Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Montana State University - Home Montana State University Library - Home Ask the Library

Soil Research Guide

A guide to help locate soil surveys in Renne Library and online.

What is a Soil Survey?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Reserouves Conservation Service:

This definition is from the Soil Science Society of America:

soil survey - (i) The systematic examination, description, classification, and mapping of soils in an area. Soil surveys are classified according to the kind and intensity of field examination. (ii) The program of the National Cooperative Soil Survey that includes developing and implementing standards for describing, classifying, mapping, writing, and publishing information about soils of a specific area.
 

Expanded Definition and Uses
Soil survey, or soil mapping, is the process of classifying soil types and other soil properties in a given area and geo-encoding such information. It applies the principles of soil science, and draws heavily from geomorphology, theories of soil formation, physical geography, and analysis of vegetation and land use patterns. Primary data for the soil survey are acquired by field sampling and by remote sensing. Remote sensing principally uses aerial photography but LiDAR and other digital techniques steadily gaining in popularity. In the past, a soil scientist would take hard-copies of aerial photography, topo-sheets, and mapping keys into the field with them. Today, a growing number of soil scientists bring a rugidized tablet computer and GPS into the field with them. The tablet may be loaded with digital aerial photos, LiDAR, topography, soil geo-data-bases, mapping keys, and more.

The information in a soil survey can be used by the public as well as the scientific community. For example, farmers and ranchers can use it to help determine whether a particular soil type is suited for crops or livestock and what type of soil management might be required. An architect or engineer might use the engineering properties of a soil to determine whether or not it was suitable for a certain type of construction. A homeowner may even use the information for maintaining or constructing their garden, yard, or home.

How to Use a Soil Survey

From the USDA:

A soil survey is a detailed report on the soils of an area.

The soil survey has maps with soil boundaries and photos, descriptions, and tables of soil properties and features.

Soil surveys are used by farmers, real estate agents, land use planners, engineers and others who desire information about the soil resource

The major parts of a soil survey publication

Detail of soil survey map
  • Table of Contents
  • Detailed soil map units
  • Use and management and interpretive tables
  • Classification of soils
  • References
  • Glossary
  • Index to map sheets
  • Soil maps

Using the soil survey

  • Obtain a printed soil survey from the NRCS, USDA office, or local conservation office or access a Web version at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/survey/
  • Open the soil survey to Index To Map Sheets
  • Locate your area of interest or property on the Index.
  • The numbers in rectangles correspond to the map sheet number located in the second half of the publication.
  • Look at the aerial map closely and locate landmarks such as roads or streams to find your area of interest.
  • The lines on the image separate different soil types. Your area of interest may include one or more types.
  • The small letters or numbers that are within the same polygon as your area of interest, such as ScC, or KnC, or LaC designate a map unit. Note this map unit symbol. It is the key to finding information.
  • Turn to the Index to Map Units which shows the page where these map units are described. Also go to the various tables or reports which are organized by map unit symbol.
  • This process is simplified in Web soil surveys but follow the same sequence:
    1. Locate your area of interest of the maps.
    2. Note the map unit symbol.
    3. Go to the text or tables for information on that map unit.
  • If you find a term or soil description in the detailed information sheet on your soil and you would like to learn what that term means, go the Glossary section of the report. The Glossary is located in the center of the publication.

 

Using the soil survey - Tables

  • The Tables section of the soil survey report provides detailed information on soil properties and their suitability and limitations as well as management and production potential of the various soils.
  • The Tables section has detailed information on engineering index properties, physical and chemical properties, and soil and water features.
  • The Tables section also has detailed information on soil use, such as crops and pasture, recreation, and engineering.
  • To use the tables, simply remember your map unit symbol and find it in the appropriate table.