I've recently discovered the NRCS soil survey website (http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/HomePage.htm) and have spent a lot of time on it. See, I can tell you what type of soil is where in my fields, but I couldn't tell you names, drainage characteristics, what land class it was, etc. I've been studying, and I wonder more and more if maybe I'm the limiting factor on some of my fields.
See, I get a notion in my head that such-and-such field might have some problems, so I'll cut a little on fertilizer or water too much. Maybe I'll put a corn variety there that is better for a silty loam soil, when I actually need something for a sandy loam. I'm also guilty of managing a 35 acre patch based on the 4 or 5 acre alkali patch in the middle of it.
Interestingly enough, one of the fields that I think of as one of the best we farm is actually not considered prime farmland. I always thought it was, though, so I treated it like it was top shelf soil, and really, it produces right near the top.
Do you see why I'm thinking I'm the limiting factor? Yes, that alkali spot is a pain in the ass, but the rest of the ground around it is capable of 200+ bushel corn, so what the heck am I doing managing 35 acres based on 10-15% of the field?
I took a lot of soils classes in college, but none of it really started making sense until now. I wish I could find those books and go back through them, but apparently they are gone forever.
Going through the soil maps also reassures me quite a bit. When Mom and Dad bought the farm I live on, there were some skeptics. A guy that I like pretty well told me (in the bar after many beers) that he was scared I would go broke. I bought into that hype some, as it's sandy in spots and wet in others. Looking at the soil map, the half of the farm we bought is considered prime farmland. After seeing the beans it raised this fall, I believe it. I had a test plot on some of it, and the winner of the plot went 89bu/acre, with 7 of the 12 varieties going 80+ bushels/acre.
The key to good yields here? Drainage. As long as we can keep excessive water off of our fields, we have a good shot at high yields. This is critical during planting and emergence. Half of the battle, in my mind, is getting it out of the ground in a timely fashion.
So, soils. Check 'em out.