clay soil
  • Soil

Soil Testing: How To Take Samples And Read Results

Agricultural productivity depends on the farmland quality, and a soil test can timely report a problem in crop growth conditions. Field suitability analysis helps choose the appropriate crops or decide on land use for farming.

Regular soil testing is ultimately important not only for growers but can provide valuable field insights to all agribusiness players, including agri-coops, crop insurers, banks, input suppliers, or commodity traders. Nonetheless, designated laboratories describe only the current field properties. So, while analyzing soil test results for decisions on field amelioration, it’s better to combine lab reports with historical data from satellite imagery analytics.

What Is Soil Testing?

It is the farmland analysis for multiple parameters like chemical content, toxicity, pH level, salinity, earth-dwelling biota, etc. Such tests also provide information on chemical contamination, humic or organic content, electric conductivity, cation exchange capacity, and other physical and chemical properties.

Types Of Soil Tests

The analysis type depends on the explored components or properties of the field ground that may beneficially or adversely impact crop development. The most frequently-used types analyze and measure:

  • mineral content,
  • pH level,
  • soil moisture,
  • salinity,
  • pesticides and chemical contamination,
  • structure and texture, etc.
laboratory research of chemical content in soil

Soil Nutrient Testing

Valuable information on nutrients content allows accurate fertilization to support plant needs within precision agriculture implementations. This is why the chemical test for soil nutrients is the most common.

Primarily, soil tests report on the content of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which are the most important nutrients for crops. Secondary nutrients to examine are calcium (Ca), sulfur (S), and magnesium (Mg). An extended test also includes minor elements like iron (Fe), manganese (Mg), boron (B), molybdenum (Mo), and others.

To test soil nutrient content, a sample is added to an extractant solution and mixed (typically by shaking). Then, the liquid content is filtered and analyzed for chemical elements’ presence and concentrations (converted to dry matter). The obtained number is the soil-test index .

Why is it important to test soil for nutrient levels? Availability of correct amounts of nutrients at certain phenological stages is vital for plants. A nutrient imbalance like nitrogen deficiency severely impedes plant growth, while high concentrations cause plant wilting, fertilizer burns, or abnormal development.

Soil Acidity Test (pH)

Proper pH in the field is essential for plant productivity, and either too high or too low pH will adversely affect crop growth. Testing pH of soil, one calculates its hydrogen ions. pH values may range from 0 to 14. The neutral value is 7, lower levels are for acidity, and higher than 7 mean alkalinities. Acidic or alkaline fields are treated correspondingly. For example, pH can be raised with lime, and an accurate pH test helps determine its required quantity.

How to test pH level in soil? Various kits allow measuring pH right in the field, but more accurate results are provided by state or private laboratories.

Soil Salinity Test

In saline fields, plants suffer from osmotic stresses due to poor water absorption. Soil salinity testing helps understand the suitability of lands for agricultural activities. Field salinity can be analyzed through:

  • evaporation of total soluble salts (TSS) from the ground-water extract;
  • measuring the electric conductivity (EC) of a saturated paste extract or a distilled water-earth dilution .

An electric conductivity soil test is performed in the field or a designated laboratory.

An EC soil test can also show the quantity of crop-available nitrogen in some non-saline lands.

Testing Soil For Pesticides and Contaminations

Pesticides help control any non-beneficial organisms that destroy crops. Chemicals effectively suppress weeds, manage crop diseases, or combat pests. At the same time, such substances poison non-target organisms and pollute nature. Highly aggressive substances leach into groundwater, remain in the land for many years, and harm humans and animals, accumulating in food.

contaminated soil after rain

Chemical contaminants reduce the yield quality, so it is important to conduct testing soil for pesticides before seeding and plan subsequent crop treatment based on past field activities and productivity.

It is also recommended to check the presence of heavy metals during soil testing because some of them are very toxic. These are lead (Pb), arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), mercury (Hg), nickel (Ni), lithium (Li), and others.

Physical Soil Testing For Texture And Structure

Apart from the chemical content, agricultural soil testing also analyzes the soil type and its physical properties like texture, structure, and moisture.

The main components are clay, sand, and silt, and their proportions define the ground texture and its ability to retain nutrients with moisture. For example, sandy fields dry faster than clay ones, so a soil texture test helps in precision irrigation and fertigation planning.

Soil structure describes the size of its parts and pore spaces, which affect the flow of water and air in the earth. Clay fields are finer, and their pore spaces are small. Therefore, they are prone to compaction and require regular aeration.

Soil type tests also assist in determining crop type suitability. Thus, water-loving plants are suitable for clay fields, while drought-tolerant species are good for dry sandy ones.

Soil Moisture Testing

Water is essential for plant growth, and vegetation cannot develop properly under a lack of ground moisture. When the field’s surface is dry, it can be noticed visually; yet accurate water rates are measured with soil moisture sensors or in the laboratory. A soil moisture content test reports water availability for plants or their dehydration. High-temperature moisture evaporation from samples is the typical soil moisture test. The calculation of moisture rates in the samples is based on measuring their masses before and after evaporation.

EOSDA Crop Monitoring

Access high-resolution satellite images to ensure effective fields management!

It is important to monitor the moisture in the field before seeding and throughout the whole season to get high yields. EOSDA Crop Monitoring allows checking the surface and root-zone moisture levels remotely. Besides, historical data shows the moisture level at each plant growth stage. Based on this data, farmers can predict the moisture deficit and make proper decisions. Additionally, the NDMI index on EOSDA Crop Monitoring helps find critical zones, and further soil moisture sampling of these areas will show if they are indeed dehydrated.

The chart below shows a correlation between soil moisture and NDVI. The optimum level of humidity for growing sunflowers on loamy soil is 65%. To keep the maximum yield, it can be lowered by 40%. In June, the humidity drops below 25% – the wilting point – and this is reflected in the NDVI. In this case, the model showed that the harvesting resulted in 2374 kg/ha of crop instead of the maximum possible 3961 kg/ha.

root zone soil moisture dynamics in EOSDA Crop Monitoring
Correlation of NDVI and soil moisture in the sunflower field with loamy soil.

How To Get The Soil Tested?

Deciding on how to conduct a soil test, you can choose any options:

  1. Do it yourself with special kits.
  2. Send samples for a professional analysis to a state or private laboratory. Soil test procedures in some local labs are free.
  3. Hire a company that will cover the whole process from sampling to field amelioration recommendations.
How long does a soil test take? The whole procedure usually requires several weeks.

How To Take Soil Samples For Testing

Farmland analysis provides necessary information for correct field treatment, but the precision of the results depends on accurate sampling. The basic soil sampling methods are based on grids and zones .

taking sample on a field for lab test

Grid Sampling

This method is based on equally spaced grids, usually one to five acres. The smaller the grid, the more accurate the result is. The larger the grid, the more subsamples are needed. For example, a one-acre grid cell requires a minimum of five subsamples, while up to ten subsamples should be collected for grids of five acres. Grid soil sampling provides spatial information on the field, but it doesn’t consider ground variability.

How often should the field be tested? The recommended frequency of sampling soil is two or three years in the same seasonal period. In the case of intensive cultivation, sampling must take place every year.

Zone Soil Sampling

This method suggests taking average samples from each field zone. The field is divided into zones based on crop maps or the soil type. Each zone has similar conditions, so the zones’ number and sizes depend on their variability. Usually, the sizes range from two to ten acres. The larger the zone, the more soil test probes are required (at least five subsamples for each zone, two subsamples per acre).

Agronomic soil testing gives detailed information on field health, but several data sources can provide even better insights. This is where the Zoning feature on EOSDA Crop Monitoring is particularly useful. Satellite-based productivity maps on the platform show field variability through vegetation indices, helping more accurately outline different zones for sampling. Such a combination assists in making decisions on necessary chemical inputs depending not only on the vegetation state but specific properties of each zone.

productivity map with VRA recommendations
The productivity map of the corn field and variable rate fertilizer application recommendations on EOSDA Crop Monitoring.

The field on the screen above is divided into 5 zones based on the NDVI index. According to the map, samples should be taken in different zones of the field with low vegetation, paying attention to Zone 3 and Zone 4. The “Lower vegetation” zone is red, because this is the edge of the field and nothing grows there; Zone 2 is very small – so there is no point in taking samples there. Recommendations for fertilizer application are filled in for each zone according to the level of vegetation.

How To Read A Soil Test?

A laboratory report usually includes the results on the specified parameters and the volumes of chemical elements in the samples. It is important to know nutrient norms and correspondingly adjust their concentrations.

For example, the required nitrogen concentrations depend on the soil type and are the highest for clay fields:

  • sandy earths (25 – 50 mg-N/kg);
  • loam earths (50 – 75 mg-N/kg);
  • clay earths (75 – 125 mg-N/kg).
Optimum soil test levels for different chemical elements
Element Normal Rate, ppm
Phosphorus (P) 25 – 35
Sulfur (S) 7 – 15
Zinc (Zn) 1 – 3
Iron (Fe) 10 – 20
Manganese (Mn) 8 – 11
Copper (Cu) 0.8 – 1
Potassium (K) 165 – 220
Calcium (Ca) 1400 or higher
Magnesium (Mg) 100 or higher
Sodium (Na) 80 – 120

Apart from nutrient content, a soil test report may include the following parameters:

  • Class indicates humic matter content and falls into three types: mineral, mineral-organic, and organic. Mineral-rich fields (MIN) have low humic concentrations, while organic ones (ORG) are the richest in humus. In mineral-organic fields, (M-O), humic content is medium.
  • Organic matter (OM) shows organic matter content in the samples. Except for sandy grounds, organic matter norms for row crops are 2.5% or higher.
  • Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) measures the ability of the field ground to retain cations (positively charged ions). The average values are 13-25 CEC but can vary from 1 to 40.

Farm soil test results from a laboratory may include amelioration recommendations to increase yields, for example, fertilizer adjustments or lime applications to reduce acidity. However, a laboratory report provides information only on the current state of things in the field. For this reason, it is also important to consider the following historical data of field conditions while understanding soil test results for nutrient supplies:

The process of interpreting soil test results won’t be complete without these aspects because each of them makes a certain impact on the field.

While adjusting nutrient content, you need to consider the next season’s crop. Each plant type requires a specific nutrient balance for healthy development.

Soil Testing For Agriculture-Related Businesses And EOSDA Crop Monitoring

Timely field health analysis helps mitigate economic and ecological risks not only in farming but the whole agricultural sector:

  • agriculturalists can avoid crop diseases and improve farm performance;
  • agri-coops can monitor their members’ productivity;
  • input suppliers can understand the demand in their products;
  • crop insurance companies can track proper field maintenance when validating claims;
  • bank institutions can decide on the expediency of granting agricultural loans.

Soil sampling and testing are also necessary when buying a new field or deciding on land use. The analysis of field nutrients helps maintain long-term field fertility, contributing to sustainable agriculture.

field with crops near the mountains

EOSDA Crop Monitoring doesn’t test soil directly but helps in preliminary situation assessment remotely, sparing the necessity of taking samples in the whole field. Thus, vegetation maps on the platform point out the critical zones. Then, the scouts get their tasks with the exact areas for sampling in the Scouting section. Besides, EOSDA Crop Monitoring essentially supplements soil test analysis with historical data on crop production and tracks a decrease or increase in yields year by year – all in one place.

There are several options to use our facilities in your business. Vegetation indices, productivity maps, and other EOSDA Crop Monitoring features are also available in a White Label module or through API. Request the details from our sales team at and find out the benefits of using our products in your niche.

About the author:

Vasyl Cherlinka Scientist at EOS Data Analytics

Vasyl Cherlinka has over 30 years of experience in agronomy and pedology (soil science). He is a Doctor of Biosciences with a specialization in soil science.

Dr. Cherlinka attended the engineering college in Ukraine (1989-1993), went on to deepen his expertise in agrochemistry and agronomy in the Chernivtsi National University in the specialty, “Agrochemistry and soil science”.

In 2001, he successfully defended a thesis, “Substantiation of Agroecological Conformity of Models of Soil Fertility and its Factors to the Requirements of Field Cultures” and obtained the degree of Biosciences Candidate with a special emphasis on soil science from the NSC “Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research named after O.N. Sokolovsky”.

In 2019, Dr. Cherlinka successfully defended a thesis, “Digital Elevation Models in Soil Science: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations and Practical Use” and obtained the Sc.D. in Biosciences with a specialization in soil science.

Vasyl is married, has two children (son and daughter). He has a lifelong passion for sports (he’s a candidate for Master of Sports of Ukraine in powerlifting and has even taken part in Strongman competitions).

Since 2018, Dr. Cherlinka has been advising EOSDA on problems in soil science, agronomy, and agrochemistry.

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