Soil mapping soon to be more usable

Digital platform provides access to information about Saskatchewan soils collected throughout the 20th century

The first phase of the Saskatchewan Soil Information System is expected to be launched for early 2018.

The SKSIS is a digital platform that stores and allows access to information on Saskatchewan soils collected throughout the 20th century, including soil surveys.

Angela Bedard-Haughn of the University of Saskatchewan said soil surveys are a great resource for making management decisions.

SKSIS will “improve access to this existing soil survey information, which was collected (through) thousands upon thousands of painstaking hours out in the field, and make it easier for people to use this information,” Bedard-Haughn said at the Saskatchewan Agronomy Update in Saskatoon Dec. 12.

Currently, it can be challenging for people who want to use information from provincial records.

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  • “It is available as PDF documents and lots of the maps you can download in a GIS format. But unless you’re really good with GIS, and you understand the inner workings of how survey information is set up, it’s really tricky to actually use this information,” she said.

    The usefulness of PDF files is limited for applications like landscape modelling and precision agriculture.

    Bedard-Haughn said it’s time to translate the information into a form that works better with the tools agronomists and producers use.

    The SKSIS uses base map information from the soil surveys and overlays aerial satellite images. Users can choose display themes, the transparency of the satellite imagery and also choose type to display.

    There are many ways users can filter the soil survey information to get a better sense of what’s happening on the landscape.

    “The bulk of the information that you can pick out of the soil surveys, that information is encoded here and you can sort through it and display it dynamically as you so choose,” Bedard-Haughn said.

    “Just by adding a little colour for the soil associations that have common properties, you can start to see a little more patterns associated with those areas.”

    Specific locations can be searched for by using township and range denotations, or through latitude and longitude.

    Users can click on a specific location and information about it will pop up in a box on the bottom right of the interface screen.

    “Surface expression, slope descriptions, stoniness, texture, ag capability and the salinity, so some of the things that tend to be most interesting to the typical producer,” Bedard-Haughn said.

    Registered users can upload new information to the site.

    “If you’re a soil nerd and you see a really cool profile and you just can’t wait to share it with everybody, you can actually upload it along with the spatial information of it, and that will show up as a point on the map. So when other people are interested in the soil in the area it will show up,” she said.

    Users can upload photos, or even geolocate studies that were performed in a specific area.

    SKSIS also aims to refine existing soil data with the use of digital soil mapping (DSM) techniques.

    “So the digital soil mapping techniques really allow us to refine soil type and property maps, better predict the landscape scale variability for management planning or for predictive modelling, and refining it is less labour intensive than going out and redoing the soil surveys,” Bedard-Haughn said.

    The soil survey information is now on a scale of 1 to 100,000 resolution (one centimetre on the map equals one kilometre on the ground), which is too coarse for most agriculture applications.

    Through DSM techniques, the SKSIS will hopefully have a one to 1,000 resolution, or better, and will be able to identify in-field variability.

    A high-quality digital elevation model is necessary when conducting digital soil mapping.

    “In some places, we have LiDAR (light detecting and ranging) flights that have been flown … that allows us to get a really high resolution digital elevation model. In a lot of areas in Saskatchewan we don’t yet have that information, but we can get it actually relatively easily now with drone technology,” Bedard-Haughn said.

    Last year, drones with LiDAR imagery were flown over three sites and statistical approaches were then used to select representative sample points on the field. Then soil sampling was carried out at those points.

    This mapping procedure produced a more refined soil map for the area that broke the field down into soil-type zones.

    Hydrological modelling was used to further refine the data.

    “I have another student that is looking at wetland soil mapping approaches. And so we combined his approaches that used hydrological modelling to look at how water is distributed across the landscape, to figure out where the wetlands would be on there, and then combined the two approaches to get the maximally accurate map or representation of that landscape,” Bedard-Haughn said.

    She said growers can use these soil maps with information such as yield maps to help manage inputs.

    “This refined data is designed to visualize the within-field variability. You overlay that with the yield, play around with it and you get a lot more powerful information for your decision making,” she said.

    Revisions to the SKISS website are still being done with feedback from users.

    The next step is to create a more refined soil map for the province based on information from the digital elevation models derived from shuttle radar.

    Semi-automated protocols are also being developed to help users upload information they’ve collected on their fields.

    “If you have flown a drone flight and you have point soil information for a piece of land, you can upload that, and with a little bit of interaction, develop one of those refined digital soil maps for a piece of land on your own as well,” Bedard-Haughn said.

    If funding permits, future plans call for incorporation of an application program interface to make it easier for other programs to interact with it.

    She said allowing the program to incorporate multiple types of information will make it a more collaborate space.

    However, she said there are challenges.

    “Some folks have concerns regarding privacy, information about their land being publicly available….

    “Certainly in the realm of precision agriculture, everybody has their own approach, and so there can be concerns of people knowing what’s going on in other people’s fields. That’s going to be a challenge,” she said.

    Much of the information the SKSIS uses is already publicly available, just harder to access.

    Producers who would like to participate in the projects as beta testers can email Bedard-Haughn at angela.bedard-haughn@usask.ca.

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