With the dry conditions, I’ve been getting a lot of texts and calls about managing salinity and why are the spots getting bigger? This is a great question for Tom DeSutter, a professor of soil science at North Dakota State University, who has been researching the dynamics of salinity for the past several years:

Tom DeSutter, a professor of soil science at North Dakota State University. (NDSU photo)
Tom DeSutter, a professor of soil science at North Dakota State University. (NDSU photo)
The first thing you need to know is that salts dissolve and move with water. So, anywhere the water goes, if there are salts, they go too. This is why we say, “Manage the water and you’ll manage the salts.” With minimal precipitation to flush the salts, especially this year, and high winds and temperatures increasing, the evaporative demand is high. All this means is that groundwater (which likely has salts dissolved in it) is being pulled toward the surface by the drying of the soil surface from wind and temperatures. In wet years, like last spring, we had plenty of water to flush the salts down from the surface, but it likely also raised the groundwater table and made that closer to the surface, where this year, the salts/water don’t have far to travel to get into that seedbed.

An area of salinity in a field. (Abbey Wick / Special to Agweek)
An area of salinity in a field. (Abbey Wick / Special to Agweek)
Now that we’ve made it a water management issue, whether it’s too much or too little, we can wrap our heads around the management options.

First, we generally don’t want to till these areas, but if you do, plant right into it after tillage. Get something growing as soon as you can to manage the water. This is where you’ll put your small grain.

Speaking of small grain, pick a crop that can handle salts. Small grains are better than soybean or corn. You don’t have to plant the whole field to small grains, but you can certainly section off the saline areas and do this. There is no reason to put an expensive crop into these saline areas, just to fail. Not only will you have spent money you didn’t need to spend, but also the areas will get worse with a failed crop.

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Next, if the saline spot still isn’t growing anything, try to work your way into the area. This means seeding the perimeter to a small grain and just leave the really hot spots in the center alone. Don’t make yourself crazy doing this, but there are borders or perimeters that can be managed and with time you will work your way in.

Lastly, be patient. This is probably the most difficult, for anyone. It takes time and you can’t expect rapid changes overnight, especially if conditions stay dry and there is not any precipitation to leach the salts deeper into the profile. Keep in mind that we have seen these approaches work, but the changes are over several years. While you’re trying to be patient, you can call your Extension agent to catch up and talk about your concerns, or watch NDSU Soil Health YouTube videos. There’s plenty of those to keep you busy. Do something else to pass the time instead of fixating on the saline area.

Abbey Wick is an Extension soil health specialist at North Dakota State University.