They say that a specialist is someone who knows a great deal about a narrow range of topics. As specialists get more experience, they know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing. Generalists know a little about a wide range of topics. As they acquire more experience, they know less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.

I’m a generalist who’s been at it for almost half a century. (Has it really been that long?) I didn’t have a farm background; I decided to major in animal science (in the 1960s it was called “animal husbandry”) at the University of Connecticut because it was the only way I could get around the foreign language requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences. I was pre-vet (at least I thought I was) and was going to pack my class schedule with chemistry, physics, microbiology, etc., so I figured it didn’t much matter which major I chose.

However, during high school and college I worked for a large “dogs and cats” animal hospital and eventually decided that a career in veterinary medicine wasn’t for me. Between the agricultural courses I took and two summers working for cooperative extension in Connecticut, I realized that agricultural education was what I wanted to do. I graduated from UConn with a rather eclectic assortment of courses, including almost every basic science the university offered, a postgraduate course called “Advanced Virology,” and one lone course in agronomy.

I went to graduate school at Cornell University, majoring in extension education, but spent much of my time with the dairy science faculty there, since my thesis involved the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. I learned a lot about dairy herd records, interviewed a large number of dairy farmers about their management practices, and wound up with a master’s degree while not knowing much more about forage crops than when I arrived in Ithaca.

Only after I started working for Cornell University Cooperative Extension did I gain any practical experience in field and forage crops. When Cornell formed a regional Dairy and Field Crops Team, they needed to hire both field crop and dairy specialists. Bill Gallamore and I were county extension agents in that region, and since Gallamore had a master’s degree in dairy nutrition, we agreed that he’d be the dairy specialist and I’d be the field crop specialist. It’s likely that no field crops extension educator had ever started a job with less knowledge of field crops!

Fortunately, at that time Cornell had an absolutely terrific in-service training program for young county agents, and I was soon able to acquire knowledge about soil fertility, weed control, etc., through intensive one-week courses in each subject area. The plus was that I didn’t have any “rough edges” – incorrect information – for the professors to hone. The minus was that agronomically speaking, I didn’t have any edges to begin with!

Then and now

Looking back, I wouldn’t change much; my background in dairy science has proven very useful in working with dairy farmers, since the reason they grow forage crops is to feed to their cattle.

I wish that agricultural college students could take a wider variety of courses as undergraduates than most of today’s curricula seem to permit. It’s possible for students to wind up with four years of undergraduate study, plus a graduate degree, while being “a foot wide and a mile deep,” with an intensive knowledge of one discipline but very limited knowledge about other closely related areas of agriculture. That’s one reason I’m so high on the Advanced Dairy Management spring semester at Miner Institute (Chazy, N.Y.) in which University of Vermont agricultural students (and students from other land-grant colleges) can enroll.

Now beginning its 14th year, the program exposes a small class of students to a wide variety of course work and practical experience, including field crop production, forage quality, work in the Miner Institute dairy operation, visits to regional dairy farms, a trip to the western U.S., and agricultural research techniques. The objective is to prepare the next generation of farm managers and agricultural industry professionals.

Sulfur fertilization reminder

This topic was last mentioned in this column a year ago, but repetition is often useful. Improvements in air quality have resulted in much less sulfur being deposited on cropland via precipitation. Sulfur is supposedly a secondary nutrient, but in some crops it’s a primary nutrient. On dairy farms with a history of heavy manure use, it’s possible that crops may need more sulfur fertilizer than they do phosphorus (P). That’s because P doesn’t leach, but sulfur does, and while past fertilization practices can result in available soil P levels that will remain high for many years, such is not the case with sulfur. Twenty years ago, it was rare to find yield responses to sulfur, but now we’re seeing both yield and quality improvements from the use of sulfur fertilizer.

Some agronomists recommend the use of soil analyses to determine sulfur status, but I prefer tissue analysis. A fall 2013 soil analysis for sulfur may not be reliable for 2014 crops because of the leaching that may occur between fall soil sampling and spring planting.

Check your forage analyses for sulfur status: If it’s low, then back this test up with a tissue analysis, which is not the same. A forage analysis tests all parts of the harvested plant, while a tissue analysis uses a defined part of the plant at a specified growth stage. For instance, with alfalfa, we sample the top 6 inches of the plant at late bud stage, or the ear leaf of corn at silking. So we can use forage analysis as an early warning system, but should rely on a tissue analysis before spending a lot of money on sulfur fertilizer.

Of course, using forage analyses in this manner isn’t helpful if you don’t know which field the forage you tested came from. That’s why I’d suggest doing forage analysis on freshly harvested forage, something that’s useful for much more than just determining sulfur status. Linking a sample of fermented forage to a forage analysis is a lot easier when feeding from silage bags than from a big bunker silo that may contain forage from half a dozen fields.

However you get the job done, the bottom line is that we’re seeing more and more responses to sulfur fertilization in a variety of crops, so this is one part of your fertilization program that may need to change.