Obviously, soils should be a key element of your land evaluation process. There are a few different ways to build an understanding of your property’s soil capacity.
Web Soil Survey: Soil Maps and Livestock Forage Capability
For a 10,000 foot view of your soil, check out the Web Soil Survey (WSS). The site provides soil data and information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey. It is operated by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and provides access to the largest natural resource information system in the world.
NRCS has soil maps and data available online for more than 95 percent of the nation’s counties and anticipates having 100 percent in the near future. The site is updated and maintained online as the single authoritative source of soil survey information. We say 10,000 foot view because the soil data is not intended to be parcel specific but to give a general overview of the soils in any particular area.
While NRCS soil surveys are an excellent tool for general farm, local, and area planning, onsite investigation is a smart next step. To identify the exact soils on different areas of your land, consider taking some soil samples at various areas around your land and submitting them to a soil testing lab. For more detailed information, contact your local USDA Service Center or your NRCS State Soil Scientist. If you want to take a full soil core, you can often borrow the tools you’ll need from your local Extension or NRCS office. While Montana State University no longer provides soil testing, they provide a list of soil testing labs you might consider.
Know Your Soils
This Cornell resource has information about soil testing and understanding climate as it relates to production farming a piece of land. While created for farmers in the Northeast, the information is broad and applicable to farming in Montana.
Finding, Assessing, and Securing Farmland
Pages 15-19 of this resource from New Entry Sustainable Farming Project outline things to consider while on a farmland visit, how to use the Web Soil Survey (WSS), definitions of farmland classifications, and information on zoning for agriculture.