Haney Soil Test Can Help Producers Maximize Fertilizer Inputs

A relatively new soil test developed by USDA soil scientists can help farmers measure soil health in their farm fields, and provide a customized soil health scorecard with recommendations on how to improve soil health.
Lance Gunderson, soil health specialist at Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Nebraska, told farmers about the Haney Soil Health Test during a field day near Humboldt, Nebraska on August 27.
The Haney Soil Health Test, developed at the Temple, Texas USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory by soil scientist Rick Haney and his colleagues, is intended to answer key soil health questions:
  • What condition the affected soil is in
  • Whether the soil is balanced to benefit soil microbes
  • What farmers can do to improve soil health
Traditional soil tests extract soil with acidic or alkali solutions, which do not resemble the chemicals present in farm fields. They provide recommendations of commercial fertilizer, but don't take soil microbial activity into account. The Haney Soil Health Test attempts to replicate field conditions using a couple of customized soil extraction processes, Gunderson says. These include:
H3A soil extractant: designed to mimic soil solutions, by using "green chemistry," or organic acids produced by living plant roots.
Solvita 1-day CO2 Burst: uses drying and rewetting techniques to mimic natural field events, representing the flush of microbial activity leading to nutrient cycling, which is directly related to soil habitat.
The Haney Soil Health Test also measures water extractable organic carbon and nitrogen along with organic phosphorous phosphorous, or the pool of these nutrients readily available to soil microbes. "When we apply commercial nitrogen fertilizer, we want to convert that inorganic nitrogen to organic nitrogen," Gunderson says. The test determines the amount of organic nitrogen already in the soil, which may decrease the amount of commercial nitrogen needed.
The Soil Health Score
Upon the laboratory's completion of the Haney Soil Health Test, growers will receive a Soil Health Analysis, which includes a calculation of nutrient quality available for the next crop, fertilizer recommendations for the next crop, and nitrogen savings by using the Haney test.
Test results also include a Soil Health Score, which measures the current health of the soil system by combining five individual measures.
A Soil Health Score of 7 or higher is preferred. Some growers using cover crops and no-till for years can achieve soil health scores greater than 20; others who have not yet adopted these practices may find a Soil Health Score of less than 5. The higher the Soil Health Score, the better the microbial biomass that drives nutrient cycling, Gunderson says.
The test will provide recommendations on improving the Soil Health Score, including planting cover crops. "We offer a rough percentage of which cover crops to plant, which gives producers a starting point to begin improving soil health," he adds.
Where to Get the Test
Several private soil laboratories offer a version of the Haney Soil Health Test. They include:
  • Ward Laboratories, Kearney, Nebraska (called the Haney Soil Health Test)
  • Woods End Laboratories, Mt. Vernon, Maine (called the Soil Health Tool)
  • Brookside Laboratories, New Bremen, Ohio (called the Soil Health Tool)
Expect to spend about $50 per test, depending upon the test results each laboratory provides. Gathering procedures are similar to those used in a conventional soil test; get a composite sample from several cores from 0-6-inches. Farmers are encouraged to get a composite sample representing no more than 40 acres.
Gunderson says the preferred time to pull soil samples is either right after harvest, or shortly before planting a cash crop.
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