Homeschool Nitrate Testing

Walter and Hope Testing Forages

We homeschool our kids which means, among other things, we get to do all sorts of fascinating science experiments. Recently Hope and I tested a dozen different forages for nitrates, nitrites, pH and a variety of other things. The reason we were testing for nitrates, besides doing some fun science, was because high nitrate levels in forages can happen during or after dry periods or in the fall and cause trouble for livestock. All of the forages we tested came out well within the safe zone which is good news.

We grow many, many acres of cole crops in particular, kale, rape, broccoli, turnips, beets, pumpkins, etc for our livestock. This is primarily a fall food for them. As their pastures wane they turn to these crops. As they eat down the leaves they turn to the stalks and then finally late in the fall they eat tubers. I think the tubers get sweetened by the fall frost. These plants grow well in our climate and extend our grazing season into the snow.

In the process of doing the forage tests we check the pH of our soil. In the 1990’s our soil had a pH of about 4.5. That’s nasty – Very acidic. Highly acidic soils is common around here because of the acid rain we get from the coal plants out in the mid-west. With the improved air quality this has been lessening. A neutral pH is 7.0. The oceans are around 8.2. Most plants like a pH around neutral although some like blueberries like acidic soil. The low pH binds up some nutrients making them less available to the plants and thus less available to animals.

Now our soil tested at 6.8 on the south field plateau. That’s really good. A decade ago an extension agent explained that we could apply a lot of lime to our soil, on an ongoing basis, or we could graze livestock and gradually the pH would improve. She was right.

The soil testing lab also had recommended applying a lot of fertilizer to our poor, thin, rocky mountain soil. Again, we chose the slower path with just grazing livestock and planting a lot of legumes like alfalfa, clover and such. These plants suck nitrogen from the air in addition to carbon dioxide and in the process they fertilize our soil. It’s a slower method but it works.

Outdoors: 59°F/37°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 69°F/67°F

Daily Spark: If you never try, you’ll never fail.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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7 Responses to Homeschool Nitrate Testing

  1. Nance says:

    I learn something here, each and every time. Not that I will ever use the information but it is just plain interesting. My daughter works as a scale operator here in Iowa for a large corporation. In Iowa, they are testing each and every semi, trailer, farm wagon for Aflatoxin. This, too, follows a drought. It is a grain fungal disease. It surely has slowed down the process of the farmer bringing in a semi truck load of grain, weighing it, and storing it. If the load tests positive, it is refused. So, in addition to low or no yields due to the drought, a grain farmer may have to haul that loaded semi trailer back and home and bury or incenerate it. This is not a good year for the mid-west farmer or rancher.

  2. Bill Harshaw says:

    Is this a milestone? :-) Has Walter said something nice about a USDA employee? Sadly, no, although the Extension Service has a USDA element, it’s likely your helpful extension agent was paid by the university.

    • *grin* Bill, you must understand by now that I don’t think all government employees are bad. It is just a few. Same goes for politicians and people in general. I figure that 80% are just trying to get their job done, 10% are excellent and 9% are bad. That leaves us with the problematic 1% who are evil. One of the great things about our country is we have so many checks and balances to try and stop evil scum from rising to the top. So far it seems to generally work. Remember to vote!

  3. Chris says:

    Can you post the results of the nitrate/nitrite levels across the species you tested? I’d be really curious to see how a typical serving of leafy greens stacks up against a serving of pork products cured with nitrates/nitrites. I’ve read that despite how some people feel about nitrates in pork, they’re bad, greens like spinach or kale are a bigger source of nitrates consumed by people. Any thoughts?

    • I’m a little bit hesitant to publish my results for the simple reason that we were using a really simple consumer grade paper strip test. This was a good indicator but the accuracy is not to be expected as too high.

      It would be far better to just look up the levels in tables that have the various veggies. My understanding is that the spinach, celery and a lot of other veggies contain far higher levels of nitrates and nitrites than bacon or ham. Try this Google search and check out Michael Ruhlman’s article for someone addressing the question directly.

      • alli says:

        I am more curious about what you used to do the testing & how you did it. I also homeschool & haven’t thought to test the veggies. Our soil is pitiful despite me adding stuff to it yearly, having goats & chickens on it yearly too (free range). Test results wouldn’t be helpful to me as I live in another state. We have high nitrates in our water among other stuff.

        • Nitrate, Nitrite, Hardness, pH, etc test strips. They are easy to use and reasonably accurate for our purposes. One of the pH strip sets goes 4.5 to 9 in 0.25 pH increments which is more than enough accuracy. They also seem consistent. I used to have a digital meter that did this and the strips compared well against that so when the expensive digital meter broke I didn’t replace it.

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