Agricultural Capability of United States Soils

Land Capability Class

The Soil Survey Geographic Database (SSURGO) rates soils by their ability to support cultivation and farming of common crops without deterioration of the soil over long periods of time. The irrigated and non-irrigated Capability Classification fields rate each soil component in one of 8 classes ranging from the soils with the fewest limitations for agriculture (class I) to areas not appropriate for agriculture such as rock outcrops and sandy beaches (class VIII). Under good management, soils in classes from I-IV are capable of producing common cultivated field crops, pasture plants, range plants, and forest trees without reducing the soils long-term capacity.

Under highly intensive management, some soils in classes V and VI can produce crops but soils in classes V-VII are normally best suited for growing native plants. Soils in class VIII will not produce crops, grasses, or trees without major inputs. While initially developed over 70 years ago as a farm planning and soil conservation tool, the Land Capability Classification is now used in the National Resource Inventory, the Farmland Protection Policy Act, Soil Science text books, and many Natural Resources Conservation Service field office technical guides. Additionally, the classification system is used to identify vulnerable lands and appropriate management by US Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency's Conservation Programs including the Conservation Reserve Program and Sodbuster Provision. SSURGO data are organized in map units and components. Map units are the principle geographic feature of the data. Each map unit is associated with one or more soil components and each soil component is given a Land Capability Classification. Because soil components are not mapped, their classification must be aggregated to the map unit to produce a map. For mapping, we selected the dominant Irrigated Capability field.

The dominant class is the class of the component that represents the largest portion of the map unit. Clicking on a map unit produces a popup that contains both the dominant class for both irrigated and non-irrigated agricultural systems. The proportion of the map unit with that classification is also displayed in the popup. The Land Capability Classification system considers factors such as landscape location, slope, depth of soil, and texture of soil. Limitations to agricultural use of soils include erosion and runoff, excess water, root-zone limitations such as shallow soils and hardpan layers, and climate.

Capability Class Descriptions

Reproduced from the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Agricultural Handbook.

Land Suited to Cultivation and Other Uses - Classes I through IV

Class I

Class I -- Soils in class I have few limitations that restrict their use.

Soils in this class are suited to a wide range of plants and may be used safely for cultivated crops, pasture, range, woodland, and wildlife. The soils are nearly level 6 and erosion hazard (wind or water) is low. They are deep, generally well drained, and easily worked. They hold water well and are either fairly well supplied with plant nutrients or highly responsive to inputs of fertilizer.

The soils in class I are not subject to damaging overflow. They are productive and suited to intensive cropping. The local climate must be favorable for growing many of the common field crops.

In irrigated areas, soils may be placed in class I if the limitation of the arid climate has been removed by relatively permanent irrigation works. Such irrigated soils (or soils potentially useful under irrigation) are nearly level, have deep rooting zones, have favorable permeability and water-holding capacity, and are easily maintained in good tilth. Some of the soils may require initial conditioning including leveling to the desired grade, leaching of a slight accumulation of soluble salts, or lowering of the seasonal water table. Where limitations due to salts, water table, overflow, or erosion are likely to recur, the soils are regarded as subject to permanent natural limitations and are not included in class I.

Soils that are wet and have slowly permeable subsoils are not placed in class I. Some kinds of soil in class I may be drained as an improvement measure for increased production and ease of operation.

Soils in class I that are used for crops need ordinary management practices to maintain productivity -- both soil fertility and soil structure. Such practices may include the use of one or more of the following: fertilizers and lime, cover and green-manure crops, conservation of crop residues and animal manures, and sequences of adapted crops.

Class II

Class II -- Soils in class II have some limitations that reduce the choice of plants or require moderate conservation practices

Soils in class II require careful soil management, including conservation practices, to prevent deterioration or to improve air and water relations when the soils are cultivated. The limitations are few and the practices are easy to apply. The soils may be used for cultivated crops, pasture, range, woodland, or wildlife food and cover.

Limitations of soils in class II may include singly or in combination the effects of (1) gentle slopes, (2) moderate susceptibility to wind or water erosion or moderate adverse effects of past erosion, (3) less than ideal soil depth, (4) somewhat unfavorable soil structure and workability, (5) slight to moderate salinity or sodium easily corrected but likely to recur, (6) occasional damaging overflow, (7) wetness correctable by drainage but existing permanently as a moderate limitation, and (8) slight climatic limitations on soil use and management.

The soils in this class provide the farm operator less latitude in the choice of either crops or management practices than soils in class I. They may also require special soil-conserving cropping systems, soil conservation practices, water-control devices, or tillage methods when used for cultivated crops. For example, deep soils of this class with gentle slopes subject to moderate erosion when cultivated may need one of the following practices or some combination of two or more: terracing, stripcropping, contour tillage, crop rotations that include grasses and legumes, vegetated water disposal areas, cover or green-manure crops, stubble mulching, fertilizers, manure, and lime. The exact combinations of practices vary from place to place, depending on the characteristics of the soil, the local climate, and the farming system.

Class III

Class III -- Soils in class III have severe limitations that reduce the choice of plants or require special conservation practices, or both.

Soils in class III have more restrictions than those in class II and, when used for cultivated crops, the conservation practices are usually more difficult to apply and to maintain. They may be used for cultivated crops, pasture, woodland, range, or wildlife food and cover.

Limitations of soils in class III restrict the amount of clean cultivation; timing of planting, tillage, and harvesting; choice of crops; or some combination of these limitations. The limitations may result from the effects of one or more of the following: (1) moderately steep slopes; (2) high susceptibility to water or wind erosion or severe adverse effects of past erosion; (3) frequent overflow accompanied by some crop damage; (4) very slow permeability of the subsoil; (5) wetness or some continuing waterlogging after drainage; (6) shallow depths to bedrock, hardpan, fragipan, or claypan that limit the rooting zone and the water storage; (7) low moisture-holding capacity; (8) low fertility not easily corrected; (9) moderate salinity or sodium; or (10) moderate climatic limitations.

When cultivated, many of the wet, slowly permeable but nearly level soils in class III require drainage and a cropping system that maintains or improves the structure and tilth of the soil. To prevent puddling and to improve permeability, it is commonly necessary to supply organic material to such soils and to avoid working them when they are wet. In some irrigated areas, part of the soils in class III have limited use because of high water table, slow permeability, and the hazard of salt or sodic accumulation. Each distinctive kind of soil in class III has one or more alternative combination of use and practices required for safe use, but the number of practical alternatives for average farmers is less than that for soils in class II.

Class IV

Class IV -- Soils in class IV have very severe limitations that restrict the choice of plants, require very careful management, or both.

The restrictions in use for soils in class IV are greater than those in class III and the choice of plants is more limited. When these soils are cultivated, more careful management is required and conservation practices are more difficult to apply and maintain. Soils in class IV may be used for crops, pasture, woodland, range, or wildlife food and cover.

Soils in class IV may be well suited to only two or three of the common crops or the harvest produced may be low in relation to inputs over a long period of time. Use for cultivated crops is limited as a result of the effects of one or more permanent features such as (1) steep slopes, (2) severe susceptibility to water or wind erosion, (3) severe effects of past erosion, (4) shallow soils, (5) low moisture-holding capacity, (6) frequent overflows accompanied by severe crop damage, (7) excessive wetness with continuing hazard of waterlogging after drainage, (8) severe salinity or sodium, or (9) moderately adverse climate.

Many sloping soils in class IV in humid areas are suited to occasional but not regular cultivation. Some of the poorly drained, nearly level soils placed in class IV are not subject to erosion but are poorly suited to inter-tilled crops because of the time required for the soil to dry out in the spring and because of low productivity for cultivated crops. Some soils in class IV are well suited to one or more of the special crops, such as fruits and ornamental trees and shrubs, but this suitability itself is not sufficient to place a soil in class IV.

In subhumid and semiarid areas, soils in class IV may produce good yields of adapted cultivated crops during years of above average rainfall; low yields during years of average rainfall; and failures during years of below average rainfall. During the low rainfall years the soil must be protected even though there can be little or no expectancy of a marketable crop. Special treatments and practices to prevent soil blowing, conserve moisture, and maintain soil productivity are required. Sometimes crops must be planted or emergency tillage used for the primary purpose of maintaining the soil during years of low rainfall. These treatments must be applied more frequently or more intensively than on soils in class III.

Soils Generally Not Suited to Cultivation - Classes V-VIII

Certain soils grouped into classes V, VI, VII, and VIII may be made fit for use for crops with major earthmoving or other costly reclamation.

Class V

Class V -- Soils in class V have little or no erosion hazard but have other limitations impractical to remove that limit their use largely to pasture, range, woodland, or wildlife food and cover.

Soils in class V have limitations that restrict the kind of plants that can be grown and that prevent normal tillage of cultivated crops. They are nearly level but some are wet, are frequently overflowed by streams, are stony, have climatic limitations, or have some combination of these limitations. Examples of class V are: (1) soils of the bottom lands subject to frequent overflow that prevents the normal production of cultivated crops, (2) nearly level soils with a growing season that prevents the normal production of cultivated crops, (3) level or nearly level stony or rocky soils, and (4) ponded areas where drainage for cultivated crops is not feasible but where soils are suitable for grasses or trees. Because of these limitations, cultivation of the common crops is not feasible but pastures can be improved and benefits from proper management can be expected.

Class VI

Class VI -- Soils in class VI have severe limitations that make them generally unsuited to cultivation and limit their use largely to pasture or range, woodland, or wildlife food and cover.

Physical conditions of soils placed in class VI are such that it is practical to apply range or pasture improvements, if needed, such as seeding, liming, fertilizing, and water control with contour furrows, drainage ditches, diversions, or water spreaders. Soils in class VI have continuing limitations that cannot be corrected, such as (1) steep slope, (2) severe erosion hazard, (3) effects of past erosion, (4) stoniness, (5) shallow rooting zone, (6) excessive wetness or overflow, (7) low moisture capacity, (8) salinity or sodium, or (9) severe climate. Because of one or more of these limitations, these soils are not generally suited to cultivated crops. But they may be used for pasture, range, woodland, or wildlife cover or for some combination of these.

Some soils in class VI can be safely used for the common crops provided unusually intensive management is used. Some of the soils in this class are also adapted to special crops such as sodded orchards, blueberries, or the like, requiring soil conditions unlike those demanded by the common crops. Depending upon soiI features and local climate, the soils may be well or poorly suited to woodlands.

Class VII

Class VII -- Soils in class VII have very severe limitations that make them unsuited to cultivation and that restrict their use largely to grazing, woodland, or wildlife.

Physical conditions of soils in class VII are such that it is impractical to apply such pasture or range improvements as seeding, liming, fertilizing, and water control with contour furrows, ditches, diversions, or water spreaders. Soil restrictions are more severe than those in class VI because of one or more continuing limitations that cannot be corrected, such as (1) very steep slopes, (2) erosion, (3) shallow soil, (4) stones, (5) wet soil, (6) salts or sodium, (7) unfavorable climate, or (8) other limitations that make them unsuited to common cultivated crops. They can be used safely for grazing or woodland or wildlife food and cover or for some combination of these under proper management.

Depending upon the soil characteristics and local climate, soils in this class may be well or poorly suited to woodland. They are not suited to any of the common cultivated crops; in unusual instances, some soils in this class may be used for special crops under unusual management practices. Some areas of class VII may need seeding or planting to protect the soil and to prevent damage to adjoining areas.

Class VIII

Class VIII -- Soils and landforms in class VIII have limitations that preclude their use for commercial plant production and restrict their use to recreation, wildlife, or water supply or to aesthetic purposes.

Soils and landforms in class VIII cannot be expected to return significant on-site benefits from management for crops, grasses, or trees, although benefits from wildlife use, watershed protection, or recreation may be possible.

Limitations that cannot be corrected may result from the effects of one or more of the following: (1) erosion or erosion hazard, (2) severe climate, (3) wet soil, (4) stones, (5) low moisture capacity, and (6) salinity or sodium.

Badlands, rock outcrop, sandy beaches, river wash, mine tailings, and other nearly barren lands are included in class VIII. It may be necessary to give protection and management for plant growth to soils and landforms in class VIII in order to protect other more valuable soils, to control water, or for wildlife or aesthetic reasons.