Fast, Inexpensive Nitrogen Soil Test in the Works for Farmers

Growers seeking to ensure healthy crops have often applied more nitrogen (N) as necessary because they wanted to make sure their soils had enough of the vital nutrient. Nitrogen has been seen as cheap insurance.

Sure, testing the soil first for N would be superior. But most routine tests done in commercial soil testing labs do not measure available N in the soil, according to a recent report in Agricultural and Environmental Letters. Tests for N exist, but for a variety of reasons they cannot be done quickly and cost-effectively. As a result, farmers may be left guessing about the health of their soil. They may apply more or less nitrogen fertilizer than is actually needed.

There are a couple of reasons this is not a good practice. One is the cost. Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the more expensive soil inputs, so farmers may be spending money they do not need to spend. Another reason is the environment. When more nitrogen is added than plants can use, it can run off the land and cause problems for bodies of water downstream.

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Fast, Inexpensive Nitrogen Soil Test in the Works for Farmers

Stuti Sharma and Madison Campbell transfer extracted soil protein samples to tubes for separation of the solids in a centrifuge. (Photo: Steve W. Culman)

The lack of a rapid, cost-effective test for soil N is clearly a problem. Soil scientists at The Ohio State University and Cornell University think they have found a solution. They have shown that a test originally developed for extracting a particular protein in soil is actually a good test for a variety of proteins. Proteins are by far the largest pool of available organic nitrogen in soil. A good, quick test for protein in the soil also could be used as a test for available N.

The process measures a protein known as glomalin. Glomalin is generally believed to be produced by a common soil microorganism that has a beneficial relationship with plant roots. The tongue-twisting name for this organism is arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.

An earlier study suggested the glomalin extraction method might actually extract proteins from other sources. Steve Culman of Ohio State University and his research colleagues decided to test that idea. They added a variety of sources of protein to soil samples. They used leaves from corn, bean, and common weeds (plant sources), chicken and beef (animal sources), as well as white button mushroom and oyster mushroom (fungi).

They applied the so-called glomalin protocol to these soil samples and found that proteins from all of the sources were extracted via this method. The procedure was not, in fact, limited to extracting proteins produced by mycorrhizal fungi.

The researchers, therefore, recommend adoption of new terms such as soil protein, rather than glomalin, to more accurately describe the proteins extracted through this method.

This soil protein extraction procedure is a cost-effective, rapid method that could readily be adopted by commercial soil testing labs. It is possible, however, that some specific protein types may not be recovered by this method. More research on that point would be useful.

“We don’t have many rapid ways to determine how much nitrogen a soil can provide and store over a growing season,” said Culman. “This test is one way that might help us quickly measure an important pool of soil nitrogen. More work is needed to understand soil protein, but we think it has the potential to be used with other rapid measurements to assess the soil health of a farmer’s field.”