At first glance, soil sampling would seem to be a relatively easy task. However, when you consider the variability that likely exists within a field because of inherent soil formation factors and past production practices, the collection of a representative soil sample becomes more of a challenge.
Before heading to the field to take the sample, be sure to have your objective clearly in mind. For instance, if all you want to learn is the average fertility level of a field to make a uniform maintenance application of phosphorus (P) or potassium (K), then the sampling approach would be different than sampling for pH when establishing a new alfalfa seeding or sampling to develop a variable rate P application map.
In some cases, sampling procedures are predetermined and simply must be followed. For example, soil tests may be required for compliance with a nutrient management plan or environmental regulations associated with confined animal feeding operations. Sampling procedures for regulatory compliance are set by the regulatory agency and their sampling instructions must be followed exactly. Likewise, when collecting grid samples to use with a spatial statistics package for drawing nutrient maps, sampling procedures specific to that program should be followed.
Regardless of the sampling objectives or requirements, some sampling practices should be followed:
Figure 1. The level of accuracy of the results of a soil test will depend, in part, on how many subsamples were taken to create the composite sample. In general, a composite sample should consist of 15 or more subsamples. For better accuracy, 20-30 cores, or subsamples, should be taken and combined into a representative sample. Graph by Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 2. Consistency is sampling depth is particularly important for immobile nutrients like P. Stratification of nutrients and pH can be accentuated under reduced tillage. Image from Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, K-State Research and Extension.
Soil test results for organic matter, pH, and non-mobile nutrients (P, K, and Zn) change relatively slowly over time, making it possible to monitor changes if soil samples are collected from the same field following the same sampling procedures. However, there can be some seasonal variability and previous crop effects. Therefore, soil samples should be collected at the same time of year and after the same crop.
Soil testing should be the first step for a good nutrient management program, but it all starts with the proper sample collection procedure. After harvest in the fall is good time for soil sampling for most limiting nutrients in Kansas.
Accurate soil tests are dependent on more than proper sampling techniques. Care should be taken regarding the handling/storage of soil samples before submission to a testing facility. Please read the accompanying article “Soil sample handling practices can affect soil nitrate test accuracy” in this eUpdate issue.
For instructions on submitting soil samples to the K-State Soil Testing Lab, please see the accompanying article “Fall soil sampling: Sample collection and submission to K-State Soil Testing Lab” found in this eUpdate issue.
Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, Nutrient Management Specialist