1.24.2011 Soil Sampling

The sun came out today and drove the murk and chill away.  Lovely day!  Great day for a walkabout with a shovel and a bucket.  I took my soil samples today.  Four different samples; six samples for each one; so I turned over 24 different plugs of soils.  Really interesting sort of day.  Full of surprises, even.  Now you may recall about a week ago I spent several hours with the web soil survey learning what the government lab coats think of my dirt.  Well, in a week or two, I will find out what the dirt geeks at Virginia Tech think of my soil.  I mailed the samples this afternoon.

In the meantime, I discovered the soil on the east side of the farm is a red clayey loam – about what you’d expect of good Virginia farm soil.  However, the west side of the farm has a darker, sandier mix.  It’s not that picture perfect, Kansas black soil you see on tv, but it is pretty darn nice stuff.   Yet according to the soil survey it’s all part of the same soil type – Cecil fine sandy loam.  I split the samples because the east side of the farm has been chickenified, the west has not.  There’s a big difference in the vegetation where the chickens have been.  In talking with my neighbor today, he said he’s noticed there is a lot of variation in the coloring and constitution of his soil as well.  An old school farmer from Alabama, he’s said he’s never seen soil with so much variation.

I also took samples from the garden and the blueberry bed, both have been heavily amended with compost and peat.  I don’t think I’ve got the blueberry bed acidic enough yet simply because the blueberries haven’t really taken off as they should.   The plants in the garden also seem to have a difficult time getting going with any vigor, making them very susceptible to insect attack.

Speaking of insects, I’ve been reading a bit this winter and according to some, acidic soil is the root of most evils on farms these days.  When the soil is acidic, many important nutrients are locked away from the plants and the animals that graze the plants.  When the soil is too acidic, you find a higher incidence of ticks, chiggers, flies, etc.  Animals grazing on such land also carry a much higher parasite load.  So while I am figuring out the soil issues, I am going to do a little experiment.  I have ordered a couple of bags of kelp.  According to some very successful farmers, kelp has got a mineral makeup that is ideal and it’s easily assimilated by plants and animals.  When fed free choice to animals, all sorts of good things happen.  Same goes for when used in a garden.  I’m going to try it with the chickens and horses and see if there is any difference in their general health or vigor.  And maybe, I will also do some controlled plantings with and without the kelp amendment.  I am skeptical, but not being at all set in my farming ways, I will try nearly anything.

When the soil test results finally do come back, Va Tech will tell me precisely how much lime and other minerals I should add.  Whether I will actually add them, I don’t know.  As my neighbor put it, “the grass is growing well enough to keep his two horses fat.  If I make it the soil any richer, I’ll have to keep the horses off grass half the day and that’s more work for me.”  Our Ophelia got really obese this past fall, but has slimmed down quite a bit over the winter.  There’s just not a lot out there for them to eat right now and if you believe what horses tell you, they are Starving!

Liming the whole farm will cost over $1300, and that’s just for spreading the lime.  No rock phosphate or anything else. Lot of money.   Probably what I will do is strategically lime a few areas where I want to grow something other than pasture and leave the rest to nature.  Earthworm activity should raise the pH if I do things to encourage a large earthworm population, ie no tillage, no artificial fertilizers, no herbicides and no insecticides.  I don’t know what the former owners did to the place, but I’ve noticed an increased level of creepy crawlies in the dirt since we’ve been here.  Time and earthworms.  Patience is a virtue…

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