drylands field days file photo farmer looking at soil

A farmer looks at a soil sample during a drylands field tour in this file photo. Acidification of soils has become an emerging problem in the MonDak, and will be among topics of discussion at the upcoming MonDak Ag Days & Trade Show, Thursday, March 7.

A field in Chouteau County three years ago helped researchers spot a troubling trend in the region. Soil so acidic that it is causing crop failure. The problem has since been found in as many as 20 Montana counties, as well as a number of northwestern North Dakota counties as well.

Professor of soils Dr. Rick Engel is among researchers who helped identify the emerging problem. He will be coming to Sidney for the MonDak Ag Days & Trade Show to talk about his research, as well as what can be done to mitigate soils that have become too acidic to grow a viable crop.

The annual event begins at 8 a.m., Thursday, March 7, and features a slate of speakers on topics ranging from hemp and problematic weeds to Engel’s talk about acidic soils in northeastern Montana.

The two-day event will be at the Richland County Fairgrounds Event Center in Sidney, Montana. Lunch is being served by Cattle-Ac each day.

The banquet, meanwhile, is 6 p.m. Friday, March 8, and features Chad Prather. He’s back for an encore performance, sure to be as bold and brassy as last time. Tickets are $45 each and are available at Richland County Extension, Sidney Chamber, SidneyMT.com, Stockman Bank and Tri-County Implement.

“Every year, the Ag Days committee tries to put together a program that covers a variety of topics that ranchers and farmers will find useful to their operations,” said Richland County Extension Agent Tim Fine. “This year, they did a fantastic job as there is something for everyone as talks will focus on emerging issues, financial considerations, technological advancements, weather, and potential new crops and practices to add to their crop and/or livestock production practices. There truly is something for everyone.”

In addition to all the great lectures, each day of the MonDak Ag Days & Trade Show will begin with a trade show at 8 a.m., featuring the latest and greatest products and services all in one room. There will be implement dealers, irrigation specialists, cover crop gurus, seed dealers and more.

The trade show is what makes the two-day program, featuring so many great lecturers, possible, including Engel’s research into soil acidification.

In collaboration with soil fertility specialist Dr. Clain Jones, Engel has since pinpointed the culprit in soil acidification as ammonium-based fertilizers, such as urea, applied in excess of crop uptake. It’s a problem that is occurring even in fields where recommended levels of fertilizer were not exceeded, however, Engel said, which points to the potential for widespread problems.

Fields with acidic soils below pH 5 experience significant yield losses, depending on the species, due to naturally occurring metals becoming biologically available to the plants. Durum and barley are particularly sensitive to this issue.

Acidity problems in general seem to start in low-lying areas of a field, and spread outward from there.

Soil should be tested in the upper three inches for areas that have unexplained growth problems. Once the locations of acidic soil have been determined, liming and variety selection are among things that may help correct the problem.

Research by Dr. David Franzen and Dr. Upendra Sainju that was presented last year showed promising results after a single application of lime at the rate of 2 to 4 tons per acre.

Sainju also recommended adding a legume to the crop rotation. In trials, Sainju found that fields with a legume in the rotation acidified much more slowly than fields without.

Lime is among byproducts of sugar beet processing.

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