This spring, thousands of farmers or their crop consultants will be sinking a soil probe into their fields and coming up with samples to determine what nutrients are present.
They'll take those samples to a local cooperative or fertilizer dealer, and there's a good chance the dealers will send them to Rock River Lab in Watertown for analysis.
Rock River Lab started in 1975 by Don Meyer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate in soils geography.
Meyer recognized the growing need for soil testing as part of farm management and realized there would be a demand for this type of service in the future.
He turned a garage on his parents' farm into a laboratory to test soil so farmers could find out the kind and amounts of fertilizer their fields needed.
As his business grew, he moved the laboratory to Watertown's industrial park and it continues to grow today. In fact, last year they doubled the size of their facility to accommodate the new technology and increased demand for laboratory services.
Meyer continues to guide the company with help from 40 employees, including his son Zach and daughter Lauren.
With the addition of their increased space and a large conference room, the company is also reaching into the community by conducting educational programs for young people involved in 4-H and FFA. Recently, they hosted a group of more than 60 4-Hers from Jefferson and Dodge Counties who were interested in learning how to fine tune the rations for their show cattle.
Before the presentations, Zach provided a tour of the new expanded facilities.
The tour began in the soil sampling lab and the soil-dry down room. Zach explained that in the past, it took up to 48 hours to dry down soil before sampling could begin. Now they are able to dry soil in half the time.
"We grind the soil to a powder," he said. "It was my first job in by dad's lab when I was 12 years old and we did one at a time. Now we can do six at a time."
In the past, the technicians recorded everything on paper, and when computers were introduced to the system, they entered all the information from the hand notes into the computer at the completion of the process.
Now everything gets a bar code when it comes in and is recorded automatically all along the way, eliminating the chance of error.
Because the laboratory is a family-owned business, they are able to move quickly in the adaption of new technology, and they have been very aggressive in doing so all along the way.
Today the laboratory leads the way in both soil-testing and feed-testing technology throughout the world. They have numerous satellite testing facilities including, one in Brazil.
One company recent innovation is the development of an automatic soil probe that helps soil samplers obtain consistent samples. Soils samplers mount the hydraulic probe on their four-wheeler and are able to take samples at a consistent depth throughout the fields. It also saves time and energy for the samplers.
The probe is available to private crop consultants and is used by the five consultants on Rock River Lab's staff who help farmers develop nutrient management plans.
Soil testing methods have not changed a lot over the years, except for the inclusion of automation that allows the company to handle more volume.
One of the biggest changes has been the ability of customers to download test results directly from the laboratory onto their own computers. In the past, everything was done through the mail, and it often took longer to get results from the lab to the customer than it took to do the actual testing.
Timing is not quite as critical for soil tests as it is for feed analysis. This is where Rock River Lab has made its biggest strides in recent years.
Nutritionists find it helpful to be able to get immediate results from samples sent in to determine what nutrients are present in feeds.
Feed changes as farmers move through a bunk, silo or hay mow because it was harvested from different fields under different conditions and varieties may vary.
Sampling the feeds allows the nutritionist to determine what nutrients are present and which ones are lacking, and then the farmer can supplement nutrients, according to a recipe determined by the nutritionist.
The result is healthier livestock that produce more meat or milk.
The majority of feed tested is for dairy, according to Zach.
Increased costs of feed and the numbers of cows on a farm have made it more important than ever for dairy producers to fine-tune their cow's rations.
If a farmer has 100 cows and saves one pound of feed per cow per day because of a test, that results in big savings and easily pays for the cost of the tests.
The same is true in the field. If a soil test shows there is enough nitrogen present from organic sources or other excess nutrients available, there is no need to purchase additional fertilizer.
Increased prices in both feed and fertilizer over the years have led to an increase in business for Rock River Labs, Zach said. Soil or feed testing is a much cheaper alternative.
In the feed analysis area, the company has seen a lot of growth because of their ability to get results to customers faster via links with customer's smartphones, and the development of a hand-held moisture monitor that helps nutritionists fine-tune rations has also led to increased business.
"The moisture of a feed is very important," Zach said. "If we get a wrong moisture on a sample, everything else will be wrong."
Zach said the laboratory can test any type of feed. In their satellite lab in California, they test things like orange peels, vegetables and other by-product feeds. In Wisconsin, most of the samples are of common feeds like corn silage and haylage or dry hay.
When the lab gets a sample, they dry it and grind it, and then run the analysis. They keep every sample on a shelf for a month in case a nutritionist contacts them for a more detailed test.
Zach said NIR is a quick test that results in an analysis report the same day the sample arrives.
"We take a snap shot of the powdered sample that reflects light on the different nutrients and tells us what is there," he said. "Dad (Don Meyer) was the first to bring this technology to our lab in 1982. It is very close to the results of wet chemistry, the gold standard in feed sampling. Wet chemistry takes a little longer and is more costly."
The most recent development at their lab is what Zach described as "the largest dairy bath in the U.S." The stainless steel tank, built right next door at a Watertown stainless steel fabricator, mimics the rumen of a cow. The system was developed by Rock River Lab's feed specialist Dr. John Goeser who has done extensive research on animal nutrition.