Unfamiliar land comes with many unknowns, including nutrients, soil type, past tillage, past drainage issues and more.

But adopting a few simple practices can make all the difference in a growing season's success on a new field.

“First thing you need to do is get a soil test,” says Brian Kuehl, director of product development at West Central Distribution. “This is the most important—it’s the road map that tells you where the soil has been and where it needs to go.”

Soil tests will provide valuable information such as soil pH, nutrient levels, cation exchange capacity and water-holding capacity, to name a few. Some soil health issues might just need a quick fix, while others could take more time. 

Soil pH Levels

“If you have poor soil health, look at pH first,” Kuehl says. “Low pH is easier to overcome.” Your soil pH plays an important role in how readily available certain nutrients will be.

“The ideal pH range is between 6.5 and 6.7,” says Matt Stukenholtz, supervisor of chemistry at Midwest Laboratories. “Below 5, many nutrients are not available, such as magnesium, high pH ties up nutrients as well, like zinc.”

Adding lime or sulfur to the soil can help adjust pH levels. Lime raises (more basic) your soil's pH and sulfur can lower (more acidic) the pH.

Nutrients

Soil tests also indicate the nutrient levels. “You might have one nutrient that is adequate and one that is high,” Kuehl explains. “Over-application of certain nutrients might tie up another.”

Cation Exchange, Water-Holding Capacity

The field's CEC might take more time to change, but a soil test will explain what you’re working with.

Finally, the soil’s water-holding capacity can tell you if you need to make adjustments such as adding irrigation or tile. For low water-holding capacity, adding irrigation or planting crops that handle drought stress will be your best bet. Fields with high water-holding capacity soil might pond more easily, so tile and water-tolerant varieties might help mitigate risks.

Soil tests explain where the soil has been and how far it has to go to reach whatever level of productivity you want. “Give your crops a good, healthy start,” Kuehl says.