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Soil Sampling: Best Practices


Maximize profits on your row crop operation through proper soil sampling and planning.

Proper soil sampling procedure is a critical initial step in a profitable nutrient management program. But developing a comprehensive sampling program that accurately represents field conditions can be a complex task. Each sample can represent millions of pounds of soil, and there’s the potential for great variability based on a number of dynamic factors, including time of year, depth of sample, topography, soil type and field history.

Despite the effort required, investing the time to sample properly helps keep profits high. "Soil sampling enables farmers to be more efficient with input costs and improve the overall profitability of the crop," says Phil Howard, Manager of Precision Ag Services for Crops at Southern States.

Tips for Success

So what are some of the crucial things to remember when planning your sampling program?

  • Sample at a uniform depth. In the collection of cores that make up a composite sample, be sure to take at the same depth each year.
  • Use a plastic container to gather samples. Metal buckets contain minerals that will affect test results, according to the International Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) Manual.
  • Note the locations of old fertilizer bands or crop rows. Taking too many or too few samples from these areas will skew the results of the sample.
  • Plan ahead. Allow time for laboratories to analyze results. Fall is an ideal time to sample for spring-planted crops.
  • Aim for consistency. "Sample at relatively the same time each year," Howard says. "Soil test results can vary from season to season. Farmers should sample at the proper depth and moisture levels - the soil should not be too wet or too dry."

Soil Strategy

Growers should plan their soil sampling plans to meet their individual management objectives and goals, according to CCA experts.

On small, uniform fields, growers may take one composite sample for a field and plan their nutrient program accordingly. This approach, however, does not effectively address variability in larger fields.

At the same time, sampling at very high intensity levels allows for precise identification of nutrient levels in different parts of a field, but it may not be cost-effective for growers.

In designing their sampling programs, farmers should aim for a balance between these two extremes, customizing a program that fits with their skill level and management goals, while factoring in environmental considerations.

Sampling Services

Many farmers work with agronomists or consultants to assist in soil sampling and analyzing results. "We do a lot of soil sampling for farmers, where we generate reports and make general recommendations," says Howard.

In addition, through its precision agriculture services, Southern States also offers site-specific soil sampling that is geo-referenced, generating data that can be mapped to prescribe nutrient applications by individual nutrient. Precision agriculture services can then overlay yield data from growers' combines with application nutrient maps to fine-tune application programs and verify results.

"We handle the soil sampling, and through GPS systems, we know where we are in the field at all times," says Howard. "Our applicators are GPS-enabled so we can use this data to do precise applications of nutrients or lime."

How to Take a Soil Sample

  1. Use an auger or sampling tube and a plastic bucket. Use containers or bags provided by the lab where the sample will be sent.
  2. Take separate samples for areas of fields treated differently in the past, if you know them. Take 15 cores or slices of equal size from each sampling area with the auger or probe. Do not mix dark and light colored soils together.
  3. For P, K and aglime in no-till fields and forage, take samples from the top 6 or 8 inches of soil. For aglime only, take samples from 0 to 4 inches. Fields that are plowed even periodically should be sampled to plow depth.
  4. Place slices or cores in the clean plastic bucket and mix thoroughly, breaking up lumps and cores. If soil is muddy, allow it to dry before mixing. If mosit but crumbles easily, you can wait to dry it after mixing.
  5. Spread the soil mixture on clean paper and allow to air dry. Do not heat the sample. Do not dry it in an area where fertilizer or manure might contaminate it.
  6. Fill the container or bag with the air-dried soil to the level indicated. Discard remaining soil. Place a label and number on the sample container.
  7. Use the field and cropping information sheet provided by the lab to record the information requested.
  8. Create a field map with current information on it and retain it in your records for use later in management plan development.

Regardless of the method used, sampling is an area where planning pays off. What advice do you have from your experience in planning soil-sampling programs? Share your tips in the comments section below.


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