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The Haney Test - Truth, Lies and Between

The Haney Test is a soil test that is often misunderstood. Here is the truth, lies, and in between. The Haney Test was originally developed by Dr. Rick Haney to help farmers reduce input costs naturally associated with farming. He had witnessed year after year, his friends and family struggling with a volatile market, unpredictable weather, high input costs, and threats of bankruptcy. BETWEEN all these factors it’s not a surprise that the farmer suicide rate is so high. While many believe that it was created as a soil health test, the TRUTH is that the Haney Test was initially developed to reduce nutrient inputs.

After many more years of test development and as the soil health movement began to grow, the concept of the Soil Health Nutrient Tool (SHNT) was born. I wanted to call it the Soil Health Integration Tool, but the acronym is not socially acceptable, although it would make a great t-shirt. Measuring soil health in a laboratory requires a multifaceted approach, which includes the measurement of chemical, physical and biological properties. Current laboratory protocols focus primarily on the former with little or no regard for the biological components playing a vital role in crop production and the overall quality and function of the soil ecosystem. The foundation of most conventional soil tests LIES within measuring chemical properties of soil is related to fertilizer responses seen in crop trials. Furthermore, conventional soil tests often rely on extracts composed of various chemicals not readily found in soil environments (really strong acids). The Haney test uses naturally occurring organic acids (common plant root exudates) to extract P, K, and micronutrients. Water, which happens to fall from the sky, is used to extract nitrate-N, ammonium, and water extractable organic N and C. Biological activity is assessed by measuring the amount of CO2 respiration coming from the microbes in the soil, because yes, they breath in O2 like us, and breathe out CO2, like us.

As the SHNT began to gain in popularity (or notoriety), people started to refer to it as The Haney Test. No Haney was involved in this decision. The TRUTH is, it’s quite awkward.

One common argument among academics is that the Haney test is not calibrated. The TRUTH is that the Haney test is calibrated to plant nutrient uptake under highly variable soil, biotic and climatic conditions. We have challenged many academic institutions to provide their so-called “calibrated” standard soil tests. To date, we have not received any of the data used in their plot trials. Who farms a 3 meter x 3 meter plot anyway? Our independent research did, however, did dig up these results, displaying the LIE that all standard soil tests are calibrated. The data below show a shotgun pattern response of yield with conventionally tested N availability. A shotgun pattern indicates that there is no relationship between yield and measured N.

The data in the graph below shows yield response to N fertilizer from 170 plots. The yield response is highly variable, yet recommendations are generated from that line going across the graph.

Research by this Dr. Haney (that would be Liz) showed high variability in yield and fertilizer applied to long-term wheat trials. Below, the gain in yield compared to fertilizer additions over 14 years indicates that additional fertilizer does not necessarily result with an increase in yield.

So what’s up with that? Well, it means that plant growth relative to fertilizer application varies with changing environmental conditions and cannot be predicted reliably. The interesting thing about this is that standard tests don’t account for changes in environmental conditions because they don’t account for soil biology. As it turns out, microbial communities do account for varying climatic conditions and these microbial communities are responsible for nutrient cycling and in turn, plant growth. Another interesting fact is that the Haney test analyzes for these microbial responses, hence the Haney test is calibrated to plant nutrient uptake under varying environmental conditions.

Is the Haney test perfect? No. Nobody ever said it was. It is however a better indicator of available nutrients and the health of the soil than conventional soil tests. On average, Mitchell Hora’s group saved farmers over $100 / acre in fertilizer costs using the Haney test. In over 100,000 samples, the Haney test found an additional 34 lbs of available N per acre over standard testing, resulting in a savings of over $37.4 / acre. So, your 1,000 acre farmer can save $37,400 in N costs alone. Stick that in your bank and spend it.

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