ST. PAUL, Minn. – University of Minnesota’s Soil Testing/Research Analytical Lab received a nice 2017 update. A $3 million renovation, fully modernizing the laboratory infrastructure and working spaces, will help fill the need for soil information and more across the state.

“The lab is really one of the largest service laboratories in the university system,” said Brian Barber, University of Minnesota director at the Soil Testing/Research Analytical Lab.

“We are described as a soil testing lab, but that is only about a third of the work we do. We do plant, water and animal tissue testing. We test materials from the engineering college, rare earth metals and unique things that they are putting together over there. We are really a full service analytical laboratory,” he added, indicating that farmers are very interested in water testing.

The lab was started in 1949, and had its first major addition (the Research Analytical Lab) in 1970. Barber, employed by the University of Minnesota for 28 years, took over the lab six years ago.

“When we were given the opportunity to take it over, we were told we had three years to either show that it was a viable financial entity for the campus or they were going to shut it down. I think the college’s investment of $3 million and the success we have had, shows that we have done that,” he said.

Before the renovations took place, Barber and his team had tripled the number of samples being run through the lab.

With the renovations – improving the environment and lab efficiency – that number will get even higher.

“We have a completely redesigned lab space so that it is much more efficient. This lab grew, and outgrew the facility it was in,” he said. “We needed to have it reorganized.”

Technicians now have a better work flow, plus new and better equipment. The Soil Testing/Research Analytical lab employs six fulltime scientists and two part-time scientists. Six to 10 students are also employed at the lab.

“With that new equipment come increases in automation and throughput as well as better detection limits, lower detection limits. We can improve some of the trace level testing that we are asked to do,” he said.

When Barber started at the lab, it had no “capital assets,” assets with a value of more than $10,000 – or less than five years old.

Since the renovation, the lab now has nearly $1.0 million in capital assets.

Lab equipment was not the only focus of the renovation. The environmental controls of the lab – heating, cooling and ventilation – were also updated.

“It is a safer lab to work in and I have much more consistent day-to-day environmental controls. Batch-to-batch consistency, (and) consistency in my testing throughout the year, will improve and that will really be nice for our researchers,” he said.

The lab takes samples from both university researchers and local farmers. About 80 percent of the business is with the university and 20 percent is directly with farmers.

By improving efficiency and equipment, the lab can give researchers faster and more accurate results. This in turn improves the quality of their research and the speed of their research. The result is Minnesota farmers have better data to use when making decisions on their own farm.

The more sophisticated lab equipment can detect smaller amounts of minerals in soil and plant tissue. This is beneficial for those wanting to know more about how trace minerals impact a farming operation.

Funding for the project was generated from the lab itself, the University of Minnesota and grant writing. The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council was involved in several aspects of this renovation.

“One of the things that the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council wanted was to improve the nutritional testing aspect of this laboratory,” Barber said.

When it came to Near-infrared (NIR) testing of soybean, much of it was done out of state at other Universities or private labs. The Soybean Council wanted to see that money kept in Minnesota.

The lab achieved certification through American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) to test for basic soybean properties as well as soybean proteins, sugars and amino acids for the first time in 2016, and maintained that certification in 2017. They temporarily dropped out of the program for 2018 due to the six-month renovation and limited testing services.

The lab will be re-enrolled for the 2019 certification period, starting in January 2018, to regain certification.

Minnesota soybeans tend to have higher levels of beneficial amino acids. The Asian export market takes note of these amino acids and is willing to pay a premium. The lab is now certified to test for soybean proteins, sugar and amino acids.

“We are trying to support our Minnesota farmers and show that our beans are better than the beans that are grown around the rest of the world,” Barber said, adding that he hopes the lab can provide important information to farmers ahead of planting, during the growing season and following harvest. “One of the things I wanted to do when I took this lab over was to provide more direct benefit to our researchers for our farmers, so they can get the best quality crop.”

Soil Testing and Research Analytical Laboratories is located at Room 135 Crops Research Building, 1902 Dudley Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108, and the phone number is 612-625-3101. You can also visit soiltests.cfans.umn.edu for more information on testing and how to send samples correctly.