SDSU students get down and dirty

Erin Beck

Soils judging team is on the road to nationals after placing fourth at regionals

For many people, soil might just be dirt that you track in on your shoes, but for the SDSU Soil Judging Team, dirt has a more competitive edge.

Led by coach and professor Dr. Doug Malo, the Soil Judging Team qualified for the 2013 National Soils Contest by placing fourth at the Region 5 Collegiate Soil Judging Contest held at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo.

According to Malo, participation on the team starts with signing up for the class. Soil judging is offered each semester as a one-credit course. A student can rack up a limit of three credits over the semesters, and, if still interested, can sign up for an independent soils course, in which they will continue on as part of the team.

“As a future agronomist, learning about soils is critical in understanding crop health from the roots up,” said Shaina Sabel, a senior agronomy major in her fifth semester of soil judging. “Being a member of the soils team also helps build team work skills as well as individual confidence.”

Soil judging consists of two seasons, with a regional fall contest and a national spring competition. In the fall SDSU competes against other regional schools from South and North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.

The actual competition is split into two segments. The individual half focuses on students independently describing soils and their properties. The other half involves the whole team working together to describe two to three different soils. Team members are given just one hour to properly classify and identify soil properties. The overall school scores and placings are determined from both individual and team performances.

“The judging itself is quite challenging and involves a great amount of understanding and analysis of soil characteristics,” said Tyann Slepikas, a senior agronomy major who is completing her third semester on the team.

While the team is limited to a number of 10, at nationals the competition becomes more intense, with only four individuals from each team allowed to compete in the individual portion. All members get to travel to nationals, as all compete as a group in the team division.

Whether the competition is taking place in Oregon, South Dakota or Georgia, the basic procedure is the same. A pit is dug, and the team members then analyze the soil horizons.

With five to six layers of soil to examine, team members have a detailed score card to fill out in relation to each soil horizon. Descriptions regarding texture, color, moisture consistency and soil structure are all key components. Judging also requires tools to examine the soil, each with its special purpose. Muffin pans are used to collect samples, with knives and rock hammers to loosen the soil.

“It’s all outdoors, rain or shine,” Malo said. “We’ve been in snow, we’ve been in rain, we’ve been in sleet; it’s all kinds of weather.”

Students are allowed to use guidebooks and color books during competition as references, but Malo said that team members need a thorough understanding of soils in order for the guidebooks to be useful.

Team members are also expected to analyze soils based on the hydrology of the soil, including how easy it is for air and water to move through the soil. Malo described dry soil as bright in color, while wetter soils are more dull and gray in tone.

Characteristics of the site where the pit is located is another factor team members must take into consideration. Team members are expected to calculate the slope as well as the degree of runoff as part of the geomorphology of the site.

The scorecard also includes soil classification. Students are required to learn a whole new set of terminology regarding the taxonomy of the soil. With this section complete, team members finalize their scorecard by determining what the soil would be useful for – whether it be septic systems, golf courses, crops or constructing basements.

“I like to study soil, so the hands-on aspect of learning soils from the different regions is exciting and challenging,” said Amanda Koch, a junior agronomy major tackling her first semester of soil judging. “I will take away the ability to judge soil in ways that an average agronomy student or person can’t. I have also gained a deep appreciation for the care of our soils here and around the world.”

The SDSU Soils Judging Team competes at regionals every fall, and there are two national competitions they can move on to from regionals. If SDSU doesn’t qualify for the national American Society of Agronomy contest, then they pack up and head to the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture National Collegiate Soil Judging Contest, another national competition which doesn’t require the team to be a regional qualifier.

“If we had the money and resources and students, we could go to two different (national competitions) in the spring,” Malo said. “The reality is we can only afford to go to one. Depending on how the fall goes, we go to one or the other.”

With the extensive travel involved, soil judging is not cheap. Attending one competition, whether regional or national, takes about a week out of the semester. Traveling on the road, practicing at the new location and competing at the actual contest all contribute to time away from SDSU. The Students’ Association’s support with student fee dollars is a major part in the soil judging program’s success.

“We’re like a traveling team,” Malo said. “(The national competition) is the big NCAA tournament. That’s the way we look at it.”

Team members are taking away more from the experience than just dirt on their hands.

“Going on the trip was a great experience and has greatly broadened my understanding of soils that will benefit me in my career,” said Nathan Odegard, a junior agronomy major embarking on his first semester with the Soil Judging Team. “What I will take away from this experience is a better knowledge of soils and know that I was part of a great team.”

“I have greatly enjoyed my experience on the soil judging team,” Slepikas said. “You wouldn’t think that we’d that much fun evaluating soil profiles all day during the week-long contest, but we really enjoy it. Being on the Soil Judging Team has taught me a great amount about soil and landscape formation but has also given me a great way to challenge my mind and my abilities.”

Students that join the team come from majors all across campus, including agronomy, economics, range science and even nursing and pharmacy.

“I would recommend the soils team to anyone who has interest,” Sabel said. “You don’t have to be the soil whisperer to learn and have fun on the team. We take everyone as they are, and people usually find a strength to contribute. It’s an excellent opportunity to travel and meet people from across the Midwest and around the nation.”