Indiana Farmers Farm the Soils God Gave Them

Hoosier Perspectives

Soils judging escapades uncovers big difference in soil types.

Published on: September 27, 2010

Have you ever heard the expression, 'Play the hand that God dealt you?' It certainly applies when it comes to the variation in soils within this one medium-sized state- Indiana.

I do volunteer work and coach soil judging the six graders through seniors in Johnson County. I've got a big crop this year, with 21 judgers participating in practices and contests. We've been from Otterbein to Jasper, Ind., with stops near Morgantown and Franklin along the way. Before we're done, we'll check out soils in Edinburgh, Shelbyville and Acton along the way.                                            

You haven't lived until you've survived six hours I on a bus with a dozen middle school students, all wound up on energy drinks and sugar from candy. I always thought girls were the ones you had to stop to let go to the bathroom. But our recent experience leads us to believe that boys have the tiniest bladders.

Anyway, we've seen diversity in soils over the past few weeks. If you're going to farm east of Otterbein you're still dealing with timber soils. Till them or not-till them- you're choice. Tile should be your friend. Many of these soils are naturally wet, but very productive if drained. This can be the land of 200 to 260 bushel corn. The soils are deep and typically sustain enough moisture to keep on going when it gets dry. That theory got a good test this year. West of Otterbein are prairie soils, with even more feet of dark topsoil piled on top.

On the other hand are the soils we saw near Jasper in Dubois County. Bright brown soils with what Gary Steinhardt, Purdue University soils specialist, calls 'fragic' material. It might sound like tragic and it might be tragic, not fragic, if you don't know how to farm these soils.

Dense prisms of soil called fragipans form, impeding drainage. In some cases, bedrock in underneath the fragipan, maybe at only 40 to 45 inches deep. Slopes can range up to 13 to 18%.

We actually saw something I had never seen in my life- red bedrock. Officially, it's weathered- bedrock, most specimens of which are gray. Either kind forms a hard clay layer with brilliant shine that can shut down roots if it's thick enough. The last glacier simply didn't get this far, Steinhart notes. The soils are older, and it takes someone who knows how to manage against soil erosion and how to fertilize well to raise a crop on them.

We've also happened across soils with gravel at 30 inches and even a field with gravel and sand at 10 inches deep.

There's the old saying that anyone can farm good land, but it takes a real farmer to eek out a living on poor soils. I'm not bashing anyone- farming is hard work and a tough business no matter what type of soil you have. But if I had my choice, I'd leave the rolling fields of bedrock and fragipans where they are, and opt for more nearly level, productive, dark soil. Add drainage to it and get ready to pull down good yields year in and year out.