Part 2: The Soil Judges of Oz – Competition Day

The day started out like any other, up at 6am, breakfast, coffee, coffee, coffee and then all tumble into the van. By the time we got to the meeting point on the University Campus in Toowoomba we were all pretty much awake. Awake enough to take a few pre-competition selfies! The teams were looking pretty snazzy in their green competition shirts, with the “Bedrockers” and “50 Shades of Greywacke” printed across the back.

As a small prelude before we get into the competition details I would just like to refer back to one of the Blog’s previous Soil Judging Articles written by  Carol Smith, Lincoln University and Sam Carrick, Landcare Research, Lincoln (read full article here). 

“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. 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.

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Thanks to our sponsors that made the whole thing a reality; FAR, Landcare Research, Ravensdown, NZ Soil Society of Soil Science, Centre for Soil and Environmental Research, LRS and Lincoln University.

Competition Day of the 5th National Australian Soil Judging Competition, all teams were loaded onto a bus and taken to an undisclosed location. Two soil pits for the teams and one for the individual competition.

The bus ride there was surprisingly quiet, the soil puns and witty comments of the last few days weren’t forth-coming. Everyone was preparing mentally for the challenge ahead.

Biggsy gave us a run down of the day and we were put into groups to rotate around the three pits. The day was windy but the sun was out, soon becoming a scorcher and giving the water spray bottles another purpose; they make great face misters.

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All the teams lined up before the competition kicked off. 65 competitors and coaches in total, with 12 teams representing 10 Universities across Australia and New Zealand!

First rotation of the day, Team “50 Shades of Greywacke” started at the individual pit where Josh Nelson, Verina Telling and Irene Setiawan competed, while team “Bedrockers” were at Pit #2 of the team soil pits.

The clock started and the count down was on, 90 minutes to complete a full soil description. Thanks to the practice over the last few months and especially the two practice days, we felt confident with completing the description within the allocated time. Teams swapped, 5 minutes in, 5 minutes out for the first 20 minutes, then 10 minutes in 10 minutes out, with the last 30 minutes being free entry for any team.

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Team “50 Shades of Greywacke” in Competition Pit #2.

Bedrockers were out for the first 5 minutes so the focus was on the surrounding land-forms, slope and surface condition an coarse fragments. A bit of entertainment was provided by one of the boys as he was looking at the soil surface condition surrounding the pit, promptly running back over to the tent after jumping a couple of foot into the air when he came across something rustling in the grass.

For the first 5 minutes in the soil pit, the focus was on defining horizons and boundaries so that the team “texturers” could get the samples to work into a good texturing bolus. Over the last two days we had been working hard to calibrate our fingers to the high clay content soil textures of Australian soils, lucky to find anything with less than 30% clay.

After filling out all the components of the score-sheet with 20 minutes to spare, we all descended into the soil pit to discuss all the aspects of our description, to confirm as a team that we were happy with our decisions. Thumbs up all round and we were ready for the next challenge.

Something that was noted by all through out the day was how much we had learnt over the last couple of practice days. Hands on exposure to new exciting Australian soils and how much they contrast to New Zealand. The knowledge we gained from the very helpful and encouraging organisers was absolutely priceless.

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One of the team soil judging pits on competition day, the left and right description faces marked out and measuring tapes in place.

The other teams returned from completing the individual pits and we were up. Having not entered in the individual pits competition at registration we were offered the chance to give it a go 5  minutes before it started. Camilla Gardiner and I (Sephrah Rayner) took this opportunity, even through all the practice had been focused on team work, it was worth a shot.

The individual competition was structured much the same as the team pits but all the components of the description were completed by one person. Sorting out our gear we jumped straight into it, juggling books, geo-picks, texturing bolus and petri dishes of dispersing samples, the 90 minutes flew by! I don’t understanding how timing 5 minute and then 10 minute intervals makes 90 minutes seem so short!

Coming out of the individual pit on our way back to lunch, an then the last pit of the day, we were slightly dubious as to the quality of our descriptions. The heat had also started getting to us, Camilla having cooked herself in the sun while contemplating all her texture samples one arm clearly much pinker in colour than the other.

Meanwhile “50 Shades of Greywacke” were completing their first team pit, with both teams off to complete their 2 and final team pit after lunch. Lunch break could have been a competition in itself, “how many people can you fit under 2 gazebos?”. Apparently  competition day was the hottest day in September on record since the 1930s and we were definitely feeling it.

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“50 Shades of Greywacke” hard at work describing the soil profile.

The final pit of the day was the most challenging as everyone was getting hot and tired by this stage. There was going to be a group discussion of the pits at the end of the day but due to the temperature this was called off and we all happily climbed back onto the air-conditioned bus to head back to Toowoomba. What a day.

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Home time. Everybody loving the air-conditioning after a hot day in soil pits.

Prize giving was held that evening, where everyone got to enjoy a well deserved cold beverage or two. While the New Zealand teams didn’t place in the team competition we did in the Individual competition! Camilla Gardiner taking out 1st place! Josh Nelson getting 3rd and Verina Telling getting 4th (6th in the ranking, but next after 3rd is 4th place still right?!)! Well done!

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Camilla Gardiner receiving her prizes for coming first in the Individual Soil Judging Competition

Congratulations to everyone who competed this year!

Individual Results:

University Individual name Ranking
Lincoln Camilla Gardiner
Sydney Karin Azzam 2
Sydney Riquelle Miller 3
Lincoln Josh Nelson
UQ Jason Choong 3
Lincoln Verina Telling 6
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Team “50 Shades of Greywacke” receiving their prizes for coming first out of the NZ teams. “Bedrockers” came 2nd! 😉

Team Winners:

Team Name Ranking
The University of Sydney 1
Team South Australia 2
Soil Sleuths 3
Soil Geeks 4

As noted at the NZ competition last year by Chris Baxter of University Wisconsin-Platteville 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.

We look forward to the next one! and what a line up there is! Next year there’s not just one, but potentially three competitions! The first in Brasil at the International Congress in Rio, then hopefully one in New Zealand at the New Zealand Soil Science Conference then one in Canberra, Australia!

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Comradery, companionship and competition! the perfect combination, all that and ‘expanding your horizons’ with great soils knowledge. Soil Judging is indeed the new NBA!

Expand your horizons, dig deeper!

Thanks once again to our sponsors who made this possible and all of the team that put the event together in Australia. New Zealand Sponsors were: FAR, Landcare Research, Ravensdown, NZ Society of Soil Science, Centre for Soil and Environmental Research, LRS and Lincoln University.

Sponors

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Camilla Gardiner, our Queen of Soils!

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A Field Trial has it’s Challenges

As part of my PhD project I am running a long term field trial. My project examines nitrate dynamics within the landscape continuum, along flow paths to surface and groundwater, using nitrate N and O isotopes to quantify nitrate attenuation, and apparent isotope fraction factors to differentiate N processes such as denitrification.

Aiming to evaluate the influence of spatial and temporal factors on nitrogen attenuation (N removal as through denitrification) with respect to New Zealand systems. Research data from a long-term field installation will allow the identification of temporal thresholds and trigger events for denitrification.

Sounds simple enough right? throw a few sensors in the ground at different depths and a bunch of ceramic suction cups and “hey presto”.

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Wrong. Add a couple of solar panels, batteries, cell modems, radios, aerials, two different soil types, SDI12 sensors, climate monitoring equipment; rain gauge and barometer. Okay now that you’ve got all that, put it 500 km away from where you’re based, throw in some nature, human and manufacturing error, along with poor cell coverage and now we’re being a bit more realistic.

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Set up started 6 months before the actual installation of the equipment, with funding, programming and calibration of equipment taking twice as long as expected.

Challenge #1: Funding

No explanation needed.

Challenge #2: Programming and Calibration

Programming and coding isn’t something that I’d had any experience with before. The extent of my knowledge was using AND, OR’s and IF’s in Excel, the usefulness of which cannot be dismissed, but when I was sitting in-front of a computer screen staring at more lines of letters and numbers than a bankrupt mans accountant, I knew it would be a steep learning curve.

The soil department’s Technician, Neil, took me under his wing and worked with me each step of the way (very patiently). As it turned out, I found this experience invaluable.

With technology advancing at the rate it is, taking this step into the world of programming, reinforced what a lot of us know already, that we need to keep up with it but we know very little. Lincoln University Soil Science Society’s motto is “Expand your horizons”, and seems very appropriate in this case, up-skill, expand those horizons. Technology provides so many opportunities for great scientific research, but to take advantage of this, we need to keep up and grow with it to use it effectively.

 

March saw the installation of the equipment. A week of digging and installing 24 sensors (oxygen, moisture and temperature) as well as 32 ceramic suction cups. This went fairly smoothly apart from one of the soils having more stones in it than you could shake a stick at, which promptly halted progress.

Challenge #3: Rocks, Stones and Pebbles

The oxidising a.k.a ‘stony as hell’ soil decided that it wouldn’t let go of the metal rod we were using to put the ceramic cups in place. This was the one rod that had to put them in, and it was the first try, so we needed it back. Digging by hand to unearth it, using a large jack and also trying to pull it out with the digger gave us no joy. One hour later, we got it out, but only by digging it all the surrounding soil out with the digger, bending it in the process. Now we were in search of an engineer that could straighten it.  Two hours drive later and $10 down, thanks to a very kind dude at the mechanics, we were back on site with a straight rod and all 32 ceramic suction cups yet to be installed.

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However to get around the rock, stones and pebbles issues we didn’t use it (the rod that is) to install the ceramic cups at this site. I hand dug, or more like, bashed, holes into the side of the soil pit with a crow bar to put the cups into and then we back filled it. At the other site they all went in easy as pie, thank goodness.

Okay. Set-up done, back to Lincoln.

Challenge #4: Communication

Data-loggers are great. You can hook them up to the national cell network and send your data back to where ever you wish, at what ever time and update them while 500 km away! Unless of course you have no cell reception…. then you have to make that 1000 km round trip again to install radio modems so that the site that doesn’t get cell reception can communicate with the one that does, via the radio routers, and send it’s info back that way. Fixed.

Note: Make sure your Yagi aerials are pointing in the right direction and are high enough to get the signal to the other one, so your radios can indeed communicate. If it’s not high enough, improvise and use a stick that you found near by as a temporary fix. Be sure to change the stick out to something more permanent before the forecasted 90 km winds hit!

Hot Tips: Bring an umbrella, great for those days you have no choice but to be in the field to fix something and the weather isn’t playing ball. Also, make friends with the locals. They make great company and provide entertainment in those moments where you have to stand around waiting for something (there’s a few of those), and don’t forget snacks! being in the field is hungry work.

Challenge #5: When it doesn’t rain in Southland….

So the aim of the game is to collect samples from the ceramic suction cups installed at the two sites. Sampling over a two month period to capture the seasonal winter wet up of the soil, and see the nitrate leaching break through curve.

But when you’ve been in Southland for 3 weeks, the weather has been stunning and your samples are only a couple of milliliters when you get any sample at all…it starts to be an issue (if I’m honest, I really enjoyed it, was great for tramping on the weekends).

The solution to this challenge was just patience. Week 4 proved to be more successful…. that’s also when the snow came, and the ground and ceramic cup sampling tubes started freezing…but that’s another story.

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Challenge #6: RATS!

“Rats like to chew things” the pest control lady at Environment Southland said as she looked at the leaky, cut up ceramic suction cup tubes that I’d brought back from the field trial site. Over a couple of weeks I’d noticed that some of the tubes weren’t working as I tried to apply suction to the ceramic cups, meaning I wasn’t drawing in any soil solution for collection. On closer inspection the tubes had small cuts along them. I replaced a couple but it continued to happen. Feed up, I decided to find a solution.

A self resetting rat trap seemed like the ideal solution. Thanks to the pest control department at Environment Southland I got my hot little hands on one of these, installed it on the fence post near my site. With it’s intoxicating chocolate bait, the rats must’ve found it more enticing that plastic tubing and voilà, no more problem.

Challenge #7: No Comms…again

Okay people, no worries. This one was easy. Blown fuse. Changed the fuse. Fixed.

Getting good at this now (a.k.a good at listening to the technician over the phone to help me solve issues while in the field).

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Challenge #8: Oxygen Sensors aren’t playing ball

The oxygen sensors we had installed were giving very random readings, dropping into the negative 1000’s or not reading at all. Three at one site and one at the other. Two at the deepest depth we just un-plugged. The other two we decided to replace with analog sensors rather than the digital ones we were currently using.

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The technician sent these down to me, very kindly having pre-calibrated them. All I had to do was dig a couple of holes, one at each site, to the correct depths, install and wire in the new sensors. Done. The frozen ground causing no issues with the spade work…

Challenge #9: Human Error

It was the day before my flight back to Christchurch. I get a phone call from the technician. “Now all of the moisture sensors seem to be playing up, they’re giving odd readings.” Here we go…

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An early frosty Saturday morning in the field it is.

Four hours of my head in a data logger, staring at wiring, un-wiring, re-wiring, re-installing programs, testing voltage, re-testing. Thanking the technician for giving up his Saturday for this, worried that it may end up with him having to fly down with a new data-logger after none of the things we were trying was solving the issue.

The 5th hour came around and I stuck my head into the data-logger once again, lying on the ground wondering if I’d ever feel my fingers and toes again… then I saw it. That wire, that one wire that was in the wrong place! in one port higher than it should be!

I took it out, wired it into the port it was meant to be in. An exclamation from Neil, the technician on the other end of the phone and I knew the problem was solved. Feeling extremely guilty for all the extra time I’d kept Neil, especially on a weekend, he reassured me that it happens to the best of us. We’re only human right?

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Challenge #10: Lightening Strike!

You know when you get to challenge #10 that the world must be plotting against you…?? What are the chances of the field trial getting hit by lightening? Seriously?

Well, it happened. You just have to keep reminding yourself that all things happen for a reason, right?

So the comms were down again, the day after I got back from being based in Southland for 2 months and the technician was busy with other work at Uni. So a couple of very helpful people from the Environment Southland Team came to the rescue.

The radio aerial was fried. A new one needed to be ordered and sent down, along with a new radio router, then installed. Then the deep cycle battery had gone flat. A new one ordered and installed. Radios still didn’t want to talk to each other. Last straw, the awesome technician here at Lincoln ended up having to fly down for a week to fix it all.

It took about a month an a half to get it back up and running. But it is running!

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Challenge #………..well I could keep going but I think you get the picture. Field trials are full of challenges, some you can fix, some you need patience for, some you need to ask for help, sometimes you just want to scream or cry or laugh. Nature, people, animals, weather, technology. But it’s worth it.

I’d be lying if I said I’d enjoyed every bit of it, but looking back I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bring it on PhD, love the challenge, love the science, love soil!

Seph at field trial site

A special thanks to all those that have helped me along the way so far. Neil Smith, Lincoln’s awesome technician and the very helpful Environment Southland Staff, all your time and patience is very much appreciated!

Staff Intro – Professor Leo Condron

Main Research Areas: Phosphorus. Micro-organisms. Chronosequences.

Leo grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. After completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours at the University of Glasgow he moved to New Zealand to further his education at Lincoln University. 1980 – 1984, PhD in Soil Science at Lincoln. Reaching for the highest possible qualification, Leo also completed a Doctor of Science in Soil Science at Canterbury. Returning to Lincoln in 1989 he’s never left, and is now a Professor of Biogeochemistry; 50% research (including PG supervision), 30% teaching, 20% admin.

Why soil science? “My father was a farmer, I always had an interest in Agriculture and while doing my degree I developed a greater interest in soil science.” Working at Lincoln University has allowed for Leo to focus on one area of research for more than 30 years, meaning that he has been able to continue to develop it. ‘It’ being phosphorus, or a combination of all his passions; phosphorus, micro-organisms and chronosquences where possible. This is what keeps him going, having never lost interest in it or agriculture.

Continuity is Leo’s favourite thing about the Soil’s Department at Lincoln. The Lincoln University Soil Science Department has been able to sustain the continuity of research even though there has been a lot of changes, allowing for a coherent department that is great to work in. Maintaining this number of Soil Scientists together has been really lucky, “There is no other group of soil scientists this big in the world that I know of.

Outside of University Leo’s time is taken up being a father to three kids and some tropical fish. Also enjoying music, Cuban cigars and a good bottle of Bourbon whiskey.

Find out More: Professor Leo Condron Lincoln University Staff Profile

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D.Sc. University of Canterbury, New Zealand. 2016.

Biogeochemistry of Phosphorus in Soil-Plant Systems
Ph.D. Soil Science. Lincoln College (University of Canterbury), New Zealand. 1986.
‘Chemical nature and plant availability of phosphorus present in soils under long-term fertilised irrigated pastures in Canterbury, New Zealand’
B.Sc. Honours (II i). Agricultural Chemistry. University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK. 1980.
Research Profile:  Biogeochemistry of organic carbon and major nutrients in natural and managed ecosystems, with an emphasis on the nature, dynamics and bioavailability of organic and mineral forms of nutrients in the soil-plant system in relation to soil management and land use.  Project areas include organic matter and nutrient dynamics in grassland and forest soils, soil chronosequence dynamics, rhizosphere processes and nutrient acquisition, relationships between soil microbial diversity and function, and the nature, and the bioavailability and mobility of phosphorus in terrestrial environments.

Links:

Soil Judging is the new NBA

If you are interested in soils, want to get your hands dirty and get to know different soil types around the world you should get involved in soil judging!

I had the great opportunity of participating in the first New Zealand soil judging competition in Wanaka last year, as part of the New Zealand and Australia Soil Science Conference in Queenstown.

Not only did we have a great couple of days in the field, hands on learning about soils but we got to know fellow soil lovers, with participants from across NZ, Australia and America.

Comradery, companionship and competition! the perfect combination, all that and ‘expanding your horizons’ with great soils knowledge.

Check out Society of Soil Judgers on facebook!

Read more in our recent post ‘Learning by Doing’ by Dr Carol Smith about organising and running New Zealand’s first soil judging competition in December 2016!

Masters Postgrad Intro – Xueying Che (Sherry)

Xueying Che (Sherry)- Master of Science, Soil Science

Xueying Che is currently studying for her Master of Science degree in the field of Soil Science at Lincoln University. Associate Professor Jim Moir and Dr Alistair Black are supervising this research.

“Hi, my name is Xueying Che. I was born and grew up in the northeast of China. I did my undergraduate diploma of horticulture science in  Hainan University in China, and I just finished my postgraduate diploma in horticulture science last year in Lincoln. I am really interested in Agriculture Science and soil science in New Zealand.

Sawdon Station

Currently, I am doing a Master project about “The biological effects of Lupinus polyphylus on soil nitrogen in acid high country soils”. I feel excited and interested in my project.”

PhD Postgrad Intro – William Talbot

William Talbot – Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Soil Science

“William Talbot is currently studying for his PhD in the field of Soil Science at Lincoln University. Professors Keith Cameron and Hong Di are supervising this research.

I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. My interest in Lincoln University and soils was sparked while I was in high school, when I got a summer job at Lincoln Universality digging lysimeters. A year and a bit later I started my Bachelor of Agricultural Science at Lincoln University. This interest in soils was solidified when I was lucky enough to work with Professor Keith Cameron, developing the SCALAR concept as part of my Honours project.

Currently I am doing a PhD project, looking at “Innovative ways to reduce farm Nitrogen losses by manipulating Carbon inputs.” I look forward to cracking into my project and hopefully getting some great results!”

A Little Encouragement for the Novice

Lets start today with a little encouragement, a double quote; quoted from C.H.Hapgood’s book, Maps of Ancient Sea Kings from Brian Fry’s, Stable Isotope Ecology.

“Every scientist is an amateur to start with. Copernicus, Newton and Darwin were all amateurs when they made their principle discoveries. Through the course of long years of work they became specialists in the fields which they created. However the specialist who starts out by learning what everybody else has done before him is not likely to initiate anything very new. An expert is a man who knows everything, or nearly everything, and usually thinks he knows everything important, in his field. If he doesn’t think he knows everything, at least he knows other people know less, and thinks that amateurs know nothing. And so he has an unwise contempt for amateurs, despite the fact that it is to amateurs that innumerable important discoveries in all fields of science have been due….when a difficult problem was being discussed, Thomas A. Edison said it was too difficult for any specialist. It would be necessary, he said, to wait for some amateur to solve it.”

“In other words, amateurs are great for their new thinking and initiatives.”

Embrace your start into the world of science, embrace the challenge, the knowledge and discover!