“Learning by doing is more memorable” (Field et al., 2011).

The inaugural Australasian Soil Judging Competition, Wanaka, 11-12 December, 2016.

Authors: Carol Smith, Lincoln University; Sam Carrick, Landcare Research, Lincoln. (previously published in NZSSS Soil News issue 1, vol. 65, Feb 2017)


Soil judging has a long and distinguished history in North America; first initiated in 1961 and held annually at a different host institution each year. Institutions compete first within regions, with the winning regional team heading to the National Championships.  This year the Nationals are being hosted by Northern Illinois University in April. Recent winners have included Virginia Tech, Kansas State University, West Virginia University and University of Maryland. In North America, soil judging is taken very seriously and is seen as a key component of the soil science curriculum and an important part of the graduate attributes of all soil science graduates. There is stiff competition to be selected into the soil judging team, and team members train weekly during the competition season.

But what exactly IS soil judging and why should we care about it here in New Zealand? There is certainly more to soil judging than just “pedology by stealth”. We would all agree it is advantageous for every soil science graduate to be able to describe a soil at a basic level and from this, to make some interpretations therein: whether for land use, fertiliser recommendations, nutrient fluxes, irrigation scheduling or waste disposal.

We teach soil science in a changing world. Students who study soil science increasingly do so as part of other allied disciplines like agronomy, environmental science, horticulture; and often at an introductory level. But there is also an increasing need internationally for graduates with soil science expertise. A wide-ranging study of teaching soil science around the globe found that the initial focus of soil science teaching is geared towards capturing the attention of the student, and is then followed by courses that deepen that knowledge (Hartemink et al., 2014). Moreover, these global studies have shown that a field component remains vital in our soil science teaching – both at the introductory and advanced levels. Students like learning in the field; it helps them to comprehend soils as not only part of the landscape but also part of a functioning ecosystem. In the field, there is more time to think and to interact with staff so that learning occurs at a deeper level. In a study of graduates who had majored in soil science (as part of a larger study of soil science specific teaching principles) the most effective learning activities reported were: field work (43%), laboratories (36%), tutorials/group discussions (11%), followed by lectures (8%), presentations/assessments (7%) and writing reports (5%) (Field et al., 2011). Clearly, field based learning can only help students in their soil science studies.

And so the conversation started in Australia. The inaugural Australian soil judging competition was held in Tasmania in 2012, organised by Stephen Cattle (U. Sydney) and the 1st international soil judging competition was held at the World Congress of Soil Science in Jeju, S. Korea in 2014. At Jeju, Stephen Cattle suggested…” let’s see if we could get a joint Australian- New Zealand soil judging competition going at the 2016 conference…”. And so it began.

Part I Venue identification.

Organising a soil judging competition takes time. The key part is to identify a suitable location/venue, with the right mix of soil types, access for vehicles and diggers, a friendly landowner and in close proximity to the conference. While there are many stunning single locations of soil types and iconic landscapes around Wanaka and Queenstown, to find them all on one site is rare. We identified a potential site in Wanaka in 2015, which would also work as part of the field trip for the Joint NZ Society of Soil Science and Soil Science Australia “Soils down under” Conference. Fortunately it tied in with S-Map work that Sam Carrick was helping Chris Arbuckle (Aspiring Environmental) with. Chris was working on a Beef and Lamb Land Environment Plan project for a suite of iconic high country stations around Lakes Wanaka and Wakatipu. Through this, Chris was able to draw on his good relationship with Mt. Burke Station, Wanaka; both through the landowner Tim Burdon, and Grant Ruddenklau, the Mt. Burke farm manager, and owner of the adjacent farm. In April 2016, trial pits were dug and sampled for the necessary chemical and physical characterisation that is required to be provided to competitors at the competition.

Part II. Event management.

With no previous soil judging competitions having been held in New Zealand, we turned to the information available from America and Australia. It was reassuring not to have to reinvent the wheel, we just had to tweak it to fit the New Zealand model. Which soil classification to use? With teams from North America and Australia, should we use all three? Previous international competitions had used either Soil Taxonomy or the World Reference Base. The Australian Classification struggled to key out the New Zealand soils, and it was agreed by all the competing teams that sticking to the New Zealand Soil Classification (NZSC) was the way to go.

Expressions of interest allowed us to start socialising the competition in NZ and Australia. Chris Baxter of University of Wisconsin-Platteville (UW-P) contacted us early on seeking an opportunity to visit New Zealand with his soil judging team and to learn more about our soils and landscapes at the same time. It also proved a wonderful opportunity to learn from his extensive knowledge of competitions in the USA. Referring to the extensive Australian and American resources, we drafted out a competition manual and scoresheet. Much feedback from the other team coaches allowed us to refine it. We based our manual on the 2015 International soil judging competition in Hungary and the 2015 Australian competition. Being an open book competition, teams would refer to the information in the manuals. We now had 13 teams from 11 institutions confirmed – including students from University of Western Australia. Teams came from University of Wisconsin-Platteville, University of Sydney, University of Southern Queensland, University of Queensland, Queensland combined team, University of Melbourne, University of Western Sydney, University of New England, University of Waikato, Massey University and Lincoln University.

Part III. Event week.

With the event kicking off with a practice day on Sunday 11th and the competition on Monday 12th, we had 2 days to prepare the venue. The 1st emergency was the prearranged digger driver cancelling at the last hour. In true high country hospitality, Mt Burke came to the rescue with their local contacts to arrange a hire digger, and lent us a staff member for 1 ½ days to excavate the pits. This was an amazing gesture for which we are truly grateful. While the digger driver was excavating T-shaped trenches, a small band of helpers beavered away beautifying the profiles, taping off restricted areas and putting up signage. An empty silage pit proved an ideal sheltered spot for the competition control tent, away from the NW winds. Our official judges spent the day evaluating the soils, with Richard Doyle from Australia, and Alan Hewitt representing New Zealand. Their role was as the official arbiters of the pedology – confirming the soil profile descriptions that the competitors would be scored against. Finally, with the arrival of the portaloos, we were all set for the team’s arrival.

Setting up an event page on Facebook allowed us to rapidly post progress on the competition, photos of the live action, and for teams to post and comment as well. Communication is an important part of science and we interacted with the conference communication with Trish Fraser sharing Facebook posts and tweeting throughout the competition.

Part IV. Practice day.

One thing we could not organise beforehand was the weather. But under blue skies, light winds and warm, sunny conditions, over 60 competitors from 11 institutions gathered at Mt Burke station on Sunday morning. Teams consisted of 4 to 6 students, plus a team coach. The purpose of the practice day is to allow the teams and coaches to become familiar with the landscape and the range of soils that would be in the competition pits. For the competition, the teams were on their own, with no help from the coaches. The soils at Mt Burke station are dominated by glacial sediments of Last Glacial Maximum age (LGM), sourced from glaciers which were once occupied by the present day Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are remnants of older surfaces of Q4 age (older dissected fans: Bourke soils) in the upper valley. Holocene alluvial and colluvial fans, as well as terraces and floodplains complete the landscape, while active landslides contribute to the topography. The valley floor of Mt Burke station (where the competition was located) is dominated by LGM glacial outwash surfaces and moraines. These comprise young fans (Q2 age; Maungawera soils) and actively aggrading fans (Q1 Holocene: Speargrass soils). LGM aged moraines (Maude soils) complete the picture. Loess provides depth to some of the soils. So, the soil landscape consisted of low angle alluvial fan systems, with soils ranging from shallow stony to deep, fine textured soils. Venue access and soil-landscape location narrowed our choice of soil types we could use in the competition. This resulted in a focus on the variability of the soils associated with the Q2 young fans, which still offered contrasting soil profiles, which would still test the ability of the teams.

The practice day allowed the teams to get familiar with the venue landscape and soils, and to calibrate their field texturing: as the Australian, US and New Zealand soil texture triangles vary. Time management skills (in particular who does what in the team), are vital. For the competition day, the teams had 60 minutes per pit, with two pits to describe in the morning. The individual competition in the afternoon consisted of one pit, and competitors were allowed 1.5 hours. Teams had to complete a scorecard by describing the site characteristics and soil profile morphology; and to then estimate certain soil profile characteristics such as hydraulic conductivity, effective soil depth and estimate soil drainage class. They also estimated from their soil descriptions the soil water holding capacity. When teams were “out” of the pit, they could complete other tasks on the scoresheet such as texture, colour and structure on the samples they collected from the pit face (Figure 1). A further step was to check against a table of suitability interpretations for 3 different land uses, and assess suitability of each soil for that land use. Finally, they had to classify the soil to sub group level in the NZSC. Time management skills were just an important as soil skills, as the teams rotated in and out of the pit during the official practise time. In for 5 minutes, out for 5; in for 10, out for 10 and then the last 30 minutes was a free for all with any team members allowed to enter the pit. A pit monitor made sure teams entered and exited the pits on time and abided by the competition rules.


Figure 1: Competition day: University of Western Sydney completing their profile description while out of the pit.

Teams circulated between two pits (one stony and shallow, one deep and fine textured) and the (empty) silage pit (Figure 2), which proved a useful cross section of the alluvial fan land surface. There were some great discussions in the practice pits. For us this was where much of the value in the soil competition was: teams and coaches focusing intently on soil and really “drilling down into the detail” of profile description and observation. It was very intensive (almost “immersive”) pedology, and clearly learning was taking place at a deeper level, just as envisaged by Field et al. (2011). The evening of the practice day, we hosted a BBQ in Wanaka. A social event is always encouraged at soil judging competitions, and it allowed the teams and students to relax and network before the competition the next day.


Figure 2: Practice day. Sometimes you have just got to use the natural exposures: Massey University and University of Southern Queensland in the silage pit, discussing the finer points of soils developed on alluvial fans.

Part V. Competition day.

Slightly cooler and overcast conditions met the teams in the morning. Teams were by now well versed in “pit etiquette” with our pit monitors Judith van Dijk (Lincoln University) and James McFarlane (Curtin University) keeping order at the competition pits. The team pits were a Maungawera deep silt loam (Pallic Orthic Brown; Figure 3) and a contrasting stony Maungawera shallow silt loam (Typic Orthic Brown, Figure 3). The individual competition after lunch saw over 30 competitors in the pit, with many finishing well within the time limit (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Competition Day. Top left: Maungawera deep silt loam (Pallic Orthic Brown). University of Sydney, University of Queensland, Waikato University and University of Melbourne all in the pit. Teams were allocated one of the two profile faces in the trench; Sydney and Melbourne describing the profile face in the foreground. Top right: Maungawera shallow silt loam (Typic Orthic Brown). Lincoln University team deep in thought during the 30 minute free-for-all. Bottom: Individual Soil Judging Competition. Maungawera moderately deep silt loam (Pallic Orthic Brown).

As soon as the first team pit was completed, the judges started marking the scorecards. The role of the official judges from each competing country was to confirm the soil profile description in the competition pits and also to oversee the marking. Alan Hewitt and Richard Doyle performed these roles admirably, and freely gave of their time to help at the competition, which was much appreciated. It was a marvellous opportunity for many of the students, especially from Australia and USA, to have the architect of the NZSC present at a soil judging competition. While the students relaxed and unwound after 2 days of intense soil competition, the marking work was in full swing for the judges back at the control tent, aided by the team coaches and Roshean Woods. With the venue being dismantled around them, the markers retreated to the Millenium Hotel in Queenstown to complete the marking, at least for the team’s competition, so we could announce the winners at the Icebreaker function of the main conference with the individual winners being announced at the Conference dinner at the Skyline Gondola. Congratulations to all the winners !


Overall team:

1st:       University of Wisconsin-Platteville A

2nd:      Queensland combined

3rd:       University of Sydney

4th:       Lincoln University


1st:       Queensland combined

2nd:      University of Sydney

3rd:       Lincoln University


1st:       Queensland combined

2nd:      University of Sydney

3rd:       University of Southern Queensland

New Zealand:

1st:       Lincoln University

2nd:      Massey University

3rd:       University of Waikato


1st:                   Rebecca McGirr, University of Sydney

2nd:                  Bruce Tran, University of Sydney

3rd equal:         Brittany Iverson – University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Brandon Hall – University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Tia Koning – University of Wisconsin-Platteville

Top placed New Zealand Student: Josh Nelson, Lincoln University

While there are certainly areas we can improve on for the next competition, the inaugural soil judging competition in NZ ticked many boxes. It was an opportunity for students to participate in a valuable learning experience in a supportive environment, experience some “deep” learning in soil science and to network and meet peers. It was also an opportunity for the organisers to learn from the visiting Australians and also the American team. Chris Baxter of University Wisconsin-Platteville noted that in his experience, these soil judging competitions do encourage students into the discipline: the tactile and investigative side of soil judging is something that many students can excel in and the competition aspect makes it a fun activity. It engages their curiosity to learn more about soils, and it is a powerful recruiter to University soils courses and degree programmes. And certainly in agreement with Hartemink et al. (2014). We look forward to the next soil judging competition in Queensland in September this year, organised by University of Southern Queensland.

We would like to thank the following who helped us turn this idea into reality: Tim Burdon and Grant Ruddenklau, Mt Burke Station, Wanaka; Chris Arbuckle, Aspiring Environmental; Andre Eger and Alan Hewitt, Landcare Research, Lincoln ; Richard Doyle, University of Tasmania; Roshean Woods, Jen Owens, Judith van Dijk, Roger, McLenaghen, Lincoln University; James McFarlane, Curtin University. Also to Stephen Cattle (U Sydney) for his initial suggestion and ongoing support.

The competition also required funding support, and we would like to extend our gratitude to Ballance fertiliser company, Landcare Research, Aspiring Environmental, Mt Burke Station, and Lincoln University.


Damien J. Field, Anthony J. Koppi, Lorna E. Jarrett, Lynn K. Abbott, Stephen R. Cattle, Cameron D. Grant, Alex B. McBratney, Neal W. Menzies, Anthony J. Weatherley (2011). Soil science teaching principles. Geoderma, 167-168, 9-14.

Alfred E. Hartemink, Megan R. Balks, Zueng-Sang Chen, Patrick Drohan, Damien J. Field, Pavel Krasilnikov, David J. Lowe, Martin Rabenhorst, Ken van Rees, Peter Schad, Louis A. Schipper, Marthijn Sonneveld, Christian Walter (2014).  The joy of teaching soil science. Geoderma, 217-218, 1-9.

Article previously published: NZSSS Soil News issue 1, vol. 65 – Feb 2017

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