Locate Your Best Food Plot Soil With This Free Online Data

If you’re seeking to improve habitat for whitetails, there’s a good chance you’ve mailed in a soil sample for analysis before applying lime or fertilizer to your food plots. This is a smart move that will quickly reveal missing nutrients, but other factors like soil type, drainage and depth can also substantially influence the productivity of the site — and which plants are suited to it. These factors become especially important when you are selecting sites for new food plots, planting deeper-rooted species like trees, or shopping for land. To fully understand the capability of your soil, you’ll want to dig deeper, starting with a look at freely available soil survey data for the land you hunt.

How to Dig Up Free Soil Survey Data

Since 1896, the US Department of Agriculture has conducted formal soil surveys across the country under the National Cooperative Soil Survey program with the help of many partners. Soil scientists dig holes to examine soil layers and correlate these observations with information about the land’s topography, the soil parent material, and the plant communities on the site. Using this information, soils are classified using standard procedures and mapped as they are expected to occur on the landscape. These maps are continually updated as more information becomes available.

These soil surveys, at one time available only in a series of printed and bound manuscripts, are now available online using the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Web Soil Survey.

Using Web Soil Survey, you can outline an “Area of Interest” on a map, such as a property you own or hunt, and the site will automatically generate a thorough Soil Resources Report, including a soil map and detailed information about the types of soil on the property. This tool is quick to use and offers valuable information, making it a step you shouldn’t miss whenever you are developing a deer management plan.

I recently generated a report for QDMA’s 150-acre National Headquarters site in Georgia, and I’ll use that as an example here to show you the easy steps for producing your own report. Review these steps first, and then I’ll share the link to the Web Soil Survey site after that.

When you first land at the site, you’ll click the big, green button labeled “Start WSS.”

Next, use the tools to zoom in on the map until you locate the hunting land you are interested in. Use the Area of Interest (AOI) tool highlighted in the image below to select the area. You can use the rectangle AOI tool to draw a simple square or rectangle on the map, or you can use the polygon tool to trace the borders of a property more precisely (When tracing a polygon, double click or control-click to close the polygon).

Once you have selected an Area of Interest, it will appear on the map in blue hatching. Click the “Shopping Cart (Free)” tab. Note: For readers who are GIS-savvy, an AOI can be imported from a shape file. See the options in the sidebar on the web page.

In the “Report Properties” sidebar, give your soil report a subtitle if desired, and choose which sections to include in the report under the Table of Contents. The most critical parts are the Soil Map, the Map Unit Legend, and the Map Unit Description.

Finally, click “Check Out” in the upper right of the screen. The “Get Now” option allows you to download the report immediately, whereas the “Download Later” option will send a link via e-mail for downloading. If you have enabled a “popup blocker” in your web browser, you may need to use the Download Later option anyway.

When you are done, you will have a complete report which includes a map like this one:

Ready to start? Click here to start creating your own Soil Survey report.

Interpreting Your Soil Survey Report

As you can see, the map will be labeled with abbreviations for the soil types that are present. The full PDF report you receive will include a legend that tells you the name of the soil types represented by the abbreviations, and it will tell you the total acres of that soil type in your traced Area of Interest. Each soil type is then described. Some of the descriptions and terminology may be Greek to you, but some of it will be obvious. “Farmland classification” is useful as it spells out the value of this soil type for farming. “Typical profile” tells you the soil type, such as sand, clay, loam, or combinations. “Natural drainage class” tells you if that soil is well or poorly drained. Depth to water table and frequency of flooding are also useful. All of this information can be used to identify ideal locations for food plots, tree planting and other habitat improvements. Got a food plot that is frequently flooded, too dry, too sloped, or just fails to produce quality forage? Consider a new location, and use your soil report to find it. Or, when planting trees, use your soil report as a guide to plant tree species in soil types they tolerate best.

According to our report, QDMA’s National Headquarters site features various sandy loams and clay loams, most of them eroded because of steep slopes that are also noted. Some of these soil types are indicated as good for agriculture, but we will have to choose food plot sites carefully to avoid slopes that can cause erosion and loss of topsoil.

To get the most out of your soil report, you may also want to show it to your county extension agent or other local soil expert for interpretation or advice.

The Web Soil Survey can give you a general idea of your soil types, but you should ground-truth your soil report by inspecting potential food plot sites and soils in person.

Next, Get Your Hands Dirty

Remember, soil surveys are just that: they are a sample-based representation of the resource. This means that there are areas where soil types are placed on the map based on factors like topography and known bedrock type even though no one actually sampled the soil there. You may also find some areas where soil survey data does not yet exist. So, while these maps can give a general idea of where each type of soil falls on most properties, you can add to this information by getting your hands dirty. Examine the soils yourself at sites that look promising to ensure they are deep, well-drained and likely to support the plants you intend to establish there. Shallow bedrock, steep slopes, or signs of frequent flooding are not good indicators.

Combined with the information from a mail-in soil nutrient test and a little bit of ground truthing, a soil resource report will give you a better understanding of your soil, leaving you prepared to boost deer habitat to the next level.

You can check the drainage of soil by examining its color at various depths. In places where the soil has remained saturated for extended periods, it will appear “mottled” with red and grey colors. In poorly-drained soils, mottling is found near the surface.

About Tim Russell

Tim Russell is QDMA's Young Forest Specialist in New York. Tim earned his forest resources management degree from SUNY-ESF and previously worked as a forest technician at Forecon Inc. and F&W Forestry Services, where he marked and scaled timber, inspected logging operations and conducted forest inventories. He and his wife, Amy, reside in Cortland, N.Y.