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).