Soil Fertility and Amendments for Rangeland Reclamation

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1 Soil Fertility and Amendments for Rangeland Reclamation Jay Norton, Soil Fertility Specialist University of Wyoming BLRS Soils Workshop, May 30, 2009

2 soil amendment: Any material that is worked into the soil or applied on the surface to enhance plant growth. For this discussion includes: Organic materials like manure & compost; Fertilizers; Inoculants like mycorrhizae and compost tea. Often not necessary for ecological restoration, but on drastically disturbed sites may be needed as remediation measure.

3 Concepts Goal is to recover site structure, functions, and values following development activities; Goal is NOT to change site potential but restore it by; Remediation: restoring soil attributes lost during stripping, stockpiling, spreading, and cultivating; Enhancement: facilitating germination and establishment of native plants.

4 Presentation overview Fertility of rangeland soils; Types of soil changes that result from stripping, stockpiling, and replacing topsoils; Determining needs for amendments; Applying amendments to meet needs.

5 Fertility of semiarid soils High nutrient content: Leaching losses are minimal; Evaporation far exceeds precipitation: Average Precipitation (Tot. 7.7) Pan Evaporation (Tot. 54.0) Elements released through weathering of soil parent materials accumulate as salts; Soluble components move UP, not down; Alkaline ph (>7.0) from abundance of base cations,, including CaCO 3 Ties up P and some micronutrients; Low productivity: Low soil organic matter content concentrated near surface; Low water and nutrient holding capacity; Low nutrient content; Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

6 Fertility of semiarid soils Montana and Wyoming soil tests usually indicate needs for supplemental nitrogen, phosphorus, and often sulfur for crop growth; N is most limiting to growth and yield: Soil organic matter is ONLY native source; Becomes available in pulses of decomposition in spring and following rainfall; Plants are adapted to low, pulsing N availability; Most common fertlizer is Urea, which must be incorporated to avoid volatilization; Excess available N changes composition toward weedy species; P is second most limiting; From weathering rock and decomposing SOM; Applied as phosphate (P 2 O 5 ); less soluble but is rapidly tied up in soil minerals because of abundant CaCO3; S is often applied as ammonium sulfate; S can mitigate high ph improving conditions for seedling establishment; shment; Micronutrients: High ph soils can limit availability of Zn, Fe and a others; Often applied as liquid.

7 Organic matter Plant residues & humus; Store of time-release nutrients; UWyo soil lab assumes 20 lbs of N per year for each 1 % SOM; Many other attributes: Increases water- and nutrient- holding capacity; Improves tilth; Dark color. Cation exchange capacity, cmol(+)/kg ph = 8.2 slope = ph = slope = ph = slope = Organic C, g/kg

8 Fertility reduction with disturbance Cultivation effect: aeration stimulates decomposition and loss of SOM: Repeated disturbance exacerbates losses; Great Plains farmlands have lost >60% original SOM; Lack of SOM inputs: Rangeland soils maintain 1-2% SOM because annual plant residue inputs balance losses; Stockpiling stimulates loss, but eliminates inputs; Mixing: Dilution: SOM concentrated at surface is mixed with low-som subsurface, even at 6 salvage depth; Degradation: Subsoils are zones of accumulation of salts and clay; Increased salts, ph, and clay may cause drought, toxicity, and nutrient deficiencies; Possible loss of beneficial soil microbes: Long-term storage of dry soil without plant inputs can reduce populations of mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial microbes.

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12 Changing the soil profile SOM(% SOM(% SOM(% A AB % reduction at surface 0 10 Bk Bk2 Depth 30 (in) Depth 30 (in) Depth 30 (in) Btk Cr

13 Determining Needs Soil sampling: take at least 20 cores or shovel samples from depth of undisturbed A horizon (usually inches): All around the pad after topsoil is respread and soon before seedbed prep; From a matched undisturbed area; Mix samples from each area in bucket and place a subsample in a well marked 1-gallon 1 ziplock bag; Open the bags to air dry over night; Soil labs usually require at least a month.

14 ~3 Routine test: $20 Includes N, P, SOM, salts, ph, lime, texture; K, Fe, Zn: $4.00 each Actual data is more important than fertilizer recommendation; For accurate recommendation must provide yield from clipping or ESD.

15 Determining needs Goal is to promote germination and establishment; Amending to recover original surface soil properties should be best approach: Compare to levels of SOM and salts in sample from undisturbed area; Amend with organic materials to recover surface SOM content; Amend with S or gypsum to remediate increased surface sodium contents; Fertilizers and other amendments should not be necessary.

16 Organic materials 1% SOM amounts to about 5 tons per acre in the top 3 inches; In example, loss is 0.54 %, or about 2.7 tons per acre; Manure: (~1400 lbs or 0.7 ton per cu yard) about one 4-yard 4 spreader full per acre; Composted manure or other compost is better because of lower salt, weed seed, and nutrient content: Make sure C:N ratio is about 30 or less; Saw dust and wood chips (C:N = ) are not acceptable and will reduce fertility; Straw (C:N = 75) can provide mulch for moisture benefits, but will tie up limited N until it decomposes; Know the source to avoid weeds.

17 Saline-sodic soils

18 Saline-sodic soils Plants on saline sites are adapted, but disturbance can increase surface concentrations to toxic levels Flocculated Dispersed

19 Remediating high salt content Reducing salts and sodium is very difficult - careful stripping is critical; Goal is to match original content: Agronomic perspective is detrimental and will promote weeds; For high salts, addition of low-salt organic materials is the only way to reduce (unless you can irrigate); For high exchangeable sodium: About 50 lbs elemental S per acre-inch of soil to reduce 1 meq Na/100 g soil; About 300 lbs gypsum for same; Most alkaline soils have plenty of Ca so use elemental S. Units: talk with soil testing lab, or see salt-affected affected soil pub on my website:

20 Say ESP in undisturbed site is 13 and in reclaimed soil is 23 ESP (exchangeable sodium percentage = Na/CEC x 100 (in meq/100g) ESP undisturbed = 4/31 x 100 = 13 ESP reclaimed = 7/31 x 100 = 23 Reduce Na by 3 meq requires ~150 lbs S or 900 lbs gypsum.

21 Fertilizer recommendation approach Must know accurate yield goal or site production: From ecological site descriptions; University of Wyoming Soil testing lab recommends 40 lbs N per ton of grass, minus residual N in soil and from SOM (20 lbs per 1%). Organic material is still best source of nutrients for reclamation: Time release instead of excess nutrient Beef manure: about 12 lbs N per ton with 25% available 1 st year; Compost: about half that.

22 Production examples for ESDs Foothill loamy precip.. big sage/bunchgrass: 1600 lbs/ac (32 lbs N/ac soil N) Western foothills and basins, loamy, precip., big sage/bunchgrass: 900 lbs/ac (18 lbs N soil test) Loamy 7-9" 7 Green River and Great Divide Basins, Mixed grass/big sage: 500 lbs/ac (10 lbs) Saline Lowland 7-9" 7 Green River and Great Divide Basins greasewood/inland saltgrass: : 600 lbs/ac (12 lbs) Loamy Northern Plains Precipitation Zone Rhizomatous Wheatgrasses/ / Needle and thread/big Bluestem: 1900 lbs/ac (38 lbs N/ac)

23 Ecological site descriptions Ecological Site Information System (ESIS): Click on ESDs; Click on Approved ESD Reports in upper left; Enter Wyoming from dropdown menu and submit.

24 Inoculants & conditioners In some cases positive response has been reported for mycorrhizal,, compost teas, and other types of inoculants; Seed treatments are inoculants and some practitoners report positive results; Humates and other amendments recommended at much lower rates than OM contents require may improve structure and nutrient availability; Be skeptical!

25 Fungi and bacteria are ubiquitous in soils and increase if available substrates (organic materials) are present; Applying compost or manure brings microbes along; Applying inoculants without substrate might be waste of money; Try novel amendments as controlled trials: compare areas with and without materials in same year under same conditions.

26 Conclusions Amend only to recover original conditions; Soil test to compare adjacent undisturbed site to reclamation site; Pay attention to surface horizon, usually top 2-33 inches; Compost is the best amendment to recover fertility for rangeland plant establishment and can be applied at economical rates.

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