Soil Test Interpretation

Soil test results are of little value without an appropriate interpretation. To be useful, extractable nutrient values must be shown to relate to: 1) the soil's ability to supply that nutrient to crops (correlation); and 2) crop response to application of that element (calibration). Figure 3 illustrates the conceptual relationship between soil test level and yield. This relationship is determined by conducting nutrient response research, under local conditions with representative soils ranging from deficient to adequate for each nutrient of concern. These data form the foundation of our interpretation of soil test results. The exact relationship between soil test level and crop response to different nutrients may vary considerably, but the general shape of the response curve is relatively consistent. At low soil test levels, yield is limited by a lack of the nutrient. As the soil test level increases, yield increases until a point where the nutrient is no longer limiting and the curve levels out; this point is known as the critical soil test level. The critical soil test level is defined as the extractable nutrient concentration in soil above which an economic yield (or quality) response to added nutrient is unlikely. Nutrient levels are considered sufficient when the concentration is just above the critical soil test level. This is known as the Optimum soil test range. Soil test values are interpreted based on how they compare to the critical soil test level and optimum range.  


Figure 3. Conceptual relationship between soil test level and crop yield or relative yield. The critical level is defined as the soil test level for a given nutrient above which there is a low probability of a response with addition of that fertilizer.