Zone Soil Sampling: How Many Zones?

Zone soil sampling has become a standard practice in precision nutrient management, but the grand question remains – How many zones should you be soil sampling?

Well, it depends! It just makes sense that a field with more variability requires more zones than a field with little variability. Zone soil sampling separates parts of fields that behave differently into similar zones that can be managed together. Common data layers used to build zone soil sampling maps include satellite imagery, plant vegetation indices, crop yield, salinity, topography, and even bare soil color.

As a soil testing laboratory, AGVISE does not know what data layers are used to create the zone maps, but we do know the soil nutrient levels in each zone. Clients often ask how many zone soil samples should be collected in each field to get the best soil nutrient information. Common sense tells us that splitting fields into more zones should provide more detailed soil nutrient data.

With soil test data from thousands of zone soil sampled fields, we mined the AGVISE database to see what the average range in soil test levels per field (high testing zone minus low testing zone) could tell us about field variability and the number of zones that should be sampled. The table summarizes the average range in soil test levels for over 24,000 zone soil sampled fields in 2023. The number of zones ranges from 3 to 8 zones per field. You can see, as the number of zones increases, the difference between the high zone and low zone gets larger and larger.

This data reminds us that more zones per field can tell us more about the soil nutrient status in each field, providing more powerful information to develop variable-rate fertilizer applications. If you have variable landscapes with rolling topography, diverse soil types, or salinity problems, you may have to take more zone soil samples per field (5-7 zones) to see the greatest differences in soil fertility and to take full advantage of variable-rate fertilizer applications. If your landscapes have less variability with fewer soil types, relatively flat topography, and no salinity problems, then you can probably take fewer zone samples per field (3-4 zones).

Winter Soil Sampling: You Need the Right Tools

Snowfall in late October and November slowed harvest and soil sampling across the region. This means some fields will be soil sampled in December and maybe January as harvest for late-season crops continues in the snow.

The right equipment is the key to any project, and winter soil sampling is no different. AGVISE heavy-duty (HD) chromoly soil probes were designed for hard, frozen soil conditions. Chromoly steel is much tougher than stainless steel, and it handles the stress of sampling frozen soil. To punch through several inches of frost, you will also require additional weight. Most soil sampling trucks have the hydraulic cylinder mounted inside the truck cab, where you can take advantage of the entire truck weight to push through the frost. This enables you to take soil samples through 4 to 6 inches of frost on most medium- and fine-textured soils in winter. For receiver hitch-mounted hydraulic cylinders, you will need to add extra weight in the truck box, and it may limit you to pushing through only 1 to 3 inches of frost.

AGVISE offers wet and dry soil probe tips for the HD chromoly soil probe. The wet soil probe tip is best suited for frozen soils. The HD chromoly soil probe is available with or without a slot.

You can view examples of in-cab and receiver hitch-mounted hydraulic soil sampling systems on our website ( You can also find videos of soil sampling in frozen soils with the HD chromoly soil probe and wet soil probe tip.

The Results Are In: Lime Works

In the fall of 2022, I hired a custom applicator to haul and spread lime across 238 acres of my family’s farm in western North Dakota. The reason? To increase soil pH on five fields with very low soil pH. One field even had a soil pH of 4.7, so these were good candidate fields for a practical case study for liming on a real farm operation.

I wrote more about the soil sampling process and lime application in the AGVISE Winter 2022 newsletter ( Each field received approximately 2 ton/acre sugar beet lime (1.4 ton ENP/acre) from Sidney Sugar in Sidney, MT, and the lime was disced to 3 inches for incorporation. After one year, the soil pH had already increased by 0.36 pH-units in the 0-6 inch soil depth. The 2023 growing season was relatively wet in southwest North Dakota, and the additional soil water certainly helped the lime react and neutralize soil acidity quickly. The incorporation with a disc also helped distribute the lime more evenly and deeply, allowing the lime to react faster. One negative side effect of tillage was a flush of annual weeds, particularly green and yellow foxtail.This was the first tillage event on these fields in 12 years, so I expect the annual weed community to diminish as we return to no-till after the one-time tillage pass. 

Figure 1. Zone soil pH map of a field receiving 2 ton/acre sugar beet lime in fall 2022. Each zone increased roughly 0.36 pH-units from 2022 to 2023. (Maps created in ADMS 32, GK Technology, Inc.)

Lime also works without incorporation, just at a slower pace. In 2021, we established a no-till lime trial to investigate lime rates without incorporation. Lime was applied in May 2021, and the fall 2023 soil pH results are shown in Figure 2. The highest lime rate at 2.5 ton ENP/acre increased soil pH in the upper 0-3 inch soil depth by 0.71 pH-units over 2.5 years. So far, no effect on soil pH in the lower 3-6 inch soil depth has been observed. In most no-till systems, the most acidic part of the soil profile is located at the soil surface, and a lime application correcting soil pH in the upper 0-3 inch soil depth is still effective. This is where seedlings and roots are most vulnerable to soil acidity, so correcting soil pH at the soil surface is critical and can be accomplished with a surface application of lime in no-till systems.

Surface Soil pH (0-3 inch) in No-till Lime Trial, October 2023

Figure 2. Soil pH following surface application of lime after 2.5 years in a no-till cropping system in southwestern North Dakota.

Soil Nitrogen Trends – Fall 2023: Some Up, Some Down

The 2023 drought was an all-too-soon reminder of the widespread 2021 drought. It covered much of the upper Midwest, Great Plains, and Canadian Prairies. From previous experience with droughts, we expected that residual soil nitrate-N following crops would be higher than normal, caused by the drought and reduced crop yields. The first wheat fields that were soil tested in August and September confirmed our expectation that residual soil nitrate-N was already trending higher than normal. Yet, some regions were spared the drought and received above-average rainfall, and achieved record-setting crop yields. For these regions, the amount of residual soil nitrate-N after high-yielding crops was near or below average. 

The 2023 AGVISE soil test summary data highlights the great variability following the drought. The median amount of soil nitrate-nitrogen across the region was higher than the long-term average following wheat. Over 28% of wheat fields had more than 60 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch) remaining. Yet, another 17% of wheat fields had less than 20 lb/acre nitrate-N remaining, suggesting either lost crop yield or protein due to insufficient nitrogen nutrition. For any given farm, the great variability in residual soil nitrate-N across all acres makes choosing one single nitrogen fertilizer rate impossible for next year, and soil testing is the only way to decide that right rate for each field.

Through zone soil sampling, we are also able to identify that residual soil nitrate-nitrogen can vary considerably within the same field. This makes sense because we know that some areas of the field produced a fair or good yield, leaving behind less soil nitrate, while other areas produced very poorly and left behind much more soil nitrate. These differences across the landscape are driven by soil texture, soil organic matter, and stored soil water as well as specific problems like soil salinity or low soil pH (aluminum toxicity). Although the regional residual soil nitrate-nitrogen trends were higher overall, it is truly through zone soil sampling that we can begin to make sense of the field variability that drives crop productivity and determine the right fertilizer rate for next year.

For fields that have not been soil tested yet, there is still time to collect soil samples in winter. Nobody wants to experience another drought, but this kind of weather reminds us how important soil nitrate testing is every year for producers in the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. Each year, AGVISE summarizes soil test data for soil nutrients and properties in our major trade regions of the United States and Canada. For more soil test summary data and other crops, please view our soil test summaries online: