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The NRCS Web Soil Survey: Uses and Limitations in Wisconsin

soil survey

Madison, Wis. May 2, 2016 Soil is a living and life-giving natural resource farmers depend on daily. The National Cooperative Soil Survey Program (NCSSP) is essential in understanding soil types on your farm to help in conservation planning for the future. The NCSSP is an endeavor of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), federal agencies, state and local governments, and other cooperators. It provides a systematic study of the soils in a given area, including the classification, mapping, and interpretation of the soils. Read the full Soil Survey Uses and Limitations Report.

The first soil map of Wisconsin was published in 1882. Much of the early survey work was done by the Wisconsin Geologic and Natural History Survey, the University of Wisconsin (UW) Soils Department, and the U.S. Bureau of Soils. Federal soil survey work in Wisconsin began in 1899, and thereafter, the soil survey became a cooperative effort between the Federal Government and state agencies. In 1933, the U.S. Department of Interior created the Soil Erosion Service to address national soil erosion problems. In 1935, the Soil Erosion Service was transferred to the USDA and is now, today, the NRCS. During the 1960s through the 1990s, soil survey work in Wisconsin moved around the state on a county-by-county basis as cost-sharing became available. In 2000, the state of Wisconsin weighed in to support soil surveys. The Wisconsin Department of Administration signed an agreement with NRCS to complete the initial soil survey of the state. In 2006, Wisconsin became the 10th state to have science-based soil survey information for the entire state on the Official Web Soil Survey (WSS).

WSS can be used for farm, local, and wider area conservation planning. It allows customers to prepare reports for their particular area of interest, save a digital copy, and/or print a copy. WSS is the sole source for official soil survey data. Every year on October 1, refreshed soil survey data from ongoing work and research is released to the public. Users can subscribe to receive notifications when soils data is refreshed. Older soil surveys are now being updated to modern standards for mapping and soil science as more detailed soil maps and data are developed using the latest GIS technologies. A starter how to guide for WSS is available for the public.

Soil survey information is important for planning specific land uses and practices needed to obtain positive results on your farm. For example, a soil survey can indicate the limitations and potentials of the soil for development of recreational areas. A landscape architect can use a soil survey when designing for a specific area. A contractor can use the survey in planning, grading, and implementing an erosion control project during construction. A horticulturist can use it in selecting suitable vegetation. WSS provides the basic information needed to make decisions about land management, including those operations that must be combined for satisfactory soil performance. Soil surveys are also helpful for locating possible sources of sand, gravel, or topsoil.

Soil survey data seldom contain detailed, site-specific information. WSS is not intended for use as a primary regulatory tool in site-specific permitting decisions and cannot replace site-specific details, which require onsite investigation. It is, however, useful for broad regulatory planning and application. Understanding the capability and limitations of the different types of soil data is essential for making the best conservation planning decisions.

In addition to updating the inventory of the soils, the NRCS Wisconsin Soils Program also provides training and support for the interpretation and use of soil survey information. Any use of soils data to make predictions falls under the broad category that soil scientists call soil interpretations. Outside organizations, agencies, and partners use soils data for interpretations and/or decision support systems. For example, a number of soil interpretations related to soil fertilizer recommendations and environmental risk are used for nutrient management planning in Wisconsin. These interpretations are incorporated in the UW’s popular SnapPlus soil nutrient application planning software. Please note, partners must update their soils data in their interpretations on an annual basis when NRCS updates official soils information, otherwise, there will be differences between their soils data and the official WSS. Soil interpretations are also used in assessing farmland for taxation and equalization, in appraising land for loans, and in guiding land buyers. NRCS maintains a set of interpretations in the WSS. These include calculated values, such as Soil Loss Tolerance (T) and soil Erodibility (K factor). Simplified infographics are available on the NRCS Wisconsin Soils Homepage explaining technical soil services NRCS provides, T and K factor, and more. NRCS interpretations also include various ratings of suitability and limitation for land uses. Read the full Soil Survey Uses and Limitations Report.

For more information about WSS, soil health, or financial and technical assistance offered by NRCS, visit Look for more info and updates in the coming weeks from our partners UW-Extension Department of Soil Science; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection on WSS, SnapPlus, conservation planning including nutrient management, and more. We’re partnering to help you!


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