Les Henry: To own a piece of ground

How to learn about a piece of ground before you see it

Shown here is a FlySask air photo of subject land taken about 2008. That was a drier period and shows nice flat land with no obstructions and perfect for farming as a half section unit. What we see in the photo fits with the soil survey and assessment data (i.e., no sloughs). The soil survey was done in the 1960s when it was dry.

To own a piece of ground,
To scratch it with a hoe,
To plant seeds and watch the renewal of life,
This is the commonest delight of the race,
The most satisfactory thing a person can do.

Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900)

That piece is the introduction to Chapter 4 of Henry’s Handbook. I do not remember where I found it but it means a lot to me.

When you are ready to buy or rent a piece of ground, how do you find out what it might do for you? If it is a quarter you have driven by for years, you probably have an idea what it will grow, but that depends on management.

If it is some distance away from home base, be careful. Just because it is level, with few visible stones, does not mean it will grow good crops. It could be a pile of sand that will burn up crops as soon as a dry spell comes along. Parts of it could be salty and cause huge production problems.

Most of my early years, I was always in the market for land but with limited resources to buy. Eventually we owned five quarters, but have since sold two. When a quarter(s) was listed, I went through a process to determine if it was worth looking at in person. What follows is that process.

In the Jan. 7, 2020, issue of Grainews there was a sidebar that showed winter combining on N ½ 26 Tp 30 R 14 W3rd near Rosetown, Sask., and not far from where I was raised. For me, it was almost a reflex reaction to look up what kind of land that was. Here are the results.

Soil maps

The first step is to check out the very old, general, but classic, “Saskatchewan Soil Survey Report No. 12.” It showed Elstow silty clay to silty clay loam on fairly level topography with few stones. Elstow = dark brown soil zone and lacustrine (glacial lake deposits). So far so good.

The second step is to check out, “The Soils of the Rosetown Map Area: 72-O,” which has more detail with field mapping done in the 1960s. Thanks to Angela Bedard-Haughn (University of Saskatchewan, Soil Science) that information can now be accessed online. Just type SKSIS into Google and it pops up and you can search easily by legal land location.

The extra detail showed that the NW quarter was not quite as level and upper slope positions had less topsoil (calcareous/limy).

The big asset with SKSIS is the user can peel back the coloured, soil-mapped areas to reveal an air photo. The limitation is the date of the air photo is not listed. In this case, it must have been Sept. 9, 2016, because it is the same as a Google Earth air photo of that date.

Municipal assessment

In my land search, the next step was to check out the municipal assessment data for the specific quarter section(s). The old assessment was very good for soil salinity because it was subject to examination. If the assessor missed salty soils, the farmer could appeal and have the assessment lowered. If the old assessment data turned up with no warts, it was time to go and have a look.

Before computers, the individual quarter section assessment sheets had a map that was prepared by hand in the field when assessment was done. I still have access to that source on microfiche (what’s that, say the kids) and do consult it. Paper copies are at the U of S archives, but have yet to be scanned and made easily accessible. They will scan individual parcels on request but that is cumbersome and slow.

In Saskatchewan, the current Saskatchewan Assessment Management Agency (SAMA) has the current assessment values and the detailed soils information that was gathered in the field. I use it often and it is very useful, but there is no map of the individual quarter section.

Water well maps

About this time, you might say, “Has this guy lost his marbles — what do water wells have to do with soils?” Read on!

In the days of soil salinity work at the U of S, we prepared water well maps for much of Agriculture Saskatchewan. The data is on a topographic map base with 25-foot contour intervals, so one can figure out how groundwater is moving and what impact it has on soils.

For N ½ 26 Tp 30 R 14 W3rd, the water well map shows the following: on SW 26, there is an old well that was 400 feet deep with water level at 200 feet. That would be soft water from the pre-glacial Judith River Formation. Not far north of the site is the Eagle Creek Valley, which is 150 feet below farmland elevation.

The deep aquifer drains to that valley. There is a large downward gradient to keep water flowing downward and it exits as subflow to Eagle Creek. I know that to be the case because I have measured electrical conductivity and hardness of Eagle Creek water flowing when there has been no runoff rain for many weeks. The creek flow at that time is discharge from the deep soft water formation. The water chemistry, which can be measured in the field, tells the tale.

Nearby there are a few wells approximately 100 feet deep that also have low water levels. That is a glacial aquifer that runs in that country. I was raised on water from that kind of aquifer — hard as nails and lots of iron. The aquifer at this location will be draining as springs along the Eagle Creek valley sides.

Yes, Virginia, water well data can tell you a lot if you know how to interpret it. In this case, it tells us that internal deep drainage is good and soil salinity will not be a problem.

Photos from the air

The big advantage in recent years has been the availability of air photos and satellite images.

In Saskatchewan, we have FlySask (flysask2.ca), which provides actual flown air photos for different years. Not all areas have all dates, but there is now enough to be very useful. At FlySask, a search by legal land location is a breeze. Google Earth also provides various dates of imagery but legal land location is not directly accessible.

So, you see, if you are considering the rental or purchase of a piece of ground, there is a lot of information that can be obtained before you ever set foot on it. Nothing will take the place of a site visit, but with all the information that is now available, after a few mouse clicks there should be no huge surprises when you arrive at the corner of a “piece of ground.”

This is a Google Earth photo from Sept. 9, 2016. That is the same photo that shows up with SKSIS. The years 2010-2016 were wet and sloughs are evident. Slough drainage will be impeded only by the heavy texture of the deep subsoil, but drainage will happen on a continuous basis. That means soil salinity is not a factor and will not be even in wet periods. The sloughs can mess up farming activities in excessive wet periods and that is only evident with air photos from wet periods. I was raised in that country and we never complained about too much rain. A few sloughs were better than dust! photo: Supplied

About the author


Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.



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