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- The Farm That Won't Wear Out - 2/9 -
On still another Rothamsted experiment field, where a four-year crop rotation of turnips, barley, clover (or beans) and wheat has been practiced since 1848, the yield of turnips in 1908 was 717 pounds an acre on unfertilized land and 35,168 pounds where the five important elements of plant food had been regularly applied once every four years--for the turnips only--since 1848. In 1909 the barley yielded 33.4 bushels an acre on the fertilized land, but only 10 bushels where no plant food was applied. The yield of clover in 1910 was 8590 pounds an acre on the land fertilized for turnips, but only 1949 on the unfertilized land. The wheat following the clover with no other fertilizer produced 24.5 bushels an acre in 1911, but 38 bushels where plant food is always applied for turnips grown three years before.
These are the established facts from the longest accurate record, and thus the most trustworthy data the world affords; and when one hears promulgated the very pleasing doctrine that the rotation of crops will maintain the fertility of the soil it is time to remember that "to err is human."
Fertility in Normal Soils
Of the four important mineral elements, potassium is by far the most abundant in common soils. Thus, as an average of ten residual soils from ten different geological formations in the eastern part of United States, two million pounds of subsurface soil were found to contain:
Potassium 37,860 pounds Magnesium 14,080 pounds Calcium 7,810 pounds Phosphorus 1,100 pounds
Even the depleted, and to some extent abandoned, gently undulating upland "Leonardtown loam," which was farmed for generations and which, according to the surveys of the Federal Bureau of Soils, covers 41 per cent of St. Mary's County, Maryland, and more than 45,000 acres of Prince George's County--still contains in two million pounds of surface soil--corresponding to the plowed soil of an acre about 6-2/3 inches deep:
Potassium 18,500 pounds Magnesium 3,480 pounds Calcium 1,000 pounds Phosphorus 160 pounds
The brown silt loam prairie soil of the early Wisconsin glaciation is the most common type of the greatest soil area in the Illinois Corn Belt. Two million pounds of this surface soil contain as an average:
Potassium 36,250 pounds Magnesium 8,790 pounds Calcium 11,450 pounds Phosphorus 1,190 pounds
The older gray silt loam prairie, the most extensive soil of Southern Illinois, contains in two million pounds of soil:
Potassium 24,940 pounds Magnesium 4,690 pounds Calcium 3,420 pounds Phosphorus 840 pounds
These data represent averages involving hundreds of soil analyses, and they emphasize the fact that normal soils are rich in potassium and poor in phosphorus. This is to be expected, for most soils are made from the earth's crust, and normal soils should bear some relation in composition to the average of the earth's crust, which contains in two million pounds 49,200 pounds of potassium and 2,200 pounds of phosphorus, as shown by the weighted averages of analyses involving about two thousand samples of representative rocks, reported by the United States Geological Survey.
Measuring Fertility Losses
The plant food required for one acre of wheat yielding 50 bushels, one acre each of corn and oats yielding 100 bushels, and one acre of clover yielding four tons, includes for the total crops:
Potassium 320 pounds Magnesium 68 pounds Calcium 168 pounds Phosphorus 77 pounds
If only the grain, including a yield of 4 bushels an acre of clover seed, is considered, the straw, stalks and hay being returned to the soil--either directly or in farm fertilizer--then the loss per acre from four years of cropping as above would be as follows:
Potassium 51 pounds Magnesium 16 pounds Calcium 5 pounds Phosphorus 42 pounds
The average annual loss by leaching from good soils in humid sections is known by the results of many analyses to be about as follows per acre:
Potassium 10 pounds Calcium 300 pounds Phosphorus 2 pounds
The average annual loss of magnesium in drainage water from good soils is probably 30 pounds or more an acre, but the data thus far secured are inconclusive with respect to that element.
A careful consideration of the trustworthy data clearly reveals the fact that potassium is very abundant in normal soils, while phosphorus is relatively very deficient; and, all things considered, calcium--and probably magnesium--is of much greater significance than potassium, from the standpoint of the maintenance of usable plant food in the soil. It should be noted, too, that certain crops which are exceedingly important for economic systems of permanent agriculture require very large amounts of calcium as plant food. Thus a four-ton crop of clover hay takes about 120 pounds of calcium from the soil, or the same amount as of potassium; while such a crop of alfalfa requires about 145 pounds of calcium, but only 96 pounds of potassium. When it is known that the abandoned "Leonardtown loam" still contains in two million pounds of surface soil 18,500 pounds of potassium and only 1000 pounds of total calcium, the significance of these chemical and mathematical data must be apparent.
The Liberation of Fertility
Probably there has never been a greater waste of time and effort in the name of science than in the endeavor to determine the "available" plant food in soils. The almost universal assumption has been that the plant food in the soil exists in two distinct conditions, "available" and "unavailable," and that the determination of the "available" plant food would reveal both the crop-producing power of the soil and the fundamental fertilizer requirements for the improvement of the soil for crop production.
After ascertaining the total stock of plant food in the plowed soil, the next important question is not how much is "available," but rather how much can be made available during the crop season, year after year. In other words we must make plant food available by practical methods of liberation, by converting it from insoluble compounds into soluble and usable forms; for plant food must be in solution before the plant can take it from the soil. For the present, space is taken only to emphasize the value of decaying organic manures in the important matter of making plant food available; and attention is also called to the fact that the decomposition of the organic matter of the soil--including both fresh materials and old humus--is hastened by tillage and by underdrainage, which permit the oxygen of the air to enter the soil more freely, oxygen being a most active agent in nitrification and other decomposition processes of organic matter, as well as in the more common combustion of wood, coal, and so forth.
The Renewal of Fertility
In rational systems of general farming the supply of any element which is normally very abundant may be renewed from the subsoil by even the very slight erosion which occurs on all ordinary lands in humid sections. This statement applies to iron and potassium, and often to magnesium.
If two million pounds of normal surface soil contain 30,000 pounds of potassium, one inch an acre would contain 4500 pounds of that element; and if a third of this--1500 pounds--were removed by cropping and leaching before its removal by surface washing, then two-thirds of a century could be allowed for the erosion of one inch of soil, with crop yields of 50 bushels of wheat, 100 bushels of corn and oats, and 4 bushels of clover seed to the acre, provided the stalks, straw and clover hay were returned to the land, either directly or in farm manure. This amount of surface washing is likely to occur on land sufficiently undulating for good surface drainage, provided the land is plowed and cultivated as frequently as would be required for a four-year rotation as suggested above. Where hay, straw, potatoes, root crops or common market garden crops are sold, very much larger amounts of potassium leave the farm than in grain farming or live-stock farming, and in such cases potassium must ultimately be purchased and returned to the soil, either in commercial form or in animal manures from the cities.
Thirty Bushels for Potassium
There are some soils, however, which are not normal--soils whose composition bears no sort of relation to the average of the earth's crust; such, for example, as peaty swamp soil or bog lands, which consist largely of partly decayed moss and swamp grasses. These soils are exceedingly poor in potassium, and they are markedly and very profitably improved by potassium fertilizers, such as potassium sulphate and potassium chlorid--commonly but erroneously called "muriate" of potash.
Thus, as an average of triplicate tests each year, the addition of potassium to such land on the University of Illinois experiment field near Manito, Mason county, increased the yield by 20.7 bushels more corn to the acre in 1902, by 23.5 in 1903, by 29 in 1904 and by 36.8 in 1905; and the proceedings of the midsummer session of the Illinois State Farmers' Institute for 1911 report that the use of $22,500 in potassium salts on the peaty swamp lands in the neighborhood of Tampico, Whiteside county, increased the value of the corn crop in 1910 by $210,000, the average increase for potassium being about 30 bushels of corn to the acre.
Some sand soils, particularly residual sands, which often consist
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