Friday, November 12, 2010

LIQUID Invades Midwest Labs

So a bunch of us management types were in Omaha this week for a company meeting to work on strategery for the upcoming sales and marketing season, with a healthy dose of research. We could have met anywhere, but we wanted to go to Omaha so that we could tour Midwest Labs. We have worked with Midwest Labs for more than ten years in setting up a relationship for handling our soil test programs, and it has been a great relationship indeed. We really like the speed of the analysis, posting results on the internet, converting recommendations to Liquid products, and the nice price to the grower for going through Liquid. But I wanted to show a few pictures of the behind the scenes tour that we were given. Our hosts were Mr. John DeBoer, Vice President and one of the owners and John Paul DeBoer, Information Systems Manager. These two have worked closely with Stephanie over the years as she mainly manages the soil test program for Liquid. We also heard from Midwest in-house agronomist John Menghini, with whom I have visited numerous times over the phone. The picture below shows a couple of guys that open the boxes of soil test bags that have just arrived. Fall is the busiest time of year for volume of soil received, as post-harvest sampling is probably the best time for this. It was stressed how important it is to follow the directions for sample submission. Namely, have the bags in order and place the submission sheet on the top of the bags inside the box. This speeds the operation, and speed is important. In fact, they said that on a recent day they received 29,000 bags of soil for analysis! So they don't want to be slowed down looking for the form and getting the bags in order.
After opening the bags, the soil is placed in these trays and dried. Each sample is numbered so that it can be followed through the entire analysis process. Then the samples are run through this grinder for the many steps of the analysis process.

John Paul DeBoer shows the containers of the ground up soil. A small scoop of soil is collected for the different tests. There are samples of a standard soil sample included throughout these trays for quality controls. The tests are conducted in a number of rooms throughout the building, and it looked like a bee hive as everyone was very busy in order to process the volume of samples that come through each day.

This particular area in the picture below was for the analysis of micronutrients. A soil sample is placed in the filter paper and a solvent is poured in for extraction of the nutrients, and then analyzed somehow for content. It was all very complicated, but they had all the right equipment and the right people to run it all.

Here is where they measure the pH of the soil. The samples are mixed with water, and continually swirled around as four pH probes are inserted for measurement. And then they lift out and are rinsed with water and the tray moves down for the next group. We were amazed that there were no spills as the "mud" swirled around to the top of the tray cup, but did not spill. I guess they have done this before. It was mentioned that they developed the robotics for this process themselves. Here the pH measurements are shown on this screen, as Justin watches. If the pH is over 7 and an Olsen bicarb test is requested for phosphorus, it is somehow flagged and a sample of that soil is directed to the bicarb tester. This was the most amazing thing to me in that there are samples of the same soil all over the place getting all the different tests run, and in the end, they all get recorded back together on the correct soil test report.

This wild looking instrument below is for running the Olsen bicarb test for phosphorus. The Bray tests are run in a different area. They can also do a Mehlic and Morgan test, if requested.

Now the instrument below is an inductively coupled argon plasma (ICAP) machine used primarily for the sulfur test. I think it also tests other non-nutrient things too. But that flame is very hot. How hot, you ask? Try 6000 degrees Celcius, or 10,832 degrees Farenheit, or sun temperature. I'm not exactly sure how it works, but it probably won't come up in daily conversations, but it was impressive. And they have a number of these in the lab where they were.

You know how you can get a test re-run on a particular nutrient if the result you get looks odd? But where do they keep the soil in the mean-time? In the basement, samples are retained for a period of time. And due to the coding of samples, they can go right to it. We have had a few tests re-run over the years, and they do a good and quick job of it. It kind of reminded me of that last scene in the first Indiana Jones movie.

Below is some of the group being led by John DeBoer to another building where additional tests are run. It's not all soil and tissue testing there. They also do things like food and pet food analysis, fertilizer analysis, water analysis for contaminants, and so on.

Here we see the results of a sample run for water contamination.

So it was a great visit. Like many of you, I have been sending samples to Midwest for many years, but did not really know what happened to them once they got there. But it is anextremelly well run, efficient and very high-tech operation. And very clean too with all of the soil running through it. One last you wonder what they do with all of that soil after they are through? Well it is collected outside in these containers, and is used to cap landfills in the area. So no soil is wasted in this operation.

So thanks to Midwest Labs for the enlightening day.