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Department of Agronomy

History of Soil Testing in Kansas

Soil Testing Lab>Edwards County Soil Lab - 1950s

Prepared by David A. Whitney

The first county soil test laboratory was established in Cowley County in 1947 by the Cowley Agricultural Extension Council with County Agent George Gerber in charge. Prior to establishment of the lab, a group of research and extension personnel traveled to the University of Missouri and University of Illinois to observe and to learn about lab operation and equipment from scientists in both states.

By 1949 soil testing labs also had been established in Brown, Bourbon, Labette and Crawford counties. Each lab was equipped with a Woodruff limemeter and a Coleman Junior Spectrophotometer for a colorimeter. The county agent, in his respective county, supervised the operation of the county soil testing laboratory. All county agents were trained at Kansas State College in soil testing principles and techniques. In most instances the county agents did not actually test soil samples. Ordinarily, they trained a soil testing technician who prepared the soil samples for analysis, analyzed the soil samples, and took care of records pertaining to each soil sample. The soil testing technician forwarded soil test results to the county agent who wrote a lime and fertilizer recommendation.

Concurrent with the development of county soil test labs, a service for testing of public soil samples was established in the Department of Agronomy at Kansas State College to handle samples from counties without a lab. Soil testing was promoted heavily by county agents, researchers and extension specialists with a peak of 60 labs in 1955 and greater than 31,500 soil samples tested in 1953-1954.

The number of county labs declined in the 1960's and 1970's because of several factors including soil sample volume, county agent/county extension council interest, cost of equipment maintenance and replacement, and farmer demand for tests beyond the county soil test lab capabilities.

The State Soil Testing Lab was located in the early 1950's in Waters Annex in a large open lab in space shared with several research projects. The lab moved into Throckmorton Phase I in 1981 into what originally had been designated research and greenhouse space. In the planning of Phases II of Throckmorton, a soil lab was designed into the building and with completion of Phase II in 1994 the lab moved into facilities specifically designed for the operation.

Tests available included a general soil fertility test (soil pH, lime requirement, available phosphorus, exchangeable potassium and organic matter), salt-alkali test, advisability to irrigate test and irrigation water quality test. Tests for other soil constituents also were available by special arrangement.

In addition to a public service samples, the Soil Testing Lab in Manhattan in the early 1970's evolved into a service lab for research scientists in the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station for analysis of soil, plant and water samples. Sample volume in the late 1990's was 25,000 soil samples, roughly half research and half public, and 15,000 plant samples from researchers.

The Kansas Soil Testing service at it’s inception was structured to work closely with county agents in all aspects of the program (soil sampling, analysis, interpretation and recommendation). Until the mid-1980's all analytical results from the Manhattan lab were returned to farmers through county extension offices with the county agent making the recommendations as was the practice in the county labs. With the development of a computer recommendation program and with county agent requests for results returned with recommendations, results are now returned with recommendations. However, the majority of public soil samples still continue to come through county extension offices.

For a more in-depth history, see History of Soil Testing Activities in Kansas (PDF)

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