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.