Badgers are in back in the (soil) pits

The Badgers burrow: (back to front) Erin Mellinthin, Gloria Ambrowiak, Logan Wells and Clay Vanderleest

Four UW-Madison soils students were really in the pits a couple of weeks back—up to their necks in fact—as they competed in a regional soil judging contest held in Richland County, hosted by UW-Madison.

Soil judging contestants have to come up with descriptions of the soils in a series of five-foot-deep pits dug various locations on the property, using technical terms to describe texture, color, structure, erosion class and various other features. Students compete as teams in one phase of the event and as individuals in another. Each school’s score consists of the total points from two group-judging pits plus total points from the three top students scores at each of four individual pits.

At each pit, the students get 50 minutes to describe the soil. Half of the students hop in for the first ten minutes, the other half for the second ten. This happens twice in the first 40 minutes. For the last ten, anyone can be in the pit.

This year there were nine teams in the regional contest, sponsored by the American Society of Agronomy. Other Wisconsin schools competing included UW-Platteville and UW-Stevens Pt. At stake: The top three teams go the national contest.

The team from Purdue took first place team this year, followed by those from Northern Illinois University and UW-Platteville. The team from Madison just missed third place, says Nick Haus, a soil science Ph.D. candidate who coaches the Badger team.

“Platteville beat us by 30 points out of 3000 possible points,” Haus says. “It’s too bad, but we just started our team. The UW-Madison hadn’t fielded a team for nearly 10 years. We just put one together last fall, when we finished dead last. So this is a big improvement.” The team’s participation was made possible by generous contributions from emeritus CALS soils faculty members.

Regardless of how they place, students learn skills that will be  useful to anyone who’s job requires being able to interpret the soil for practical use—installing septic systems, building roads or buildings, for example.

Characterizing soils is an important part of Haus’s own research. But the pits he works in aren’t as close as Richland County.

“My Ph.D. work looks at soil and climate change in Antarctica,” he says. “When we go down there, to monitor the soil, we do full technical descriptions and describe the taxonomy of the soil. Basically we’re measuring how soil chemistry may be changing over time in an area that is warming up faster than anywhere else in the world.”