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Making poor soils rich again

Mark Hylden (left), Park River, N.D., and Sarah Johnston check on newly seeded wheat
SOILS SOLUTION: Mark Hylden (left), Park River, N.D., and Sarah Johnston, Walsh County-Three River Soil Conservation District Watershed coordinator, check on newly seeded wheat in an area of Hylden’s field that had high levels of sodium.
After years of not being able to get anything to grow, a North Dakota farms applies beet lime to high sodium soils and sees crops flourish.

For 40 years, Mark Hylden struggled to get anything to grow in a 15-acre hourglass-shaped spot in the middle of a 70-acre field.

When it was wet, the soil was greasy, "like black snot," he says.

Seeds germinated, but after a few weeks all the seedlings died. Because nothing ever grew — not even weeds — the acres never had any residue cover them, and the land was extremely susceptible to wind and water erosion.

Hylden, of Park River, N.D., wondered if too much salt was the problem. But it didn’t look like an alkali spot. There wasn’t any white crust on the soil surface.

If the patch had been in a corner, Hylden says he would have just not planted anything on the land. But he kept trying to get some cover on it.

"Over the 40 years of trying to farm it, I had spent $120,000-$130,000 on wasted seed and chemical," he says.

Hylden is not alone in dealing with problem soils. It’s estimated that there are as many as 14-20 million acres of sodium or salt-impaired soils in the Dakotas. The wet cycle since the 1990s, the erosion of topsoil and the reduction in small grains and alfalfa in crop rotations are all thought to be part of the problem.

Seeking a solution
In 2014, Hylden heard a soil health presentation from North Dakota State University Extension Service. "It sounded like they were talking about the problem I had," he says.

He followed up with Brad Brummond, NDSU Walsh County Extension educator, and Naeem Kalwar, soil health specialist at NDSU’s Langdon Research Extension Center. He also sought advice from his local Natural Resources Conservation Service and Soil Conservation District offices.

Hylden and the NDSU Extension specialists took soil samples at 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-foot depth intervals from the affected area. Results from NDSU Soil Lab came back showing high levels of sodium. Salt content was also elevated, but was minor compared to the sodium.

Sodium ions bind to the clay particles in the soil. When wet, sodium-clay particles disintegrate. When they dry, the particles settle down in dense layers, which clog the soil pores. The physical structure of the soil results in poor seed germination and restricted plant root growth. Plants die because the roots can’t get any water or air.

The NDSU specialists recommended that Hylden apply beet lime or gypsum, both of which contain calcium, to affected acres. Calcium displaces sodium in the clay and humus. Once dissolved in soil water, the displaced sodium can move down into the lower levels of the soil, and good soil structure returns.

Hylden chose to apply beet lime, a byproduct available from the American Crystal sugarbeet processing plants in North Dakota and Minnesota. The beet lime cost about $5 per ton. Hylden applied 14 tons per acre. With trucking costs, his total investment was about $200 per acre. The exact amount of calcium that needs to be applied depends upon the level of excessive sodium present in a soil, the soil’s cation ion exchange capacity and other factors.

Surprisingly, the beet lime had an immediate impact.

"I couldn’t believe my eyes," Hylden recalls. "The soil wasn’t black snot anymore. It tilled up like beautiful black dirt in a garden."

Hylden planted barley and it yielded 83 bushels per acre. Since then, Hylden has tried other crops and they’ve grown, too.

"It’s been an amazing turn-around," Hylden says.

Sarah Johnston, Walsh County Three River Soil Conservation District manager, says Hylden’s experience shows impaired soils can be reclaimed.

"It is very encouraging," she says.

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