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The salt patrol

Les Henry shares the story of the College of Agriculture’s “salt patrol,” an important part of extension service in the 1980s

November 1, 2012 marks 100 years since the University of Saskatchewan took in its first class of agriculture students. This old scribe has been at the U of S — as student, professor and professor emeritus — for 52 of those 100 years. A significant milestone for me was the “Salt Patrol” of the 1980s.

Before the “Salt Patrol”

In the 1970s, soil salinity was perceived as a huge problem — about to consume our farmland and put us out of business. My job was half extension so I was on the firing line at farm meetings. One of those meetings was at Moose Jaw with a large crowd in attendance. Johnny Hanson, the very capable Ag Rep, organized a full day program because of the severity of the problem. We all went out and spilled our guts with all we knew at the time, which wasn’t much.

Near the end of the day a question period was called. A very sincere young farmer stood up and said, “You told us what we already knew in language we could not understand and took all day to do it.”

The sad fact was that he was dead right. One thing I always liked about farm meetings — there was no need to read between the lines.

Farmer reaction drove my agenda.

Attacking the problem

On the drive home from that meeting I resolved to attack the problem. The literature had already been reviewed and it was obvious that a different approach was necessary. We just did not have a good handle on the fundamental causes. There were hints in the literature that perhaps deeper geology was involved.

It took 18 months to convince the powers that be, but funding was found to mobilize a “salt patrol” to go to individual farms, determine the specific cause of the problem and suggest solutions.

We did our homework before any field visit. Old air photos, soil maps, geology maps and water well records were compiled. The best source of information on individual quarter sections was the Municipal Assessment. At that time it was based on detailed soil examination and it was subject to an exam by the farmer. If the Assessor missed any salinity the farmer could appeal the assessment and have the salinity recognized.

At the site, we used an auger rig capable of drilling 43-foot holes. For deeper drilling we used contract water well drillers. Water well drillers are much like farmers — smart, hard working and determined to deliver the goods no matter what. I have huge respect for drillers and they served us in spades.

We had a lab trailer so we could do soil and water analysis on the spot. We also pioneered the use of the EM38 meter to make soil salinity measurements as we walked the field. EM38 meters are just now becoming available to make EM maps of fields to aid in farm management, particularly precision farming.

The first site, near Saskatoon, was easy. The auger solved it quickly. Gravel from a nearby pit extended underground to cause a small problem on adjacent land. The solution? Sell the gravel. The whole farm was not being consumed and other apparent salinity problems were actually eroded knolls.

The second site, at Shaunavon, was tougher. Our 43-foot holes showed precisely nothing. We engaged Earl Christiansen, geologist par excellance. He said we had the wrong equipment and wrong approach. He engaged Campbell Brothers Drilling from Swift Current. The answer lay at 53 feet — the depth of the Shaunavon Aquifer which had head (pressure) very near surface and was the cause of the problem. The answer? Plant the saline spots to grass and carry on farming the good land.

The rest, as they say, is history. We went on to analyze dozens of sites all over Saskatchewan. In the majority of cases, the answer lay deep.

The salt patrol days of the 1980s were a major highlight of the time this old fossil spent at the U of S. What a thrill it was to go out to farm meetings and wallpaper the town hall with soil and groundwater information. And, to finally have a credible answer to the question, “Where does the salinity come from?”

Saline ahead

The lessons learned in the 1980s are about to repeat themselves in the next few years. We have gone through a period of very wet years with a few years of big snow accumulations. The end result has been a “supercharging” of the aquifers that cause much of the salinity.

When the wet years are here we do not see the salts — they are dissolved and not visible. But when (not if, but when) the dry years come back, look out. White patches with no growth will spread like wildfire and many young folk will once again say “salinity is putting us out of business.” But, it is just Mother Nature doing her thing — normal climate cycles.

The ultimate solution to salinity is drainage and leaching, seldom practical in our environment. The best advice for seriously saline land is still “sell it in the wintertime.” †

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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