K-State Research and Extension News
December 04, 2013
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World Soil Day on Dec. 5 Highlights Importance of a Valuable Treasure in Kansas

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Soil is Thin Line between Prosperity and Peril, Agronomist Says

MANHATTAN, KAN. – A treasure trove of life-sustaining food, pharmaceuticals, clothing, and much more lies just beneath us. The source of this treasure: the multitude of tiny organisms, minerals, and water that combine to make up that miraculous resource called simply “soil.”

There is nothing simple or humble about soil, however, said Gary Pierzynski, professor and head of the department of agronomy at Kansas State University.

“Soil should be treated like royalty by all of us – protected and nourished,” Pierzynski said. “Soil is a finite natural resource and cannot be replaced in our lifetime once it is lost to dust storms, water runoff, or pollution.”

The value of soil as a precious resource is being celebrated internationally on Dec. 5 as World Soil Day, Pierzynski said.

World Soil Day has been held every year since 2002, when the International Union of Soil Sciences made a resolution proposing its creation.

The purpose of the worldwide celebration is to draw attention to this vibrant, non-renewable resource that surrounds all of us on land, said Chuck Rice, K-State university distinguished professor of agronomy.

“Looking at the soil from a broad perspective, there is not much of it – just a few inches to a few feet in depth over most of the Earth’s land. And once it is lost, we’ll have lost it forever. The soil is literally a thin line between prosperity and peril for all of us,” Rice said.

“Soils provide much more than just the essential basis for food production, he said. “Soils play a role in sustaining human health and the environment. Soils are home to billions of living organisms, yet only a small fraction has been studied. These organisms are a source of antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs.”

Most people probably associate soil with plant life or construction foundations, Pierzynski said. Those functions provide tremendous value to all Kansans.

In terms of plant life and agriculture, perhaps few regions of the country derive such immediate benefits from a healthy and productive soil resource than the Central Plains and Midwest, he said.

“People throughout the country and world depend on soils, along with water, to produce food and fiber. But it’s in the states where agriculture drives the economy that we see the biggest economic benefit from these finite resources,” he said. “We have a lot at stake in protecting our soil in Kansas. Every time we have a dust storm or see our soil flowing into surface water, we see our economy as a state take a hit.”

Agriculture is the largest economic driver in Kansas, valued at more than $33 billion, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s most recent Farm Facts. The productive nature of soils in Kansas is a major factor in this economic engine.

The KDA report also states that in Kansas, there are 52,320,102 acres of land. Farmland accounts for 88.6 percent of all Kansas land. More than 28 million acres in Kansas are devoted to growing crops and nearly 16 million is pastureland for grazing animals.

“All of this illustrates the economic importance of the soil to the Kansas economy since soil is the foundation of agriculture. Once our valuable topsoil in Kansas is lost, it takes millions of years to generate more of it,” Pierzynski said.

Worldwide, the value of plant life and soil organisms to produce valuable chemical compounds that benefit human and animal life adds even more to the value of soils, Rice said, adding that everyone in Kansas can do their part to help protect the state’s valuable and non-renewable soil resource.

“Those directly engaged in managing soil resources as part of their business can use practices that will keep the soil from being lost to erosion or pollution. Those in agriculture can protect or increase organic matter, practice conservation tillage and good grazing practices to help prevent wind and water erosion, use terraces and other conservation measures, and keep the soil covered with plant growth or residue year-round as much as possible,” Rice said. “Those in the construction and mining industries can treat the soil they manage as a treasured resource and make sure it remains viable for future generations.”

“Those not directly involved in soil management through their work can help protect the resource by not allowing soils in urban areas to become contaminated by pollutants and by taking steps to keep soil from washing into storm drains,” he added.

The non-farm community can also help in World Soil Day efforts by realizing the value of land that is protected by vegetation and conservation measures, and appreciating the efforts of others in keeping the soil protected, Rice said.

The good, productive soils in Kansas, such as the Harney silt loam, the state soil of Kansas, evolved over thousands of years under prairie grasslands, and with good stewardship will keep providing economic benefits to the state for thousands of years to come, Pierzynski said.

For more information on World Soil Day 2013, see World Soil Day 2013.


Productive Prairie Soil Honored in Kansas:
The Harney Silt Loam

MANHATTAN, KAN. – The rich value of soil to all Kansans is exemplified by its official state soil, the Harney silt loam, said DeAnn Presley, K-State Research and Extension soil management specialist. Kansas was among the early leaders in the nation in recognizing the value of its soil resource by adopting the Harney silt loam as the official Kansas State Soil in 1990.

The Harney silt loam is the most extensive soil in the state, covering nearly 4 million acres in west central Kansas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. It has the ideal properties of a prairie soil in terms of native fertility and quality, Presley said.

“This was the perfect choice to be the state soil of Kansas,” she added. “The Harney silt loam has the level of native productivity that has made Kansas one of the top producers of wheat, grain sorghum, and forages in the nation.”

The deep, productive soils of Kansas evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. For most of this time, the soils supported native grasslands and a variety of animal life. Now they support a strong agricultural economy, she said.

With good stewardship by landowners, the Harney silt loam will continue to support the microbial life and mineral resources that make soil so valuable to people around the world, she added.

In particular, the Harney silt loam is a very deep, nearly level to moderately sloping, well-drained soil on flat ridgetops and sideslopes, based on the NRCS description. Harney soils formed in windblown silts called “loess,” Presley explained. Soils formed from loess over eons of time are among the most productive in the world.

The name “Harney” (meaning people) is derived from “harahey,” an ancient Wichita Native American term for “Pawnee Indian,” stemming from when Coronado journeyed across Kansas, according to NRCS fact sheets.

For more information on Harney silt loam as the official Kansas State Soil, see Kansas State Soil Harney Silt Loam.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Steve Watson
K-State Research & Extension News

Gary Pierzynski is at 785-532-6101 or gmp@ksu.edu; Chuck Rice is at 785-532-7217 or cwrice@ksu.edu