Zone Soil Sampling and Variable Rate Fertilization: Optimizing profits

This article originally appeared in the AGVISE Laboratories Winter 2022 Newsletter

Farmers, like all business owners, are profit maximizers: things are good when revenue exceeds cost. Things are even better when the difference between revenue and costs is substantial. The math behind increasing profit is simple: reduce costs, increase revenue. But, the difficult part is finding and implementing strategies on the farm to do this. Why not start with fertilizer, which is typically the largest annual input cost on the farm?

Your fields are variable. You know the hilltops have lower crop yields than the mid-slopes, and you know exactly how far the saline spots creep into the more productive part of the field. So why use the same rate of fertilizer in the unproductive areas as you would in the productive areas? Optimize your fertilizer inputs by reducing rates in low-yielding areas and reallocate those fertilizer dollars to the productive ground.

The North Field Zone Map

Figure 1. North Field zone map, created using ADMS from GK Technology.

How does one actually do this? Creating zone maps for your fields, soil sampling and testing based on productivity zones, and variable rate (VRT) fertilizer application is the place to start. Applying VRT fertilizer allows you to apply fertilizer where it is needed and not waste fertilizer dollars where it is not. Let me show you an example from my family’s farm in western North Dakota.

I farm with my dad and brother in southwest North Dakota. This past fall, I created zone maps for each of our fields, with help from GK Technology and their ADMS program. The final maps are based on historical satellite imagery. I will show you one of our fields, the North Field, and take a deep dive on nitrogen fertilizer optimization using zone soil sampling and VRT fertilization in the dryland “out west” country.

The North Field (Figure 1) is variable. That is expected on a 120-acre field with many hills and ravines (Table 1). For discussion, we will use residual soil nitrate-nitrogen results and make a nitrogen fertilizer plan using urea for hard red spring wheat (HRSW) in 2022. You can see the soil nitrogen data, crop yield goals, and final nitrogen rates in Table 2.

 

The first place to optimize fertilizer inputs is setting realistic crop yield goals for each zone. Spring wheat yield goals range from 65 bushel/ acre in the best zone (zone 1) to 30 bushel/acre on the hilltops (zone 5). Adjusting the nitrogen rate for the proper crop yield goal ensures that the high-producing zones are not limited by lack of nitrogen (increased fertilizer cost, increased revenue) and the low-producing zones are not overfertilized (decreased fertilizer cost, same revenue). With a responsible crop yield goal on the low-producing zones, the crop still receives the amount of nitrogen it requires, and excess nitrogen is not lost to nitrate leaching (wasted input cost). As a result, the excess nitrogen fertilizer is reallocated to high-producing zones, resulting in more crop yield with the same total fertilizer budget, and increased revenue.

The nitrogen fertilizer scenarios in Tables 3 and 4 break down the projected revenues and expenses, demonstrating the benefits of zone soil sampling and VRT fertilization. For the North Field on my farm, the projected profit increase was $3,725 for the field or $31.05 per acre. It is tough to argue with a dollar amount like that! Prices will vary, of course, for fertilizer and precision ag services in your geography. Do the math for yourself and see how zone soil sampling and VRT fertilization can maximize profits for you.

Soil Sample Before Tillage: Consistent sample depth matters!

The fall harvest season is a busy time of year. Farmers need to finish harvest, apply fertilizer, and complete any tillage operations before the long winter sets in. Another field operation that needs to be completed within this flurry of activity is soil sampling, and sampling timing is crucial to getting quality and consistent soil cores.

Do your best to soil sample fields before any tillage pass. Tillage makes collecting soil cores with consistent depths very difficult, which can affect test results. Soil test results are only as reliable as the soil samples that were collected from the field. If a sample is submitted as a 0 to 6-inch sample and is only really the top 0 to 4-inch of the soil, soil test values are inflated compared to actual 0 to 6-inch results. The opposite happens if a core is actually deeper than the 0 to 6-inch depth: soil test values are diluted if the sample that was submitted is deeper. The table below shows an example of how test levels of non-mobile nutrients like P, K, and Zn decrease as soil core length increases.

Why tillage affects sampling depth consistency and core quality

Tillage breaks apart soil and introduces air, essentially “fluffing” the soil. Sampling after the soil has been “fluffed” means the sampler has to guess what actually represents a 6-inch soil depth for that field. What was a 0 to 6-inch core in the soil probe before tillage might actually take up 8 inches in the soil probe now, given the soil profile is now “fluffy” after tillage. Over time the soil will settle, but when does that happen? How fast does that happen? When will 0 to 6 inches of tilled soil in the soil probe actually represent a 0 to 6-inch depth again? No one can accurately answer these questions.

Beyond the soil being “fluffy” after tillage, tillage loosens soil aggregates, makes clods, and generally dries the soil. This means loose soil may fall out of the probe or the probe pushes around the clods at the surface and does not get a true 0 to 6-inch sample. This might mean a core that’s collected and sent to the laboratory might actually be a 2 to 8-inch depth core, or a 2 to 6-inch depth core.

A tip for sampling after tillage

If you have to sample after tillage, sample in the wheel track. The tire compresses the soil and allows you to get a better opportunity at a true 0 to 6-soil core depth.

Getting consistent soil core depths is crucial. Sampling before tillage is the best thing you can do to ensure quality cores with consistent depths. Sampling after tillage can result in lower test levels for non-mobile nutrients like P, K, and Zn. Please call either AGVISE laboratory and ask for one of our technical support staff if you have any questions about sampling after a field has been tilled. 

Sampling Fields for SCN

Soybean cyst nematode (SCN) is a microscopic, parasitic worm that attacks the roots of susceptible soybean and dry edible bean, causing unseen or unexplained yield losses. Soybean and dry edible bean are naturally susceptible to SCN, but through plant breeding, most soybeans have some level of resistance, varying in level from good to poor. The most common source of resistance to SCN in soybean is PI88788, which is about 30 years old, and many soybean growing areas have SCN populations that are becoming resistant to this source. The Peking source is a very effective SCN resistance source but is only available in less than 5% of all soybean varieties.

Soybean cyst nematode cysts each harbor hundreds of eggs. Cysts and eggs of SCN can survive in the soil and remain viable for many years even without a soybean or dry bean host. Any activity that moves soil around will move SCN, meaning that areas with a history of soybean production likely have or will have this pest. Soybean cyst nematodes were first reported in Minnesota in 1978, South Dakota in 1995, North Dakota in 2003, and Manitoba in 2019.

During the growing season, the developing SCN cysts containing the eggs can be seen on susceptible plant roots, as seen in the picture below. To get an accurate assessment of the infestation level of the field, you need to collect soil samples and submit them to a laboratory to get a measure of the SCN egg count.

Photo of soybean roots with SCN cysts. Photo courtesy of NDSU.

Sampling strategies

If you have never tested for SCN before, you will want to sample fields intended for soybean or dry bean for the presence of SCN and gather a baseline SCN egg count. The best time to collect this sample is at the end of the growing season, right before harvest or just after (before any tillage). Sampling in the fall coincides with the highest egg levels in the soil and typically falls in the months of September and October. Collect 10-20 soil cores (6 to 8 inch soil depth) right in the soybean row from areas of the field that are likely to have SCN. Since SCN is a soil-borne pathogen, it moves wherever contaminated soil can enter the field. Therefore, the areas you will want to collect samples from are field entry points where soil can be transferred on equipment and tires, places where blown soil accumulates (e.g., fence lines), ditches and flooded areas, and locations in fields with consistently low soybean yields. Mix the soil cores together and take a subsample to fill a soil sample bag.

If you know you have SCN, you will want to sample soybean fields twice during the year: once in June to get an initial SCN egg count and then again in the fall to get a final SCN egg count. The early and late SCN samples allow you to measure if SCN populations are being effectively controlled (i.e., no increase in SCN egg count) or if the soybean variety SCN resistance source is failing (i.e., SCN egg count increases). Choose a single point in the soybean field and collect 8-10 soil cores (6 to 8 inch soil depth) taken within the soybean row at that spot. Mix the cores together and fill a regular paper soil sample bag. Mark that point with a flag and collect its GPS coordinates. Come back to that exact spot in the fall and collect a second sample. This will help you assess how your SCN management strategies, including the soybean variety SCN resistance source and soybean seed treatment, are working in the field.

Preparing and sending SCN samples to AGVISE Laboratories

You can submit SCN samples via paper form or online through AGVISOR. AGVISE provides special paper forms for SCN sampling and special stickers for online AGVISOR submission at no charge. The bright yellow forms and stickers help us sort samples and ensure samples submitted for SCN analysis are not dried and ground. All SCN samples analyzed by AGVISE Laboratories are analyzed at the Benson, MN laboratory. You can either send the SCN samples directly to the Benson Laboratory (see addresses below) or to the Northwood Laboratory, where they will be routed to Benson for analysis. AGVISE Laboratories reports SCN results in “eggs/100 cc” of soil and provides interpretation on our reports informed by university research.

Helpful links:

Soybean Cyst Nematode, ISU

Plant Disease Management: Soybean Cyst Nematode, NDSU

Soybean Cyst Nematode (SCN), UMN

Soybean Cyst  Nematode in South Dakota: History, Biology, and Management, SDSU

The SCN Coalition

 

Tips for Soil Sampling in Dry Conditions

Soil sampling in dry conditions can be difficult. The ground is hard, fields are dry, and getting a consistent soil core depth can take more time than usual. To help you take the best soil samples this fall, we’ve put together some tips and tricks for sampling in dry soil conditions that, when implemented, will help you save time and frustration in the field.

Soil sampling equipment

AGVISE Laboratories has provided soil sampling equipment for over 40 years. Our hydraulic soil sampling system will enable you to get high-quality soil cores, even in hard, dry soils. The electric-hydraulic power unit paired with easy-to-change Quicktach probes will make adapting to challenging soil sampling conditions simple and easy. You can find more about our equipment on our online store.

Best soil probe body

The heavy-duty (HD) probe body is made from chromoly steel. This thick-walled, hard steel probe body will resist bending under hard, dry, or frozen soil conditions (compared to softer stainless steel). The HD probe body comes in two options: solid and slotted. If the topsoil is powder dry, it is best to use the HD solid probe body, as powder-dry soil may fall out of the slot. Stainless steel probe bodies work great in most situations but in hard, dry soils the stainless-steel probe body may bend more easily than the HD probe body.

Best soil probe tip

AGVISE Laboratories carries two tips for the HD probe body. The HD “dry tip” has a sharp cutting edge and large opening (3/4-inch) that works great in hard, dry soils. It is our leading recommendation for such conditions. If you are soil sampling fine-textured clay soils, even under dry conditions, the HD “wet tip” may also work well for you because there is usually a little moisture remaining at the lower end of the 24” soil profile. It is a good idea to have both the HD dry and HD wet tips with you in the sampling rig. As soil conditions change, you can use the soil probe tip that gives you the best quality soil cores. 

Solving common very dry soil sampling problems

What do I do if the soil probe comes up empty?

Under very dry soil conditions, sometimes the soil probe comes up empty because soil falls out the bottom of the probe. One trick to overcome this is to push the probe all the way to 24-inch (or to the end of its cycle), then lift the probe up a few inches and push it back down to 24-inch. This creates a slight plug at the bottom of the soil core that prevents soil from falling out the bottom. It seems like such a simple solution, but it works!

What if I can’t get full 24-inch soil cores and the soil probe tip has a hard plug in it, which is preventing soil from flowing into the probe body?

You are probably using a tip with an opening diameter that is too small. Dry soil does not compress well and sometimes it will not flow through a smaller tip opening. The HD dry tip has a 3/4-inch that is large enough to allow dry soil to flow into the soil probe.

Will WD-40 help me get better quality soil cores if the soil is dry and hard?

There is no benefit to using a lubricant such as WD-40 under very dry soil conditions. Dry soil is much less likely to plug the soil probe than wet soil. If you are running into a few plugged tips with the HD dry tip, try the HD wet tip. You are probably finding a layer of wet soil deeper in the soil profile. The HD wet tip has a recessed lip that will prevent plugging and will handle this layer better than the HD dry tip.

What if I can’t get a full 6-24-inch soil core? Should I change anything in the information I submit to the laboratory? 

If you are unable to get a full second soil depth (6-24-inch soil core), it is important that the information you submit to the laboratory matches the soil depth you actually collected. Mobile soil nutrients like nitrate-nitrogen are tested on the second soil depth and results are calculated based on soil core length. If the soil core is shorter than what was written on the submission form or submitted in AGVISOR, the soil test nitrate-nitrogen result will be overestimated.

Preventing fires when soil sampling

No one wants to start a fire while in the field. Unfortunately, driving anything with an engine over dry crop residue creates a fire risk. John Lee, soil sampling and testing veteran, has seen this happen firsthand. “I started a corn stalk field on fire when I was soil sampling one of my dad’s fields in college,” said Lee. “The fire was put out quickly, but I was embarrassed that I did not have anything in the truck with me to put the fire out.”

After visiting with several customers with many years’ experience soil sampling in dry conditions, we compiled a list of practices that can reduce the chance of fire while soil sampling.

Fire suppressing items to keep in your soil sampling rig

Remember that most fires start under the truck where straw or chaff accumulates on exhaust pipes, mufflers, etc. Your firefighting equipment needs to be long enough to reach these areas if a fire does start.

  1. Large ABC type fire extinguisher with hose
    • 10 lb size costs ~$70.00; large 20 lb size costs ~$130.00
  2. Water tank with 20-ft hose
    • A small water tank (~25 gallons) with a 20-ft hose will allow you to get to any location on the truck to put out a fire. One sampler suggested using a small spray tank system designed for ATVs. The systems cost roughly  $350-$450, are self-contained, and run from a battery. You may already have a small weed spraying system you can put in the box of your soil sampling truck to use as a firefighting system.

Practices to reduce fire risk before one starts

  1. Soil sample in the morning when it is cool and overnight dew is still present
  2. Talk with your clients about reducing stubble height. This should not be an issue with drought-stressed crops because the stubble height will be shorter than normal.
  3. Keep as much ground clearance under your truck as possible to prevent chaff buildup on the frame, axels, and crossmembers.
  4. Inspect your truck at the end of each day to make sure straw and chaff are not accumulating in places that could start a fire the next day. Use an air compressor to blow out all the nooks and crannies accumulating crop residue.
  5. Stay alert for any hints of smoke while soil sampling. At the first hint of smoke, find where the smoke is originating quickly and extinguish it, or get out of the field and into a safe area to figure out where the smoke is coming from.

Lessons (Ghosts) of Droughts Past

From Alberta to Iowa, the region has experienced everything from abnormally dry soil conditions to exceptional drought. In some places, the drought started in 2020 and has continued through 2021. Considering lower than expected crop yields, we expect that residual soil nitrate-nitrogen levels will be much higher than normal in many wheat, canola, and corn fields this fall. There was reduced crop nitrogen uptake and little to no soil nitrogen losses to leaching or denitrification through the growing season, which should result in higher soil test nitrate-N remaining in the soil profile.

In major drought years, high residual nitrate levels are a normal phenomenon. In 1988, the average soil nitrate test following wheat across the region was a staggering 107 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile). This is considerably higher than the long-term average around 30-45 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile). The 1988 drought was extreme, and 2021 has rivaled that in some locations. Based on previous drought years, it will be no surprise to find wheat fields with 80-100 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile) or even higher.

Past experience also shows us that drought can create greater crop yield variability across fields. Some zones in the field with better water holding capacity and soil organic matter may have produced a decent crop yield, and these will have lower residual soil nitrate-N. Yet, other zones may have had very poor crop growth and yield, leaving very high amounts of soil nitrate-N remaining.

Zone soil sampling is always a good idea, but it is especially important in drought years. Soil sampling based on productivity zones is the only way to determine the correct amount of nitrogen fertilizer in each zone across the field. To create good productivity zones for soil sampling, it is best to use multiple data layers such as satellite imagery, crop yield maps, topography, or electrical conductivity (Veris or EM38).

This fall, we expect residual soil nitrate-N to be higher than normal, but there will be exceptions to the rule. Last spring, there was a lot of broadcast urea fertilizer applied without incorporation. If no rain was received for several weeks after application, much of the nitrogen could have been lost to ammonia volatilization. This means some fields will seem out of place with lower residual soil nitrate-nitrogen because fertilizer nitrogen was lost last spring.

For fields with more than 150 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile), the crop nitrogen requirement for next year may not call for much, if any, nitrogen fertilizer. We must remember that drought creates variability within a field and even within large productivity zones. This is why we always suggest applying a base amount of nitrogen fertilizer to address the variability, even if the soil nitrate test is more than 150 lb/acre nitrate-N. A base nitrogen fertilizer rate (maybe 20 to 40 lb/acre N) should address most of the field variability and provide a fast start to the next year’s crop. In 1988, we learned the tough lesson that applying no nitrogen fertilizer on fields testing very high for nitrate-N was a mistake, and the best producing parts of fields had early-season nitrogen deficiencies. A modest base nitrogen fertilizer rate was the right decision to cover field variability.

Three Simple Lessons from Droughts Past

  1. Soil test all fields for residual soil nitrate-N. There will be considerable variability from field to field and even zone to zone.
  2. The residual soil nitrate-N test allows you to reduce nitrogen fertilizer rates for next year, saving money on crop inputs for 2022.
  3. Remember to apply a modest base nitrogen fertilizer rate on fields testing very high in nitrate-N to address field variability. You will want to get next year’s crop started right.

Sidedress Corn Using the Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT)

As the corn crop begins to emerge, it is time to prepare for sidedress nitrogen applications. Sidedress nitrogen for corn can be applied any time after planting, but the target window is generally between growth stages V4 and V8, before rapid plant nitrogen uptake occurs. Split-applied nitrogen has become a standard practice in corn to reduce in-season nitrogen losses on vulnerable soils, such as sandy and clayey soils. More and more farmers now include topdress or sidedress nitrogen as part of their standard nitrogen management plan. These farmers have witnessed too many years with high in-season nitrogen losses through nitrate leaching or denitrification.

The target timing for PSNT sampling is when corn is 6 to 12″ tall. Twelve-inch corn is often V4 or V5 (like in the picture above). Do not hesitate in collecting soil samples for the PSNT; the target window for sidedress-nitrogen applications in corn is between the V4 and V8 stages. 

Whether your nitrogen management plan includes a planned sidedress nitrogen application or not, the Pre-Sidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT) is one tool to help make decisions about in-season nitrogen. You may also hear this test called the Late-Spring Soil Nitrate Test (LSNT) in Iowa. PSNT is an in-season soil nitrate test taken during the early growing season to determine if additional nitrogen fertilizer is needed. PSNT helps assess available soil nitrate-nitrogen prior to rapid plant nitrogen uptake and the likelihood of crop yield response to additional nitrogen.

The Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT), taken when corn is 6 to 12 inches tall, can help you decide the appropriate sidedress nitrogen rate. The PSNT requires a 0-12 inch depth soil sample taken when corn plants are 6 to 12 inches tall (at the whorl), usually in late May or early June. Late-planted corn may not reach that height before mid-June, but PSNT soil samples should still be collected during the first two weeks of June. The recommend soil sampling procedure requires 16 to 24 soil cores taken randomly through the field, staggering your soil cores across the row as you go. All soil cores should be placed in the soil sample bag and submitted to the laboratory within 24 hours or stored in the refrigerator.

You can submit PSNT soil samples using the online AGVISOR program by choosing the “Corn Sidedress N” crop choice and submitting a 0-12 inch soil sample for nitrate analysis. AGVISOR will generate sidedress nitrogen fertilizer guidelines, using the PSNT critical level of 25 ppm nitrate-N (0-12 inch depth). If PSNT is greater than 25 ppm nitrate-N, then the probability of any corn yield response to additional nitrogen is low. If spring rainfall was above normal, then the PSNT critical level of 20 to 22 ppm nitrate-N (0-12 inch depth) should be used. Iowa State University provides additional PSNT interpretation criteria for excessive rainfall, manured soils, and corn after alfalfa.

If the PSNT is taken after excessive rainfall, the soil cores will be wet and difficult to mix in the field. Therefore, it is best to send all soil cores to the laboratory to be dried and ground, ensuring a well-blended soil sample for analysis. Although in-field soil nitrate analyzers have improved over the years, the difficult task of blending wet, sticky soil cores in the field still remains. The only way to get accurate, repeatable soil analysis results is to dry, grind, and blend the entire soil sample in the laboratory before analysis. AGVISE provides 24-hour turnaround on PSNT soil samples. The soil samples are analyzed and reported the next business day after arrival. Soil test results are posted on the online AGVISOR program for quick and easy access. With AGVISE, you get not only great service but also the highest quality data with four decades of soil testing experience.

Pre-Sidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT) resources

Please call our technical support staff if you have any questions on PSNT and interpreting the soil test results for sidedress nitrogen application.

Preparing for Spring Soil Sampling

Even when fall soil sampling weather cooperates, there is always some soil sampling to do each spring. No matter the spring conditions, the soil sampling window is tight if you are planning to collect soil samples and get the soil test results back in time for spring fertilizer decisions. You will want to pull soil samples before the field will carry a pickup truck, without leaving deep ruts, to maximize the spring soil sampling window. Your soil sampling rig choices are usually walking the field with a hand soil probe or using an ATV/UTV.

Over the years, many creative clients have outfitted UTVs with hydraulic soil sampling equipment to collect 24-inch soil cores in the spring. This has allowed soil samplers to get into a field about one week before it could carry a pickup truck. It is a big deal if you can get soil test results back one week sooner in the spring!

It is fairly simple to rig a UTV with the receiver hitch-mounted hydraulic soil sampling system kit. All you need to build is a wooden box to hold the electric-hydraulic power unit and a large deep cell battery. The hydraulic cylinder is mounted on a channel iron, which simply attaches to the receiver hitch. A large deep cell battery has enough charge to complete a good day of soil sampling without a recharge. Just make sure you put the battery on the charger overnight.

Some clients have created hydraulic soil sampling systems that can be quickly added and removed from a pickup truck box or UTV. It is a quick and easy add-on for the couple weeks of spring soil sampling that you may do. If you want some simple designs for self-contained soil sampling systems that can be removed in 10 minutes or less, these are some examples to consider.

Once the soil sample is collected, the next step in successful spring soil testing is getting them analyzed ASAP. AGVISE Laboratories knows that every spring soil sample is a rush, and our normal turnaround time is next-day (24 hours after soil sample is received). If you need any soil sampling equipment or supplies, we have everything in stock to ensure you get spring soil testing completed on time. We know spring soil testing can be stressful, but we hope to make it easier with the right soil sampling equipment and the reliable soil testing services that AGVISE has provided since 1976.

Soil Testing and 4R Nutrient Stewardship

Each year, farmers aim to increase agricultural production and profitability while conserving our land resources for the next generation. These tandem goals drive sustainable soil fertility and crop nutrition decisions on cropland across the world.

In 2005, global fertilizer industry and environmental stakeholders began developing a standard theme to emphasize science-based stewardship in soil fertility and crop nutrition. The theme eventually became known as 4R Nutrient Stewardship, where each “R” referred to the “right” way to manage nutrients for crop production. The 4Rs are summarized as managing crop nutrition with the 1) Right Source, 2) Right Rate, 3) Right Time, and 4) Right Place.

To successfully implement 4R Nutrient Stewardship, you must start with a high-quality soil sample and an informative soil test. To begin, the fertilizer need and amount is determined through soil testing, which is based on regionally calibrated soil test levels for each crop. If you do not have a soil test, how do you know what the Right Rate is? Using crop removal rates or simply guessing without soil testing often leads to overapplication of fertilizer, cutting into profit.

A conventional whole-field composite soil sample (one soil sample per field) is certainly better than no soil sample. It gets you in the ballpark, but it does not detect variation in soil nutrient levels across the field. You might underapply fertilizer on high yielding parts and overapply fertilizer on low yielding parts. To get the Right Rate applied in the Right Place, precision soil sampling, either grid or zone, is the best way to determine the appropriate fertilizer rate and where to apply it in each field. Precision soil sampling is a proven tool to reduce over- and under-fertilization across fields, thus optimizing crop yield and profitability while reducing the potential risk of soil nutrient loss to the environment.

When you start soil sampling and making soil fertility plans for next year, keep 4R Nutrient Stewardship in mind. AGVISE Laboratories is a proud 4R Partner. To learn more about the 4Rs or become a 4R Partner, visit the 4R Nutrient Stewardship website.

Soil Testing Right Behind the Combine

This submission is courtesy of Dr. David Franzen, Extension Soil Specialist, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. It was originally published in the AGVISE Newsletter Fall 2019.

It is more the rule than the exception that soil sampling begins in mid-September, rather than starting immediately following small grain harvest. However, many producers miss an excellent window for soil testing by waiting too long. The reason for waiting is the hope that additional nitrogen will be made available through mineralization (i.e. decomposition of crop residue and organic matter). A review of research has shown that soil nitrate levels change very little, up or down, following small grain harvest.

Soil sampling right after harvest is recommended and has numerous advantages.

  1. Producers are more likely to use the actual soil test results for deciding fall nitrogen fertilizer rates if the soil test results are in their hands soon enough to consider before fall fieldwork begins.
  2. Soil sampling before to fall tillage provides more consistent 0-6 inch soil cores, which provides the best soil sample quality for phosphorus, potassium, zinc, organic matter, and other non-mobile soil nutrients.
  3. Soil sampling right after harvest guarantees that fields will be soil sampled on time and not missed due to weather problems that could happen later in the fall.

Field Variability Screaming in Your Ear? Precision Soil Sampling is the Answer

Your land is variable. Each fall, you watch the combine yield monitor go up and down across the field. You know where crop yield will be the best in wet years and dry years. So, why do you still use a whole-field composite soil test to manage fertilizer inputs and ignore the obvious field variability affecting crop yield potential?

Precision soil sampling, using grids or zones, divides whole fields into smaller units for soil sampling and creates more accurate and useful soil test information. It tells you exactly where you need to apply more or less fertilizer within each field, unlocking untapped crop yield potential and fertilizer input savings. Grid soil sampling, which is the most detailed approach, typically breaks a field into 2.5- to 5.0-acre grid cells. The more adaptable approach is zone soil sampling, which divides the field into productivity zones that can be managed to their needs. A well-designed zone should represent the smallest practical management unit that still accurately represents the area (e.g. 20-40 acres). Zones are commonly created using data layers such as crop yield, satellite imagery, soil survey, topography, salinity, drainage, or a combination of several data layers.

Precision soil test data can reveal previously unknown production problems, which were otherwise masked in a whole-field composite soil sample. For example, more zone soil sampling has uncovered more and more low soil pH zones (below pH 6) in the long-term no-till areas of central South Dakota, southwest North Dakota, and north-central Montana. Previously, the whole-field composite soil sample had blended the low and high soil pH zones together and everything looked okay. But now, the zone soil samples are revealing where low soil pH is causing serious crop yield loss and where soil pH can be corrected with lime to improve crop yield. This is a good example of precision soil sampling revealing a long-hidden problem and showing us how to fix it.

If you break a field into smaller and smaller units (i.e. more zones), you will learn more and more about field variability. To illustrate the concept, we pulled soil test data from 23,000 zone sampled fields in 2020 and calculated the average soil test range (difference) between the high and low zones within each field. The summarized data is presented in the table.

Average soil test range within a field (high zone – low zone)
Number of zones per field Nitrate-N

lb/acre, 0-24 inch

Olsen P

ppm

K

ppm

pH Soil organic matter

%

3 27 9 88 0.57 1.10
4 38 14 108 0.76 1.52
5 45 17 137 0.89 1.73
6 55 21 164 1.12 1.68
7 61 23 184 1.25 1.59
8 65 24 183 1.26 2.04

As the number of zones increases in a field, the range in soil test values (high zone – low zone) also increases and highlights the true variability across the field. The trend is clear not just for soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but also for soil properties like pH and organic matter. This tells us that one whole-field “average,” was missing the highs and lows that occur naturally in many fields.

Precision soil sampling is the first step in understanding what is really happening in your fields. You can gain a clearer picture of what plant nutrient deficiencies might be occurring and where you can improve crop yield potential. The next step is creating variable-rate prescriptions for seed, fertilizer, lime, and even herbicides (consider soil pH and organic matter). These tools can help you improve crop yield, optimize crop inputs, and increase profitability within each field on your farm.