October 24, 2017

Collecting Good Samples in Bad Conditions

While growers throughout the corn belt faced challenging weather from spring planting through the growing season, weather has also been delaying soil sampling this fall. In Late September, much of the Great Lakes Region was dealing with dry soil conditions. These dry, hard soil conditions made achieving the proper soil sampling depth difficult  when working with a hand probe or light hydraulic probe. We had reports of customers seeking out auger units simply to keep soil sampling on pace. In fields with spot replanting, many producers are harvesting around late planted soybeans, leading to partially harvested fields that are yet to be sampled.

The welcome rains blanketing the region through much of October helped alleviate the hard soil, but brought soybean harvest to a crawl for nearly two weeks in parts of the region. This break in the harvest allowed samplers to catch up, and many found themselves waiting for additional fields to sample. Looking forward, we see a sizable number of acres remaining, and the forecast for colder weather adds more uncertainty. In the midst of these challenges, it is critical to keep in mind that the goal should always be to capture quality data. Consistent sampling depth is perhaps the most critical aspect of sample collection, and every effort should be made to ensure that a uniform sampling depth is maintained in all conditions. Poor soil test data from improperly sampled fields can be much worse than no data at all. Keep your eye on quality, and the rest will fall into place.
September 19, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Soil Sample: Day 2

In a previous newsletter, we began our 3-part series in A Day in the Life of a Soil Sample: Day 1.

Day 2 for a soil sample begins very early in the morning.  The grinding teams start by retrieving the bench sheets that were produced on Day 1 and the sample storage cups and trays corresponding to the lab numbers assigned to the day’s samples.  Before each sample is ground, the sample ID from the original sample bag is double checked assuring that they are in the same order in which they were logged into the sample database.  At this point, should a discrepancy be identified between the sample order and the bench sheets, the grinding team will note any corrections needed and report necessary changes to the office staff.

Now, soil grinding actually begins.  The entire sample is dumped into a flail-type hammer mill which pulverizes the soil.  The sample is held in the grinder for a minimum of three seconds to ensure that it is thoroughly homogenized.  The sample is then released from the grinder through a sieve which removes any particles greater than 2 mm.  The portion of the sample passing through the sieve is poured into a sample cup identified with its corresponding lab number.  The sample is now ready for the next step in the process.

Dried and ground soil samples now move to “scooping”.  A routine soil analysis requires three subsamples of each sample, one for measuring pH, one for organic matter, and one for nutrient extraction.  These subsamples are scooped by hand. Each technician that scoops soil is carefully trained and routinely audited to ensure consistent scooping procedure.  The volume of soil collected with each scoop is specific to the analysis being performed.

The first scoop is used for organic matter analysis.  A single scoop is transferred to a ceramic crucible.  The crucibles are arranged on specially designed trays that are first loaded into a holding oven to dry off any ambient moisture that may have condensed in the soil as it cooled down from the drying/grinding process.  From the holding oven, each crucible is weighed.  The trays are then transferred to ovens that heat the samples to the point where the organic matter is oxidized and released, and held at that temperature for a predefined time period to ensure that the organic materials are thoroughly evolved.  The trays are then removed from the furnace, allowed to cool, and each crucible is reweighed.  The percent change in weight for each sample is automatically calculated in the database and reported as the percent organic matter.  This process is called Loss on Ignition.

The second scoop is used for nutrient extraction.  This scoop is perhaps the most critical, and only our most experienced technicians are trusted with this task.  The scoop is placed into a cup where it is combined with a carefully measured volume of extracting solution (typically Mehlich-3).  The cup containing the soil - solution mixture is then agitated for a predetermined time period to ensure thorough mixing and to allow adequate time for the extracting solution to work, and the slurry is then filtered through a laboratory grade filter paper to remove the soil.  The resulting solution is then transferred to a test tube and analyzed by Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES) to determine the levels of nutrients present in the solution and, by extension, within the soil.

The third scoop is used to determine the pH and buffer pH of the soil.  This scoop of soil is placed into a disposable cup, and an automatic dispenser adds deionized water into each cup.  The soil-water mixtures then sits for a set period of time before being stirred and measured by a pH electrode.  The pH is determined on 10 samples at a time.  Any samples that require a buffer pH analysis are identified and the Sikora buffer solution is added to the sample and the BpH is measured after a set period of time.  The pH and BpH data is automatically transferred to the database.

Day 2 comes to a close with all of the raw data being generated and sent to the database where it will be ready for quality control review, agronomist review, and reporting on Day 3.
August 31, 2017

Customer Service All Stars

Providing our customers with the highest level of service and keeping them informed is a priority for us.  Our customer service department, consisting of Julie Bruggner and Mandee Munoz, is a critical part of the customer experience. They work hard to make sure that our customers get the service that they expect when working with A&L Great Lakes Labs.

Many of the calls placed by this department to customers deal with the submittal forms and the samples not matching.  Occasionally, we don’t receive all the samples indicated, or alternatively we have extra or duplicate samples.  We also receive samples with incomplete paperwork or no paperwork.  Confirming that we are doing the right test on the right sample is crucial in meeting the expectations of our customers.  

We make great effort to ensure that each sample is handled carefully and that issues don’t occur.  However, things do happen, and calls are placed to inform our customers of this challenge.  This dreaded task is also handled by this team.  It would be much easier to not acknowledge the error, but honesty and integrity are essential in the work we are doing and a core value of A & L Great Lakes Laboratories.

When a customer has a question or an issue, this team is the first place for them to start.  If they are not able to resolve it themselves, they will get you directed to the appropriate individual. They are here to assist our customers; they are the problem solvers. If you have not met Julie or Mandee, be sure to introduce yourself to them the next time you are at the lab.  They love to put a face with that voice on the other end of the phone.
July 31, 2017

Money in the Pit - The Value of Manure

Whether you are a livestock producer looking to utilize a by-product or a crop producer looking for an economical nutrient source, it is essential to know the nutrient content of your manure to make efficient and effective applications. The nutrient composition of manure can vary greatly depending on the livestock type, diet, and method of storage. A laboratory manure analysis can ensure that application rates are appropriate for maximizing crop yields and minimizing the potential for over or under application of nutrients which can cause yield loss or surface and ground water contamination.

The high cost of transportation and application equipment for manure can sometimes cause us to overlook the benefits of land applying manure. Manure is an excellent source of organic matter which, over time, can improve the physical properties of the soil. However, it is difficult to accurately place a dollar value on this benefit because the economics of organic matter are not  well understood when compared with other inputs of crop production, but by comparing the nutrient content of manure to that of conventional fertilizers, a dollar value can be estimated for the manure.

The following example uses approximate prices for fertilizers of $0.35/lb Nitrogen, $0.35/lb Phosphorus (P2O5), and $0.25/lb Potassium (K2O). We will use the average nutrient analysis for two of the most common forms of manure found in the Eastern Corn Belt to determine a value based on the NPK content.






Swine (liquid pit) lb/1000 gal





Swine ($/1000 gal)




$26.85/1000 gal

Poultry (w/litter) lb/ton





Poultry ($/ton)





*Not all N will be plant available in the first year after application. Availability is very dependent on weather and other factors. However, estimated first year availability is provided on the laboratory analysis report.

Application rate determinations should be based using the results of a recent soil analysis, as well as estimated crop removal. Appropriate application rates will not supply nitrogen or phosphorus in excess of crop needs. This means that supplemental applications of conventional fertilizers may be necessary to provide the total nutrient needs for your intended crop. For examples of these calculations and more information regarding manure analysis, please see the  A&L Great Lakes Laboratories Fact Sheet titled Manure Analysis and Interpretations.


July 31, 2017

The ABC's of Ordering Supplies Online

The A&L Great Lakes Laboratories, Inc. web store is a good way to conveniently and quickly place an order for all the bags, boxes and shipping labels you need.  If you are new to the Store, here’s a quick tutorial for shopping online.

  1. Go to the https://algreatlakes.com/ and scroll down to “Supplies You Need” and click the “Learn More” button.  Or, go to https://algreatlakes.com/collections


  1. A store account is not required to order supplies. If you would like to create a store account, choose “Create Store Account” from the menu. The store account will keep track of past online orders.


Please note that creating a Store account is not the same as creating an A&L Great Lakes Laboratories, Inc. corporate account.


  1. It is important to make sure to enter your A&L Great Lakes Laboratories, Inc. lab account number if you want the items billed to your account. You can choose to bill the items to your account or credit card in the payment step of check out.  


  1. Once your supply order has been completed, you will get an email confirmation about your order. Supplies are usually shipped out to our customers the same or next business day.


  1. If you would like to view your supply order history online, simply log into your store account and you will be able to see all of your past orders.


  1. You can also always email us at lab@algreatlakes.com or phone us your supply order if you prefer or if you have questions.





June 30, 2017

Nitrogen Release from Organic Residues

Nitrogen (N) is one of the most critical elements in all living organisms, and is often one of the most limiting nutrients in crop production. In addition, N is perhaps the most dynamic nutrient in the soil, and a number of factors can influence the amount, form and plant availability of N.

N can exist in a number of different forms in the soil. However, N is only available to plants as ammonium (NH4+) or as nitrate (NO3-). Both NH4+ and NO3- are inorganic forms of N, which simply means that they are not contained in an organic, or carbon based compound.

Organic materials, such as plant or animal remains or soil organic matter, contain N as an integral component of their structure. Much of this N is contained within organic compounds, and is therefore not plant available. However, when these materials are broken down by natural chemical and biological processes, much of the N is converted into an inorganic form and released into the soil solution.


The breakdown of organic N into inorganic N, a process called mineralization, is accomplished by soil microorganisms. These microorganisms consume the residues for energy and, in the process, release N as inorganic N compounds such as ammonium. Mineralization is affected by a number of different factors, including  soil temperature and moisture content, that affect the rate at which these soil microorganisms function.

One of the most critical factors is the composition of the organic residue. The amount of N in a residue can vary widely from one material to another, and this has a strong bearing on not only the amount of N released but also on the rate at which it will be released from the residue. The amount of carbon (C) relative to the amount of N in a material is expressed as the Carbon to Nitrogen, or C:N ratio of the material. Materials with a high C:N ratio, such as wheat straw, will have a tendency to break down slower than materials with a low C:N ratio, such as soybean stubble. In addition, materials with a high C:N ratio may temporarily decrease the amount of inorganic N in the soil in order for the soil microorganisms to have adequate N to function, a process called N immobilization.

The release of N from organic residues is a critical process in natural systems. While we generally consider this to be a less important process in agricultural systems because of our use of fertilizer N, most agricultural crops can still receive a large portion of their total N needs through this process. Therefore, understanding the basics of N release from organic residues is critical for successful fertility management.


June 30, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Soil Sample: Day 1

Editor's Note: Over the course of the next couple of months, we will be sharing an inside look at the processes which are used to turn a soil sample into useful and accurate data. We realize that by sending samples to us, our customers are putting their trust in us to deliver the right results, every time, on time. We strive to be a company built on integrity and partnership with our customers. We believe that it is important to be transparent with our process so our customers can be ensured that we do not cut corners. We realize that time is of the essence when it comes to getting results, but we will not report any data until we are confident that it was analyzed correctly. We do not want our laboratory to be a “magic black box” that takes in samples and spits out numbers. We are a company with a passion and understanding of agriculture. We understand what our customers are trying to achieve in the field, we hope this inside look provides a better understanding of our commitment to quality analyses.


From the moment a soil sample arrives at the lab for a routine analysis, the whole process takes about 48 hours. This process is spread over 3 business days.

Day 1 for most soil samples begins at about 9:30 am when UPS brings the daily delivery. As the boxes are unloaded, the “layout” process begins. We group all boxes from each customer together to minimize the need to locate multiple boxes that contain a single set or field of samples. Each box is opened and the submittal form is located. The technician first checks which analysis is to be completed on the samples and moves any samples requiring non-routine analysis to another area for special handling. The routine samples are then unpacked and organized per the order specified on the submittal form. If any samples are missing, or the analysis package is not clearly indicated, the set of samples is set aside until our customer service representatives contact the customer for clarification or instructions on how to proceed. We will not begin any analysis until we are positive the customer is getting what they expect.


Once the samples are organized, the submittal forms are then sent to the office in the same order in which the samples were laid out to be logged into our computer system. The logging process starts with “stamping”. Stamping assigns a unique lab number to each sample. Each sample ID on the submittal form is manually stamped with an automatically advancing numbering machine. Information on the stamped submittal forms is then entered in to our database which ties together the lab number, sample ID, grower name, farm name, field name, and analysis package. After all the submittal forms have been entered for the day, the information is compiled into summary sheets called bench sheets which will be used on day 2 by the chemists and technicians as instructions on how each sample is to be analyzed. Some samples may need only one analysis while others may require 10 or more.

While the sample submittal form information is being entered, work continues in the layout room. After the samples have been arranged according to the submittal form and double checked, the samples are transferred from the shipping bags to drying bags. The drying bags are arranged on sections of wire shelving which fit onto carts capable of holding 200 samples. The combination of the paper drying bags and wire shelving helps speed up the drying process. The loaded carts are transferred from the layout room into our state-of-the-art soil drier. In adherence to standardized soil analysis methods, the soils are dried at a temperature of 104⁰ F or less. Our custom-designed drier can maintain this temperature as well as maintain a relative humidity in the single digits by cycling the air through the drying chamber several times per minute. Day one comes to a close and the samples spend the night in the drier so they will be ready for day 2.
June 30, 2017

Service with a Smile

Amanda (aka “Mandee”) Muñoz has accepted a new challenge within A&L Great Lakes Laboratories as a member of our Customer Service team.  Mandee began her career with A&L Great Lakes as an ICP technician in 2005. During her tenure, she has also worked with our water, nitrogen and carbon/nitrogen processes. 

Employment Opportunities at A&L Great Lakes

She brings these experiences to her new role as a member of our Customer Service team, joining Julie Bruggner, whom many of you know. Mandee’s friendly, outgoing personality makes her a great addition to the team. Mandee and Julie work closely with our customers to ensure that their needs and questions are addressed quickly and with integrity.

In her spare time, she enjoys trying new restaurants in town, because there is always something new and exciting with them.  Of course, this is in addition to spending time with family and friends, and cheering for the Hoosiers.  Congratulations Mandee!!

May 26, 2017

Nitrogen Management with Replant or Thin Corn Stands

While talking to agronomists from all over the Great Lakes Region, we have heard questions focused on nitrogen loss, population counts, and how late various corn maturities can be planted, but might we be missing the key questions to maximizing profitability of the 2017 corn crop. It is time to take a hard look at our nitrogen plans and adjust them for reality.

The target corn yield of 200+ bu/acre of April may not be a realistic yield goal with the delayed planting. One positive thing about reduced yield goals because of late planting, replanting, or reduced stand populations is that the nitrogen required to achieve this adjusted lower yield goal is likely also reduced. Early spring preplant and starter nitrogen has likely been subject to loss due to the wet conditions, but has the loss of nitrogen exceeded the loss of yield potential? Most likely no, and if you have plans to side-dress, be certain to adjust your nitrogen rates for you new yield goals.

With pre-plant nitrogen, utilize soil nitrate and ammonium tests to monitor fields that might be at risk. One benefit to late planted corn is that side dress nitrogen applications will also be delayed, usually into a period with weather conditions that have a lower risk of nitrogen loss, thus leading to potentially greater nitrogen use efficiency. Help from your Regional A&L Great Lakes Agronomist is only a phone call away!

April 27, 2017

Gearing Up for PSNT

Nitrogen is the most elusive nutrient to manage and, when deficient, will significantly limit yield potential to a point that profits are lost. Having the right amount of nitrogen available at the right time is essential to achieving profitability.

A corn plant uses around 10% of the nitrogen it needs during the first three weeks of growth. Then, during the next five weeks (V4 to V18), it needs to take up 65% of its total seasonal nitrogen requirement. If nitrogen supply is limited during this period, yield and profits will suffer. Taking a pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT) at the V4-V5 stage indicates how much nitrogen is available in the soil from cover crops, legumes, applied manure and other organic sources.

Timing is very important; samples should be taken five to ten days before sidedressing to allow time to collect the sample, have it analyzed and receive the results. Samples taken too early will not be as accurate because nitrogen is continually released (mineralized) in the spring as the soil warms.

A&L Great Lakes analyzes PSNT samples and reports results the next business day after receipt. PSNT soil samples should represent no more than 20 acres. The sampled area should be consistent for past crop, soil types and manure applications. Sample the soil 12 inches deep, taking 15 to 20 cores per field. Avoid probing through the starter band. If fields have significantly differing soil types or drainage patterns, sample these areas separately. In addition, it is generally not recommended that these samples be analyzed as a part of a basic soil test, because of the differences in recommended sampling depth.

More information on the PSNT, including information on sampling and sample handling, is outlined in our PSNT Fact Sheet, which is available from our website.

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