Productive potential of land identified by using Web Soil Survey

Farm Forum

From tilling, planting and harvesting crops, most farmers know what sections of their ground are most productive or where problems exist, such as saline areas.

Most operators want to know the answer to the question, “How good is my land?” Those in conservation consider that a trick question.

“The answer depends on how good a farmer you are, what hybrids you are using, what fertilizers you’ll use and will there be rain,” said Caleb Caton, a National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil conservationist in Aberdeen. “The land is only as good as the care that the farmers provide.”

Information that was in a mammoth 600-page book at the NRCS office is now available to producers through a website called Web Soil Survey that can be accessed on a computer or through a smartphone application called SoilWeb ( Details that enhance that information are now available at a click on a computer. Maps from the soil survey tool can be printed and saved. It was developed for producers and available for all to use. Caton said that 98 percent of the time, the survey is used to identify cropland characteristics and ratings for planting trees.

The maps are based on soil classification. The land’s soil class developed over thousands of years. The information in the survey will not take into account the seasonal farming practices of the soil. If changes are made, such as spreading manure, those actions won’t change the chemistry of the material. The vegetative production and crop productively indexes are the most important details for farmers and are available for the entire United States.

Proven yields reported to the FSA offices indicate the actual productivity of a piece of land, but the survey goes deeper to show the makeup of the soils. A farmer can tell you if a corner of the field averages 210 bushels or 75 bushels; the survey indicates the potential within that piece of ground.

In showing what the site offers, Caton quickly connected to the site and brought up information on land located in Savo township, clicking on Brown County and typing in the section, township and range for a piece of land. Caton said their office encourages producers to use home computers to access the information. Tutorials are available to help work through the process.

The tabs allow producers to see the cropland productively index and other categories including the developmental potential. Searches begin with an address, the longitude and latitude, or township and range.

Once the section is shown on the screen, an area of interest is defined. The program zooms in to the section, and there are several different ways to check on aspects of the land.

Looking at one piece of land showed that it was listed as G154B, Barnes Svea-Tonka complex soil with a 0 to 6 percent slope and a soil rating of 79. From there, the areas are shown that have the best production levels and which areas have limitations. The survey can show that there is loam down to 60 inches. An engineer would be needed to do further checking if a structure were planned for that area. The soil data explorer tab is the nuts and bolts of the program. It can show the soil shrink potential and information on building site evaluation.

The soil profile is not just for producers. It could also be used to determine the best spot to plant trees for someone in a residential area or to determine areas for rotational grazing. It can identify areas that may need corrective action, such as hauling in lime to improve the soil.

“Our office uses the program a lot during tree planting season,” Caton said. “We also have a chart to show which trees grow best in which soils.”

Caton said, “Most pieces of land have a variety of soils, with many ranging from 41 to 90. It’s a 1-100 scale, that provides a relative comparison of productivity. It can also show the potential to flood or will indicate clay pan restrictions.”

For those with pastures, the range production estimate is shown, providing the approximate pounds per acre in a given year, whether it’s favorable year, normal or unfavorable.

Interest in the surveys goes in waves, according to Caton. If land is put up for sale and has a 95 soil rating, that has good value. Knowing if all parts of that piece of land are productive is important.

Information on this site is different from the crop maps used by the Farm Service Agency.

“The soil survey is an important management tool,” Caton said. “It’s helpful when looking at purchasing land and seeing what limitations there may be. And on new land, it’s helpful in managing decisions before dropping the planter in the soil.”

SoilWeb smartphone app

The smartphone application, or “app,” is available as a free download for both iPhone and Android users to access soil survey information. The app, SoilWeb, combines online soil survey information with the GPS capabilities of smartphones.

This means that a farmer, rancher or even a backyard gardener could use a smartphone to gain an understanding of the soil type in the surrounding landscape. Soil health is a key factor in the success of plants—the type of soil determines what nutrients are needed, as well as how much water should be applied.

SoilWeb is useful even for users already familiar with NRCS’s Web Soil Survey, as it is much faster than pulling up soil survey information on a desktop or laptop computer.