Monday 12 December 2016

Know your Soil Better than your Bank Manager - Continued

Identifying Soil Texture

Soils are made up of particles of different sizes, the largest sand, followed by silt, to the smallest clays. Together these make up the soil’s texture. Soil texture has a direct impact on soil physical properties: porosity, water holding capacity and bulk density. Furthermore soil clay content determines soil chemical properties and the soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients.

This blog will discuss hands on ways to determine your soil texture, how texture relates to key soil physical properties and the role of clays in the soil. You can determine your soil texture at the same time as you carry out the VSA described in the previous blog post and together these practices will improve the quality of your information.

The change in a soil with depth, the cross section down through the soil, is referred to as the soil profile. It normally consists of a number of soil horizons (layers) each with different characteristics (texture and/or stone content). The picture below shows a soil profile with six distinct soil horizons. When scheduling irrigation you need to know information about the hydraulic (water) properties of each soil horizon that plant roots occupy within the soil profile to determine the amount of water available to the plant. This determines how frequently you need to irrigate (return period) and the maximum irrigation you can apply in one application (irrigation depth).

Example soil profile
Soil texture is an important characteristic because it gives a good indication of other soil properties such as water storage, drainage and nutrient supply. It is a stable soil property and is not likely to change with normal soil management. Soil texture can be estimated in the field by some practical tests involving the feel of the soil and these are outlined below. To determine the textures and get an idea for the ability of your soil to hold water it is beneficial to dig a pit and expose an open face on the soil profile so you can determine the different horizons visible down the profile. You should identify the soil texture of each of the horizons that plant roots are found to grow in, or down to about 60 cm.

Hands on method to determine your soil texture.
Found in the joint Irrigation NZ and Plant and Food resource - Click here to visit the webpage.

The graph below shows typical soil water holding capacities (WHC) for different soil textures in % or mm of water per 100 mm of soil depth. It also shows their typical permanent wilting points (WP) and field capacities (FC). The relationship between WHC, porosity and bulk density is straightforward. Sand has the largest particles, the lowest WHC and therefore the lowest porosity. This translates into the highest bulk density because less space is occupied by air. As shown by the WHC of silt and clay below, silt has a higher porosity and lower bulk density which is very similar to clay soils although clays tend to have the highest porosity. This is because clay is made up of lots of small particles which create lots of air spaces between them. Therefore clay also has the lowest values for bulk density.

Relationship between soil texture and soil water content.
Found in the joint Irrigation NZ and Plant and Food resource.
Another role of clay in the soil is in terms of nutrient management. The structure of clay's means that they tend to become negatively charged around the surface. This means that positively charged nutrients are attracted to the surface of the clay and, depending on the conditions, can move between this surface and the soil solution from where they can be taken up by plants. It is helpful to have an idea of how much clay your soil has because this will determine its ability to store positively charged nutrients such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium and resist changes in pH. Clay also holds phosphorus by allowing it to be adsorbed into the clay structure; some clay's allow this more than others. This is important to note because when phosphate is adsorbed it is less likely to become available to the plant and more phosphate will need to be applied to the soil to avoid deficiency in plants.

For more information on soil texture and water holding capacity you will find a great resource by following this link.

Once you have an idea of your soil texture and water holding capacity mapping tools can be used to get an idea of the representation of this soil type across your whole farm. Simple mapping such as Google Earth images (see the Ground Truthing your Soil Variability blog) and S-Map (which will be discussed in a future blog post) are helpful resources. It is important to be aware that these are tools to increase your understanding but to provide the detail required for efficient farm management tools such as EM mapping and determining exact water holding capacity are greatly beneficial.

Blog post written by Nicole Mesman - BSc (Hons) Soil Science.