Abstract The size of the soil microbial biomass carbon (SMBC) has been proposed as a sensitive indicator for measuring the adverse effects of contaminants on the soil microbial community. In this study of Australian agricultural systems, we demonstrated that field variability of SMBC measured using the fumigation–extraction procedure limited its use as a robust ecotoxicological endpoint. The SMBC varied up to 4-fold across control samples collected from a single field site, due to small-scale spatial heterogeneity in the soil physicochemical environment. Power analysis revealed that large numbers of replicates (3–93) were required to identify 20% or 50% decreases in the size of the SMBC of contaminated soil samples relative to their uncontaminated control samples at the 0.05% level of statistical significance. We question the value of the routine measurement of SMBC as an ecotoxicological endpoint at the field scale, and suggest more robust and predictive microbiological indicators.