Alberta Soil Quality Benchmark Sites

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Development of a province-wide network of benchmark sampling was initiated in the spring and summer of 1998 by the Conservation and Development Branch of Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD). Monitoring of these benchmark sites is part of the AESA (Alberta Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture) Soil Quality Monitoring Initiative. Initially, two goals were identified for this program. The first to determine the state of soil quality across Alberta and the second to determine the risk of change in soil quality with various management practices. A third goal to determine how soil quality integrates into environmental sustainability was added to the soil quality program strategy in 2001.

The main objectives of the fall benchmark sampling across Alberta are to:
  • provide baseline soil information;
  • evaluate landscape effects on soil quality and soil quality risk assessment;
  • provide a data set to test and validate simulation models (crop growth, wind and water erosion);
  • monitor changes in soil quality over time on a field landscape basis.
Site descriptions
Benchmark Sites were selected based on several criteria identified by the AESA Soil Quality Committee. Forty-three benchmark sites, representing 43 ecodistricts, were located within the agricultural area (white zone) of Alberta (Figure 1). The soil quality benchmark sites are representative of soil-landscape patterns and agronomic practices within each ecodistrict. At each benchmark site, sampling occurs at each of three landscape positions (upper, mid and lower slope positions). All sample sites were located with GPS (global positioning system) to permit future locating and sampling of the same sites.

The cooperators at each benchmark site agree to provide their past cropping histories and current annual agronomic practices including: crop rotations, tillage practices, crop seeded, fertilizers and herbicides applied, and harvest methods.

A detailed soil survey of the 43 sites occurred in the fall of both 1998 and 1999 by CAN-AG Enterprises Ltd. Soil profile descriptions to a depth of one meter and sampling of the major horizons for each of the three landscape positions were completed. Landscape descriptions were noted. How well the benchmark site fit the concept of its ecoodsitrict was also determined. These descriptions will provide baseline soil information.

Materials and methods
Sampling protocols were established for both plants and soils. Annual sampling of soils and vegetation will be carried out by Conservation and Development staff. Plant samples are taken at harvest time to determine total biomass and crop yields. Soil fertility sampling occurs each fall, after harvest of the crop, from two surface depths (0-15 and 15-30 cm). Samples are being archived.

A wide range of soil analyses have been carried out. The pedological samples were analyzed for soil texture, fertility, bulk density, salinity, acidicty, organic N and C, and inorganic C. Soil analyses for the fertility samples collected annually include fertility, mineralizable N, light fraction C and bulk density. Crop yields and plant analyses are also being done. Plant analyses include yield and protein content.

The information collected from the benchmark sites will provide the following:
  • detailed soil quality status on a range of soils across Alberta;
  • landscape effects on soil quality and soil quality risk assessment;
  • a cross validation data set across Alberta for soil quality modeling efforts;
  • temporal changes in soil properties at constant sites across Alberta;
  • soil, yield and management relationships.
This work was funded by the AESA Program. Assistance with site selection was obtained from the Conservation Teams from each of the AAFRD regions. The Regional Conservation Coordinators and Technicians help out with the soil quality benchmark sites by sampling annually for crop and soils, collecting management data, and using GPS in geo-referencing air photos and locating sites for the contractor to complete site descriptions.
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Len Kryzanowski.
This document is maintained by Laura Thygesen.
This information published to the web on October 18, 2001.
Last Reviewed/Revised on September 29, 2016.