A simple soil check-up can completely change your farming plans for the year ahead. By change, we mean save. Without checking and understanding your soil, you’re farming blind. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your soil will be the same as last year; a full season of different crops, herbicides, fertiliser, weeds, soil erosion and other factors could have completely altered the composition!
Follow these 6 simple steps to check your soil, then keep reading to find out how you should adjust accordingly.
1 Remove Debris
You could have all manner of debris on the area you want to test. It may be crop stubble from recently harvested grain, or a variety of grasses and weeds that have grown up while the field has been vacant. You’ll want to remove these so they aren’t in your sample. Furthermore, check for roots, worms, bugs and stones in the samples you take too, or they’ll ruin your results.
2 Dig Dig Dig
Dig a 12-inch deep hole. Try to dig straight down, with vertical sides to the hole, rather than taking out a mound that slowly slopes down to 12 inches. This is because you’ll want to see the different layers of soil. If you have very little top soil then already you’ve spotted a problem before you even get to the testing! If you’re testing soil for shallow rooted plants, i.e. a grass lawn, then digging to 12 inches may be a little excessive.
3 Collect Soil
To collect the soil, make sure to take long thin samples rather than chunks as you want to make sure you’re collecting soil throughout the different layers, not just the top layer. Imagine it like coring an apple: you want to take out the entire core, not just the stalk. Crop roots won’t just stop when they reach the second layer! If you’re considering planting a specific crop and already know the average root depth for that crop, consider taking samples to that depth.
4 Keep it Random
You’ll want at least 8 different samples from the area you’re testing, whether it’s a field or just a small patch. One way to ensure you’re picking randomly is to draw a grid over a map of the area, number the squares in the grid, then using an online random number generator, pick 8 random areas to test.
Combine your samples together – you should have about a pint in total from all your collections. Of course, make sure to combine your soil in a clean receptacle, like a bucket or large plastic bag to prevent the soil becoming contaminated.
You’ll want to do a separate soil test for each area, so do one test per field. If you want to be more precise, take several samples from larger fields. Furthermore, if you have specific problem areas, for example an area that keeps flooding or an area that you’ve noticed doesn’t perform as well as the rest of your farm, take separate samples from those areas too.
Once you have all your samples, make sure that they’re all labelled up and stored safely until you can test them. Soil that’s too wet or frozen isn’t suitable for testing, so if your samples come out too soggy, maybe wait until it’s a drier season.
Start by looking at the soil for uniformity and colour. Is your soil very sandy? Dry and crumbly? Sticky like clay? Or is it too peaty? Look for a rich, crumbly (well-aerated) soil that’s slightly moist, dark in colour and moulds a little in your hand. If your soil is close to this, then it’s just a matter of picking a crop that’s suited to your soil type and climate… however if your soil is in terrible quality, i.e. like sand, it might be a better plan to try a cover crop to improve soil quality for the long term.
Next you want to take a pH and nutrient profile of the soil. Are you lacking in nitrogen? Is your soil too acidic? The ideal pH is between 6.1 and 6.9. Use this data to help plan what crops are best suited to which fields. You may find that your problem areas are too rich in one nutrient, or massively deficient in an essential one, like nitrogen. Use this data to try and fix those spots, either with cover crops or special fertilisers.
And that’s all there is to it! A simple 6 step check that you can do yourself to make better decisions for the future of your farm.