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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences

April 23, 2024 - 1:06pm --

Soil health has been a frequent point of interest of many in recent times. We often do a lot of work to introduce or reinforce practices that preserve or potentially increase soil health. Where we may be lacking in these conversations and implementations is actually taking the time to evaluate whether or not our decisions around soil health management are effective and recognizable.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) defines soil health as “the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans”. When it comes down to being able to measure or assess soil health, there are a variety of ways that this can be accomplished. Some common factors that we utilize to measure soil health include physical properties, chemical properties, and biological properties. A soil test is a great way to get a baseline understanding of some of the components of your soil health, as is the soil survey data for your soil type. The next step is looking deeper at some other, more visual factors that can be key signs of good soil health, or lack thereof.

Soil biology is one of the major driving forces of soil health improvement and sustainability. Cornell University created a “Soil Health Assessment Card” that contains many factors to evaluate soil health, and several of the first factors that it encourages farmers to assess are indicators such as presence of earthworms, organic matter color, active roots in the soil and plant residue. When we consider the relationships and intricacies between soil biology, organic matter, and actively growing roots, it makes perfect sense that these factors would be some of the first to be suggested to be evaluated.

Understanding soil biology, organic matter

Soil biology is made up of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and protozoa. Soil biology also includes macro invertebrates like earthworms, springtails, and ground beetles, just to name a few examples. These organisms are serving a very important function in the soil. They are responsible for decomposing crop residues, cycling nutrients, creating pore space for water infiltration and soil respiration and overall creating balance within the soil.

Ultimately, the main factor that allows many of these organisms to exist in our soils is organic matter. Not only does organic matter feed the organisms that help our soil health and functionality, but it’s physical properties also add benefits to our soils. Organic matter in our soils increases the water holding capacity, is a source of nutrients that are available for plant uptake, and buffers pH changes. Since soil organic matter is less dense than soil, it allows for more pore space for air and water storage and overall improved soil structure. You can think of soil organic matter like a sponge in the way it holds moisture and provides resiliency to the soil.

Good soil characteristics

Characteristics of a healthy soil that you may consider to be aware of include good soil tilth, good drainage, root soil depth, resistance to erosion, resistance to compaction, and a high presence of beneficial organisms. As you continue to work on your soil health, it is important that you take notes, and record your observations. It is very hard to document progress or any change for that matter when there are no written or measurable observations to compare against. Keep in mind that you are managing a biological system, and it will take time for some changes to be noticed. It is increasingly more important that we find ways to keep our soils healthy and productive and leave them better for the next generation.

Frank Becker is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator with Ohio State University Extension – Wayne County, and a Certified Crop Adviser, and may be reached at 330-264-8722 or
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This article was previously published in The Daily Record.