as well. Collection of proline data has been ongoing for some time. Differences have been seen between reproductive tissues from stressed plants and those of low-stress plants. Therefore, if you hold seeds, tubers or bulbs over to plant yourself or sell them for planting, controlling stresses may influence future crops as well. These effects continue to be evaluated.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Larry Zibilske, Ph.D., is vice president of research at TPS Lab in Edinburg, Texas. Zibilske holds degrees in microbiology and soil science from Texas A&M and a Ph.D. in soil microbiology from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Acres U.S.A. magazine is the national journal of sustainable agriculture, standing virtually alone with a real track record — over 45 years of continuous publication. Each issue is packed full of information eco-consultants regularly charge top dollar for. You’ll be kept up-to-date on all of the news that affects agriculture — regulations, discoveries, research updates, organic certification issues, and more.

The Basics of Identifying Crop Quality

By Arden B. Andersen

Field trips in agriculture often are more like dog and pony shows than extended classroom experiences. Typically, the circulating tour group is paraded around at a distance, being shown various test plots, tillage systems, and management practices. One very important group experience that is rarely included in traditional field tours is the evaluation of crops, weeds, and soils in a hands-on manner in the field. Keen observation of field and crop details can tell the observer more than any soil or plant-tissue analysis. This is a key point because the farmer and consultant must take note of field observations to determine whether progress is being made and whether soil and plant-tissue tests are providing accurate pictures of the situation.

The Field Trip

Upon approaching any field, notice the overall appearance of the crop. Is it droopy? Rigid? Does it smell fresh? Are there any peculiar odors like methane gas, mold, ammonia, or pesticide? Is the overall color of the crop a deep blue-green? A mild-green or pale-green color? Do the leaves have a glossy sheen or a typical absorbent appearance? Are any birds nearby? Are they singing? How does the field feel to you? In other words, what sense do you get about the field?

As you move into the field, notice what types of weeds are growing and whether they or the crops are being eaten by insects. Ask whether a herbicide was used to control weeds and what type of weeds are most bothersome. Check the refractometer reading of both the weeds and the crop; write down the value of each. As the soil improves, the weeds will decline and the crop will increase in brix readings. Pull some weeds and slice open their stems lengthwise with a knife. Look at the pith of the weed. What color is it? Is the stem hollow? The healthier the weed, the higher the brix reading, the more solid the stem and the more pearly white its pith, and the less insect damage it will have. The same, of course, holds true for the crop. The healthier the weed, the more conducive your fertilization practices are to growing weeds rather than crops unless weeds (herbs) are your crop.

Notice what type of root structure the weed has. Grasses often have shallow, dense root systems that are attempting to loosen compact soil. Broadleaf plant generally have long taproots that are attempting to relieve hardpans and gain access to nutrient reserves at lower depths in the soil, as well as to extend the electrical circuit of the soil/plant complex to greater depths.


Dig up a corn plant. Notice the amount of root mass present and in which direction the roots grow. Are they pretty much growing out in the top two or three inches, or are they mostly growing down? Are there many or any live roots directly below the middle of the plant? Where does the soil structure change from a loose, crumbly structure to a platey, blocky one? Most soils in America have a crumbly structure for only the top one-half to two inches of the top soil and a platey structure from there on down. This means there is only a one-half to two-inch aerobic zone; the rest is predominately anaerobic, for all practical purposes.

In general, the roots will be concentrated primarily in the aerobic layer. You will notice that the greatest concentration of fine, fuzzy hair roots will be in the aerobic zone; this is because microbes and root hairs need oxygen. The microbes and root hairs make up the rhizosphere, which is the area of greatest nutrient exchange. Notice the color of the corn roots. Are they pearly white and soft, or are they brown and brittle? Pinch the roots slightly and pull to check whether the root bark sloughs off easily. If it does, there is a salt problem. Check for hardpan using a penetrometer, shovel, or brazing rod. This condition can be present in a sandy soil as well as in a clay soil. Notice that the roots pretty much stop at the hardpan.

Cut the corn stalk lengthwise and look at the plant’s plumbing system. Is the bottom of the stalk base, the pons, brown and hard? In general, we find that it is. This is congested or plugged tissue caused by toxins in the soil. These toxins might be pesticides, or they might be metabolic by-products from anaerobic breakdown of crop residue and manures. These could be products like formaldehyde and alcohol. Notice that the corn stalk has sprouted brace roots above this area. This is the back-up or by-pass plumbing system functioning to keep the plant alive. You may find that the node where these first brace roots sprouted is also brown and hard. In this case, a second layer of “by-pass” roots has sprouted. Brace roots are the plant’s rescue response when the plumbing system below gets plugged. If the plant did not sprout brace roots, it would die. In this case, as David Larson and others have reported, covering the brace roots, through cultivation, can increase corn yields by 5 to 15 bushels per acre. This allows the brace roots to contact the soil and, consequently, to interact with nutrients. In some areas the soil conditions are so toxic that the brace roots curl or burn off upon touching the soil surface. Compare the conditions of the plumbing systems of corn stalks between fields and note the differences in corn quality and refractometer readings.

Cut the corn stalk horizontally. The stalk should be round, not oblong or teardrop shaped. Out-of-roundness is an indication of a calcium deficiency. Look at the veins. Ideally, they should be pearly white and packed so tightly that it is difficult to count them. The pith should also be pearly white. Pull off the leaves from the stalk and notice that at each node, on opposite sides as you progress up the stalk, there is a baby or embryonic ear. This represents the plant’s true potential, which will be realized only when the soil is regenerated to the point that the plant’s plumbing system remains clear throughout, and the roots have an aerobic zone of 10 to 12 inches in which to grow.

About the Author

Arden B. Andersen

Dr. Arden B. Andersen apprenticed with Dr. Carey Reams, worked as a research assistant with Dan Skow, D.V.M., and as a field researcher with Philip Callahan, Ph.D. In addition to his B.S. in agricultural education, he holds a Ph.D. in biophysics and a D.O. in medicine. He currently works in general preventative and nutritional medicine while still consulting to some of the largest farming operations around the world.

What Weeds Tell Us About Soil

Weeds are not inherently bad by nature. The informed farmer will know what the presence of various types of weeds means – from compacted to overly wet soil, and more. The late eco-farming expert and Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters explains different types of weeds, and the soil conditions and state of soil health that their presence signals.

By Charles Walters

Andre Voisin, the great French farmer and scientist who wrote Soil, Grass and Cancer and Grass Productivity, once declared that most of what he knew came not from the university, but from observing his cows at grass. And so it is with much of what we know about weeds.

Walking the fields with the late C.J. Fenzau in areas as separate as Indiana, Iowa and Idaho, I was able to take note of what weeds were trying to tell us during the early days of the Acres U.S.A. publication. Admittedly, this knowledge has been fleshed out since then. And recent findings build on, rather than tear down, those field observations.

Weeds are an index of what is wrong — and sometimes what is right — with the soil, or at least with the fertility program. In every field on every farm, there are different soil types, and each has a potential for producing certain weeds, depending on how a farmer works the soil. Fall tillage, spring tillage, tillage early or late, if it takes place when the soil is dry or wet, all these things determine the kinds of weeds that will grow that season.

Weeds and Water

As far back as the Dust Bowl days, it became transparently obvious to my Dad — after viewing rainbelt territory near Conway, Missouri — that dryland weeds generally don’t grow in territory that has rain pelting the soil with a steady squall. Thus the presence of salt grass, iron weed, tumbleweed and all the wild sages in soils where flocculation is gone, and wind wafts dust skyward.

There are soil conditions that almost always have restricted amounts of water, and consequently they do not require and cannot grow weeds that thrive when there is plenty of water.

In high rainfall areas of the United States, where irrigation is paper thin and where farmers depend on rainfall for their crop moisture, broadleaf weeds — lambsquarters, pigweed (image below), Jimson weed, buttonweed, and so on — often proliferate.

Weeds and soil – pigweed likes moisture
Green Amaranth, a.k.a., palmer amaranth, careless weed, spleen amaranth, red amaranth, rough pigweed, smooth pigweed, pigweed.

These special conditions appeared classic when C.J. Fenzau and I walked several farms near What Cheer, Iowa, one summer. Where the soil structure was poor and farmers worked the soil under wet conditions, they usually built compaction or set up sedimentary levels in the soil from filtration of silt. This set the stage for a lot of grassy weeds. And in only moments, it seemed, the corn farmer is forced to endure the vicious effects of foxtail and fall panicum.

The soil’s potential might remain. For the season, this pattern of weeds indicates a degenerated soil structure. That’s the signal foxtail and fall panicum send out loud and clear — that there is an imbalanced pH condition in the soil, that tight soil is holding water in excess and refuses to permit it to dry out.

As a consequence, the farmer is always working his soil system on the wet side and creating clods. When he gets done planting fields with clods, they accumulate excess carbon dioxide. Foxtail and fall panicum like carbon dioxide. This triggers certain hormone processes that wake up the foxtail seed and say, It is your turn to live and multiply.

To control the foxtail, it now becomes necessary to change the structure of the soil, and this means tillage, fertility management — not least, pH management, efficient use of water, development of capillary capacity and aeration of the soil. This much accomplished, there is no need for atrazine or other chemicals of organic synthesis.

I recall that in one corn field, planting had been delayed — sure enough, a pattern of rye grass made its stand. Here the crop was planted too long after cultivation. By the time seeds went into the soil, weeds were on the way.

I recall one alfalfa field that had been the victim of poor soil management for seven or eight years. The soil was waterlogged and distressed. And weeds of several types increased and multiplied. It became standard procedure to recommend pH adjustment according to the gospel of Albrecht, and well digested compost. Compost contains its own nitrogen in perfectly available form. It often acts as a precursor of bacteria-fixing nitrogen in the field. Even then it was axiomatic that you never get blue-green algae with N, P, and K.

This business of management, or lack thereof, figured everywhere the Acres U.S.A. pencil and camera went. At one western dairy, it was practice to cut hay and treat it on the spot with an enzyme hormone complex, bio-cultured by Albion Laboratories out of Clearfield, Utah. In a matter of hours, the crop was put up as part of silage or hay bales. Before nightfall the same field got its shot of irrigation water. Weeds rarely got a toehold in such a well managed field, even though herbicides weren’t used.

The Hierarchy of Weeds

Weeds seem to have a pecking order. Once the conditions that permit foxtail and fall panicum are erased, there will be other weeds, but none of them will be as difficult to control or as hazardous to crop production. They have names, both Latin and common. Lambsquarters is one. Pigweed is another. But now the message is different. Both lambsquarter and pigweed say soil conditions are good and fertility is excellent, and there is no reason to come unglued when they appear, for they are as Joe Cocannouer says in Weeds, Guardians of the Soil, a message that the crop will thrive and insects will stay away.

Cocklebur (image below) also indicates that the soil’s phosphate level is good. Lambsquarters, pigweed and cocklebur suggest a trio of superlatives, namely wholesome, highly productive, good quality soils. They are not hard to manage with clean tillage, and do not call for inputs of chemistry from the devil’s pantry.

Common cocklebur tells the farmer that his soil has a high level of available phosphate and a reasonable pH level. These high levels of phosphate tend to complex zinc, which activates the cocklebur’s hormone system. Xanthium pennsylvanicum is shown here with its root (A); seedling (B); bur (C); seed (D). One look at cocklebur should tell a farmer not to fertilize with phosphate.

In watching crops grow, other clues have surfaced over the years. There are relatives of grasses that reflect wet soils and wet conditions. Barnyard grass and nut sedge warrant mention. On the other side of the equation, the same soil that produces each of these nemesis can produce ragweed (image below), a dry weather phenomenon. This is particularly true when the crop is one of the small grains. Often the soil tends to dry out as the crop matures. With soil moisture low, bacterial systems do not function too well because, of course, they require water. They do not function to release or convert potassium in a proper form. When the potassium supply from the soil is restricted for whatever reason, or held in a complex form, ragweed reveals itself inside the grain crop. With harvest, contamination in the grain bin becomes apparent.

Carolus Linnaeus called Western ragweed ambrosia psilostachya, thereby exhibiting a wry sense of humor. The illustration exhibits the plant itself (A); its raceme of male heads and female involucres (B); the achene or one-seeded fruit (C); and seeds (D).

Ragweed (image directly above) tells the farmer that he has poor quality and a wrong form of potassium during the dry part of the crop season. In the cornbelt, when there is too much rain after fall plowing, and in early spring when cold, cloudy weather holds on for a three-week period, then fall-tilled fields still open will generate a whole new crop of bitterweed or smartweed. These arrive under wet soil conditions and grow early in the season. They are related to poorly structured and poorly drained soils. More important, these weeds shout out in understandable terms that something is wrong with the direction of decay of organic matter. Soil that is not in the proper equilibrium will put the decay process into the business of manufacturing alcohols and formaldehyde — in short, embalming fluids.

A good example is often the progenitor for morning glories and other rhizome crops that defy destruction. Picture cattle being fed out on the edge of a field. A lot of waste hay and straw piles up, cemented into place by urine and manure. Two or three years later this mixture is turned under, usually in an effort to return the area back to crop production. The problem is that Jimson weeds and buttonweeds, not crops, will grow. There is a reason for this. They are growing in soils with an excess of organic material that is not decaying properly. A hormone-enzyme process of a different bent takes over. It wakes up weed seeds and allows them to flourish.

The solution is not an overdose of herbicides, but manipulation of pH, distribution of the pileup of organic matter, which in any case must be mulched in more completely. When decay starts to go in the proper direction, Jimson weeds and buttonweeds simply stay dormant and no longer grow in that area. The same principle applies to morning glories and field bindweeds. The last two weeds grow in sick soils, in eroded soils, and in each case they increase and multiply because they are started by an improper decay of organic material.

Sometimes the decay process produces formaldehyde, and at certain stages there is methane, ethane and butane production. These byproducts of decay stimulate the birth of the hormone systems that penetrate ubiquitous weed seeds and tell them to come alive and establish the growth kingdom for that season.

Generally, these processes do not occur throughout the entire field. Almost always, it is a spot here, an eroded hill there, always areas in which something has gone wrong in the past. These are dangerous weeds, and they are very destructive. They climb up plants and drag them down. They short-circuit yields and confer harvest problems on the best of machinery, and often account for farm accidents. Many farmers are maimed for life because they have tried to unplug harvesting equipment, the missing hand or arm a legacy of improper soil management.

Weed Patterns and Crop Performance

There are many factors that have a bearing on weed patterns and crop performance. They’re all interrelated. The ideal is to have pH control, good loamy soil texture, enough decaying organic matter to set the things in motion for better crop and changing weed patterns. These things diminish the frictions of stress and myriads of things that happen.

Every year conditions are different and there has to be different timing. Variables invite changes. There is no way you can machine the process. You can have watergrass come into a waterlogged soil. The next year you waterlog it early and let it dry, and in the early part of the season you get smartweed, a variable of stress reaction.

Different conditions invite a different echelon of life to come in. There is a variable in man — his operating style. I recall a farmer who had everything going perfect. But this year instead of taking a spiketooth rake and dragging it over the corn as it was emerging, the worker assigned the task. By the time he got around to it, the weeds were 3 inches tall. Corn was coming up puny. It was enough to make one shudder. Physical management mistakes can undo everything.

Smartweed can be an indicator of nutritional stress.

These few observations from the field already suggest that the topic of weeds is a very complex subject. The best weed manual in the world can only hint at solutions to the many problems related to weeds. Unfortunately, those who have taken the weed situation by the nape of the neck and the seat of the pants over the past fifty years have done little more than shake out poisons, not results. Here our objective is to establish a positive viewpoint so that we can analyze what weeds are and accept the Creator’s plan while we appreciate the romance of the tribe.

A Brief Glance at Weed Varieties

There are many mansions in the house of weeds. For example, there are swamp weeds, the cattails and the rushes. There are desert weeds. There are weeds that grow in sand and weeds that grow in silt, and there are weeds that grow in gumbo so tight it resembles modeling clay. Foxtails grow in gumbo, but they also grow in sand when such soils are out of balance and the electrical tension on soil particles is so tight that even sand can build clods and restrict air in the soil enough to set free the hormone process that wakes up foxtail seeds.

There are subsoil weeds. There are weeds that grow in acid conditions and — in the West — there are weeds that like alkaline conditions. Up in Wisconsin and Minnesota there is a weed called “devil’s paint brush” by the locals. This one joins the daisy in having a love affair with sour soils.

Almost always, such soils have an excess of iron and flush out a lot of trace minerals and rock minerals that support the hormone processes that give permission to live for these weed species. It is impossible to grow a high yielding crop when such conditions prevail. It is possible to grow red clover, mammoth clover instead of alfalfa because alfalfa simply won’t have much of a chance as a quality foliage crop.

There are sour soils, neutral soils, alkaline soils and salty soils, and there are weeds that identify with all of these conditions. There are weeds that relate to wet soils and weeds that embrace hot conditions and others that like colder conditions. The degree of sunshine and the length of day and night figure in nature’s equation.

There are weeds that get a head start on the farmer and those that emerge only after the farmer has done his job. All of these weeds have a biography and all seem to share their prophecy with those who look and actually see.

Take rotten weeds, weeds that actually exhibit rotting conditions in the soil. Take stinky weeds and fungal weeds. All reflect the sour, sick, dead excess toxic level of soil components.

There are even herbicide indicator weeds, weeds that grow too well after an accumulation of a certain level of herbicides, usually over several years. Such weeds build up a negative effect on the desirable biological things that have to happen if crop production is to be successful. These weeds tell the United States Department of Agriculture that a measure of madness is afloat when spokesmen make their annual pronouncement that without herbicides and chemicals fifty million U.S. citizens would starve.

There is a damning finality to the evidence that has piled up since Acres U.S.A. began publication twenty-five years ago, because this evidence proves that soils subjected to herbicide use year after year have now achieved a negative depressing effect and gifted degeneration to the soil system, with resultant shortfalls in crop yields. Once such soils are cleansed of herbicide residues, yields can be increased as much as 50 to 75% without the addition of more fertilizer inputs. Moreover, once these soil conditions are corrected, there is a chance to manage the weeds without the use of toxic genetic chemicals.

Every weed, generally within twenty-four to forty-eight hours after germination, has the ability to emit auxins. These are growth factors that come off the seed via rootlets and penetrate out into the soil, sometimes as much as a half-inch from the seed itself. That auxin tells every other species in the immediate neighborhood to stay asleep.

There are hundreds and thousands of seeds in every square foot of soil, and yet only so many germinate and grow each year. They seem to know better than to crowd each other out. Another year, other seeds get their chance. There are enough seed deposits in most soils to last fifty, one hundred, even five hundred years, and some seeds live that long. As long as the chemistry and biology and environmental conditions are there, certain species will wait. The dust storms did not annihilate the tumbleweed seeds or terminate the prickly pear, and all the laws passed to proscribe noxious weeds or prevent seed transport from farm to farm, county to county or state to state are merely so many monuments to the stupidity of man.

Crop Planting and Non-Toxic Weed Management

There is a lesson in all this. As the weed seed germinates, it emits those growth factors. Astute farmers can use weeds to their benefit.

In the spring, when preparing the rootbed, watch the warming and the curing and the ripening and the germinating capacity of the soil system being established. Always, certain weed seeds will start to germinate. The day that you go out and scratch the soil and see germinated weeds with roots about an inch long, that is the time to change the concentration of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the rootbed, and place the desired crop seed.

Within the first twenty-four hours that little weed seed has done its job. It has given off auxins enough to dormatize every other weed seed next to it. It is nature’s form of population control. It just allows certain weed seeds to come alive and stake out a proper domain, meaning space to ensure enough light, air, drainage, ventilation and carbon dioxide to prosper and produce new seed, the Creator’s purpose for a plant.

At the stage of its growth when it germinates, that little weed seed is very susceptible to dying. It can be killed easily simply by taking light tillage equipment through the soil to change the oxygen content. Cation balance, pH, the phosphate level, moisture, air — all determine how long an auxin system will endure in the seedbed. Soils that are completely dead and have no biological capacity, no balance, no equilibrium, soils abused to death with hard chemistry or imbalanced inputs of salt fertilizers, make it possible for the weed crop to hit the ground running, so to speak.

Auxins from weeds can endure in the soil for as long as six to eight weeks. Unfortunately, in most soils managed under the precepts of mainline agriculture, crop auxins can endure only three or four days. That is why partial and imbalanced fertilization usually becomes a sales ticket for insurance spraying, a benchmark for the chemical amateur.

Wild Mustard
Wild mustard is usually related to a field planted to small grains and the development of slime molds. The weed grows best in areas stressed due to poor drainage and poor structure. Control comes down to applying good compost or nitrogen to get the decay process moving properly. Above, an artist’s conception of pinnatifida variety (A); the seedling (B); a flower (C); siliques, an elongated fruit divided by a partition between the two carpels in two sections (D); and seeds (E).

Thus the equilibrium established in the soil determines how long growth factors can endure and exercise a dormatizing effect on a crop of weeds. If good biological management gives the crop seed time enough to send out its hormones and say, I command power over this domain for this generation, weeds cease to be the grower’s boogeyman and coffee klatch excuse for bad farming.

No one need accept my word for this. As Rudolf Steiner often said, “Experiment, experiment!’’ Almost every corn grower finds that certain rows were missed or that there are gaps in certain rows. The instant impulse is to replant, sometimes one seed at a time. But it never comes to anything. The new and later plants lack vigor and seem deprived of the potential they ought to have. The reason is simple. The other rows out there have already taken command over that soil domain and do everything they can to shut down the come-lately arrivals. They have sent their hormones out into the soil, and injected a negative effect for the replants to field.

That is why it is necessary when planting any seed crop to control the depth of planting and the spacing of the seed, so that they all come up on equal footing.

Any seed that germinates one or two or four days later than the seed placed next to it never has the potential for producing a high-yielding, field-ripened harvest. Weeds have the most serious effect on crop production during the first week or ten days of their life. That is why a small weed, one only a half inch above the surface of the soil, has such negative effect on the yield and quality of the crop.

C.J. Fenzau, my consultant for An Acres U.S.A. Primer, was so adamant on this point he sometimes repeated it several times in the same conversation. “We must control weeds in the early stages,’’ he would say. “Once the crop is this tall [indicating a foot or more] and a few weeds arrive underneath, they aren’t going to have much of a chance to do a lot of damage.’’

The Bottom Line on Weeds

Across more counties than most people see in a lifetime, this has been the lesson I learned “watching crops grow.’’ You can live with these weeds because they have less effect on yield and quality than when the corn crop is emerging from the soil with weeds arriving at the same time. In theory some of the pre-emergent herbicides set up this condition, but their legacy of damage is worse than the problem they presume to solve.

The bottom line is simply that good soil structure, good soil drainage and good aeration can control biological activity in the soil. In turn, the farmer can increase the nutrient supply and grow a high-yield crop even if a few weeds are supported underneath. But a sick soil with inadequate nutrient release and conversion will have a depressing effect on the yield potential. This allows the weeds to have a more negative effect simply because there are not enough nutrients to feed both the desired crop and the weeds. It also allows weeds to impose water limitations.

Weeds can set up severe competition for water, plant nutrients, air and light. If a crop is dominating and restricting the amount of light, then the light that filters through to the weeds underneath is subdued. Thus the weed is not able to grow as fast as its programmed genetic potential might otherwise allow. Instead of having a fat stemmed plant with a lot of root capacity, it is restricted because it failed to get enough light, and thus becomes a weak, thin-stemmed plant, one with smaller heads.

Any farm reporter who travels from one end of the country to the next can observe how weeds reflect reasonable variables such as altitude, sea level conditions, the amount of light and the angle at which the sun is exposed to that part of the earth. All these things have a bearing on establishing the character and the form and the potential of various weeds. You see some weeds that are short and blocky and thick-stemmed with great leaves, and others that are tall with thin stems and small leaves. These are all reflections of growing conditions. That is why weeds are an indicator of the limitations that exist. Farmers who learn how to read them find that this knowledge confers an ability to make better management decisions on how to live with weeds and still grow a good crop.

Source: Weeds—Control Without Poison

The Anatomy of Grass

By Charles Walters

Wise old graziers who manage to keep a disease-free herd year after year have a truism: “Worse than overgrazing is not grazing at all.”

Reclamation absolutely depends on it. So does maintenance. Grazing for health requires enough grass leaves remaining after a grazing sweep to enable photosynthesis. Urine and manure gifted the soil by tight herds, most of it stomped into the soil, the carbon dioxide flush is more than ample for rapid regrowth. This CO2 flush stays in the canopy of the grass to feed the pores. Saving soil moisture is dependent on the stomata valve being closed before all the soil moisture is transpired into the air.

The marijuana grower with a clandestine indoor operation often relies on fertilizing the air. Accordingly, he pipes CO2 into the growing chamber to achieve lush growth. The growth arrives, sure enough, but the quality suffers.

The 1948 Yearbook of Agriculture thus defined grass, and for several hundred pages examined grasses from Main to Florida, California to Washington, and all parts in between. Unfortunately, these descriptions do not come to terms with the real anatomy of grass or explain how and why grass uptakes more nutrients than all other crops and why it is absolutely necessary for herd health.

Cows eating pasture grass forage.

When we say “grass,” we usually mean forage. Others use the term as slang to identify cannabis. The golfer won’t call a putting green “grass” — it’s a “green,” period! John J. Ingalls, an early seeker, gave a speech that was a paean to bluegrass, and when Ann Wigmore starting juicing grass, the anatomy of grass took on new dimensions. It is a function of literacy for a reader to comprehend the meaning of a word according to the context of its usage.

Much like the average farmer, I thought I understood grass, this after a dozen years in farm journalism. But that was before I met Dr. Charles Schnabel. He presented for publication a short article entitled “An Ecological Sputnik.” The title denotes the era. Schnabel died a year or two later, but he gifted me his research findings, some of which are quoted below.

“Ecology deals with the unusual relations of an organism with its environment,” Schnabel wrote, “this as a prelude to an autopsy on grass that has most cowmen shaking their heads. To understand all the relations of an organism, including maintenance with its present environment, we must follow ecological clues clear back to 250 million years ago. Man’s survival depends on finding out what started and stopped the explosive planet growth which made the fossil fuels possible.”

Almost all ecologists agree that planet Earth must have supported a thousand times more plant growth than it does today. Coal beds and oil deposits didn’t just happen. All fossil fuels have one thing in common. They are a consequence of reducing conditions. Those same conditions prevail today in water-logged soils which have produced paddy rice for a thousand years without the addition of nitrogen.

Rice paddy field

Paddy rice soils get their nitrogen from blue-green algae, the algae that forms green rice oil. In other words, biological nitrogen fixation is a purely reductive process. The plan here is that reductive conditions should be maintained around the roots of farm crops, especially grass.

Schnabel tried his theory on rye, one of the cereal grasses. He grew his crop on summit silt using simple extraction. This revealed a possible production record of 21.78 tons of dry grain per acre. This rye plant was grown with seaweed.

During a tour of the Kika de la Garza Ag Experiment Station near Westlaco, Texas, an agronomist lionized certain fertilizers but pronounced coal nearly worthless. That’s not what Charlie Schnabel’s tests indicated. He found coal and oil shale worth more as fertilizer than as fuel. As Dr. Carl Oppenheimer of Austin, Texas, has demonstrated with his blend of RNA bacteria, coal and even crankcase oil can become a source of useable carbon after these microorganisms are done with it. Investigators often create more questions than answers. What were the variables that governed record production at one spot and a completely different result a foot away? The flip answers are always available — not so easily identified are the variables that dance before our eyes.

Farmers are always on the hunt for greens that make the connection between chlorophyll and gain. They turn to alfalfa, a time-honored forage. Yet a morsel of alfalfa meal from 5 percent to 20 percent of the poultry ration ignores the kidneys. There is always a but! The principle of alfalfa is in the leaves. Accordingly a 15 percent protein crop can be fed at higher levels than alfalfa leaves with 30 percent protein.

These few asides are presented here to call into question the idea that anything green is a gift from heaven. As a matter of fact, all the vegetables have been tested, not only by Dr. Firman Bear, but by hundreds of researchers. None improved the record of alfalfa. Spinach, mustard, turnips, collard greens, and two varieties of lettuce have proved no more effective in regeneration than their respective ashes. Alfalfa proved twice as effective.

Alfalfa leaves

Simply stated, all chlorophylls are not the same — whether flat or saponins, etc., they instill biological differences in the plants so dazzlingly we are required to note in the expertise of the greatest nutritional expert on planet Earth, the cow.

It was serendipity that gave early researchers the clue that kicked open the door to the chlorophyll-vitality connection, when immature wheat and oat grass chop was accidentally fed to poultry. The immature grass-fed birds averaged 94 percent production while control birds reduced production from 45 to 32 percent during the test months. The test hens remained free from degenerative diseases.

Grass, not corn chop or silage or protein bypass, accounts for bovine health, and the grass-fed cow knows it. Even the friendly dog goes to grass when its blood needs rebuilding.

These are rules that ought to be posted on the shaving mirrors of cowmen, and cowwomen, if you will:

1. Dehydrated grasses must contain 30 percent or more protein. Lower quality grass will debilitate the animal.

2. Grasses must be cut just before they joint. Proteins and vitamins in grass peak immediately before jointing and fall rapidly after jointing.

3. Grasses must be quickly and carefully dried in order to preserve vitamins and color.

4. High protein grasses must comprise 20 percent of the ration.

5. The ration must not contain more than 3 percent meat scrap.

6. Livers previously damaged by meat scraps do not recover. Are poultry tests useful when discussing grass and pastures? They are if we are to understand the benefits and some of the shortfalls in pasture management. Simply turning poultry out in pasture is not adequate because the grasses are at the proper stage too short a time and perennial grasses hardly ever contain 20 percent protein. Even when the grass is available, few hens consume the required eight pounds of fresh grass per month on a range.

Pastures are generally populated by various species of perennials, some of which retain their reserves in the grass’s joint at different times. The bovine, as nature’s finest nutritionist, sorts out the bits best suited to maintain health and milk flow, always choosing the best unjointed grass available for its lower row of teeth.

There was a time when the bison was present in vast herds from the Great Lakes to northern New Mexico. The buffalo ate only grass and in captivity generally refused alfalfa hay. The horse, sheep, and grazing wildlife thrive indefinitely on quality fresh grass.

All these animals seem to realize the value of young grass. “They have always eaten all of it as stupidity would permit.” Charles Schnabel told this journalist. “Otherwise we would have come to biological and economic destruction long ago.”

There is irony in this. Agronomists search the globe for better crops and have untapped a full measure of the universal crop, grass. Thus all the cereals are at the bloom stage when they have lost 50 percent of their biological values.

In Unforgiven, I pointed out that the unpaid work force of an animal population alone is capable of harvesting all the untilled acres, always using its intelligence to harvest at exactly the right time if given a chance.

The definition of grass

The word grass supposedly evolved from an old Aryan root, ghra-, to grow. It is related to “grain,” “green,” “grow,” and the Latin gramen, grass.

The Oxford Dictionary gives the primary definition of grass as “herbage in general, the blades or leaves and stalks of which are eaten by horses, cattle, sheep, etc.” This ele­mental usage is reflected, for example, in the Bible (“. . . all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass”). Now, however, grass primarily refers to the natural botanical family of grasses (Gramineae or Poaceae). Grasses belong to the seed plant subkingdom (Spermatophyta) and thereunder, 1. to the subdivision of angiosperms (Angio­spermae) with rudimentary seed (ovules) enclosed in an ovary, and 2. to the class monocotyledons, the embryos of which have one seed leaf, or cotyledon.

Source: Grass, the Forgiveness of Nature