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VIDEO: A ‘21st century soil test’: Haney Test garners more attention

Richard Haney left his Iowa family farm and received his doctorate in soil chemistry in 2001, when he was 42 years old."I know it's corny," says Haney, now a soil scientist in Temple, Texas, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural ...

Richard Haney left his Iowa family farm and received his doctorate in soil chemistry in 2001, when he was 42 years old.
“I know it’s corny,” says Haney, now a soil scientist in Temple, Texas, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. “But when I came off the farm, my goal was to help these guys (farmers struggling to stay in business). I’m not kidding. Soil testing seemed to have a direct impact on what they’re doing.”
With that in mind, Haney helped develop a “21st century soil test” that he says can allow farmers to apply less chemical fertilizer, cutting production costs and benefitting the environment.
“We’re still using (soil testing) methods from the ’50s and ’60s,” Haney says. “What other industry do you know that does that?”
His test, also known as the Soil Health Test, measures the amount of organic nitrogen and phosphate in soil that’s available for a plant to utilize. It considers many of the same things as standard soil tests, but also takes into account microbial activity in the soil. Other tests can miss organic nitrogen and phosphate, and cause farmers to apply more chemical fertilizer than necessary, Haney Test advocates say.
Haney describes the test as “trying to get the soil in your field to tell us what it’s capable of doing, as far as delivering nutrients to whatever crop you want to grow.” The test “gives you a handle on unseen nutrients that we’re now capable of seeing in the the lab. We hadn’t had that capability.”
With traditional tests, “we beat up soil in the lab, instead of trying to work with it,” he says. The Haney Test “lets the soil tell us what it needs, instead of us telling what it needs. It’s working with nature instead of working against it.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Services, similar to the ARS, is an arm of USDA, has been working to increase awareness of the Haney Test. The Grand Forks (N.D.) Soil Conservation District is part of initial USDA-NRCS testing.
Kristine Lofgren, watershed coordinator with the Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District, says the county’s effort began two years ago with a single farmer and a four-acre test plot. The effort includes the Haney Test and several other soil health measurements.
Based on what’s been learned so far, the producer is likely to “back off a little” on fertilizer application this crop season, she says.
Another Grand Forks County farmer is interested in using the Haney Test on a larger scale this year, she says.
The Grand Forks County NRCS will provide information and technical assistance to farmers who want to learn more about the Haney Test, she says.
Database questions
Some soil scientists urge caution, at least for now, however.
For instance, Dave Franzen, North Dakota State University Extension soil specialist, says this region’s database is still too small to make effective use of the Haney Test.
Lofgren says the NRCS got involved with the test to help build the database.
Haney says, “What you’ll hear is, this test isn’t calibrated. Well, we’re accounting for a pool of nitrogen (and other nutrients) we haven’t seen before because we didn’t have instrumentation in the lab to see it. We’re measuring something we haven’t measured before.”
Nitrogen is a widely used fertilizer needed in almost all aspects of plant growth.
By using the Haney Test, farmers discover “here’s some nitrogen we haven’t seen before and can decide to back off on (nitrogen fertilizer) application,” Haney says.
As an example, a farmer who had been applying 100 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to grow 40 bushels of wheat per acre might, after using the Haney Test, concluded that 80 pounds would suffice, Haney says.
The future?
Some commercial labs across the country already offer the Haney Test.
Haney says producers interested in learning more about the test can contact him at rick.haney@ars.usda.gov .
Agriculture, like every other industry, needs to keep striving, Haney says. “We always have to try to do better. If we can improve our house, our land, our anything, even with baby steps, how is that a bad thing?”
Paying more attention to soil health and treating soil as a living organism, which the Haney Test does, is “the future,” he says.

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