‘Soil health’ is gaining attention


Tony Nye - OSU Extension



Over the years that I have been here in Clinton County, I have seen our farmers do some outstanding things in terms of crop production. We know getting the crop planted in a timely fashion, good weather, good genetics and little plant pressure from weeds, insects and disease can all have a positive impact on yield and hopefully for a profitable year.

One area that I believe we need to understand better is our soil. Yes, I understand things like ph, soil type, drainage, compaction, fertility profile and more can be managed to improve production, but the area of soils that has been gaining a lot of attention is “soil health.”

“Soil health” refers to the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans and maintains environmental quality. Thus, healthy soil can increase farm productivity while reducing negative environmental impacts.

According to Steve Culman, Ohio State soil fertility specialists, there are a number of labs that now offer some sort of soil health package, typically made up of tests that reflect biological, chemical and physical components of the soil. Some of these tests have been around for some time, while others are relatively new.

But as a farmer, how do you make sense of all these new soil tests, and what do they mean for your operation and management?

Of course we are familiar with soil testing for nutrient analysis (standard soil testing). In Ohio we are fortunate to have an infrastructure that helps us manage nutrients more effectively. This includes everything from a private consultant industry that will help sample your soils to professional soil testing laboratories that will analyze your soils quickly for a few dollars, to the nutrient recommendations that Ohio State and others have developed over the decades and continue to revise today.

These are all important pieces that inform us of what is required for optimal crop fertility. It’s easy to take this all for granted.

Soil health testing seeks to build on this infrastructure by providing additional information to farmers. According to Culman, rather than focusing solely on soil chemistry, soil health testing seeks to provide farmers insight into the biological and physical structure components of soil and tie it all together in a common framework.

This is a tall order and the field is still in its infancy. He notes there are many more questions than answers at this point, but scientists, agronomists, farmers and others are working together and trying to make sense of it all.

Culman and others at Ohio State University are actively engaged in soil health testing and are striving to be a leader in this field, by providing timely, unbiased and scientifically-grounded information, tools and training to farmers, consultants and other stakeholders.

One way Culman hopes to accomplish this is through The Healthy Soils Healthy Environment Signature program that will help catalyze some of this work and provide a resource to the state. At present there are a number of research projects related to soil health and soil testing, including opportunities to have soils tested. Specifically, Culman and others have been working to develop soil test methods and better understand how they relate to soil function and crop response. Ohio State researchers are focused on the active, rapidly cycled fraction of organic matter as it’s the biologically active fraction of organic matter.

There is much work to do — from row crops to gardens, from rural fields to urban lots, from education to research. Culman is excited to be working in this important field and hope that producers will consider working with him and others over the next few years. Contact information email at culman.2@osu.edu. More information can be found here at http://soilhealth.osu.edu/.

Tony Nye is the state coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension Small Farm Program and has been an OSU Extension Educator for agriculture and natural resources for 29 years, currently serving Clinton County and the Miami Valley EERA.

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Tony Nye

OSU Extension