FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
THURSDAY, SEPT. 30, 2004
||J. Kent Messick, Field Services Section chief
NCDA&CS Agronomic Division
Use available resources to improve farm cost effectiveness
OXFORD — Last year, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Division conducted hundreds of thousands of soil tests and sent out more than 52,000 laboratory reports. However, there are still many North Carolina growers who do not use agronomic testing or consulting services.
NCDA&CS Regional Agronomist Robin Watson believes in today’s current economic climate, it just doesn't make sense to use routine fertilization practices when free or inexpensive tests can provide detailed information on crop nutrient needs. Donnie Englebright of Oxford can testify to that.
"I've grown tobacco for about 20 years," Englebright said, "but it wasn't until 2001 that I took soil samples. The first year I saved $5,000 on fertilizer alone, and that doesn't count my savings in time and labor. That's the name of the game now — saving whatever you can."
Three years ago, Englebright took a friend's advice and called regional agronomist Robin Watson to find out about Agronomic Division services. Watson came out to Englebright's farm and suggested a soil-sampling program. He showed Englebright how to collect and submit samples, explained the fertilizer recommendations, gave advice about the timing of application, and even helped calibrate equipment.
Soil test results indicated Englebright could cut his fertilizer application rate nearly in half as well as reduce the amount of phosphorus he put out. By using less fertilizer and switching to one containing less phosphorus, he could save a lot of money. In areas where phosphorus was needed, Englebright could apply triple superphosphate more economically.
Reducing the amount of fertilizer applied at transplanting allowed Englebright to finish transplanting two days earlier than normal, saving significant time and labor. Further savings occurred
when Watson suggested delaying the sidedress fertilizer application closer to the time of lay-by, or the last time when growers are able to run heavy equipment through the field.
“Nitrogen applied too early tends to be lost when rain leaches it out of the root zone. Overall,
Englebright put out less total nitrogen, but the crop used it more efficiently,” Watson said. “Delaying sidedress gave him the chance to make a better decision regarding the total amount of nitrogen to apply — a decision directly affecting leaf harvest and the quality of cured leaf.”
Seeing the immediate benefit from soil testing, Englebright was more than willing to take Watson's next bit of advice — sample for nematodes. Results indicated high levels of root-knot nematodes, a common and widespread pest of tobacco. However, they also indicated an important, first-time pest for Granville County, the tobacco cyst nematode. Englebright found he could handle the problem by not using some of his worst fields and fumigating others. Now he routinely collects nematode samples along with his soil samples every fall.
As the season drew to a close, Watson showed Englebright how to use plant tissue analysis to determine when leaves were ready for harvest. Tissue analysis is one of the most valuable, and little known, agronomic tests available to tobacco growers. By measuring the nitrogen content of the leaf, the test indicates whether leaves from the sampled stalk position are ripe enough for harvest. With contract tobacco, this tool is unique and effective in maximizing the best-cured leaf, grade and yield.
"We went through a period when we tried to harvest by sight," Englebright said. "If the leaf looked green, we wouldn't harvest it. When we started using tissue testing, we followed the recommendations even if it was green. Our neighbors were curious. They asked us why we were harvesting that green tobacco, but when they saw it cure up real pretty, they didn't ask that question again."
To use tissue analysis effectively, growers must collect samples and send them to the NCDA&CS lab every two weeks throughout the harvest period. Tissue tests cost $4 per sample, and results are available in about two working days after samples arrive at the lab.
In 2003, Englebright harvested 120 acres of tobacco, compared with 185 acres the year before. With quota steadily being cut, he and his father are grateful for the gains they've been able to make.
"Last year, we purchased a precision box loader with the money we saved by fertilizing more efficiently," Englebright said. "It used to take 12 men an hour and a half to pack leaves into boxes. With the new equipment, it takes 10 men 40 minutes. That's a significant improvement and one that we wouldn't have been able to make without the advice we received from Watson."
North Carolina farmers have access to one of the most comprehensive agronomic testing and advisory services in the nation. Although best known for its soil testing services, the Agronomic Division also checks plant tissue, composted materials, animal wastes, industrial and municipal wastes, nutrient solutions and source water for nutrient content and other chemical properties relevant to agricultural production. To support these testing services, it has a staff of 13 regional agronomists who visit growers, evaluate suspected nutrient problems, help take samples, give advice on liming and fertilization, and help identify and manage nematode problems.
Information on collecting and submitting agronomic samples is available online at www.ncagr.com/agronomi. For more help, contact your local NCDA&CS regional agronomist.
Agronomist Robin Watson is available to provide advice on fertilization, nutrient management or nematode problems in Alamance, Caswell, Chatham, Durham, Granville, Orange, Person, Rockingham and Stokes counties. He can be reached by phone at (336) 570-6850 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.