MSU Soil Testing Update


Join Michigan State University Extension educators to learn what’s new in the soil testing process from Michigan State University (MSU).

May 15, 2023

Join Michigan State University Extension educators to learn what’s new in the soil testing process from Michigan State University (MSU). Home gardeners and commercial clients may once again purchase soil sample bags and mailers through MSU Extension and receive recommendations directly from MSU Extension. A&L Great Lakes lab will analyze soil samples and send results to MSU Extension. MSU Extension staff will generate MSU recommendations and send those directly to the client. All MSU recommendations utilize the latest research and follow state laws and guidelines, including Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs), enabling farms to stay within the provisions of the Michigan Right to Farm Act.

Home gardener information

Commercial clients information


Erin Lizotte (00:04):

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the North Central IPM Center. This podcast is edited and produced by Michigan State University Extension. MSU is an affirmative action equal opportunity employers. Michigan State University Extension programs and materials are open to all.

Erin Lizotte (00:34):

Hi everyone, and welcome to this special podcast episode focused on soil testing services at Michigan State University. My name is Erin Lizotte and I'm the Integrated Pest Management Coordinator. Today I'm joined by three of my colleagues in Extension, Christina Curell, Brent Crain and Nate Walton. These three have been really instrumental in getting us geared up for the new soil testing process that has just recently launched in April of '23. So, Christina, we hear a lot about why soil testing is so important for homeowners and farmers. Why is that, why is soil testing so critical?

Christina Curell (01:12):

Thank you, Erin. So when we look at plants, plants are just like us. They need food, but they don't get food like we do. They have to get it from our soil or fertilizer that we add to that soil. So if we wanna know how much our plants need, we have to test the soil. We have to know how much is there so they can get the proper amount to produce, whether it's food or whether it's just our lawn for aesthetics. We need to know how much they need. And the only way to do that is through proper soil testing through an approved lab.

Erin Lizotte (01:44):

And Brent, after a brief hiatus, MSU is again offering this commercial and homeowner soil tests. Can you tell us what changes soil testers can expect in this new process?

Bret Crain (01:56):

Sure. Well, the big change is that the samples will now go to a commercial lab instead of the MSU soils lab, which is no longer in operation. But you'll still wanna purchase soil tests through MSU Extension because that will be the only way to get recommendations. And these recommendations are required for growers who need to remain compliant with the provisions of the Michigan Right To Farm Act. And they're also based on the best available research, which will maximize the health and the productivity of your plants, while still protecting the plentiful natural resources and the water resources that we enjoy in Michigan. Commercial labs are not able to provide those MSU recommendations. Now, if you've used MSU soil testing in the past, your experience should be largely unchanged, at least on the home lawn and garden side.

Bret Crain (02:46):

The mailers look nearly identical. They still contain instructions, a sample form to fill out, a bag to put a cup of soil in and a postage-paid envelope to send your sample to the lab. You'll still receive a link to your report when it's ready in about 10 days or so, and you can view that report online. The only difference from the past is that you won't get information on what your soil type is, such as, is it clay or sandy loam? But that won't affect the fertilizer recommendations because those are based on other information that the test does provide. The commercial test is a little different. There's a bag now instead of a box, and you can't just drop off a sample in a Ziploc bag. Christina, do you wanna talk a little bit more about what's new on the commercial side?

Christina Curell (03:33):

Yes, thank you, Brett. So on the commercial side, you do need to go to an Extension office to purchase that bag, and you have to, when you purchase the bag, you'll get a form. The form is very similar to the old way of doing it. Then when you send it to MSU lab, there's a couple of differences, but it's pretty much the same. Uh, the bag is different. If you send in a sample to A&L without the bag you purchased from us, they will not process it. You have to use our bag, uh, and you send it in. The results look exactly the same. We're using the same program, so you won't see a difference. So from that side, it is the same. It's just the purchase of that bag. It has to be through MSU Extension offices. You can't purchase them anywhere else.

Erin Lizotte (04:17):

And Nate, can you tell us a little bit about how homeowners and commercial farmers go about getting their soil tests from MSU?

Nate Walton (04:25):

Sure, Erin. You know, as Christina mentioned, the commercial bags are only available at our MSU Extension offices, um, which you should be able to find one in, in the county where you live, uh, at those Extension offices. You can also purchase the residential soil mailer, which is the, the product mailer that Brent was talking about a little bit earlier. And that's for our, uh, residential gardeners homeowners, uh, to use. And, uh, you can also get those residential mailers through the MSU Bookstore, which is the Um, that will take you right to their, their website, and you can just search for, uh, soil test in, in the search on the, on the Bookstore site. And it'll take you right to that page and you, it can be purchased through the Bookstore that way. And they'll, they'll mail you the, the mailer kit, and then you can, uh, put your soil in the baggy there and, and put it in the, uh, in the mailbox and it'll go down to get analyzed.

Erin Lizotte (05:31):

And how much do these soil tests cost now, Christina?

Christina Curell (05:34):

The soil test mailers for lawn and gardens cost $26, and that includes everything, the kit, the mailer plus the shipping to send that mailer into the lab. The commercials cost $18. The big difference with the commercial is that the landowner or the client has to send in the sample. There is no mailer for that. So they need to send that in, and they have to pay for it.

Bret Crain (06:00):

In terms of that, that shipping cost. So the shipping cost of a single sample going into the lab from a residential client has been between $6.50 and $7 for one sample. And that really narrows the difference in cost between the home lawn and garden mailer at $26 and the commercial test at $18. There's a couple of other differences between those two tests. The residential form is simplified and there are fewer options, but we've included the options that are important for home lawns and gardens. It's designed to be really easy. The commercial test allows for additional add-on testing, such as micronutrients that aren't typically needed in home context. And another difference between them, so just to be clear, it's the same test that's being run in the lab, but the magic is in the post-processing. So it's like when you take a photo and then you enhance it so that certain attributes will stand out.

Bret Crain (06:59):

When we run that laboratory data through, we run it through different algorithms depending on whether you want it for home lawn garden or if it's a commercial client. And then the recommendations that are generated are also at a different scale. So if you're doing a home lawn, a home lawn, for example, you're going to be told that you need to apply one pound of nitrogen per 100 square feet. And for example, and we would give very specific conversions and options, and you would get to choose between a couple of different fertilizers in case it's difficult to find one. And then you'll also get a conversion so you don't have to weigh it. Um, so you would, so, or let's give another example. Let's say that you were told you needed one pound of 12-12-12 balanced fertilizer, and you need to spread that over 100 square feet.

Bret Crain (07:47):

There's a conversion that would tell you that that's two and one-quarter cups of fertilizer. So we make it super easy. So you don't have to do any calculations on your own. You just know exactly what to put down. But let's say that you accidentally ordered the commercial test, or you try to save a few bucks by buying that one, you're going to get farm scale recommendations. So you're going to get pounds of nitrogen per acre. And let's say that you needed to raise your pH by one point, it's going to give you a recommendation of 1.2 tons of agricultural lime per acre. And then you're going to have to try to figure out how to convert that down to what you do for your lawn. Uh, so order the right tests and save yourself the headache.

Erin Lizotte (08:28):

Well, we've covered a lot of ground today. Is there a website as people are getting geared up to remind themselves of you know, how to get their tests, how much they cost, all that good information, um, that we could direct them to?

Brent Crain (08:40):

Uh, I think one good website is and that's where you get information on how to purchase a mailer. That's where you go to see your soil test report. And there's also a few other tools that are there to help you along the way. So again, that's

Christina Curell (09:05):

For those who purchase, uh, commercial soil tests, they can go to the MSU Extensions website under the Field Crops heading. And then once you click Field Crops, there's a Soil Health tab that'll take you to a page that has information on how to read the soils test. It'll also have information on how to interpret it and other information on soil health needs by commodities. So there is some recommendations very specific to each commodity grown, and we do have information on that for each crop. So this all can be found in the Soil Health website.

Erin Lizotte (09:49):

And I will pop the links for the websites that we've discussed here, both the Bookstore, which is, as well as the commercial and lawn and garden soil test informational pages into the show notes. So be sure to check those out. I also know that you've all been doing a lot of work to bring our county Extension staff up to speed on how to help folks with soil testing. So people should also feel free to reach out to their local county Extension office for more information and directions on how to complete their soil testing, um, with MSU.

Bret Crain (10:25):

Hey, Erin, there is one other, one other resource that we should probably mention, and that is if you, if you get the Home Lawn and Garden test, then we can help you through Ask Extension and through the Lawn and Garden hotline. So for that, yeah, for that, if you go to, to (as in MI Michigan garden) that takes you to the Gardening and Michigan website. If you click on Ask an Expert, then you can pull up that Ask Extension form, and you can put in, you can put in the, the code number that came, kinda the lab number that came with your soil test, and the person who answers that can pull up your report and answer your specific questions about it. And also, that's really

Erin Lizotte (11:11):


Bret Crain (11:12):

Yeah, it is. And, and also on that webpage, there's the, there should be a phone number for the Lawn and Garden hotline, and we have diagnostic responders who are trained to answer calls and help help people with their, with their lawn and garden and soil test questions. Now, they can't help with commercial tests that's handled differently, but they can do the residential tests.

Erin Lizotte (11:31):

Awesome. That sounds like a great service, a great way to tie in that information and put it at people's fingertips to help folks. So that's a great pr um, great step forward for the program. So, so I wanna thank you guys all for your time today. I'm really looking forward to testing this process out myself this season in my home garden. And I'm looking forward to the results. So thank you.

Erin Lizotte (12:12):

Thanks for joining us today for this special podcast episode. For more information, check out the show notes.