Back in the mid to late 1940s and 1950s soil sample analysis began as a crop fertility management tool. The original soil testing labs were first created to support State University or County Extension, and then later expanded to support public soil testing samples.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, scientists were starting to discover chemical processes that would later lead to the production and manufacturing of crop fertility products. However, these new plant food options would not be available until the late 1950s to 1960s.
The delay of getting the commercial fertilizer products into the hands of retailers and farmers was partially due to a lack of transportation logistics. In addition, the industry was also experiencing delays with manufacturing the needed equipment to accurately apply these fertilizers. However, with time and work, these processes all moved forward to resemble the agriculture industry we recognize today. It has also supported the continued growth of expanding agriculture industry.
Once growers and retailers had access to affordable and convenient commercial fertilizer, a system was created to help monitor the current soil conditions of individual fields or an entire farm to determine the value and economic return on the fertilizer input investment.
Soon, the demand to access results on soil fertility began to increase, which then led to the support from Land-Grant Universities and private businesses to conduct research into the current soil analysis model to determine techniques for essential nutrient extraction and the correlation between nutrient extraction levels from the soil samples to a relative plant availability status. Thus, the current soil test and fertility model used today was created in response to the development and pervasive use of commercial fertilizers over a half a century ago.
It’s quite impressive how long the current soil testing model has remained valuable, and is thought to be considered one of the greatest advancements to agriculture. There’s even evidence to support this claim. One example of this is the increase in average corn yield in the U.S. from approximately 40 bushels per acre in 1950 to 170 bushels per acre today, an increase of 130 bushels per acre, or about a 20 bushel per acre increase each decade.
Time for Change?
Although the soil testing method has demonstrated longevity and much success, academics and agronomists are recognizing that some changes may need to be made to keep up with the advancements and changes in agriculture over the past century.
- Agronomists and academics alike recognize the current model may possess a few limitations in relationship to keeping up with the changes that a century of intensive farming can have on soil organic matter, structure, and tilth in addition to the changes to equipment, crop genetics, and biotechnology.
- Several scientists are concerned the current model will need assistance to keep up with changes and innovation. They are looking toward contemporary research projects aimed at gaining a greater understanding of complicated soil nutrient cycles.
- The agriculture industry is also working with environmental advocacy groups regarding concerns for fertilizer nutrients unused by crops, finding their way into water sources like lakes, rivers, and groundwater.
There’s a strong argument among soil scientists and crop physiologists regarding whether the next big step in crop yield will require an improvement in the current soil sample model to remain at pace with the changes in the industry. Regardless, the agriculture industry is extremely optimistic and has set a goal to break the 200-bushel average for corn yield, and hopes to achieve 75 bushels per acre or better for soybean yields by 2030.