Groundbreaking moments in soil: A look back on various advancements

Soil research at Michigan State University has a long, rich history — some milestones even predate the university's official establishment of a soils department in 1909.

Members of the MSU Soil Science Department gather in front of the Soil Science Building in the fall of 1968.

Soil research at Michigan State University (MSU) has a long, rich history — some milestones even predate the university’s official establishment of a soils department in 1909. For example, in 1863, R. C. Kedzie with the Department of Agricultural Chemistry at the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC) — the forerunner of Michigan State University— reported on projects closely related to soil science because they involved using fertilizers on corn and potatoes. And in 1868, MAC’s Manley Miles, who six years earlier had become the first professor of scientific agriculture in the United States, reported that soil variability was a significant problem on many plots. He proclaimed that “the results of a single field experiment on the application of manure cannot be relied on to establish any rules of practice.” That thought is still valid today.

The Soils Department was formed four decades later as part of the College of Agriculture. Joseph A. Jeffery, a native of Wisconsin who had been appointed an assistant professor of agriculture in 1899, was the first head of the department. Jeffery was the only department member until A. R. Potts, a member of the original Department of Agriculture, was appointed as an Extension field agent for the Soils Department and also the Department of Crops later that year. The Soils Department remained a separate entity until 1969, when it joined with the crops department to form the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Dale Harpstead came to the university as the chair of the combined department after serving on the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation as director of its maize improvement program in South America.

In 2012, the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences was merged with the Department of Plant Pathology to form the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. This realignment aimed to increase the focus on strategic platforms and improve administrative efficiency. James Kells, professor and former chair of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, became the chair of the new department.

The MSU Soils Department, under various monikers, has existed more than 100 years. During that time, faculty members have made numerous historic achievements key research areas that have helped build the foundation for today’s soil science research.

Soil Physics

Soil physics has been a major emphasis for scientists and engineers at MSU going back to the formation of the soils department. C. H. Spurway, who was appointed an instructor of soil physics in 1910, became a recognized authority in the management of greenhouse soils. His major contributions during his 35-year tenure included the development of simplified methods of determining available plant food elements. In 1911, G. J. Bouyoucos was the first Ph.D. hired by the soils department. His best known contributions to soil physics are his widely used gypsum moisture blocks, which bear his name, and the hydrometer method for particle size analyses.

In the 1960s and ’70s, A. Earl Erickson, a professor of soil physics, and Clarence M. Hansen of MSU agricultural engineering worked on techniques to retain water in sandy soils. They developed a machine to lay a thin asphalt layer under sandy soils to create a barrier to downward water percolation, which improved crop yields in those soils.

Another area of soil physics is water flow in unsaturated soils, which R. L. Kunze pursued in research. Joe T. Ritchie came to MSU in 1984 to assume the Homer Nowlin Chair in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. His groundbreaking research in agricultural physics with emphasis on soil-plant-water-atmosphere relationships led to the development of functional crop models for efficient use of water and fertilizer.

Soil Chemistry

Soil chemistry — how soil is affected by mineral composition, organic matter and environmental factors — has been widely researched at MSU. The growth of research on clay soils at MSU began in the 1950s with Max Mortland, who was at the forefront of identifying the physical and chemical relationships of clay minerals and soil organic matter, which prompted a greater understanding of how to increase and retain organic matter in soils. Mortland’s work was a precursor to the research on clay soils being conducted today at the university. Micronutrients in soils, especially the lack of micronutrients and their effect on soil productivity, are another long-standing area of research pursued by professors of soil chemistry including Boyd Ellis and Bernard D. Knezek.

Soil Genesis and Classification

Because of Michigan’s diverse soils, research in soil genesis and classification has been important to identify the soil resources of Michigan and determine their best uses. The type of soil often determines what crops grow best, whether home septic systems can be used, what engineering must be done to support roads and buildings, what trees can be successfully grown in agroforests, what plants would be successful to manage wildlife in their natural habitats, and a host of other uses. Over the years, MSU researchers have studied soils throughout Michigan and have helped to identify what soils occur where, what their properties are and why particular soils occur in the places they do.

Identification and characterization of the sandy Spodosol soils that occur throughout northern Michigan was a major undertaking of Eugene Whiteside, who came to MSU in 1949. Whiteside and his graduate student Don Franzmeier quantified the Spodosol soil order in the Universal Soil Classification System, which was developed in the 1960s. Kalkaska sand is an example of a Spodosol soil. It was first identified in 1927 and occurs in the area surrounding Kalkaska, Michigan. It was declared the state soil of Michigan in 1990. Whiteside also made significant contributions to how soil surveys are done. He developed techniques for updating soil survey work from many years ago that greatly increased the speed and efficiency of that work. After Whiteside retired, Del Mokma continued much of Whiteside’s work in soil genesis and classification research. Ivan “Ike” Schneider was responsible for working with the agencies doing the soil surveys throughout Michigan to help in the classification and interpretation of soils.

Environmental Soil Research

Environmental soil research is another significant area of specialized research. Conservation tillage, or no-till, was supported by MSU along with other universities beginning in the 1920s. Soil management specialists Ray L. Cook and L. S. Robertson, whose careers spanned more than 50 years, strongly supported this idea. Before their work, the principal mode of operation on a farm was turning everything under with a plow, which left the soil susceptible to erosion. Cook and Robertson believed it would be more productive to leave crop residue on the soil surface because the no-till technique conserves water, reduces erosion and uses less fossil fuel and labor to grow crops. It’s a practice that is encouraged today by researchers and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is becoming more popular with farmers.

Lloyd M. Turk, who came to MSU in 1932 and remained for 32 years, believed that good management of soils was essential to help feed the growing population of the world, and his research centered on that. Richard Harwood, the first holder of the C. S. Mott Sustainable Agriculture Chair, established the Living Field Laboratory at the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station near Gull Lake in 1993. The project was designed as a long-term study of the potential benefits to the soil of including cover crops in the rotation cycle of corn. The first crops were planted in 1994. The field project wrapped up in 2014, though results are still being compiled.

Soil Fertility and Soil Testing

Research on soil fertility and soil testing began aiding farmers in the 1920s, when a soil fertility train was a cooperative project between the Soils Department and the New York Central Railroad. Samples of both soil and marl (lime-rich mud or mudstone) were tested while farmers waited for the test results. In the 1930s, soil testing was a major Extension project. A mobile soil testing laboratory in the back of a stake truck made it possible for farmers to have soil and marl samples tested and brought exhibits on soil test interpretation and soil management that they could study while the samples were being tested.

In the 1940s and ’50s, John “Fred” Davis was one of the first to identify the deficiency of zinc in the soil of the Thumb area of Michigan. Eugene Doll, who came to MSU in 1960, worked on soil fertility in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Professor and Extension specialist Darryl Warncke (1972-2009) was the research coordinator for the MSU Muck Soils Research Farm and the supervisor of the MSU Soil Testing and Plant Analysis Lab, a precursor of today’s Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory. Warncke is widely recognized for his expertise in the soil fertility and plant nutritional requirements of vegetable crops grown on both organic and mineral soils.

MSU also is known for its work with turfgrasses and the work of professors such as Paul Rieke, who joined the faculty in 1963, improved the understanding of effective, safe fertilization of turfgrasses and management of compaction in high-use turfgrass areas.

Education in Soil Science

Numerous achievements in soil research continue today, but many of the faculty members who cut new paths to knowledge are most proud of teaching students about soil science. A number of faculty members wrote textbooks that have been used through many years. One example is Eldor A. Paul, a soil ecologist, who was department chair for 12 years. He was the editor of “Soil Microbiology, Ecology and Biochemistry,” a classic textbook that guides students through biochemical and microbial processes in soils and introduces them to microbial processes in water and sediments. Henry D. Foth, a professor ofsoils and soil geography, wrote the widely used textbook “Fundamentals of Soil Science.” The textbook, which is no longer in print, covered important national and international issues such as soil resource conservation, land use, environmental quality and food production. Whiteside excelled at educating and training international students so they could return to their home countries and carry on the soil resource work. Rieke estimates that, in his years at MSU, he taught around 5,000 students about the science of soils, stressing the importance of making good soil management decisions.

“The achievements of the past are inspiration to the faculty and staff members in our department today,” said Kells. “Their accomplishments, without the technology and specialized instrumentation available today, are most impressive.”

Did you find this article useful?

Other Articles from this Publication