Soil Scientist determines the soil texture and particle size distribution using a soil hydrometer

If you want to know the best places in Alabama to build a road, grow a particular type of tree or crop, or construct a building, the answer is waiting in the results of the state’s first generation soil survey – a detailed profile of all private, Native American and federal lands across the state.

The first generation survey, completed in September 2011 after more than a century of work, assists landowners in determining the best use of their property based on the type of soil it has and what uses it will support.

“It helps us see what soils produce the best trees or handle septic tanks and other forms of urban development,” says Charles Love, state soil scientist for the Alabama Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). “The survey has evolved from a strictly agricultural orientation to one that includes interpretations for woodland, wildlife, recreation, reclamation, sanitary facilities, building site development and other non-farm uses.”

Alabama soil survey infographic

The survey found 390 varieties of soil across the state, Love says, and once the findings are published in volumes of books, the results of the survey are available to read on the Internet.

“Soil survey users are more sophisticated than in the past,” he says. “In order to meet current and future needs, a digital soil survey that enables users to answer questions concerning the state’s soil resources rapidly and accurately is essential.”

Knowing the type of soil underfoot helps determine land values and has a direct impact on daily life, from where our food is grown to land zoning decisions that affect urban growth patterns, says Dr. William Puckett, state conservationist for the NRCS.

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“Lots of public and private sector entities use soil surveys including real estate agents and appraisers. You walk on it, drive on it. You live on it every day without thinking about what soil does for you,” he says.

The survey is a cooperative effort of many groups including Alabama A&M, Auburn, and Tuskegee universities, the Alabama Soil and Water Conservation Committee, Professional Soil Classifiers Association of Alabama, Alabama Health Department, the Geological Survey of Alabama, local and county governments, the U.S. Forest Service, the Extension Service, Agriculture Research Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and others.

“Thousands and thousands of people have been involved,” Puckett says.

First Generation Soil Survey in Alabama

Teams spent four or five years in each Alabama county taking a soil inventory. Earlier surveyors took bore samples 24 inches deep and relied on topographic maps to categorize the soil. Today they bore 80 inches down and use high-tech equipment including LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to precisely determine the elevation and contours of the land and help determine soil types.

Completion of Alabama’s first generation survey is a landmark achievement, says Joey Shaw, alumni professor of soil science in the Department of Agronomy and Soils at Auburn University.

“The soil survey is the foundation for natural resource assessment, planning and management in the U.S.,” Shaw says.

Now that the first generation effort is complete, NRCS and its teammates are undertaking a new effort, the Next Generation Soil Survey. The new survey is employing modern technologies to update soil surveys conducted in the middle of the 20th century using that era’s less-precise methods.

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Some techniques haven’t changed very much, though.

“We’re talking about going out every day with an auger and boring a hole in the ground,”  Puckett says.

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