TSSH Part 619

Field Office Operations

Background (619.00)

This section describes the roles and responsibilities of a resource soil scientist in assisting Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office operations. It provides guidance on how to provide assistance to planners in their work with farmers and other land managers by identifying soil resource concerns, assessing soil quality, and implementing management practices that ensure long-term soil productivity.

New challenges continually face NRCS field office operations. The highest workload for the limited field office staff is the administration of program contracts. Some employees are not receiving adequate training in the proper methods of inventorying resource concerns. Although employees are using computer tools to help in the planning process, time in the field and the level of planning skills are decreasing. When training and field experience are inadequate, the employee’s confidence level regarding planning activities is diminished.

Types of services for the field office (619.01)

Technical soil services provide the following basic activities for the field offices: (a) planning services; (b) site-specific soil investigations, testing, interpretation, and evaluation; (c) technical policy and program services; and (d) information services.

The following paragraphs outline some important roles for resource soil scientists in ensuring that field offices provide quality inventories for planning, interpret soil data properly, implement practices that address field-specific concerns, and conduct followup and evaluation activities with NRCS customers.

  1. Planning Services
    1. Develop Use-Specific Tools for Nutrient Management Plans. Evaluating nutrient status and environmental risks associated with nutrient management recommendations is a key step in resource planning. Specific requirements of a nutrient management plan are listed in 190-GM, Section 402.04. Resource soil scientists can train and assist conservation planners in the design of animal waste and cropland nutrient management plans, including:
      • Assessing nitrogen leaching and surface runoff potential
        • determining the Conservation Management Unit (CMU)
        • nitrogen risk assessment
        • surface- and ground-water contamination risk
        • risk screening tool
      • Phosphorus Index evaluation
        • creating categories to represent the application rate of all sources of phosphorus being applied along with associated risks (banding vs. surface application; timing)
        • creating categories for methods of application that would present the least to the greatest risk to surface water quality
        • determining risk potential and mitigating factors for P application relative to the distance to surface water
        • determining best management practices that mitigate and reduce risk factors
    2. Sampling and Analyzing Waste Lagoons, Manure, and Soils. Conservation planners need training to understand the level of detail necessary for the proper application of a comprehensive nutrient management plan. The resource soil scientist can provide this training. Planners also need to consider land variability for erosion and topographic features, differences in texture and organic matter content, and any potentially high-risk areas, such as areas where the water table is high or areas where the soils have a high infiltration rate and leaching hazard.

      Resource soil scientists are trained in soil fertility and nutrient dynamics and can assist with sampling and with reviewing the analysis of samples from waste lagoons, manure, and soils. Proper sampling procedures for all sources should be communicated to planners and producers so that representative data are used for the comprehensive nutrient management plan.

    3. Farm and Ranch Inventory and Planning. The resource soil scientist can work with planners to assist land users in the implementation of conservation systems and in complying with provisions affecting highly erodible land and wetlands. The purpose of conservation systems is to improve soil and water quality and improve cropland, pasture, and rangeland conditions for sustainable production.

      During the inventory and planning steps, a trained soil scientist can identify resource concerns that another planner might not recognize. Indicators of poor infiltration, degraded structure, erosion, low content of organic matter, acidification, salinization, compaction, and evidence of a water table (saturation) are some of the characteristics that conservation planners can be trained to recognize. In some complex landscapes, field verification of the soils may be necessary to ensure that the correct soil property values are being used.

    4. Soil Quality, Resource Inventory, and Assessment for Conservation Planning. Soil quality is the capacity of a specific kind of soil to function within natural or managed ecosystem boundaries to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and support human health and habitation.

      Resource soil scientists should play an integral part in soil quality determinations and in training field office personnel to identify soil quality indicators and concerns and the management practices needed to address them.

      A state and transition database for ecological sites and dynamic soil properties that correlates to management systems for cropland, forestland, and rangeland should be developed.

      A soil quality checklist for the soils and conditions of the area should be developed with the assistance of conservation planners and cooperators and used as a tool in the field inventory process. Developing such a checklist can provide an opportunity to educate NRCS personnel and customers in the importance of creating and maintaining soil quality. The checklist can also be used as an educational tool to explain how farmers and other land managers can use soil quality indicators to track the direction of soil transition states.

      The resource soil scientist can also aid in developing locally adapted conservation tools, such as (1) automated spreadsheets that will assist the planner in using soils information to make planting recommendations for grass (forage) and trees and (2) automated risk assessment tools for the development of comprehensive nutrient management plans using local soil legends and interpretations. Although automated spreadsheets can increase efficiency, the planner should have the knowledge and skills necessary for determining and describing the appropriate soil properties and characteristics.

  2. Site-Specific Soil Investigations, Testing, Interpretation, and Evaluation

    Services in this category include soil engineering assistance, which can range from the logging of soil pits in support of agency goals to training others to do this work. This assistance includes assigning or teaching the Unified and AASHTO engineering classification systems. The soil mechanics training modules in AgLearn provide one resource for training in this area. The identification and delineation of hydric soils/wetlands and soil evaluations for storm water systems also are activities that fall under this category of technical soil services.
    1. Special Projects. Demonstration projects can be a valuable learning tool for conservation planners and land users in addressing soil health. A resource soil scientist understands use-dependent properties and how changes can occur in the soil with different management practices. Below-ground investigations of the soil food web, infiltration, compaction, and bulk density address some of the indicators that can be taught to field office personnel. Understanding and teaching dynamic soil properties and how they can be improved by management practices can be important roles for the resource soil scientist. The resource soil scientist needs to work with field offices to identify the need for any new interpretations or for revisions to existing interpretations.

      In some instances, the planning and design of special projects require more detailed soil maps. The resource soil scientist must be able to create highly detailed soil maps based on grid sampling or on other methods as appropriate for the project.

    2. Water Development
      • Ponds—During the planning process, the resource soil scientist can assist the field office by providing site-specific data that can identify suitable locations for embankments or excavated ponds. Such data can help to prevent costly repairs or rebuilds resulting from the construction of ponds in unsuitable or poorly suited locations. The resource soil scientist may also be called upon to identify suitable borrow areas for fill or to make other recommendations for overcoming soil limitations that can negatively affect the project.
      • Spring DevelopmentsA resource soil scientist can assist the field office by locating subsurface water conveyances and by helping to determine the best design for a spring development. In many cases the spring is considered a wetland. The resource soil scientist can conduct the wetland determination, run hydrogeomorphic assessments, and ensure that impacts to affected wetlands are minimized.
      • Irrigation SystemsA resource soil scientist can assist the field office by providing field-specific data to enable calculations of net water savings for practice eligibility.

      A resource soil scientist should review the soil properties in the field and inform the field office planner of the available water-holding capacity of the soil in the management unit and of any limiting layers affecting water movement and storage and root penetration. The soil scientist should also review and explain soil and water sample analysis to determine whether the water is suitable for irrigation. In saline/sodic areas, soil and water sampling and analyses are necessary. Field soil inventory is particularly important in complex landscapes.

    3. HEL and PHEL Determinations. The resource soil scientist may be called upon to help determine program eligibility and compliance.

      When there are requests for determination of compliance with HEL regulations, a resource soil scientist can help in training the field office to determine whether land that has been designated PHEL is HEL, or the soil scientist can conduct the field determinations for the planner.

      The resource soil scientist can assist the field office by ensuring the proper and consistent application of the tools used in predicting wind erosion and water erosion. Resource soil scientists should reference the National Food Security Act Manual and the Wind Erosion Prediction tool (eFOTG, Section 1, A, references list).

    4. Determinations and Delineations of Hydric Soils. A resource soil scientist should assist in the delineation of wetland boundaries when a wetland determination is needed or as requested by a land owner when the resource soil scientist has been certified by the STC as a wetland delineator. Wetland delineations can be very difficult for the untrained conservationist. For even a trained conservationist, they can be problematic in areas where hydric indicators are difficult to interpret or where alterations have occurred.

      The resource soil scientist can also help in scope-and-effect investigations where manmade drainage systems have been utilized.

    5. Tree and Forb Plantings. Soil investigations may be necessary to ensure that a field is suitable for the planned species. On smaller sites an onsite visit by the resource soil scientist can be helpful in determining whether minor component soils within the map unit might affect the success of the planting. A conservation planner at the field office level may use the soil survey to eliminate a potential site for plantings, whereas a site visit by a trained soil scientist could find included areas that are suitable for tree and grass plantings.
    6. Soil/Site Descriptions. Resource soil scientists play a significant role in developing Ecological Site Descriptions (ESDs), Forage Suitability Groups (FSGs), Conservation Tree and Shrub Groups (CTSGs), and other interpretive groups. The resource soil scientist can assist field office personnel in identifying soil/site descriptions and can help with inventories and planning.
    7. Saline and Sodic Soil Determinations. Early detection and diagnosis of a saline area can be important in designing and implementing control and reclamation practices to prevent further damage. The resource soil scientist should be trained in using detection tools for diagnosing saline areas. Detection of saline areas may be accomplished by onsite visual inspection, soil sampling, the use of an EM-38, or electrical conductivity meter readings.
  3. Technical Policy and Program Services
    1. Technical Resources. The resource soil scientist should review policy changes involving wetlands and HEL through the National Food Security Act Manual and State supplements, General Manual and State supplements, and National and State bulletins. Resource soil scientists must be able to relay those changes to field office personnel and provide training where necessary. Other policy manuals, such as 2-CRP, may also need to be reviewed and utilized in carrying out other duties as assigned.
    2. Quality Assurance Reviews. The resource soil scientist should participate in field office reviews to ensure that the appropriate soils information is used for conservation planning, technical assistance, and practice implementation. These reviews can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses of field office personnel and thus can help identify training needs. References are available through State bulletins and NRCS Quality Assurance Review guidance.
    3. Cultural Resources. Field soil scientists are trained to differentiate between natural and disturbed landscapes and soils. The resource soil scientist can assist in identifying cultural resources and should be knowledgeable of specific methods or techniques to locate and define the characteristics, nature, and extent (including the horizontal and vertical boundaries) of cultural resources and historic properties. The resource soil scientist may also serve as the cultural resource specialist.
    4. Job Approval Authority. The Resource Soil Scientist should work with agronomists and engineers to seek job approval authority for those practices that require the use and knowledge of soil properties and their limitations. Selected engineering and other practices should require review by the resource soil scientist before others with job approval authority sign off on a practice. Resource soil scientists should reference the National Food Security Act Manual and the Wind Erosion Prediction tool (eFOTG, Section 1, A, references list).
    5. National Resources Inventory (NRI). Resource soil scientists assist with the NRI by collecting field data and/or reviewing data collected by field office personnel. The resource soil scientist needs to know what data are to be collected and how to collect the data, must understand the Local Data Survey Instrument (LDSI), and must be able to train or assist field office personnel in data collection.
  4. Information Services

    Resource soil scientists can provide education and training for internal and external customers. The following are examples of such activities.
    • Workshops and toursExplain dynamic soil quality properties, characteristics, and interpretations to educate field office staff and the field office’s customers. Assist with visual soil quality demonstrations that display aggregate stability, infiltration, erosion, and other factors showing the importance of proper management and healthy soil. Assist with land judging and Envirothon activities.
    • Web Soil SurveyEducate field office staff, farmers, ranchers, and other land managers about the content and navigation of this application, which provides electronic access to relevant soils and related information needed to make decisions about land use and management.
    • Global Positioning SystemAssist with training field office staff in the proper use of this streamlined navigation and positioning tool, which is becoming increasingly useful and is crucial to many planning activities.
    • Soil surveyProvide training on how soil surveys are made, identifying soil/landscape features, the concept and use of map unit descriptions, soil property data, and interpretations for site-specific applications.
    • Field inventory trainingTrain field office personnel in identifying soil texture, soil series, range in characteristics, soil quality, hydric soils, wetland delineations, hydrogeomorphic assessments, and dynamic soil properties that are important for identifying resource concerns during the planning process.
    • News articles and other publicationsProvide information that promotes education and the exchange of technical expertise to internal and external customers and that directs people towards the latest in technology and management ideas.

References (619.02)

Guidelines for Soil Quality Assessment in Conservation Planning. January 2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Quality Institute.

Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Quality Institute.

Soil Quality Card Design Guide. May 1999. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Quality Institute.

Soil Science Society of America. 1996. Methods for assessing soil quality. SSSA Special Publication Number 49.