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Revisiting An Old Nemesis: Soil Salinity

I was in the university office a few days ago and the phone rang. In my heyday the phone rattled constantly, but is mostly quiet now as I am not there on any consistent basis. It was a farmer from southwest Saskatchewan who wanted help with engineering a drainage system to get rid of some salinity. A parcel of land was so saline that nothing grew but grass and his desire was to convert it to grain land and make some money from the land.

The call made me think of the late 1970s. At that time, phone calls like this were common. Grain prices were high, farmers were making money hand over fist, and land prices were that high and rising (see March 14 issue ofGrainewsto see what happened with all that).

It seemed a much better idea to spend money fixing up land you already owned than paying the high price for good land. And besides, drainage is a cash cost in the year you write the cheque so no need to send all the money off to Pierre (Trudeau, that is, Prime Minister of the day).

THE BEST LAID PLANS

We knew even at that time that drainage was not a quick fix, but much drain tile went in the ground — to the tune of several hundred dollars per acre. A drainage contractor kindly fixed me up with names of farmers who had tile-drained land and I followed up with some.

In one phone call the Mrs answered the phone. When she found out what I wanted she said “Oh, that lousy pipe in the ground!” There was $40,000 in one quarter section as I remember. It sounded like she would have been much happier with a new kitchen. Anyway, as always, the farmer had sucked it up and moved on to normal farming and gave me the legal location so I could have a peek.

The procedure to reclaim saline soil is well known. It involves two steps:

1) Drainage. Yes, tile drainage is still the tried and true start to reclamation, but it must be accompanied by:

2) Leaching, to flush the salts into the tiles and off the field.

BUT DOES IT WORK?

Photo 2 shows the only truly reclaimed piece of saline land that I know of in Saskatchewan. It is at the Irrigation Development Centre at Outlook. Terry Hogg is in the photo showing off the salt sensitive pulse crops growing in 1990 on a piece of land that was white crusts and Russian Thistles in 1986 when the tiles were installed.

After the tiles were installed barley was planted for several years. After harvest , usually early August, the irrigation system was run back and forth over the land until the power was shut off in September. The fresh irrigation

water washed the salts out through the tiles.

Please, do yourself a favour and investigate very carefully before spending big bucks on a something that will not fix the problem. And remember, all drainage requires a permit and dumping salty water on a neighbour is not tolerated.

Terry has written up the complete story about that project. The outlet for the drains was sampled and almost every molecule of salt accounted for. Terry is retiring from the feds after the plots are planted in May. His contribution to this line of work will be greatly missed.

Terry worked with us in the soil salinity program at University of Saskatchewan in the 1980s and made a huge contribution to our field work. Among other things he ran the field lab set up in a trailer to give us instant results so we knew what to do next. Congratulations, Terry and have a fun retirement.

Side note: The two photos in this article come from the book mentioned below.

J.L.(Les)Henryisaformerprofessorand extensionspecialistattheUniversityof Saskatchewan.HefarmsatDundurn,Sask. Herecentlyfinishedasecondprintingof Henry’sHandbookofSoilandWater”,abook thatmixesthebasicsandpracticalaspects ofsoil,fertilizerandfarming.Leswillcover theshippingandGSTforGrainewsreaders. Simplysendachequefor$50toHenry Perspectives,143TuckerCres,Saskatoon, SK,S7H3H7,andhewilldispatchasigned bookposte-haste

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It’s like the ‘70s — it seems a better idea to fix up land you already own

than pay high prices for new acres

About the author

Columnist

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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