Applying gypsum: When, how and how much

2011-09-16T11:04:00Z Applying gypsum: When, how and how muchBY JANE FYKSEN, CROPS EDITOR Agri-View
September 16, 2011 11:04 am  • 

Third in series

Farmers have at least six reasons to apply gypsum to their fields this fall, according to Ron Chamberlain, founder of GYPSOIL.

Speaking last month at the Midwest Soil Improvement Symposium at Arlington, co-sponsored by UW-Extension, the Conservation Technology Information Center and GYPSOIL brand gypsum, Chamberlain listed the reasons as:

• It helps fields "sponge" water so even tight clay soils more readily absorb water and move it down through the soil profile rather than having water pond or run off.

• Soil organisms including earthworms benefit from applying calcium sulfate dehydrate (a byproduct of the process that cleans the air from coal-burning power utilities by removing sulfur dioxide from flue gases).

• Gypsum helps unlock fertility. A balanced biological system helps soil breakdown plant residue into available nutrients in the root zone. "A healthy biological system also helps unlock previously unavailable soil minerals for the plant's uptake," notes Chamberlain, adding that gypsum also supplies calcium and sulfur to farm fields.

• Fields will work easier, and dry out quicker in the spring and between rains for a quicker start in the spring and after a rain event. Gypsum, notes Chamberlain, is especially helpful in no-till situations, where growers report they're no longer having to use in-line rippers to fight compaction.

• Gypsum improves plant vigor.

• It's easy to apply. GYPSOIL, according to Chamberlain, can be broadcast with a lime or litter spreader any you can get into a field.

Chamberlain founded GYPSOIL, which was acquired by BRM (Beneficial Reuse Management) in 2009. BRM identifies byproducts of various manufacturing processes that can be used in safe and effective ways to benefit landowners, conserve natural resources and preserve landfill space. Created as a byproduct of an eco-friendly process of producing electricity, GYPSOIL was an ideal match for BRM. Today, Chamberlain is director of Gypsum Products for the GYPSOIL division of BRM. He's based in Indianapolis, Ind.

A fine granular nearly white in color, GYPSOIL is typically fall-applied after harvest, or in the spring prior to planting. No-tillers prefer to let rain dissolve the gypsum and carry it down into the soil. Other producers prefer to incorporate it with their fall or spring tillage, though it doesn't have to be. Gypsum can be applied in-season to alfalfa after any cutting.

The recommended rate is 1 to 2 tons per acre (every 1 to 2 years) depending on soil type-a ton on more soils, two tons for heavier ground. As a soil amendment, it can take two years' worth of applications or more before the full benefit of the material is realized. Growers are encouraged to leave untreated control checks in their fields so they can see for themselves whether gypsum makes a difference.

Chamberlain admits gypsum is unlike any other bulk-applied material with which farmers are familiar. It requires a learning process, he notes, assuring, "once you figure it out, it's not difficult."

FGD gypsum (i.e. GYPSOIL) is a fine powder damp to the touch, similar to slightly damp flour, giving it a tendency to bridge.

Gypsum should ideally be stored under cover until used, keeping the pile at least 200 feet from a stream or field drainage, as it is water soluble. Chamberlain recommends piling gypsum to a peak; if it rains, the surface will seal and water will run off that way. Pile so water drains away from the bottom of the pile, and as with all farming materials, keep livestock, pets and kids away.

The idea field applicator features: A stainless steel box with steep sides (45-degree angle), a belt at least 20 inches wide (i.e. wider is better), twin spinners, independent belt and spinner controls, and because it wants to bridge, remove non-essential interior gates, partitions and braces. The spreader box should have steep, slick sides. Chamberlain recommends cleaning and coating rusted areas. If it's not stainless, use a plastic liner, he advises, also suggesting treating with SLIP-Plate graphite film coating.

As for spreader set-up, raise the rear gate not more than 3 to 5 inches and adjust spinners for the best pattern. To load, dump each bucket of gypsum on the sides, not in the center of the spreader. Feather the material out on the bed rather than dropping it all in one pile, and don't pile heavily against the rear gate. "Depending on where your machine is loading out-front or back-load that area a little lighter," Chamberlain recommends.

To calibrate the spreader, load it about a third full. Apply to the field, checking rate, flow and pattern, and adjust the belt and spinners as needed. Don't increase the load size until you're comfortable, he says.

As noted, GYPSOIL can be applied anytime you can get in a field without damaging soil or crop. He suggests: After any alfalfa cutting once the hay is picked up, after wheat harvest, after soybean or corn harvest, or before planting. Growers should avoid applying on frozen ground to minimize wind or water loss, as the gypsum is so powdery. He also reemphasizes that there's no need to incorporate gypsum, but neither is there any harm in applying it prior to tillage. If you use a ripper, do that first to loosen up the soil and help speed up the flow of gypsum into the profile.

If you're after sulfur fertilization of alfalfa with the gypsum, apply 300 to 500 pounds per acre. But if you're amending soil, go with the 1 to 2 tons per acre every 1 to 2 years. It should be noted that GYPSOIL is not yet approved for organic agriculture; only mined gypsum is approved. However, the company is looking into organic approval.

The typical "applied cost" of GYPSOIL is $25 to $45 a ton; transportation cost is the main variable. The price is set at retail. Chamberlain says mined gypsum is considerably more expensive.

"Applying gypsum is not difficult, just new for many," he sums up. "Use the right equipment...Avoid rusted or painted boxes... Practice with partial loads."

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