Soil Health Renaissance Part I: Measuring Soil Health

By Bruce Knight

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Every farm magazine seems to include an article these days focusing on improving soil health, and there are an increasing number of conferences and workshops also addressing this issue.  We're definitely seeing a movement underway in our nation to raise awareness about the importance of soil health.

I'm pleased to be a part of The Soil Renaissance, an initiative of the Farm Foundation, NFP and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, to develop a cohesive and comprehensive approach to soil health.  It's exciting to consider what we can accomplish through the synergy created as those concerned with soil health pool their resources, experience and scientific knowledge.

I look forward to sharing with you in the future The Soil Renaissance strategic plan now under development.  One of the first steps is to define soil health.  How do you measure it?  How can you easily and economically identify what is lacking and pinpoint the steps to take to improve the soil to bring maximum return for your investment?

Lets Talk Food

We all know that the viability of the soil we farm involves more than just the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.  We need an equally affordable and reliable measure of other essential components such as water holding capacity, organic matter and micronutrients.  I believe we are getting closer to that goal, and I am excited about some of the new research underway.

I remember growing up in South Dakota wheat country that we would leave the ground fallow one year on the theory that it would retain moisture for the following year's crop.  We now view that as a false economy that has been replaced by no-till and continuous cropping.  In fact, we may have been far better off to put a cover crop on that land to retain moisture, limit erosion and keep the microbes well fed.

In recent years we've made significant advances in targeting fertilizer to the precise area of the field where it's needed, in developing seeds for maximum yield and minimal susceptibility to disease and drought, in directing every drop of water where it can do the most good and in precisely placing each seed to optimize available sunlight.  We're making excellent use of the resources we put into the ground.

Now we need to focus on the ground itself.  Today there's a great opportunity for conservation leaders and innovators to step forward and work with NRCS, land grant universities and private foundations to establish benchmarks for soil health-protocols for testing soil viability and practices for improving soil health.  The soil, of course, is the most basic element necessary for plant growth, and it's critical to maximize this resource as well.

The facts about soil health aren't pretty.  You've probably heard them before.  Over the past 150 years, we've lost half the topsoil.  Globally, about 40 percent of the soil on land used for agriculture is classified as degraded or seriously degraded.  Worse yet, topsoil is disappearing at a rate 10 to 40 times faster than it can be replenished naturally.  At that rate of loss, some experts think there's only about 60 years worth of topsoil left.  That's the bad news.

The good news is that there are some promising efforts that are focusing on soil health.  In light of the challenge we face to feed the 9 billion people who will share our planet by 2050, that's essential. 

One of those groundbreaking efforts is the work that researchers at Cornell University are doing in categorizing and measuring soil health.  They've developed a testing framework (See http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/) and are offering fee-for-service testing.  Further, Cornell scientists have partnered with the NRCS Agronomist in New Hampshire to identify soil problems and appropriate NRCS practices to remedy them.  (Check out the Management Options Table under the Soil Health Management Planning page on the Cornell soils webpage.)

Rick Haney and the folks at Agricultural Research Service in Temple, Texas, have also developed an enhanced soil health test that focuses on total nitrogen available-capturing both chemical and biological data.  The goal is to help producers optimize fertilizer application based on actual growing conditions.  For more information, see a description of this tool at http://www.farmfoundation.org/news/articlefiles/1880-Soil%20Health%20Tool%20Explanation%20ver%204.3.pdf.

The challenge is to capture the components of soil health in a test that's inexpensive and easy for farmers to use and produces consistent results.  Testing is the first step.  Then we must identify cost-effective ways to build soil health, establishing optimal inputs to receive a return on our investment. 

Improving the soil is the next step in producing significantly higher yields, whether you farm conventionally or organically.  Farmers who want to have a hand in feeding the world while boosting their bottom line will do well to investigate new developments in measuring and building up soil health that may pay off for them. As we work together in this soil health movement-a renaissance, if you will-we can make a difference in improving the most vital resource necessary to sustain a growing population on this planet. 

 

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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