Soil testing is paramount for the sustenance of the agriculture industry. The nutritional contents of the soil influence the production of crops. It not only affects the soil quality but is also responsible for the cost of farm production. Lack of mineral nutrients in the soil directly leads to the increased cost of production and reduces crop yield. The absorption of mineral elements, salinity, pH balance of soil, should be properly tested to determine the quality of the soil. Soil testing helps to optimize the administration of fertilizers to the soil since over administration of fertilizers limits plant growth.
Commonly Tested Analytes and the Methods Involved
Various physical and chemical parameters affect plant growth. Analytical testing of soil samples includes determining moisture content, particle size analysis or mechanical analysis, chemical analysis, agrochemical analysis, mineralogical analysis, toxicological analysis, microbiological analysis, etc. Soil testing is important to determine the exact nutrient composition and physicochemical properties of soil which helps decide its quality and effectiveness for crop production. The common analytes tested include pH, lime requirement, Total C, Total N, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), organic matter, Calcium carbonate equivalency (CCE), soluble salts, etc. Additionally, important nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulfur, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, and molybdenum, and chlorine are tested in soil samples. Identical soil test results may lead to different recommendations in different soil types based on the region and different field conditions.
Why is Choosing a Correct Laboratory Important for Soil Testing?
Choosing a correct analytical testing laboratory is of paramount importance because the decisions taken for the administration of fertilizers, adjustment of soil pH, are dependent on test results provided by the laboratory. Inaccurate test results may lead to wrong decisions, resulting in decreased crop yield. When choosing a soil testing laboratory, a grower must investigate performance, operation, compliance, and service before sending soil samples for analysis. It is necessary to be assured that the test results would be of high-quality, credible, and helpful to provide inputs required for efficient and economic crop production. Additionally, there should exist a valid research data, based on which the recommendations are provided with soil analysis. The use of appropriate analytical methods is very important to accurately determine the concentrations of plant-available nutrients in the soil as it differs from one region to another. A prospective client should verify if the laboratory is ISO/IEC 17025 accredited as it assures the quality of the test results.
A laboratory should run quality control samples with the actual test samples to support the validity and accuracy of test results. Another criterion to choose a laboratory is turnaround time. A laboratory should be able to generate results in two to three business days for standard soil analyses of pH, lime requirement, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, without compromising the accuracy and quality of test results. Generally, laboratories provide the soil test results under two categories, one is qualitative and the other is quantitative. A good laboratory should define a range for each parameter along with the method used for testing.
The availability of analytical instruments, ISO/IEC 17025:2017 certification, QA/QC processes followed, as well as the availability of qualified and trained analysts play a key role in defining the reliability of a lab.
Why an Agriculture LIMS is Important for Soil Testing Labs
Traditional laboratories used manual methods such as spreadsheets for managing the data. However, with the increasing demand for soil tests, these manual methods failed to work as they are inefficient and time-consuming. A soil lab testing software can help to efficiently manage laboratory data and automate workflows. Additionally, it streamlines the soil analysis workflow by automating sample accessioning, data collection, result review, and report creation. With the use of a soil lab testing software, the turnaround time could be significantly reduced, and with more samples being analyzed in a short period, it leads to increased productivity and profitability.
Many soil testing facilities now utilize an Agriculture LIMS for efficient data management. An Agriculture LIMS offers a centralized result portal and integrated business tools which allow farmers to plan crop fertilization methods in response to real-time data, allowing them to optimize their crop production. It also manages information with a single standardized data repository. It includes a web-based client portal for farmers to request tests, view request status, and download test reports as soon as it is released by the laboratory and is also beneficial for farmers as it can be accessed through mobile devices. This allows the traceability of soil sample data in real-time.
One of the major challenges a laboratory faces is meeting various regulatory compliance, one of which is ISO/IEC 17025:2017. This compliance is important for laboratories to demonstrate their competency in generating valid results. To comply with this standard, a laboratory’s quality management system and technical competence are evaluated. A LIMS helps in meeting the various requirements of ISO/IEC 17025 compliance such as managing instrument calibration and maintenance data, planning staff training, storing documents and tracking their revision history, controlling QA/QC processes, and managing inventory. An Agriculture LIMS also aids in tracking and monitoring environmental parameters which eventually helps agriculture testing labs in achieving the ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation.
Significance of Automation in Agriculture Testing Labs
Workflow automation in agriculture testing labs preserves data integrity and reduces turnaround time. An Agriculture LIMS helps to automate the sample life-cycle, right from accessioning, report generation, sharing reports with customers, to the final disposal of samples. A LIMS helps to generate professional test reports or Certificates of Analysis (CoA) using preconfigured or custom templates to meet the reporting requirements of customers and regulatory bodies. These templates eliminate the risk of transcription errors that might occur during the reporting of results. A cloud-based LIMS helps to bridge the gap between different operational units of a laboratory by eliminating data silos. Personnel from different units of a laboratory can easily upload and access data, as and when required, thus saving time and limiting procedural errors.
One of the best ways to automate test result entry and assure data integrity is to integrate laboratory instruments with a LIMS. It saves a lot of time by eliminating the task of manual transcription or uploading result files from instruments to a LIMS. Instrument integration can help to improve both data quality and integrity by eliminating manual intervention in entering test results. A LIMS can help to automatically calculate complex test results once the results are entered in a LIMS. Furthermore, a LIMS automatically notifies the laboratory manager once the results are available in a LIMS so that the next step i.e. test result validation can be initiated. The automation helps to reduce the dependency on analysts and streamlines workflows.
Soil testing laboratories use an Agriculture LIMS to simplify data management, manage quality control processes, staff training, etc. Such systems can generate reports for analytes that are within and outside the optimal range, enabling labs to quickly identify outliers. A LIMS streamlines soil analysis workflow and accelerates the testing of soil samples and delivery of results to farmers. An appropriate and reliable laboratory is necessary for accurate soil testing and thus it is important to judiciously choose a laboratory. The best laboratory is the one that provides everything necessary for the analysis that you need. For instance, garden soil tests require chemical, radiological, and microbiological analysis. Pesticide and agrochemical analysis is a must for soil testing for agriculture. With the use of an Agriculture LIMS in soil testing laboratories, the turnaround time could be significantly reduced. A LIMS also aids agriculture laboratories in achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation by enabling them to meet the various technical and management system requirements of ISO/IEC 17025 compliance. Furthermore, a LIMS brings in standardization, efficiency, and drives automation in soil testing laboratories.