Corn growers, NDSU set large soil-salt study

FARGO -- North Dakota State University is launching a multi-year study that will show how soil salinity and sodicity can be managed under commercial-scale farming methods.

FARGO -- North Dakota State University is launching a multi-year study that will show how soil salinity and sodicity can be managed under commercial-scale farming methods.

They're calling it the Soil Health and Agriculture Research Extension Farm -- SHARE.

Abbey Wick, an NDSU Extension Service soil health specialist and primary investigator for the project, says it is funded by the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council. Researchers will work with a quarter-section of land about a mile west and 2.5 miles south of Mooreton, N.D., in central Richland County.

"The majority of farmers in the state are dealing with at least some level of salinity or sodicity issues in soil," Wick says.

Salinity is a combination of all salts that accumulate in the soil, causing a white crust. Sodicity is a specific imbalance of salts with more sodium versus calcium and magnesium, where the soils appear to disperse and create a hard layer that is difficult for roots and water to penetrate. Both are often referred to as salty, although the effects are quite different.


The corn council has funded the first year of the study at $68,000. Corn and soybeans are sensitive to salinity. NDSU has been talking with the North Dakota Soybean Council about including them and others in the research project.

Ken Johnson, who owns the land hosting the research, says the quarter of land has been affected by what appears to be salinity, although he is curious about what the researchers will find. He figures the overall yield of the field

may have dropped 10 percent from what it could be in the past 10 years.

Greg LaPlante, research director for the corn council, a long-time crop consultant, knows Johnson as a client.

Wick says many questions remain about salinity's affect on the cropping system, including pest pressures, weed infestations and root disease.

"There are a lot of things we hope will be discovered at this particular SHARE farm."

LaPlante says the SHARE Farm concept might be replicated elsewhere, regionally, nationally and even internationally into Canada. LaPlante says the project is unique because of its size and multi-disciplinary approach, as well as the ability to monitor it with miniature, micro-scale sensors.

The project will begin in a series of steps, aimed at collecting extensive baseline information:


Salinity -- Researchers will intensely sample 200 locations on 150 acres at a depth of up to 4 feet. The corn council has funded engineering work for the salinity sensors, which will be placed this fall or next summer.

Soil types -- Researchers will start with the existing web soil survey and compare it with intensive sampling.

Hydrology -- Scientists will install 15 shallow wells to about 10 to 15 feet.

Tiling -- Researchers hope to tile 75 acres on the north half of the 150-acre field. They plan to install drainage tile pipe at 40-foot spacing, perhaps starting as early as this winter and likely complete the installation within two years. This project could cost about $100,000, Wick says.

Wick says NDSU officials are hoping the study can be a long-term effort -- perhaps running 10 to 15 years.

"Our goal right now is to get other researchers and people in extension interested in the site," Wick says.

The difference between this and other studies is that many of these issues have been studied separately. "We're trying to bring together disciplines to address these issues all at the same time on these saline areas, trying to make these connections," she says.

Copyright 2013, Agweek.

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