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Use tissue samples to better manage crop nutrients

Previously a niche management tool, tissue sampling is gaining popularity for the unique perspective it gives on nutrients. 

“The basis of tissue sampling is just evaluating that nutrient flow through the season, and subsequently evaluating that for how we can improve those numbers over time,” says Nick Frederking, a sales agronomist for AgriGold.

Tissue samples can provide deeper understanding of plant health than does the naked eye.

“If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing,” Frederking says. “If you’re not taking tissue samples out of your field, you just don’t know what the nutrient concentration is. It’s pretty easy to see a deficiency in the field and recognize you came up short on that nutrient, but by that time you’ve already lost the bushels.”

Fields that look green and healthy can still come up short for certain nutrients, meaning profits can be lost without the farmer ever knowing. Tissue samples can also verify the effectiveness of a nutrient program, a vital way to control costs. 

“I don’t even know how many farmers have told me, ‘Well, I really don’t know if that’s making a difference,’ ” says Whitney Monin, national agronomy manager for AgriGold. “Tissue sampling has opened a way to validate farmers’ nutrient management, instead of just wondering if it’s getting into their plant. Tissue samples are a way to visually see those levels.”


How to Sample

While each company or laboratory has different sampling guidelines, consistency is key across the board when it comes to taking samples.

“You have to be consistent in the tissue that you’re collecting in the field, because some of the nutrients that we look at are mobile and some of them are immobile within the plant,” Monin says. “Some nutrients might be sequestered in lower leaves or older leaves, and some nutrients might be sequestered in new leaves.” 

Timing is also important. Some protocols recommend taking samples every week, while others have set sample timings throughout the season. 

Farmers should be cognizant of where in the field they collect samples. 

“People that don’t have as much experience taking samples will sometimes take tissue samples from a poor part of the field, the best part of the field, and somewhere in the middle and then combine them all,” Frederking says. “That is not really representative to the management of that field or fair to the crop when trying to evaluate these nutrient responses through the season.”

Baseline Benefits

While tissue samples do provide a real-time look at plant nutrient levels, it’s not always enough to make corrections in season. 

“The reality is, once your plant is signaling a deficit it is just always going to be hard to recover,” Monin says. “The farmers I know who have made the biggest increases by utilizing tissue samples have taken a full year to set a baseline of what their crop looks like over an entire growing season.” 

The baseline can help farmers make smart management decisions in future growing seasons. 

“If we have a baseline or trend line of what our nutrient analysis was from the prior year, when we go into the subsequent year we can identify where we were low and try to mitigate that,” Frederking says.

Understanding a field’s baseline can also help farmers be more effective with their nutrient applications. 

“Tissue sampling could be a very viable solution to help farmers understand where their pinch points are, where their gaps are,” Monin says. “Ultimately those pinch points and gaps may not save money, but it makes the money you spend much more effective in terms of crop utilization.” 

When used in conjunction with soil samples, tissue samples can provide a broad picture of how nutrients, the soil, and the crop are working together. 

A soil sample that shows deep deficiency in certain nutrients, which is echoed by tissue samples, indicates corrections can occur on a soil basis as opposed to foliar applications, Frederking says.

Progressive Management

Frederking says the farmers who use tissue sampling typically have a deep understanding of their operation. 

“Beyond the management and application of nutrients, this has been great for growers to get more invested in their crop,” he says. “I tend to hear they’re getting into their fields more than they would normally expect to. This leads to overall better scouting and more general curiosity. Guys are picking things out of their field and asking questions they’ve never asked before.” 

The combination of deeper knowledge and better management can help farmers have a stronger business. 

“If you want to be progressive and you want to learn more about your crop, your management, and how to move that dollar a little bit further, tissue sampling is a great cost-effective tool,” Frederking says. 

The cost of sampling is generally minimal. 

“I would advise farmers to call multiple labs and talk to them about what is actually entailed with their tissue sampling analysis,” Monin says. “All in all, it’s generally a very nominal fee to do tissue sampling for the amount of information and insights you get to change your management over time.”

On the Farm

Braden Short, a Broughton, Illinois, farmer, heard about tissue sampling years ago, but didn’t implement it on his farm until he started incorporating high-management fields.

“I wanted to see what was going on inside the plant based off what we were doing originally on our basically conventional acres,” he says. 

Today, he samples weekly and saves the data to evaluate it during the winter. He also uses soil samples and weather data to fully understand what is happening in his fields. 

Short organizes this data so every nutrient has its own chart. Monitoring nutrient levels through the season enables him to better monitor application timings. 

“If I see that I had a [nutrient] peak at a certain time and I had just made an application, then I know that that application made a difference,” Short says. “If I see that I waited too long to make another application and I had a [nutrient] dip, then I could move an application up [in the future]. I can tweak my program sitting in the office in the wintertime instead of making decisions on the fly.” 

A combination of good weather and more management has helped Short increase yields by 20 to 30 bushels per acre across his farm. While Short appreciates the insight he gleans from tissue samples, he admits it can be time- and labor-intensive to get the information he needs. 

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox to see more of the big picture,” Short says. “It’s not really a one and done kind of deal. You have to really incorporate it and use it multiple times throughout the season.”

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