Apr 5, 2023
Soil testing program returns to MSU

After a three-month break, Michigan State University Extension is launching a new soil testing program for commercial growers and home gardeners in Michigan.

Through a partnership with A&L Great Lakes Laboratories Inc., Michigan residents can purchase soil sample bags and mailers through MSU Extension and receive recommendations directly from Extension staff. A&L will analyze soil samples and send results to MSU Extension, which will generate recommendations and send them directly to the client. All MSU recommendations use the latest research and follow state laws and guidelines, including Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs), enabling farms to stay within the provisions of the Michigan Right to Farm Act.

Samples sent to the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory (SPNL), which closed on Dec. 31, will not be processed.

The program offers commercial soil tests and home lawn and garden soil tests. It is important to choose the correct soil test for your application, according to an MSU news release.

Commercial soil sample bags are appropriate for wildlife food plots as well as farm, landscape, nursery, athletic field and other commercial operations. Although slightly lower priced than the Home Lawn and Garden Test Mailers, they do not include postage to the lab and recommendations will be given at farm-scale (e.g., pounds per acre), which is difficult for home gardeners to interpret. Diagnostic responders who answer the MSU Lawn and Garden Hotline are not trained to answer questions related to commercial tests. Commercial clients are supported by MSU Extension educators specializing in particular crops. Commercial soil sample bags can only be purchased in person at MSU Extension offices. The cost for the commercial sample bag is $18 and does not include shipping costs to the lab for analysis.

The Home Lawn and Garden Soil Test Mailer is appropriate for all types of home soil samples, including lawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and fruits. The mailer includes instructions on how to collect a soil sample, a form to fill out identifying what you plan to grow a bag for the sample and a postage-paid envelope. You will receive a report with instructions for adding recommended fertilizers or other amendments. You can receive further assistance through Ask Extension or by calling the MSU Lawn and Garden Hotline (1-888-687-3464), both of which may be accessed through the Gardening in Michigan website. The mailer can be purchased in person at MSU Extension offices or online from the MSU Extension bookstore. The cost is $26.

Why test your soil?

Plants need the correct pH and balance of nutrients to be healthy and productive. Whether you are converting land to a new use or have been growing the same crop for many years, a soil test is essential to guide soil management. This protects against over-application of nutrients, which can harm plants, cause imbalances in the soil and pollute waterways. Soil should be tested every two to three years.

What will the MSU soil test reveal?

  • The current level of plant nutrients in soil, including phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg).
  • Personalized recommendations for fertilizer tailored to what you plan to grow.
  • The pH of the soil, if lime or sulfur is needed, and the amount to add.
  • The soil organic matter level and cation exchange capacity of your soil. Note: This is not a test for soil or water contamination or toxicity, and the test does not provide soil texture.

Why not go directly to a commercial lab?

At initial review, it may seem more cost-effective to send your sample directly to a commercial lab. However, Michigan is unique in the diversity of crops grown. MSU provides specific recommendations for the unique needs of several hundred crops, many of which are not covered by recommendations from commercial labs. Also, the recommendations from a commercial lab will not be reflective of Michigan’s different soil types and climate. MSU’s recommendations are built on decades of research and designed to optimize plant health and productivity while protecting Michigan’s soils and abundant water resources.

Other fertilizer recommendations will often be higher than what is provided by MSU Extension, resulting in higher input costs for fertilizer and potentially detrimental effects on the environment. Also, MSU Extension may not have the capacity to assist in interpreting results obtained through other sources.

Brent CrainMichigan State University Extension

Photo: MSU Extension

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