CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Fall is an excellent time to test soil and apply amendments to improve soil fertility. Without knowing the nutrient levels already in your soil, you’re unlikely to be applying the correct amount your crops will need. This could be costing you, either by limiting yield if you’re not applying enough or by adding more fertilizer than you need. Taking a soil test is easy and can have huge benefits for your production.
Penn State soil test kits are available at every county Extension office. The kit contains a soil sample bag, sampling instructions, a submission form, and a mailing envelope. You may also go to the Penn State Agricultural Analytical Services Lab website at www.aasl.psu.edu, print out the soil fertility sample submission form, and then submit a sample in your own container and mailing envelope, along with the form and payment.
The standard soil fertility test kit costs $9.00. Your only additional cost is the postage to mail about one cup, or eight ounces, of the soil sample to the lab at University Park in State College. The $9.00 cost covers measurement of soil pH and the levels of the plant nutrients phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. You’ll receive a written report with the chemical analysis of the soil, along with lime and fertilizer recommendations for the specified crop. You can consider adding on optional tests for other soil characteristics such as organic matter, soluble salts, or particle size. These will cost an additional fee which you can pay by sending a check along with your sample submission. Nitrogen is not included in the standard tests because it is such a mobile nutrient that and levels can change considerably over a short time. You may want to consider adding the optional test for nitrate levels if knowing this information is important to you.
The size of your farm and diversity of crops you’re growing will influence how many tests you need. You will want to use clean equipment and sample enough to capture variation across the area you’re sampling. Using a trowel, shovel, or auger, scoop thin slices or cores of soil from at least 13 places in a given area into a clean bucket or bag. Sample as deep as your plow depth in cultivated land or to a depth of 6 inches in untilled land. If the field varies in soil type, previous fertilizer or lime application, or cropping history, sample each area separately. The written report you receive after analysis will provide tailored recommendations, so it can also be helpful to obtain one sample for each crop you plan to plant in that area next season. If you receive your written report and need help interpreting it, reach out to your local Extension office for assistance.
–Karly Regan, Penn State Extension Franklin County