Aaron Woolard is a farmer first. But if you've got a nuclear reactor that needs watching after, he'd be happy to help.
Born and raised in the Bootheel — where much of his extended family still farms — Woolard joined the Navy after a year of college.
“I was in the nuclear power program. I went through a year of classroom study in Orlando, Fla., and another six months of training on a national reactor in the Idaho desert. I also went through a couple of C-schools (for training as an) engineering lab technician and radiological controls technician. That involved all the primary and secondary water chemistry and radiological controls (cleanup of radioactive materials, controlling radiation and so on).”
Unlike other training schools, the naval nuclear program isn't actually accredited since much of it is confidential.
“But it's as good a technical education as you'll get at a public university,” said Woolard, who also earned a degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis.
On to precision ag
That's all in the past, though. Having partnered with Missouri soil fertility expert Neal Kinsey to form Woolard and Kinsey Precision Ag, for the past 20 months Woolard has been busy reading soils and making precision prescriptions for fellow farmers.
“I actually contacted Neal wanting him to do soil fertility recommendations for my acreage. He said, ‘I've got a proposition for you.’ He was familiar with the Veris unit. (A friend from Florida, Scott McLean,) was running one and told Neil he needed to get into it. But he didn't have the time.”
Having heard of Woolard's background through family connections, Kinsey suggested a Veris unit might be a good fit for both men.
“I had time to get it started and see what happens. When I got the Veris unit, I was given a good rundown on how to operate it by (McClean). I went to a couple of presentations given by Eric Lund, who sold it to me. Of course, I studied the manuals. Then, I took my farming background and ability to operate computers and equipment and put them all together.
“It really isn't that difficult to collect data. Bringing everything together in the final product has been the challenge.”
The Veris functions by measuring soil's electrical conductivity. There are six coulters — two pairs of three. The middle coulter in each pair has a 12-volt DC charge applied through it. The values picked up by the coulters are averaged together. The generated data, along with a GPS position, is logged every second.
“The machine just maps the dirt,” Woolard said. “Basically, it tells how much colloidal clay is in the soil. From that we work up maps and prescriptions. From the maps we can pull composite samples, then make recommendations for each soil zone married to the map.
“Doing that should even up the crop. You know how you can look across a crop and see a strip of gumbo that keeps cotton short? Consequently, we can begin correcting that and make a uniform crop.
“It really is a simple technology. But it works very well.”
The Veris unit may be simple but Woolard says it took a weeklong training program in Oklahoma to learn how best to use the prescription software.
“We work with Site Specific Development Group. They're a software company specializing in precision agriculture. They have programs supporting all kinds of precision farming — Veris, InTime, digital pictures, grid sampling. Plus their software can set up all the herbicide/insecticide/Pix/whatever else that someone might want to variable-rate apply.”
So far, how is the Veris tool being used most in the Bootheel?
“I think most farmers looking at this want the ability to variable rate and spread lime. That's the big deal for most of my customers. I have one customer who variable-rate spread all the lime and fertilizer that was recommended.”
“Mostly they're interested in getting lime variable-rate applied to get their cations of the fertility regime in balance,” he noted. “Either directly or indirectly they're all subscribers to William Albrecht's theories on liming and soil fertility (calcium, magnesium and all the cations feed the crop and the soil).”
Albrecht, a Missourian who studied soil make-up for decades during the 20th century, believed if soils could be fed properly, a healthier, higher-yielding crop would be grown. This, in turn, would lead to healthier humans and livestock.
“So he wanted to know how best to make fertility prescriptions. He went to areas that were growing the best crops and sampled the soil. He did that for many crops, including corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa and pasture.”
Then, Albrecht began trying to replicate those soils in his lab.
“He'd use different nutrients in colloidal clay suspensions. He centrifuged soil until he got colloidal clay — like a gelatinous substance. “He'd soak that up with a sponge and then add nutrients at different ratios to try and produce what was in the original dirt samples.”
Eventually, Albrecht developed a ratio of calcium and magnesium — actually a percentage of the total exchange capacity. Then, before his death in the 1970s, he began studying micronutrients.
“Since then, (Kinsey, an adherent to Albrecht's theories) has refined it with nitrogen, potassium, phosphate, etc., based on crop yield — and that's an oversimplification. Neal is building on Albrecht's discoveries and is offering fertility workshops to explain the science.”
Many make use of Kinsey's services.
“He's been in business since the mid-1970s and works with samples from all over the world. He gets more samples from outside Missouri than inside.”
Most of Woolard's customers are happy with the Veris and prescriptions.
“It's very new, so it's hard to convince some farmers who have been doing their work a certain way for years. Some don't want to spend money variable-rating fertilizer, so there's no point in running this machine over their fields.”
And some have fields that don't vary enough to make it worthwhile.
“But that's rare. The fields I've been in have predominantly had varied soils throughout. It would be advantageous for most farms to have the readings done.”
What about cost benefits? How quickly do they pay off the cost of the readings?
“According to all the land grant university studies I've seen on variable-rate lime, this will pay for itself — or nearly pay for itself — in the first year. It definitely pays for itself by the second year.
“Honestly, we haven't been doing this long enough to see what kind of advantages there will be when evening out production across a field and increasing yield.
“It takes approximately three years for lime to break down and get the other nutrients correctly applied. In a couple or three years, I'll be able to answer that question definitively.”
Since beginning work with the Veris unit, Woolard has put many miles on his truck. That's unlikely to change soon.
“I'll go anywhere but, as I get further away from home, it costs more. Around here I charge $7.50 per acre for the Veris unit and $3 per acre to variable-rate sample it. That includes the prescription and controller card that goes into the spreader truck.”
Most of the ground Woolard has worked so far is behind cotton and corn.
“All the soils I've looked at so far have varied quite a bit. Inside the Mississippi River levee, farmers have some very good, loose dirt.”
Outside Dudley, Mo., Woolard recently began work on zero-grade rice.
“That is some tough, tough soil. It's hard to run.
“It's been cut and filled in a big way. The farmer told me some of the fields have 15-foot cuts and 14-foot fills — huge amounts of dirt being moved.”
Woolard has a job lined up in California to map vineyards and almond orchards. Surprisingly, it isn't the first vineyard he's worked.
“I've already done a vineyard outside Farmington. That's probably one of the first vineyards in Missouri — maybe one of the first in the nation — to have that done.”
Farmers are keen to know if the Veris machine is capable of “reading” for compaction. “Yes, it will detect compaction but it's hard to differentiate compaction from regular, heavy dirt. It changes up. Compaction in one field looks different than compaction in another. It's really hard to pinpoint.”
Another oft-asked question: how long is a reading good for?
“Once you do it, you're good for 30 years — at least 20 years. That's barring a massive application of manure, re-grading of the ground or a big flood that brings in new soil or where dirt is stripped away.”