AgSource: Soil sampling
Sampling lays foundation for good nutrient management planning
ELLSWORTH — AgSource Laboratories believes that soil sampling lays the foundation for good nutrient management planning.
“Our focus in this laboratory is agronomic soil testing,” said Jim Friedericks, outreach and education advisor of AgSource Laboratories.
However, soil testing isn’t the only service the company provides.
According to Friedericks, they also provide testing services for plant tissue, water, manure and nematodes.
In addition to their year-old location in Ellsworth, AgSource Laboratories are also present in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Oregon.
According to Friedericks, the laboratory in Ellsworth was known as LGI. That company was sold to AgSource in 2010. In 2011, they combined the Ellsworth laboratory with Belmond Labs, of Belmond, and began operation in downtown Ellsworth in a number of separate buildings.
In August 2016. AgSource began operating out of its new 15,000-square foot building.
According to AgSource Laboratories, the new fully-integrated facility was much needed. Consolidating all functions under one roof has streamlined the sample process, from shipping and receiving to drying, grinding and sample preparation, as well as actual laboratory analysis and reporting.
Friedericks said the Ellsworth location employs six full-time technicians, with additional workforce hired during the laboratory’s busy season.
“During the busy soil sampling season we will sample 3,000 to 4,000 samples a day,” said Friedericks.
Soil testing starts with a farmer contacting their agronomic supplier or a testing company and, in some cases, they conduct their own soil sampling, according to Friedericks.
A sample is taken and, many times, it is a grid sample used for precision agronomics.
The samples are then bagged up.
Friedericks said AgSource supplies the materials needed to package the samples and, in many cases, provide a pick-up service.
“We will go out to the co-op and pick up the samples and bring them back to the lab,” he said. “Once the samples are received, they are spread out, organized properly, dried and ground.”
The drying process allows for a thorough mixing of the soil.
“We take the ground material and will take sub-samples of that for analysis for pH and conduct tests for nutrient availability for P, K, calcium, magnesium and any micronutrients that may need applied,” Friedericks said. “We also do a measurement for organic matter content. Most of those are routine, but micronutrient testing is an additional request they sometimes have.”
He added the tests are done the next day after the sample is received.
“All of those analyses are done and, for the most part, results are reported that evening or overnight,” he said.
AgSource Laboratories serves the entire state of Iowa and parts of Minnesota for their soil sampling services.
Testing of manure samples is done in much of the same manner as soil sampling.
“We supply the bottles to the sample collector,” Friedericks said. “They bring them in or mail them to us. Once we receive the sample, the first process is to homogenize it. We take the homogenized sample. If it is a liquid, we will run it like it is, but if it’s a dry material, we will dry it down further and grind it down.”
Oftentimes, for manure, Friedericks said they are testing for N, P, K, sulfur and zinc.
“Those are routine, but also have additional tests we can perform for manure too,” he said.
AgSource tests manure samples from throughout the entire state of Iowa, with clients also from Nebraska and even as far out as Montana.
Soil health analysis
Friedericks said AgSource Laboratories has started testing for soil health analysis.
“That is becoming popular,” he said. “Soil health measures the biological activity of the soil. We do an incubation of that and extract the water soluables and the microorganisms available nutrients through that water soluble extraction. It’s a process that measures how readily organic matter and organisms can break down that organic matter and release nutrients for the soil, respiration rates and mineralization rates.”
Friedericks said it is best to conduct a soil health analysis in the mid- to late-spring/early summer as soils begin to warm up and biological activity is starting in the soil, and then again after harvest is also a good time to collect a sample.
“You get two different things. You’ve got nutrients that will become available in the spring and those are measurable,” he said. “Then, after harvest, we can see what has been taken out of the soil.”
The dead of winter, nor during the heat of summer, is a very good time for a soil health analysis, Friedericks added.
A soil health analysis is a way to understand how a producer’s management is going.
“If they’re trying to improve soil health, it is a slow process,” he said. “If you’re going cover crops, you’re adding more organic matter and things will change over time. If you test in the spring the first time, test in the spring the next time in a year or two.”
Water testing for homeowners
AgSource also offers well water testing.
“We evaluate for nitrates, bacteria, hardness — basic water quality parameters for a home,” he said.
Friedericks added the company does a lot of water testing for health departments.
“In some counties, if you contact the Health Department, they will take the water sample for you, bring it to our lab and it is free to the homeowner,” he said. “The results are reported back to the homeowner and the Health Department.”
They will test irrigation water, and they are seeing more of an interest in drainage water testing.
“We have had several people ask about testing tile water for nitrates and using that as a management tool,” Friedericks said.
Soil Cyst Nematode testing
Testing for Soil Cyst Nematodes (SCN) is done, Friedericks said, by washing off the roots of a soybean plant. The cysts and eggs are collected on a microscope slide and viewed to see the cyst and eggs per 100 grams of soil.
“This is a very manual observation test,” he said.
Benefits and advantages to using AgSource “With the pick-up service, we’re able to go basically anywhere in the state with a group of drivers and collect samples, primarily from co-ops,” he said. “That gets the samples back to us quickly and timely for us to process them and get them in the system, sometimes that day. It saves the producer shipping costs. That’s a big advantage.”
Friedericks said AgSource Laboratories offers reports available on their website and pride itself on offering services to local producers.
“We are local,” he said. “For central Iowa, there’s a couple other labs, but we are very local and have a good history of soil testing in this area.”
Testing methods, Friedericks said, are standard methods and have been used for a long time.
“Improvements are in our ability to process things quickly,” he said. “We have equipment to handle large batches of samples so we can process more rapidly.”
Iowa State University, according to Friedericks, used to provide a wet extraction method, or a moist soil extraction where the soil sample was not dried, but where they would take a moist sample, mix it up and take a portion of that out and read the concentration and particularly for potassium.
“We provide that analysis,” he said. “We are one of two labs in the state that do that test, because ISU has stopped provided that test. It’s not our normal way of processing, but an option people can use.”
Friedericks said they are very careful when they receive the samples and put into position. Every position is numbered and tracked carefully.
On every tray of 50, there are two quality control points.
“We make sure we are meeting those requirements,” he said. “If not, we will re-test that tray or spot check that tray to make sure everything’s OK. The quality control samples helps us identify where the sample is supposed to be.”
The lab uses a standard deviation to ensure the quality control samples are tracking well.
“If it’s within two standard deviations of what they should be, it’s acceptable,” he said. “That’s a measure of precision. The more often we do that, the tighter it gets.”
Friedericks added they have subscribed to two quality control programs that are used by the state for the certification process.
“We run blind samples and they are sent in and compared to see how we track with everyone else,” he said. “If we don’t pass that, we don’t get certified.”
The water quality analysis used at AgSource Laboratories is also inspected by the state.
“We are certified by the DNR (Iowa Department of Natural Resources) and then we follow their protocols for quality control,” Friedericks said, “and that’s been an advantage for us, because having to meet very strict quality control processes of water testing has influenced how we do our soil testing as well. It helps us maintain high quality in our soil testing.”
Friedericks added that, every year, the lab goes through an internal validation program of its methods before every busy season.
“We make sure they are doing what we think they are supposed to be doing, so they will perform as we expect them to perform,” he said.
Where does Friedericks see the future of AgSource Laboratories?
“I think one of the growing areas is in nutrient management,” he said. “We do a lot of manure testing and I think that is an area that will continue to grow as more and more interest is placed on that and that continues to grow over time.”
He believes the same is for soil testing.
“Soil testing will continue to grow as more people start to focus on precision farming data, yield mapping and other ways of monitoring what is going on in the field, and marrying that with soil fertility mapping,” Friedericks said. “I am sure that is a growing area.”
Historically, Friedericks said farmers have sampled their soils every three to four years.
But is that enough?
“I think as we see more variability in weather and some of the ups and downs that happen from year to year in yield, I would like to see more frequent testing every two to three years instead of the three to four years,” he said. “Not just as a profitability standpoint from our perspective; I think it’s a better management tool to have a better understanding what is going on in the field.”
Friedericks said soil health and plant tissue analysis are both growing areas.
He said they don’t conduct the plant-tissue analysis at the Ellsworth laboratory right now, but expects they might start doing that in the near future.
“It’s the same process we use for manure analysis, so we have everything in place except for the grinding or drying facility, but that is easy to accommodate, so that is something we could definitely expand into,” he said.
Should producers cut back on their testing to save money?
Friedericks believes no.
“When margins are tight, it is even more important to know what you are working with,” he said. “So I think soil testing even becomes more important in the difficult market year. Just because you can manage it more closely. And here again, what you did four years ago, if you’re still banking on that same recommendation you had four years ago, you could be applying where you don’t need to.”
Friedericks thinks a good grid sampling program is important for producers to understand the fertility variability of their field so they can manage it accordingly.
“I think there is a lot to be said with understanding those areas of the field that just won’t produce a lot, to reduce your nutrient applications there, because you’re never going to get profitable in that area,” he said. “Do what you can to tailor your program, so you can maximize where you have high yield potential and cut back where your yield potentials are lower, and I think fertility management is part of that. Understanding the variabilities that are there.”