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Navigating a soil health assessment

Building soil health is important to sustain soil resiliency and productivity.

Building soil health is important to sustain soil resiliency and productivity. Many conservation practices can maintain and enhance physical, chemical and biological soil properties that contribute to overall soil biological functions as fundamental drivers that support plant growth and productivity.

However, these properties are complex and interrelated, as each function is influenced by a central building block: soil organic matter. Soil health is one of the co-benefits of improving SOM through soil carbon sequestration or storage. Therefore, when we think about soil health, we need to keep in mind the role of SOM as a central property in choosing management practices that rejuvenate soil biological system and functions. There is a tendency to oversimplify and divide these properties into discreet parameters with no linkage to SOM in assessing soil health indicators. The approach to the assessment of soil health by focusing on SOM can reduce the commercialization of soil health. Increasing soil organic matter Overall, it’s been documented by research and is well-accepted that there is a relationship between the improvement of SOM and soil physical, chemical and biological properties. In addition, there is a consensus that SOM plays an essential role in a biologically diverse and well-balanced soil system. A good example is the highly productive Mollisol soil in the Midwest, which is high in organic matter compared to other soil that has low organic matter. It is true that a gradient in SOM is influenced by the soil-forming factors of climate, organisms, time, topography and parent materials, which collectively define soil properties. However, among these factors, climate and organisms are defined as active factors compared to time, topography and parent materials, which are passive factors because their effects are not immediately observed.

Each farmer needs a plan

The interactions between factors involved in soil formation requires a careful approach of assessing soil health to create a matrix that is easy to understand by farmers and practitioners, reflects management effects and is economically affordable. There are two approaches to determining soil health parameters:

• The basic research approach to understand the fundamental processes and relationships between soil parameters and to shed light on the mechanisms governing those relationships (i.e., ecosystem services)

• The applied approach, which determines the influence of management practices (tillage, crop rotation, cover crops, etc.) on SOM as the main driver of soil health indicators (physical, chemical and biological)

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