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Mikkel Pates, Forum News Service, Published August 15 2013

Corn growers, NDSU set soil-salt study

FARGO – North Dakota State University is launching a multiyear 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.

Many questions

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

Wick says many questions remain about salinity’s effect 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. He says the project is unique because of its size and multidisciplinary approach, as well as the ability to monitor it with miniature, microscale sensors.

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

Long-term effort

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.