The Dirt Knows Best

Since I was a little boy, I have always been fascinated about farming. My father and I used to ride around in the Quincy bottoms looking at fields to help me fall asleep, because mom thought I needed a nap. Instead of sleeping, my father taught me everything he knew about corn and soybeans. The one thing that is still stuck in my mind was when we talked about soil. Being a little kid, I thought that soil was just dirt and that it was the same everywhere. Now that I am about to graduate from Western Illinois University, I have learned that the soil has a key role in growing crops.

Soil is made up of three materials: sand, silt, and clay. In order to have a good idea how to compare the size of these three, imagine sand as the size of basketball. Silt would then be the size of a baseball, and clay would be the size of a little dimple on the basketball. It is hard to believe that the percentage of each three of these materials can make a huge difference in how the soil can do different things. All different soils have advantages but also have their disadvantage. For instance, a sandy soil drains well and warms up faster so you can plant sooner. The disadvantages is that it cannot hold moisture or nutrients very well. Different soils fit different farming techniques and not one farmer has the “perfect” soil.

Not only is what the soil is made up of important, but what is in the soil is just as important. Even though your fields might be dry and the right temperature to start planting, it will not help you much if you do not have the right “ingredients.” The 3 most important nutrients crops need are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N-P-K). Crops need these nutrients in order to grow to their full potential. There are other nutrients that crops needs such as zinc and magnesium, but crops do not need them in such high amounts. Farmers can add these to their soils in the form of fertilizers. DAP is used to raise Phosphorus. Potash is used to raise Potassium. Anhydrous Ammonia and Urea are a few things to help raise Nitrogen levels. These also have an effect on the soil pH. The pH has a scale that goes from 0-14. 0-6.9 is acidic soil, 7 is neutral, and 7.1-14 is alkaline soils. Some crops need the soil to be at a certain pH in order to grow.

Soils are always changing due to tillage practices and weather. In order to check  your soils, you can use soil sampling. You do this by putting a probe  12-16 inches in the ground and taking that sampled soil by putting it in an individual bag. it is recommended to take 1 sample per 2.5 acres. After you have all of your samples gathered, you have those samples delivered to a research facility to have test done on them. Depending on the time of the year, it might take a week or two in order to get the result back. Once you have the results of what the soil does or does not have, then you can take action on what needs to be done to the soil.

Soil sampling does not get the attention it should get from farmers. It is a good practice that can end up saving your farm in the long run, not only with money but in soil preservation. Soil health and quality is key to having a successful harvest for this year and future years to come.


My name is Andrew Jansen. I am a senior at Western Illinois University with a major in Ag Business and minor in Agronomy. I grew up on the outskirts of Quincy, IL with both sides of my family in farming. I was fortunate enough to just accept a job with Advanced Crop Care and moving to the Bloomington area after graduating in May


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