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Published November 26, 2012, 10:32 AM

NDSU initiative in Northern Ag Expo spotlight

One of the marquee educational topics at this year’s Northern Ag Expo in Fargo, N.D., Nov. 27 and 28 will be North Dakota State University’s new Soil Health Initiative — the biggest research investment in area soils in the past decade.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

One of the marquee educational topics at this year’s Northern Ag Expo in Fargo, N.D., Nov. 27 and 28 will be North Dakota State University’s new Soil Health Initiative — the biggest research investment in area soils in the past decade.

NDSU is showcasing a new Soil Health Initiative, financed by a $2 million biennial appropriation from the Legislature. It supports a half-dozen soil scientists on the NDSU campus and at its research extension centers throughout the state. The issue will be on the agenda at 2 p.m. Nov. 27 in the Fargodome meeting rooms.

Frank Casey, director of NDSU’s School of Natural Resource Sciences, which includes the Soils Department, has helped hire a collection of researchers whose work will be financed primarily by the state grant, but those researchers also will work on associated projects for soil health.

“Soil is never a commodity people can hang their hat on,” Casey says. “When you talk about corn, there’s discussion of developing different varieties to tolerate (pests) but when you get down to it, what are you left to grow that corn in? Your limitations as far as how you can breed it meet a limit. And that limit is the soil — the land itself.”

Good research and information

The new initiative is designed to get bright researchers out on the land to understand what is going on. “We can only handle this if we have good research about the soils, good information about management of land resources,” Casey says.

Researchers at the various research extension centers will have autonomy, but also will participate in the Soil Health Initiative, getting feedback and guidance from an advisory group. The group already has attracted $5 million in grants. “We’ve turned around a $2 million investment, and we’ve made $5 million off of a grant,” Casey says, adding that the group is pursuing more.

The two researchers on the NDSU main campus leading the initiative are Abbey Wick in research and Ann Marie Fortuna in extension. Fortuna is looking at establishing demonstration locations throughout the state. Wick is anxious to build a web presence and extension service materials to take to the public — specific educational aspects tied to a locale.

The biggest, most visible issue in soil health has been in salinity.

“We’ve had a big moisture regime that’s come in through the state, a big influx of water moving through the soil profiles,” Casey says. “As that occurs, we have depositions of salts within the soil. You can see it by white, flaky residues. It’s dissolved solutes — saline soils and also sodic soils, which is a certain sodium molecule. Sodium actually will disperse the soils and really be a troublesome issue.”

After a heavy rainfall, crusting occurs on the surface. “All the structure of the soil gets broken up and there is no structure in the soil at all,” Casey says. “It seals and then it just becomes a mass — it doesn’t have any kind of structure, the nice aggregation that you would want, to hold onto soil moisture, to soil nutrients. Salts really affect that, especially sodium-affected soils.

“You also have saline, which is not ‘sodic’ necessarily,” Casey adds. “But that also affects the plants because if you have a plant in the soil and if there’s a lot of solutes, a lot of dissolved salts, it can’t maintain that turgor.”

Translation: It’ll wilt.

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