Assessment tool offers insights into better soil health management

The importance of soil health cannot be overstated. It supports vigorous plant growth

by promoting the efficient use of nutrients and water, protecting against erosion and

compaction, and aiding in disease and pest management. Soil health drives farm productivity

and resilience against weather extremes.

But the soil is an incredibly complex

environment, and for farmers to know how

to improve their ground, they first need to

learn about its condition.

That is why a multidisciplinary team

from Cornell University created a new kind

of soil assessment—with early funding

from multiple SARE grants as well as other

sources—and why interest in it is steadily

growing, not just in the Northeast but

across the country.

"The Cornell Assessment of Soil Health

is really a framework that's based on

measuring a number of indicators of soil

health—physical, chemical and biological—and then using that information to

help farmers make management decisions,"

says Harold van Es, a Cornell soil and water

management professor.

Traditional soil tests, which are

also important management

tools, are typically

limited to measuring

nutrient levels and

pH. They do not

reveal anything

about the physical

structure or

microbial life

present in the soil,

yet such characteristics

strongly influence

crop yields as well as the

efficiency of inputs such as water

and fertilizers. In contrast, Cornell's soil

health assessment reports typically include

management recommendations to address

specifically identified constraints and promote

soil-building practices such as cover

cropping, reduced tillage, the use of compost

or manure, and diversified rotations

that include perennial crops.

"As far as the soil health assessment, it's

really an eye opener. Quite an eye opener,"

says Donn Branton, one of many New

York farmers who collaborated with the

researchers who developed it. A long-time

no-tiller, Branton says he has a new appreciation

for the role of soil biology in crop

production, and is now using more mixed-species

cover crops in his rotations.

The need for the assessment was born

out of a survey of Northeastern farmers,

many of whom used traditional soil tests

but "felt there was something more going

on with their soils," says Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of the soil health division

at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation

Service. "There were erosion issues, they

had weed issues, they had decreasing yields

even though they needed to irrigate more,

put on more fertilizer, more pesticides.

And they really didn't

have good diagnostic

tools for all of these


Beginning in

2003, three SARE

grants supported

the assessment's

creation and early

outreach efforts.

The Cornell team

identified the most

meaningful soil health

indicators to include, and

worked with farmers like Branton to

refine them through on-farm testing.

"That initial funding was critical," van

Es says. "What is also very nice about the

SARE funding program is that it requires a

fairly intense collaboration with farmers or

consultants or Extension agents. And that

really was very critical to making this project

successful, because if you want this new

technology to be adopted by farmers, you

need to involve them in the development

process right from the start."

The Cornell lab handles about 2,000 soil

samples each year, and the assessment is

in "a rapid growth phase," van Es says. The

team is now collecting soil samples from

across the country so that the assessment

can be adapted for use at the national level.

For more information, see the project reports

for grants LNE03-175, LNE06-235 and ENE09-110.