Soil: Techniques and Production Methods and How They Conserve Resources
By Patrick Radigan
In the overall task of finding the means and technology to feed the world, Mark Kuzila said one critical factor is how we maintain and understand a key building block of the agriculture industry: soil.
While there are still big questions yet to be answered, Kuzila, a professor of soil science in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resources, said one of the first things that needs to be addressed is the ability for the world's soil to produce the food people need. By understanding what's going well, he said, as well as the mistakes that are being made both in Nebraska and around the globe, people can better understand what needs to be done or improved to be able to produce the food the world isgoing to need in the future.
Sustaining Nebraska's Soils
Looking at the sustainability of soil within Nebraska, Kuzila said it comes down to finding the best way to use the soil while trying not to deplete one of the state's most prominent natural resources.
"I always tell my students we have to farm the soil," Kuzila said. "We may not have done the best job back then, but we're working toward no-till and these things to help us maintain the physical properties of the soil that are better for everybody's use."
Kuzila said there are a number of potential practical applications of soils research. One area Kuzila said the scientific community has made advances in is the study of how Nebraska's soil has been changing in the past century. Starting with studies done in the early 1900s, geologists have kept a close eye on Nebraska's soil. The 1950s marked the implementation of more modern soil survey techniques. What they've learned, Kuzila said, is that the natural properties of soil have changed depending on how it has been used and maintained, either by natural or man-made means. Changes range from the level of organic carbon in the soil, to altering the actual structure of the soil depending on its use of the soil. What this information can tell us, he said, is how farmers can adjust the means of production to best care for and protect the soil.
Preparing for the Future
One of the aspects of soil study that Kuzila said has made a major impact is looking at how new technology and research can be put into effect in the field. Tools like the ability to measure soil quality and properties with meters that are pulled over the ground may be able to increase efficiency both in soil quality and water use.
"Young students have the ability, with technology, with the age of the computer... to understand certain ways to analyze things, and to work with machinery," Kuzila said.
A specific example is a developing concept of a smart water distribution system. By using a GPS map of the different soil varieties, Kuzila said technology could potentially distribute different amounts of water in each section, depending on how much water that type of soil requires.
For Kuzila, this type of technological change is what the farming industry needs to be able to meet future food production demands.
"It comes down to quality use of water and efficient use of water," he said.
Connecting Nebraska to the World
When looking at how the research done at UNL can affect the future of agriculture around the world, Kuzila said it starts with the first identifying characteristic of soil: climate.
By studying the soil in Nebraska, Kuzila said others can apply the research on different soil types in the state to other places around the world that have similar climates.
Another way research at UNL can help around the world is by working with areas that have soil similar to the many soils present in Nebraska. Kuzila said studying soils like loess, which is a wind-blown silt soil found throughout eastern, central, and southern Nebraska, can help other places across the globe that have similar soil composition and structure.
On top of simply studying the soil found naturally in the state, Kuzila also said work done in the lab is starting to pay off. Experiments where soil samples similar to those found in Africa are analyzed for ability to hold and transfer water are examples of the work Kuzila said could pay off in the efforts to provide food in areas of need.
As the need grows for food and water in places like Africa, he said, so does the demand for soil research. Kuzila said that by studying soils here in Nebraska, he and his team could help work with other communities around the world to maximize their ability to irrigate and maintain crops.
Soil and Production Agriculture
Kuzila's primary area of research is identifying soils and learning how soils were formed, as well as
understanding the chemical and physical properties of soils and how they impact agricultural production.
In his work at the university, Kuzila also works with the Nebraska Geological Survey, meaning much of the funding he receives comes from state sources. However, to make his work possible, he also said he receives funds from outside sources such as the United States Department of Agriculture and local government entities.
"Most of my work deals with resources in the state of Nebraska," Kuzila said. "So to be frank, external monies aren't readily available to support studies that focus on research to be applied to serve the citizens of Nebraska."
Through that work, Kuzila said he has come up with a method that helps him understand what type of soil he is dealing with, as well as what that means for the potential production.
To properly understand a soil , he looks at five different factors in determining the type and properties of soil. The first, climate, is simply the weather and natural conditions of the soils environment, while the second property, parent material, is a little more complicated.
"Number two would be the parent material, and that's just what it says: Parent material is the stuff the soil formed in," Kuzila said. "So what stuff do we have in Nebraska?"
After climate and parent materials comes the concept of location in relation to the landscape, or more simply where the soil is located. Is it on a hill? Is it at the low point of a valley? Kuzila said considerations like these are crucial towards understanding soil and how to best use it.
The final two factors, vegetation and age, are also physical properties important to soil development and the potential for production. By understanding what plants live on certain soils, and how long the soil has been there, Kuzila said he can have a better understanding of what he's working with when it comes to potential for production.
"My interest is studying all those things, determining what soil is where it is on the landscape and then the properties of those soils, how we use those soils," he said. "That changes drastically across the state."
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