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Dynamic Soil Properties Evaluates and Compares Land Management

Employees taking soil profiles in a fall corn field to see how land management practices affect soil health.

 

 

DSP is a team effort to collect data. Pictured from right to left: Assistant State Soil Scientist Carrie Werkmeister, Soil Health Specialist Hal Weiser, Soil Scientist Andy Oxford, and Soil Conservationist Jessica Elder.

 

NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE (NRCS), Huron, S.D., October 9, 2020 - South Dakota (SD) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Dynamic Soil Properties (DSP) looks deep for answers while evaluating land management practices across SD. The DSP is a comparison and data collection method from the soil on various practices such as applying manure, switching toward no-till systems, and/or irrigated land versus non-irrigated soil.

The DSP serves as a sort of “health check-up” for soil while tracking changes over time. A field or pasture goes through a battery of exams measuring everything from temperature to biological activity. The NRCS soil scientists check back every three to five years to learn how things have changed. They also see how it stacks up against neighboring fields comparing those with the same soil type but different approaches to management.

The goal is simply to provide solid information on which farmers and ranchers can base their management decisions, explained Project Coordinator, Carrie Werkmeister, Huron, SD.

The DSP Team consists of soil scientists like Werkmeister and range specialists, local conservationists, producers, and others who aid in the evaluation process.

The first data was collected for the DSP Program more than a decade before Werkmeister joined the project. With renewed interest, she and her team are revisiting original sites plus adding several new ones. The hope is to eventually have one sample site in each county across the state.

“We’re curious how things have changed over the years,” said Werkmeister, “We’re gathering information so people know what is and isn’t working in their area."

The project focuses on soil properties that can change relatively quickly. That means producers can start to see a difference in yields or grass production in just a few years, according to NRCS's Major Land Resource Area (MLRA), Office Leader Andy Oxford, Pierre, SD.

“I hope producers can begin to understand how management affects their soil and that it is never too late to start managing their land for soil health,” Oxford said. The assessment includes a description of the soil make-up, its color, structure, and temperature commented Oxford.

The DSP Team writes down root depth as well as water infiltration. They gather as much history as possible about how the property has been used along with the current management practices.

“It’s a lot of information,” said Werkmeister.

Other measurements record soil fertility such as how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are available for crops, the amount of organic matter, and a count of active bacteria and fungi. "When microbes are active," explained Werkmeister, "there’s fertility for plants to uptake quickly."

One of the early sites sampled for the DSP Program was in Beadle County. There, the producer started to apply manure and the soil ecosystem began to show increased microbial activity. "It was exciting to see the change live in the field," said Werkmeister, “You can see the difference, night and day, in the soil by color."

It’s the same with water infiltration tests. One often-cited benefit of no-till fields is how they handle water. Where soil is undisturbed by tillage and allowed to build the structure with organic matter and a community of active soil organisms, rainwater can filter through the porous layers. Tilled soil, on the other hand, can become compacted, impeding water infiltration and creating surface runoff. Erosion takes topsoil and vital nutrients with it and causes water quality issues downstream.

The DSP Team is careful when taking measurements and making comparisons. They collect samples from the same soil type across the fence line creating a side-by-side comparison. The goal is to be able to attribute any changes over time to management practices, not different soil types or weather events.

Nathan Jones, State Soil Scientist, NRCS, Huron, SD has worked with the DSP project since the beginning. One new data point the team is recording with recent sites is an economic element. Savings on synthetic fertilizers and fuel can add up in a no-till operation. That’s important to producers when the agricultural economy is struggling. "Good soil health practices can pay off in other ways, says Jones. He heard from many no-till producers who, despite soggy conditions, were able to get in the field to plant. The soil structure was able to support their equipment while others were getting stuck in the mud.

“I hope they see there’s a definite value,” Jones said, "But it’s not just dollars, he added, it’s making sure their kids and grand kids can continue to farm and ranch in the future."

Another new focus for DSP is range land sites, making the project a benefit to more than just crop farmers. “Soil health is important across the State of SD,” said Jones. According to Jones, the team took samples from private rangeland east of Sturgis this summer. Tanse Herrmann, District Conservationist, Sturgis, SD ran an infiltration test and a slake test on this site to see how well the soil holds together in water and found soil health indicators were in good shape there, said Herrmann.

Putting data about range-land management with those results, Herrmann is hoping it all shows that making good management decisions is good for the land and an operation’s finances. “We’ve got the pieces of the puzzle put together,” says Herrmann, “Implementation of soil health principles equals dollars in their pocket.”

On rangelands, the DSP Team does more above-ground work. They assess what type of vegetation is growing, from native forbs to invasive weeds, and sample plants for their nutrient content. “That helps determine healthy rangeland,” said Werkmeister. More nutrients translate to stronger plants and ultimately more feed. “That’s more money in your pocket” she added.

Werkmeister hopes to expand on the information the DSP Team is collecting all across the state. The more information, the better understanding of how natural resources are impacted and the better decisions producers can make on how to manage their land.

“Agriculture is complex,” she said. “We’re happy to give a little more information to service our producers.”

Those interested in participating or using the information gathered through the DSP Program so far can find their local USDA NRCS office at this link: http://bit.ly/ContactNRCSSD.

NRCS DSP Project Leader Carrier Werkmeister

 

 

 

 

 

 

NRCS DSP Project Leader Carrier Werkmeister

Soil Survey Leader Lance Howe examines the various soil horizons in a soil core sample.

 

 

 

 

 

Soil Survey Leader Lance Howe examines the various soil horizons in a soil core sample.

 

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