Our mostly mild winter here this year kicked in with a cold snap recently, and another one is predicted for this weekend, but in the meantime, we’re having a warm snap. I took the opportunity to go out into the fields to do my soil sampling.
According to the USDA, the best time of year to do soil sampling is late summer or early fall, but you can do it anytime, and if you’ve just taken over a property, it’s a good idea to do it as soon as possible if you want to start improving it your first year. It’s never a bad time to improve your soil. The testing is free through the USDA. The only cost is to mail the samples. Tip: The USDA guy here told me to pack up all the little sample envelopes in one box. If you’re taking a number of samples, it’s cheaper to pack the samples together for mailing than to send them individually.
To get the kits and testing lab address for your area, contact your local USDA office. There should be an office in your county. If you have trouble finding it, your local extension agent should be able to point you in the right direction.
Here, the samples go to the West Virginia University College of Agriculture and Forestry Soil Testing Laboratory. They test for pH, lime, and other elements, and let you know what your soil needs. In most cases, I think this means lime, and the USDA offers a cost-sharing program to provide lime and low-cost rental equipment for spreading the lime.
You can sample all sorts of fields (including regular lawns! so go ahead, get your lawn tested), but most of what I’m testing are “tall grass and hay” pastures. They recommend you take as many as 30 samples from a 10-acre field. They did not, however, send a supply of tanned, bare-chested romance novel cover heroes with shovels in hand to help me do that, so I took something less than 30 per field.
I needed to get on with my day and I was afraid I was going to miss Judge Judy.
I’m such a bad farmer!
Do you know how many holes that would be? I sampled two 10-acre fields, and two fields something less than 10 acres, then I took a few samplings to represent the barnyard fields. (These fields are smaller and close together, so I treated them as a whole, taking a few samples from each area.) But still, seriously, if I followed the instructions on the number of samples, I would have been digging something like 150 holes. Or whatever. Like I can do math. And like I’m going to dig 150 holes! They can’t be serious. I bet when they get a box of 30 samples from one field, the guys at the soil testing laboratory say, “Got another one!” and laugh so hard, they fall on their microscopes. Soil testing lab humor. They can’t fool me! I won’t be taken in!
Okay, anyway, the holes aren’t big, though that doesn’t make me want to dig 150 of them. Here’s what you do to take a sample (for a pasture area–there are different instructions for sampling other areas, such as crop fields, etc).
Remove surface organic material. (This means scrape aside grassy growing stuff and the poop.)
For a pasture area, you want to take your sample within the top couple of inches of the soil, discarding any roots or rocks.
They provide a cloth baggie, with a plastic baggie inside. You fill the plastic baggie and place it inside the cloth baggie. About four big tablespoons fills the plastic baggie.
The soil should be dry. Unless you sample in the summer, your samples are likely to be damp (at least around here where it rains a lot). You can spread out the soil to dry before shipping it off, being careful to keep your samples straight. You should not apply heat to the soil to dry it faster (unless it’s natural heat, the sun).
I labeled all my samples, entertaining myself with a pretense of organization. It makes me feel like a good farmer and makes up for my unwillingness to take 30 samples per field. At least in my own mind.
When your samples are dry, you just pack them up and mail them off and wait for the results. During this time, you don’t have to dig any more holes, which is the best part, and you can just ponder imponderables, like….would I rather dig 150 holes, or help Jack? What if those were your only two choices in life? What if YOU HAD TO CHOOSE ONE? That’s a toughie.
Answers? Be honest! If you were previously opposed to helping Jack, but have now changed your mind in light of all the holes, I will understand!