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Soil testing for the ROI of it

Read Time: 5 minutes

By Colin Bergstrom October 09, 2019

To maximize profitability you have to know what nutrients you’re starting with

Soil testing is a key step to achieving a return on your crop inputs investment, because if you don’t know what you’re going in with, you’re flying blind. Put another way, I don’t want you to lose out on precious revenue because you didn’t spend a few dollars on a soil test.

This is an important conversation right now, because for the past several years, low commodity prices have created an environment where the knee jerk reaction is to spend less on inputs – especially fertilizer.

You might have had a really good crop or you might have had a dry year with lower yields. No matter what happened this year, conducting soil tests could uncover excess nutrients or deficiencies that will help you determine how much fertilizer you should be applying. And that’s where you can start to realize a good return on investment.

A poor crop may mean you have excess nutrients and ultimately savings could be realized by putting down less of certain nutrients for next year. Maybe you grew decent yields but protein wasn’t there. A soil test could be the way to diagnose why, and is extra important when both yield and quality are what you’re going for.

To maximize profitability you have to know what you’re starting with, and when it’s in the bin, it’s too late.

On one hand, maybe you just took off a record canola crop leaving your soil nitrate levels critically low (<10lbs/ac), when normally you would have 25-35 lbs nitrate N after harvest. If you applied the usual rate of fertilizer for next year assuming you had the typical level of residual N and did not soil test, you could realize a 10 bu/ac yield loss and potential lower protein in your upcoming cereal crop. This could also mean lost earning potential of more than $60/acre. By simply adding the 25 lbs N/acre you protect yield potential and a potential 6:1 ROI. Not bad for spending a few hundred dollars on a soil test.

On the other hand, you could also have come off a dry year with disappointing yields. Even more disappointing is that in this scenario you pushed for extra yield by applying additional fertilizer to maximize profits in a depressed margin year. It would be easy to assume the additional fertilizer is a sunk cost you won’t be able to recoup. But if you were to soil test you might find that most of that additional fertilizer you applied is still available for next year’s crop. Say a soil test reveals an extra 30 lbs of N in the soil (above normal). Knowing this, you could cut back your nitrogen fertilizer next year to save some cost and manage lodging potential if you’re growing a cereal. Or you could still apply at the traditional rate and use the reserve to swing for the fences. That could translate to a savings of $10-15/acre and improved harvest management or the potential to increase gross revenue by $100/acre with extra yield in a canola crop. 

No matter which scenario fits, investing a few hundred dollars in a soil test sounds wise to me. If you’d like to explore your options or book soil testing, contact your Cargill rep today.

*Calculations above are for illustration only. Based on urea at $550/tonne; canola priced at $10/bu; and #1 CWRS wheat at $6.50/bu.

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Colin Bergstrom

Colin is a regional crop inputs leader for Cargill in Alberta. He has over 22 years of industry experience, mainly in precision agriculture, where he connected the dots between the equipment, agronomy and data to provide value to farmers. He also has experience in farming, and seed and crop protection. Colin’s passion for agriculture and agronomy stems from a systems approach to the farm and he is always excited to take opportunities and practically implement them with farmers to provide additional value to their operations.