“Soil is the fundamental structure upon which our agricultural productivity rests,” says Harry Brook, crop specialist at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre. “Without knowledge of its components and restrictions, resources can be wasted or improperly used, resulting in disappointing crops or even reduced productivity.”

The Alberta Soil Information Viewer is a database compilation of detailed soil maps for the entire agriculturally active parts of the province of Alberta. It provides aerial photographs taken at 3 different time periods - 1999, 2010 and 2015. The viewer allows anyone to access the soil types on the land and to zero-in on the landscapes where those types can be found.

“The viewer is used by those in real estate to obtain the soil quality rating to sell or buy land,” he adds. “It has been used by producers looking at expanding their land holdings or contemplating buying land where they need some measure of potential productivity. Reclamation groups use it to help recover disturbed or industrial land and put it back to a productive, agricultural state. There are many other applications this information is used for, and we have only scratched the surface.”

He uses rural real estate as an example. “The viewer will provide a first level view giving a numerical productivity rating for the land. If you dig deeper it gives the soil group and soil name, and yes, they all have names. At the most detailed level you can get a description of each soil layer, its texture and thickness, as well as other special characteristics and limitations. It is a useful diagnostic tool in determining soil-based restrictions to production or to help troubleshoot problem areas.”

The viewer contains a number of useful features including a measuring tool to mark out a particular area in a field and high-resolution photo magnification. It can measure linear distances and area in square feet, hectares or acres. It also includes the GPS coordinates to allow for ground truthing of the selected area. Another recent feature is the ability to chart detailed, topographic height changes along any drawn line, which can be useful in drainage issues.

Brook adds that the program can also be used for planning purposes and can be used to mark out buffer zones along a designated line.

“It is a great tool to use in developing an environmental farm plan. Best of all, everything you do on the screen can either be downloaded to a spreadsheet or printed out. It is a powerful tool for planning and analysis.”

The viewer can also be used as a search tool to find a specific type of soil in a given area.

“For example,” says Brook, “If you want to identify the best and most productive soils in an area, you would search for #2 soils, which are the best soils we have in the province. The viewer can reveal all quarters where that soil exists.”

“It is a terrific tool to be used for agricultural production and that utility extends to industrial and other uses,” he adds. “As with any tool, it can help in the interpretation of soil for a multitude of uses, but it is still not a replacement for intimate knowledge of soils from people who directly farm a piece of land. However, it is still the next best thing to having your boots in the field.”