Soil Health Content Pages DRAFT
Soil Health Basics
Learn about Soil Health
Soil is a living ecosystem made up of minerals, organic matter, and pore spaces containing air, water and dissolved nutrients, and living organisms. Healthy soils support agricultural production; filter and store water; “cycle” or move nutrients between the physical environment to living organisms; moderate temperature extremes; protect plants from pathogens and stress; store carbon and moderate the release of gases; resist erosion; and provide habitat for soil organisms.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) defines soil health as the soil’s continued capacity to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. One indicator of healthy soils is aggregate stability. Aggregates are clusters of soil particles bound together. Aggregate stability refers to the ability of soil aggregates to maintain their structure when exposed to water, wind, or tillage. Stable aggregates provide habitat for soil biota, which increases soil organic matter, improves soil structure, and increases water holding capacity. Use the slake test and soil function videos listed below to demonstrate soil aggregate stability. Stable aggregates will not break apart or slake in water. You also can use the simulator instructor guide to run your own demonstration, which might be a good way to engage agricultural landowners in your community.
Most of our soils have lost significant function over time because of repeated disturbance. As you interact with your landowners, look for these signs of degraded soils:
- Gullies and other signs of erosion
- Hard, compacted, cloddy soils
- Rapid onset of stress or stunted growth during dry or wet periods
- Discolored vegetation
- Soil crusting
- Disease or pest pressure
- Declining yields
Identifying degraded soils provides an opportunity to begin a conversation with agricultural landowners and help raise awareness about soil health.
Understand Soil Health Principles and Practices
The way farmers and ranchers manage their land affects soil health. Farmers and ranchers can rebuild their soils and restore key functions using regenerative soil health practices.
Conservation professionals, including NRCS, promote four principles to restore and protect soil health:
- Minimize disturbance: reduce tilling and the use of chemical inputs, rotate grazing animals;
- Maximize soil cover: keep the soil surface covered with residue year round;
- Maximize biodiversity: integrate livestock and grow as many different species of plants as possible through rotations and a diverse mixture of cover crops;
- Maximize continuous living roots: keep living crops and cover crops in the soil as long as possible.
Each principle is achieved through a range of associated conservation practices—specific land management strategies producers can implement to protect and restore natural resources.
The first two principles protect the habitat for soil organisms. Practices that minimize disturbance include reduced tillage, nutrient management, integrated pest management, and prescribed grazing. Land management strategies to maximize soil cover include cover cropping, residue and tillage management, and prescribed grazing. Together, these approaches increase soil organic matter, stabilize soil aggregates, and improve water infiltration and storage, which reduces the risk of erosion, helps mitigate temperature changes, and reduces evaporation.
The second two principles aim to feed soil organisms. Practices to increase biodiversity include integrating livestock into a production system and growing different species of plants through rotations or a diverse mixture of cover crops. Cover crops and crop rotation can also promote living roots in soils, as can incorporating dedicated grasslands. These principles increase biological activity and diversity belowground. They increase soil organic matter and nutrient cycling and improve plant growth.
A soil health management system is a collection of practices that increase soil carbon levels and improve soil health by applying the four soil health principles. When implemented together, and adapted as needed to different production systems, these principles can rebuild soils and restore their functions.
ReadNRCS Soil Health Fact Sheets, Principles for High Functioning Soils NRCS Soil Health Fact Sheets, Unlock Your Farm's Potential: Do Not Disturb NRCS Soil Health Fact Sheets, Unlock Your Farm's Potential: Discover the Cover NRCS Soil Health Fact Sheets, Healthy Productive Soils: Checklist for Growers
Overcome Barriers to Adoption
There are psychological, social, technical, and financial barriers to adopting soil health practices. New practices require a new way of thinking for many producers. Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural landowners may not understand why it is important to adopt soil health practices, which requires a basic understanding of soil function and soil health benefits. In addition, there may be a lack of community support for adoption of new or different practices. Another challenge, especially in places where most land is rented, is convincing producers to invest resources into improving soil health and/or convincing landowners to forgo some income to support practice adoption. A next hurdle is acquiring the technical knowledge to implement new practices and management systems. Lastly, stakeholders may worry about the financial impact of adoption. They may lack information to help them assess the costs, including installation and time learning versus benefits.
You can help your landowners overcome these barriers by:
- Cultivating a relationship with your producer. Look for opportunities to connect with them while stewarding the easement. Ask them about their goals for their land and find out if they have any concerns about their land.
- Raising their awareness. Once you have established a relationship, you can offer information and help organize or host educational opportunities to introduce landowners to new principles and practices.
- Creating supportive networks. You may be able to introduce landowners who are curious about practices to others who have already tested different strategies. You can help facilitate information sharing among producers and other agricultural landowners.
- Connecting them with technical experts. You can also make referrals to technical experts who can help develop and implement a soil health management plan and connect them with applicable state and federal programs to provide technical and financial assistance.
Soil Health Benefits
Research suggests that implementing practices such as no-till or reduced tillage, cover cropping, nutrient management, and conservation crop rotation can improve soil health, reduce runoff, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and sequester carbon. Information on the economic benefits associated with soil health is also important to those in the agricultural community, including growers, landowners, agricultural retailers, bankers, and corporations with sustainability goals, for whom knowing the “bottom line” is important to making decisions.
Learn about the Soil Health Case Studies
The AFT-NRCS Soil Health Case Studies estimate the economic effects of implementing soil health practices by looking at the costs, benefits, and return on investment experienced by farmers who have adopted any one or a combination of soil health practices. The findings of these case studies are intended to give farmers confidence in adopting practices that have the potential to lessen agriculture’s impacts on water resources, address climate change, and increase farmer resilience and viability.
Case study methods
The economic impacts of implementing soil health practices on case study farms were derived using Partial Budget Analysis (PBA). A PBA estimates the economic effect—both benefits and costs—of variables affected by a change in a farming operation. For the Soil Heal Case Studies, the PBA compares costs and benefits “before” and “after” soil health practice implementation. To conduct this PBA, AFT developed a Retrospective Soil Health Economic Calculator (R-SHEC). R-SHEC is an Excel-based tool which was used to quantify the benefits and costs experienced by already “soil health successful” producers in the majority of the case studies. AFT has released a version for row crops and one for almonds. The row crop version of R-SHEC is designed to evaluate the economic effects of implementing no-till or reduced tillage, cover crops, nutrient management, and conservation crop rotation. The almond version of the tool evaluates the economic effects of cover crops, nutrient management, compost application, and mulching.
AFT also produced case studies using Cornell University’s Dairy Farm Business Summary (DFBS) survey.
Two tools were used to calculate the environmental impacts of implementing soil health practices. The USDA Nutrient Tracking Tool was used to estimate water quality impacts, and COMET-Farm for calculating the change in GHG emissions. Both tools are described below.
Quantify Soil Health Outcomes
The economic impacts of soil health practices
The AFT-NRCS Soil Health Case Studies find that soil health successful farmers may experience net economic benefits, which can be achieved in two ways—through increases in income, through decreases in costs, or through a combination of the two. Increases in income can be attributed to yield increases. Decreases in costs, meanwhile, can be attributed to:
The case studies demonstrate that net return on investment varies from farm to farm as, in some instances, the economic benefits of implementing soil health practices may be offset by decreases in income due to increased costs, such as the cost of purchasing seed for cover crops and the learning costs associated with implementing new practices. These increases in cost may be attributed to variable rate application; increased soil testing; learning costs associated with the transition in soil health management; new machinery; those associated with implementing cover crops, including seed, planting, and harvest costs.
The environmental impacts of soil health practices
In addition to the benefits to individual farm and ranch operations, improving soil health can also provide environmental benefits for society at large. These include climate change mitigation—healthy soils have the capacity to store more carbon—and improved water quality due to greater infiltration and water holding capacity in the soil leading to lower runoff from fields. Increased soil stability can reduce flood damage in surrounding communities. The Nutrient Tracking Tool can estimate reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment losses associated with implementing soil health practices. Climate benefits can be evaluated with the help of COMET-Farm, which estimates the ‘carbon footprint’ for all or part of a farm or ranch operation. It also allows users to evaluate different options for reducing GHG emissions and sequestering more carbon.
Use the Case Study Findings
When it comes to implementing new practices on producers’ land, it will be helpful to listen to farmers’ concerns; match examples of soil health success stories to the farm type and region; and be clear in your messaging and able to explain the basics of certain concepts, like partial budget analysis.
There are a variety of barriers to adoption that producers may face when attempting to implement new practices on their land. These include:
- Educational barriers, represented as learning costs in the case studies.
- Financial barriers, such as the cost of new equipment and soil testing.
- Technological barriers, including trial and error costs related to using new practices and machinery.
- Technical barriers, including the learning curve for new practices and time spent fine tuning a new crop management system.
- Agronomic barriers related to implementation of new cropping systems.
- Belief that they would spend more to implement soil health practices.
- Social barriers, including adjusting to a new way of farming.
You can use the case studies to address these barriers. Pointing to “soil health successful” farmers who have navigated these challenges may help with normalizing adoption. Highlight the return on investment for a similar operation to alleviate financial concerns.