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Science replaces trial and error in soil fertility

September 29, 2008  By OMAFRA

September 26, 2008, Guelph, Ont. – Knowing how to get the ‘real dirt’ on your soil can improve your bottom line.

September 26, 2008, Guelph, Ont. – Knowing how to get the ‘real dirt’ on your soil can improve your bottom line.

If you’ve noticed parts of your crop field are doing better than other areas, it may be a sign that there’s something wrong with the soil. Just what is at the root of the problem might not be evident above ground for several years.  Farmers can save time and money and improve their crop yield by conducting a soil test.

Keith Reid, soil fertility specialist with Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) likens the need for soil testing to checking the oil periodically in your vehicle.

“When the oil light comes on, it’s a clear sign there’s a problem and some damage may already have been done. Similarly, by the time there are visual signs of a problem in your field, yield has been lost and profits have been affected.”

Reid advocates soil testing to eliminate the guesswork.

The three-step process of soil sampling starts by selecting an area to test. A large field needs to be divided into small sample areas of 25 acres or less. The next step is to obtain the actual soil sample.

Plants take up most of their nutrients from the top six inches of soil. Using a soil probe, a farmer needs only to take a sample of six inches. Reid recommends that you take at least 20 core samples in a zigzag pattern through a field. The final step in the process is the scientific evaluation of the soil samples. A list of accredited soil sampling labs is available on OMAFRA’s website.

Soil test results help a farmer to address a specific soil deficiency. Reid recalls one farmer who struggled for four years with poor yields. The farmer assumed his soil lacked phosphorous and he kept adding it to the soil. When the situation didn’t improve he tested the soil and discovered it was a lack of potash that was causing the problem.  Fortunately to the farmer, following the soil test results ended four years of poor field returns and the expense of unnecessary fertilizer.
Farmers can access resources to stop the invisible loss. For more information about soil sampling farmers can call OMAFRA’s Agricultural Information Contact Centre at 1-877-424-1300. Information is also available at

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