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Advice for "fixing" 15 acres of awful land  RSS feed

 
Andrew Roesner
Posts: 17
Location: Denver, CO
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Hey all,

I'll be taking over the stewardship of about 15 acres of crop land on Colorado's Front Range (an hour north of Denver, zone 5b), after the Roundup ready corn is harvested, of course

The land is very flat and has been farmed conventionally in corn/beans/barley for ever essentially. The owner is interested in taking things a different direction and is open to anything so long as we're restoring the soil instead of hurting it. He'll be mostly hands off so I'm in charge of the what and when.

Plan 'A' is to plant about 10ac of hops, saving the rest for diversified crops, CSA type things. We've already planted a small trial hop yard on around 4000 sqft, but I'm hesitant to move forward with the massive investment in infrastructure given the condition of the soil. I'm open to cover cropping and manuring and whatever else y'all can come up with to build this soil as much as we can.

I'll tell you a little about what we're dealing with. The soil pH is about 8.0, with 6% free lime. The composition is 60% sand, 34% clay, 6% loam. this is from a 0"-12" mixed sample taken in 18 different spots spread around the property. In other words it's a representative sample. The top 4"-6" is friable soil, the next 12"-20" is very hard clay, almost hard pan. Below the clay is a mostly sand structure. The land is roughly 1km from a river and the water table is quite high. I didn't hit water when I was drilling almost 5' deep for the hop trellis poles we set, but the neighbors claim there in an "underground river" running across the north half of the property. they've seen water table as high as 3'.

In other words, the soil is a mess. I've done all the research on soil pH, and have a good handle on what needs to be done there (hops prefer 6-6.5), so I'm looking for recommendations on what to plant and when. If this was your land what would you do first? Daikon radish is on my list. will that have a chance to break through the clay? should I try doing a DEEEEEEP rip / tilling, on the order of 24" or more, to try and break that clay open before cover cropping? Can you recommend an implement that will perform this function? I'm not sure we'll have access early enough in the autumn to plant a cover crop this fall so I might have to wait for spring. I plan to cover crop for at least one full season. How many seasons of cover cropping do you think it will take to really have something to work with? How many crops can I plant in a season? What should the mix of plants be? We have access to massive amounts of dairy cow manure. How much would you spread and when? Our limiting factors for this work (besides $$, of course) are renting/borrowing equipment and/or hiring out the work. We don't own any tractors but obviously every one of the neighbors has barns full of stuff just sitting there.

Looking forward to any and all suggestions!!
 
Deb Rebel
garden master
Posts: 1688
Location: Zone 6b
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Deep plowing is a hard job and needs a big tractor. You'll be lucky to pull one tine that deep so it will take you awhile as well.

Deep plowing louses up the microbial and other in your soil, it will set you back. It will bring up deep minerals but the tradeoff in building the soil back up has to be considered, even if it's poor now you still have that micro-environ going.

How is your 'perk'? Does surface water (i.e., rain or irrigation) just sit above that clay?

If you punch the clay to the sand, will all your surface water just disappear? (I lived farther south in the front range for close to a few decades... you hit that sand it was literally water crystals for your lawn or you weren't having one as all the water left.) Getting to the sand meant you had a lot of work building your organic to hold the moisture.

I'd suggest work on building the layer on top up, making it thicker as well as restoring the condition of the soil. Green manure cover crops, a late fall application of cow manure.... etc. You can get too much organic as well but the mix you are quoting can take another ten percent organic easily.

Did the soil test check your minerals, especially the calcium? With clay down there and possible that that was commercially irrigated, it would be good to check calcium levels and built up salts. Irrigated land can have issues with the salts.
 
Andrew Roesner
Posts: 17
Location: Denver, CO
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Thanks for the reply, Deb.

So there was not number for Ca on the report. Here's the rest (all in ppm):

N: 54
P: 210
K: 2014
Zn: 4.5
Fe: 9.3
Mn: 3.3
Cu: 2.6
B: 0.33
S: 48.4
Organic matter: 5%

This land has been irrigated with ditch water from the Big Thompson. The one thing we have going for us is abundant water and very senior water rights. I've been watching the current farmer irrigating the furrows and the soil appears to drain well. The EC Salts, measured as mmhos/cm, was reported as 1.0 and labeled as low.

I do realize that ripping the soil that deep is a big job, and that it also will further damage the soil. I wonder if it would be worth it given just how poor the soil is and my dedication to restoring it. I think that because we have plentiful water rights and a high water table, punching through that clay to open up the soil might provide more benefit than harm in the long run. What do you think? I plan to spread large quantities of humic acid, maybe some azomite or rock dust. Cover crops will be inoculated to jump start the microbial activity. Basically anything that will help kick start the process, I'm not adverse to any of it. I just don't have a good plan for what to do and when!
 
Deb Rebel
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Location: Zone 6b
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Colorado seems to be fractioning out because of water rights and water fights... it's one reason I left the front range. Thinking water saving even if you seem to have it everywhere might be good in the long run.

Good that the salts are low. That can be a real stumbling block on restoring.

If you want to know how your calcium is, plant a tomato plant. If it shows up with blossom end rot, you have calcium problems.  I have used old gypsum (drywall-that I made sure wasn't full of sulfur or offgas stuff that came from remodeling) to add calcium to the soil. Not on the scale of 15 acres, but. Soak in pail to break up further, pour on, work in. (there are many ways to incorporate it other than plowing or tilling as well). Gypsum can be gotten at some feed stores in bulk bags.

Working on the above clay layer may be the better move. It could be do a small patch as test, break that, to compare. It would also be a test bed for how long it would take to bring the soil back.

Azomite I have used and it is good stuff. Adds lots of good things.

Past that look to something like clover for a green manure that could be gotten going almost immediately, and late fall when cattle farmers are cleaning up, get some manure to put on... do work all this in... and let sit the winter under another cover crop such as winter wheat or the like. It will be put under in the spring to help add that organic material. Manure will be 'hot' but with it being in the ground over winter will break down and make things better.

 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
Posts: 2844
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Andrew,  Have you read my soil threads? They will probably give you some good ideas which will help you develop a good plan of attack.

Hops is a heavy feeding plant just in case you didn't know that.

The tool you might want to use is called a "Key Line Plow" To use one on large acreages you will need a large (150+ hp. tractor) to pull a 4 tine model.

Redhawk
 
Deb Rebel
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Posts: 1688
Location: Zone 6b
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https://permies.com/t/67969/quest-super-soil#577846

https://permies.com/t/80/63914/Soil#577366 ; This one is very long but very good.

Both started by Bryant RedHawk
 
Dale Hodgins
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Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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Are wood chips abundant and free in your region? They would definitely help you with ph problems. Around here, landscaping companies will dump a thousand tons, if you give them permission.
 
Chris Giannini
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If it were my land I wouldn't drill or plant anything until you fix the ph problem. I would start with doing a few lab tests on different areas of your farm. Once you submit samples and get results I would suspect that the soil in low in phosphorous for which I would apply a large amount of fish bonemeal to bring the ph down
 
Chris Giannini
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Actually gypsum would be a better remedy than bone meal
 
Andrew Roesner
Posts: 17
Location: Denver, CO
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Deb Rebel wrote:https://permies.com/t/67969/quest-super-soil#577846

https://permies.com/t/80/63914/Soil#577366 ; This one is very long but very good.

Both started by Bryant RedHawk


Thanks for the links Deb. I've started reading the second one already. I needed a break
 
Andrew Roesner
Posts: 17
Location: Denver, CO
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Dale Hodgins wrote:Are wood chips abundant and free in your region? They would definitely help you with ph problems. Around here, landscaping companies will dump a thousand tons, if you give them permission.


Dale, I believe wood chips are very abundant. The state of Colorado is busy with clearing thousands of acres of beetle kill pine in the mountains, and they have absolutely nothing to do with those chips. You'll have to educate me on the pH aspect of adding wood chips. I'm only familiar with their ability to lock up N in the soil. Something I'd like to avoid. But I'd definitely welcome the organic matter!
 
Andrew Roesner
Posts: 17
Location: Denver, CO
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Chris Giannini wrote:If it were my land I wouldn't drill or plant anything until you fix the ph problem. I would start with doing a few lab tests on different areas of your farm. Once you submit samples and get results I would suspect that the soil in low in phosphorous for which I would apply a large amount of fish bonemeal to bring the ph down


Chris, the pH issue is a big one for us. You'll see in my original post that hops like a slightly acidic pH, and that high amount of free lime (6%) is making pH adjustment very challenging. I had planned to start a separate post regarding soil pH, but I'll give a quick overview of what I've learned and maybe you'll have an idea.

The folks at the Colorado State University Soil Lab did all my soil testing. I learned from them that an acre of soil that is 6" deep is considered to be 2,000,000 lbs of soil. So considering that my soil is 6% free lime (CaCO3, Calcium Carbonate), I have 120,000 lbs per acre (in the top 6" of soil), or 60 tons, of CaCO3 that is keeping my pH high. I also learned that every lb (or gram or ton, for that matter) of CaCO3 in the soil requires 3 lbs of elemental sulfur to neutralize it. So 60 tons of free lime per acre needs 180 tons of elemental sulfur to neutralize it. Not only is that amount of Sulfur unfeasible from a financial standpoint, it's affect on the soil would be disastrous.  I've been in contact with a company in California that sprays Sulfuric acid in these situations, but have yet to receive a cost quote. And then there's the damage of spraying sulfuric acid!! Interestingly, when sulfuric acid reacts with CaCO3, the products are H20, CO2, and a bunch of CaSO4 (gypsum)!

If you have a proven method for lowering pH quickly and efficiently, that takes into consideration the CaCO3 levels, I'd love to hear it!!
 
Daron Williams
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Andrew Roesner wrote:Dale, I believe wood chips are very abundant. The state of Colorado is busy with clearing thousands of acres of beetle kill pine in the mountains, and they have absolutely nothing to do with those chips. You'll have to educate me on the pH aspect of adding wood chips. I'm only familiar with their ability to lock up N in the soil. Something I'd like to avoid. But I'd definitely welcome the organic matter!


A note on wood chips and nitrogen. If you don't till in the wood chips and just leave them on the surface you should not see a decrease in N levels. My understanding is that the locking of soil N only happens when you bury the wood chips or till them in.
 
Andrew Roesner
Posts: 17
Location: Denver, CO
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:hau Andrew,  Have you read my soil threads? They will probably give you some good ideas which will help you develop a good plan of attack.

Hops is a heavy feeding plant just in case you didn't know that.

The tool you might want to use is called a "Key Line Plow" To use one on large acreages you will need a large (150+ hp. tractor) to pull a 4 tine model.

Redhawk


KEY LINE PLOW!! Thank you Bryant! I had come across that name at some point but it had escaped me until you reminded me! Most of the farmers in my area have very large tractors. I wouldn't be surprised if a few have something that big. Having the key line plow, now that's another story!

I did know that hops are very heavy feeders. I've been immersing myself in the world of hops production for months now. The standard recommendation for N is 150-200 #/ac, all of which is applied in a short 6 week window from mid May to the end of June. They're quite remarkable plants. Now that recommendation comes from conventional farmers of course. Most hops are grown like anything else with little to no attention paid to soil fertility. I'm sure my young plants in poor soil will require more than 200# N/ac, but I hope and am planning, to build organic matter and fertility over the years so that number will be greatly reduced.
 
Andrew Roesner
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Location: Denver, CO
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Daron Williams wrote:A note on wood chips and nitrogen. If you don't till in the wood chips and just leave them on the surface you should not see a decrease in N levels. My understanding is that the locking of soil N only happens when you bury the wood chips or till them in.


Thanks Daron. Any idea how wood chips on the surface can reduce soil pH? Perhaps over a very long time frame as they break down?
 
Daron Williams
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I think as you add any organic material to the soil it will slowely move the pH of the soil towards neutral as the material breaks down. Even acidic materials shift neutral as they breakdown in the soil. So wood chips added overtime should move your soils towards neutral but it would take time since they need to decompose first.
 
James Freyr
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Hi Andrew do you know what kind of soil analysis was performed? Was the cation exchange capacity (CEC) listed on your analysis? I'm wondering if you had a standard Mehlich 3 test done, which will not yield accurate CEC due to the high pH. CEC is important to know to help establish guidelines for target levels of certain minerals. With a soil with a high pH such as you're working with, ask a lab to do an elevated pH ammonium acetate extraction to give a more accurate CEC. I saw you mentioned a particle analysis of 60% sand, 34% clay and 6% loam. With that much sand, I'm willing to bet your CEC is under 20. And under 20 isn't bad, wonderful crops can be grown. Basically, a lower CEC may require staying on top of annual mineral additions, whereas a heavy clay soil with a CEC of 120 can be brought into balance, then for the most part, crops be grown for several years without having to keep adding minerals. Think of CEC as a pantry. The higher the number, the more minerals or foodstuffs are available for plants to use. It is pretty apparent there's an excess of calcium, which if I had to choose an element to be in excess it would be Ca. I believe you have plenty of potassium, and the last thing you want to do is add more. The phosphorous needs to come up, and if you're not opposed to using monoammonium phosphate (MAP), it will raise your phosphorous levels while at the same time adding nitrogen in the form of ammonium. If you don't want to use MAP, use soft rock phosphate as a source of phosphorous. It appears the soil could use a boost of Zinc, Iron, Manganese, a little copper and boron. If it were my soil to amend, I would gladly use those minerals, with the exception of boron, in the form of sulfates. You'll raise the needed mineral levels, and add sulfur to boot which will help lower the pH. Your boron needs to be 2-4ppm or 2-4lbs per furrowslice acre. Here's the thing about boron. Boron kinda lines a plants xylem, or capillaries if you will, that carry water and all other nutrients up and down a plant. Low levels of boron can really hold things back even when everything else seems to be right. Proper levels of boron can really bring plants to life. You absolutely want that 2ppm minimum of boron, but beware that most plants, especially the food crops we eat, are very sensitive to boron toxicity or levels going over 4ppm, and you don't want to find yourself with that problem as boron is difficult to remove from soil once in there. Borax, yes the stuff you can put in laundry, is a great source of boron. Borax has about 10% boron. There's another product called Solubor which has a higher concentration of boron, but it is easier to overdo it with solubor if not paying attention or accidentally overlapping application and having bands of too much boron in the fields. Aim for 2ppm boron, and if you overshoot it and end up with 2.5 or 3ppm, it's all good.

All your soil amendments will have to be done in steps. There's no way to correct this in one fail swoop in one year. Not all you apply will bind to exchange sites on soil particles. Make some applications and in 12 months retest your soil and adjust accordingly. You'll see results each year go in the right direction. And it doesn't mean you have to wait to grow crops. Grow your crops while doing this. Absolutely apply organic matter as others have mentioned. Healthy populations of microbes will turn some of the organic matter into humus. Humus holds onto anions like nitrogen, nitrate, phosphorous, phosphate, sulfur, and boron among others. You mentioned azomite, and by all means use it! All the 70 some odd other elements on the periodic table that we don't see on a soil analysis are important, and adding them in the form of azomite, kelp or sea minerals to mention a few, will really help things along. Use one the first year, and use a different one the next. Kelp is cool because it's also chock full of amino acids. It's not just the plants themselves that need minerals, all the microbial life in the soil needs them too.

I'm not an expert, just a guy who loves gardening and has read some books on soil. I've also read Redhawks threads on soil and they're wonderfully informative. I'm just trying to help guide you in this soil fixing process and sharing my understanding of things and I hope you find it helpful. I hope if anyone sees I've made an error or have misinformed, please correct me.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau James, nice post. 

The best method for amending minerals in useful forms is to use some in making your compost, that way you are feeding the bacteria and fungi the minerals and they will help you by turning the minerals into usable forms for your plants.

It is always better to have to make an addition than to have to try and remove an overdose.
Most people can't or don't want to spend the time and money to do a series of complete soil tests.
While it is the best method for small plots it becomes prohibitively expensive in both sampling time and test expenses for just about everyone.
I have my own lab and I don't bother taking the days it would require on my little farm.

If you can get that first battery done well and then use a two year approach to bringing up the mineral content (which will also bring up the ion counts) then you are light years ahead of most people.

I like your initiative and you have a sound knowledge base. Keep up the good work 

Redhawk
 
James Freyr
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Thanks Redhawk! That puts a smile on my face
 
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