Last week after I posted the details about how crazy we got while looking for a barn, including looking up what type of soil the property had, several of you asked how to do that. I have based my last two boarding decisions based at least partially (ok mostly) off of what type of ground they had, and for anyone who is shopping for land or lives in a place where there’s a certain type of ground you want to avoid, or a certain type of ground you want to find, it’s a REALLY helpful tool. I don’t know about you, but as an eventer I feel like my life sometimes revolves around footing. The website is a little bit confusing to use though, so I’ll show you how I’ve used it for myself and that should be enough to get you started.
Web Soil Survey is a USDA site that lets you look up the soil content of any area. From the main page, just click on the big green button that says Start WSS. That’ll take you to this landing page.
From there you have several options for how to look things up. I usually have a specific address that I want to research, so I drop down the Address tab and enter it there. If you’re just browsing a general area you can use the State and County option. Or lat/long if you’re fancy. For this case I’m gonna use the Address option, but you do you.
Once you put that in, the map will refocus to whatever area you specified.
From there you can use the little AOI buttons on the top menu of the map to define what specific area you want to look at.
They’re small and hard to read, but they say AOI (area of interest). If you hover your mouse over them you’ll see that one says “Define AOI by rectangle” which allows you to just draw a rectangle around the area you want to define, and the other says “Define AOI by polygon” which allows you to draw a more specific shape around an area. Once you select which AOI you want to use, you’ll be able to draw that shape on your map.
Once you’ve defined your Area of Interest, look at the tabs along the top of the page and click on Soil Map.
The soil map page is where all the magic happens – this is where it shows what types of soil your selected Area of Interest has.
As you can see, it also shows which area of the property has what soil, as defined by the map unit symbols, as well as the total acreage for each soil type.
This is all well and good if you know your soils pretty well, but if you don’t, you might need further assistance. You can click on each soil type and it’ll pop up a page with some specifics, which may or may not make any sense to you. I tend to scroll down to the “properties and qualities part” personally, but depending on what you’re trying to do with the land, other sections may have more value. I’m really into drainage and generally prefer anything “sandy” over anything “clay”. Clay loam is far better than black clay though, which I have come to avoid like the plague.
I’ve also generally been able to find additional info by using good old Google and just searching the soil type in quotation marks. Here’s the whole USDA page on Behring clay loam, for example. I always pay particular attention to the drainage and permeability section, but if you’re growing hay there’s a lot of great info there too.
When in doubt, just start looking up the soil content of all the places you know that have great soil, and use it as a point of comparison. You’ll find patterns pretty quickly.
The WSS site has a lot of cool features that are fun to play around with, once you’re comfortable with how it works. Explore the tabs. Have a blast. If you’re anything like me it’s really fun and perhaps also highly addictive. Great tool though, it’s certainly proved useful for me over the years!