How to Identify Your Property’s Soil Type

How to Identify Your Property’s Soil Type

There is nothing more important to a land manager than understanding what kind of soil you’re working with. Researching the soil types of your property can be done in multiple ways, some more in-depth than others.

The easiest way is to use the USDA Web Soil Survey. It’s an online soil database that covers roughly 95% of the country's soil, and you can have a map of your soil types in a matter of minutes. It’s very important to note that this survey will tell you your property’s soil “types” not “health.” This will explain the soil’s properties and composition, not the chemistry or microbiology. To learn more about testing your soil’s chemical properties check out this article.

Types of Soil

Soil is classified into four types: sand, loam, silt, and clay. They all have specific strengths and weaknesses, which can be magnified in different climates. These four soil classifications are made up of different-sized particles, from different origins. Although a soil can be just one type, it's extremely rare, so the soil on your property is likely to be a combination of a few types.

Clay soil is made of extremely tiny particles, which offer little air space and water infiltration. This tightly packed soil offers great water storage capabilities, but the lack of consistent water penetration can lead to dense compaction and limited plant growth. Clay can be beneficial in dryer climates, but can often lead to flooding when rainfall is abundant.

Sandy soil is made up of small particles of weathered rock. Although these rigid particles are extremely small, they are still substantially larger than that of the particles of silt or clay. The large size allows it to have the best drainage, but that also means that it can’t retain water and or nutrients, which plants need to survive.

Silt soils are right in between the particle sizes of sand and clay. Silt holds water more efficiently than sand but offers greater infiltration than that of clay. Silts fine particles lack structure which leads to a higher likelihood of erosion.

Loamy soil contains a relatively even combination of sand, silt, and clay. This makes it the most coveted soil type because it offers all of the advantages of all three prior types. Loamy soil also contains humus—non-living organic matter such as decaying plants and organisms—which greatly increases its fertility.

How to Use the Web Soil Survey

First, you’ll have to search “Web Soil Survey” in your search browser. After you click the USDA link, the next browser will have a green button that says “Start WSS” (which you’ll want to click). Or you can just click this link. After the page loads, you will want to find your property of interest. There are a few ways to search your property’s location on the left-hand side, but I usually just click on the map until it narrows into a reasonable focus.

Once narrowing the map, you will want to define your area of interest (AOI). You do this by clicking the AOI tab with the red square on the top menu and then clicking and dragging the outline to your property. I generally overlap the specific parcel I’m researching in the AOI just to have a larger perspective.

Once you have your AOI you can switch your top tab to Soil Map. This will give you a map of your soil types along with lots of specific information about your soil. It would be impossible for me to explain all of the features this website has to offer, so I suggest just playing around for a bit and learning on your own.

Squeeze Test

For a more boots-on-the-ground approach to identifying what soil type is on your property, you can use a simple squeeze test. To perform this, grab a handful of soil and form it into a ball. If the soil doesn’t form a ball, it’s sandy soil. If the ball forms but easily breaks apart it is likely loam or silt. And if the soil forms a tight, compact ball you can throw like a baseball, your soil is clay.

Because soils are more-likely-than-not combinations of the four types, you can further get your hands dirty and learn more with the ribbon test. By squeezing soil between your thumb and finger to form a ribbon you can determine the amount of clay in the soil. The longer the ribbon, the more clay. As you observe how the ribbon breaks, keep in mind that silt will tend to flake, and loam and sand will crumble.

Practical Use for Land Managers

After examining the map or performing a squeeze test, you'll be able to identify specific trends and correlations between the soil types on your property and the vegetation it supplements. Moreover, different soils have contrasting growing capabilities, and all plants have specific requirements to grow, so you can use this to your advantage. For example, if a species of tree is thriving on a part of your property, you can use the map to find the same or similar soil type and try to duplicate the stand. You can also use this to help find food plot locations.

Not all land parcels are created equal, and maybe you don't have tons of extremely fertile soil, so what can you do? Sometimes you can turn a weakness into a strength. For example, if you have soils with a high percentage of clay, you could use it to your advantage and dig a small watering hole. The slow infiltration rate of clay will work as a membrane and naturally hold water. Digging the hole in the base of a slope will help it naturally fill with rainwater. Or if you have super silty soils, planting perennials instead of annuals may be to your benefit so the soil always has a root in the ground and limits the erosion caused by yearly tillage practices.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article