NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division is much more than just soil testing

By on April 3, 2019

File this under “Learned Something New Today,” but I didn’t know that April 1-5 is recognized as Agronomy Week. In fairness, it’s a relatively new celebration, marking just it’s third year.

The week offers us a chance to highlight some of the work of the department’s Agronomic Services Division. This is a busy division, processing more than 258,625 soil samples so far this fiscal year, along with 40,005 nematode samples and 13,528 plant tissue samples, just to name a few.

Graphic of agronomic sample numbers.
Graphic of agronomic sample numbers.

Many people are familiar with the soil testing work the division does. In fact, its soil testing services are so popular that during the busiest time of the year (November through March), you will likely see rolling carts full of soil samples waiting in hallways and stock rooms to be processed.

The tests are important to farmers and landowners wanting to boost the fertility of their soil to maximize plant yields and improve yards and landscaping plants.

Dr. David Hardy stands with rolling carts of soil samples waiting for testing.
Dr. David Hardy, head of the Agronomic Services Division’s soil testing section, stands in the midst of just a few of the many soil samples that are submitted during the peak season rush.

During the busy season, people who submit soil samples have to pay a $4 fee per sample. The idea is designed to get people to submit samples earlier or later than the busy period. Outside of the busy timeframe, soil testing is a free service. The division has collected $168,960 in peak season fees this year, which will be re-invested in lab equipment, part-time workers and other lab improvements.

The nematode section has had a record year for testing, in part because of the discovery of a specific root-knot nematode that is especially problematic for sweet potato production, and the testing of over 14,000 pinewood samples in fiscal year 2018 to support the export of lumber products to China.

Across the state, the division employs field agronomists to assist growers with crop-specific concerns. These agronomists are supported by science-based testing that can help growers pinpoint and correct problems before they impact production.

For example, plant tissue analysis can indicate whether plants contain the concentrations of essential nutrients necessary for optimum growth. Results help growers monitor nutrient uptake, correct deficiencies before they reach a critical stage and, for some crops, time harvest appropriately.

Soil-less media analysis can help growers fine-tune their fertilization programs for container crops grown in soil-less media by enabling them to monitor changes in electrical conductivity, pH and nutrient levels.

Another tool available to growers and regional agronomists is solution analysis testing. This is useful for monitoring surface-water and groundwater quality for such agricultural purposes as irrigation, fertilization (nutrient solutions), livestock and poultry production, pesticide preparation, pond management and aquaculture.

Another service provided is waste analysis, which helps growers make responsible decisions about the use of farm, municipal and industrial wastes and by-products as fertilizer materials for crop production. Predictions of first-crop nutrient availability are provided according to application method (e.g., surface broadcasting, soil incorporation, injection or irrigation). Laboratory analyses for certain nutrients are certified by the state’s Division of Water Quality for compliance with the environmental regulations specified in N.C. Senate Bill 1217.

In addition to saving growers on input costs that they may not need, applying only the nutrients needed helps protect the environment as well.

Check out the video above with NCDA&CS Regional Agronomist Don Nicholson on how to take a good soil sample.

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