USDA Soil Lab Celebrates 75 Years of Innovative Research

November 18, 2010

The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s National Soil Dynamics Laboratory (NSDL) today marked its 75th anniversary with a celebration of the unit's research accomplishments that have ranged from creation of a new soil science discipline to contributions to undersea cable communications technology. The laboratory has been operated since 1953 by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency.

Originally known as the Farm Tillage Machinery Laboratory, the facility was built in 1935 on the campus of Auburn University. It is renowned for its 13 historic soil bins, each about the length of a football field, said H. Allen Torbert, NSDL research leader. The laboratory was named an historic landmark in 1990 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.

The bins, which resemble huge outdoor bowling lanes, are used for testing the impact of farm equipment on soil. The bins hold the major soil types found in the southeastern United States, varying from sand to clay.

"The outdoor bins were needed to conduct research on the effects of full-scale machines," Torbert explained. "The NSDL was the world's first full-size outdoor laboratory for tillage tools and traction equipment, and its research spawned the scientific discipline of soil dynamics and influenced the design of almost all modern agricultural equipment."

During World War II, the laboratory was shared with the U.S. Army, which conducted research on traction of military equipment. During the 1960s, the laboratory helped design a "sea plow" used to bury trans-Atlantic communication cables. More recent research activities have included collaboration with the Army on ways to convert garbage into pulp that can be used to improve soils and help establish native grasses in heavily used areas such as training grounds.

Current studies include work on how different farm management practices, such as conservation tillage and crop rotations, affect farm productivity and impact the soil's ability to store carbon from the atmosphere, thereby slowing increases in greenhouse gases and reducing soil erosion and compaction.

In addition to Torbert, participants at today's celebration included Edgar G. King, ARS Mid-South Area Director; and former NSDL directors Arthur W. Copper, who led the lab from 1953 to 1966, Robert L. Schafer and Charles Elkins, who together related the history of the laboratory. The program also included an overview of current and future research at NSDL.