Soil Health Toolkit
- Working with Diverse Owners and Operators
- Resource Assessment Tools
- COMET Platform
- ACEs and Management Plans
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.
Reaching and Working with Diverse Owners and Operators
Understanding the challenges specific to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—or BIPOC—landowners and producers; women landowners and producers; and operators with insecure land tenure is a crucial step towards working with and supporting these groups.
The USDA and many states use “socially disadvantaged” to refer to some of these producer groups. The USDA defines socially disadvantaged as “a farmer or rancher who is a member of one or more of the following groups whose members have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities.” Note that women aren’t usually included in this definition of “socially disadvantaged”, unless they also fall into one of the following groups:
- African Americans
- American Indians
- Alaskan Natives
- Pacific Islanders
Examine Owner and Operator Demographics
A closer look at landowner and operator demographics can offer insight into the challenges faced by underrepresented and minority producers and landowners in the U.S.
Women in Agriculture
Nearly 40 percent of farmland in the U.S. is rented or leased out by non-operating landlords, or NOLs. Given this, NOLs are an important audience to engage in farmland protection. Research shows that many NOLs have a high level of trust in their farm operators and may be willing to make changes to support conservation practices. Most importantly, many of these NOLs want to keep farmland in farming. Despite this, NOLs tend to be under-represented and under-engaged in farmland protection programs. This is particularly true of women landowners, which is significant given that nearly 40 percent of NOLs are women, and in some parts of the U.S., the proportion of women NOLs is closer to 50 percent.
On the operator side, close to 36 percent of the country’s producers are women, and more than half of all farms in the U.S. have a principal female producer. Counties with the highest proportion of female-operated farms are largely in the West and Northeast U.S.
Women-run farms, on average, operate on smaller acreage and earn 40 percent less farm income than those operated by men, after controlling for farm and operator characteristics. Childcare responsibilities, compounded by a lack of access to childcare, may limit women’s ability to advance their skills and expand their farm operation.
While farming is still one of the most unequal professions in the U.S. in terms of gender diversity, a growing portion of new and beginning farmers identify as women and/or as racially or ethnically diverse. With around 40 percent of farmland due to change hands over the next two decades, this indicates we can expect a more diverse future for agriculture, with more women present in the industry.
BIPOC Producers and Landowners
Heirs’ property is when land is not clearly delineated to future heirs and so there are many people with claim to the land. This makes the land susceptible to conversion to non-farm uses and poses legal and financial challenges that can prevent the land from being held by the family, who, in many instances, are BIPOC or low-income. Heirs’ property disputes often require a lawyer to facilitate a resolution in the courts. Some states have adopted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which provides additional due process protections for heirs.
Heirs’ property impacts about 3.5 million acres across the Southern U.S. and pertains to more than one third of Black-owned land in the South. This is a critical issue that affects the ability of Black farmers to hold on to the land, and to think about the long-term protection and stewardship of that land. It is estimated that 90 percent of the land that was in the hands of African American families in the 1900s has been lost to these families. Today, less than two percent of agricultural landowners in the U.S. are non-white. Compounding this, Black farmers have historically experienced discrimination in getting support from federal farm programs. Efforts to address land loss—in the form of land return, reparations, and rematriation—are being made; resources for more information on these efforts are linked.
Connect with Diverse Audiences
Whether working with producers, NOLs, or other diverse audiences, listening to the needs of your collaborator is important. Understanding and respecting differences in experience, while highlighting shared goals, can go a long way in connecting diverse audiences and building networks of trusted advisors. As a part of this network building, it is crucial to consider who are the trusted leaders in a space, and whether there are existing networks that your collaborators already turn to.
In outreach and education, it is worth considering whether diverse audiences see themselves in the existing resources. Uplifting the stories of the “average” producer—not only those who excel—and highlighting work that may be happening in more incremental steps—rather than extraordinary successes—is also important for connecting with those who have historically been under-engaged and under-represented in the agriculture and conservation spheres. For NOLs, outlining incremental steps towards conservation may help engage those who think of themselves as an “outsider” in the conservation and/or landownership realm.
Ultimately, to center the work of BIPOC, women, and other minority groups in agriculture, we not only need to rethink the “success” stories being told, but also the very metrics for success. Results-oriented initiatives that prioritize cost- or time-saving deliverables may overlook the often-marginalized work of under-represented groups in agriculture. Instead, orienting initiatives towards long-term results, recognizing incremental change, and grounding goals in the experience and knowledge of diverse producers and landowners can foster more inclusive work.
Resource Assessment Tools
Agricultural landowners have access to a variety of soil evaluation tools. Most common is the standard soil tests, which provide farmers with information about soil nutrients. However, a standard soil test only tells part of the soil health story.
A full soil health assessment looks at the biological and physical functioning of the soil in addition to the nutrient levels. The soil health assessment evaluates a range of soil health indicators. A soil health indicator is a soil property that provides information about the status of specific important soil processes. There are two methods of assessing indicators: an in-field assessment is a qualitative or semi-quantitative measurement and assesses indictors on the spot; a laboratory assessment measures quantitative indicators and is better for monitoring soil health.
Learn about In-Field Soil Health Assessment
NRCS staff can assist with assessing soil health in the field. This will include a field visit, a conversation with the farmer on management, and use of the web soil survey. A web soil survey provides information on soil’s inherent, nonmanagement-influenced properties. While this is useful for gauging a “baseline,” management is the primary driver of whether a resource concern is present. When looking at indicators of soil health in the field, it is important to keep in mind both the soil properties and the management practices being used. Below are six of the major indicators to look for when assessing soil health in the field:
- One indicator of soil health is aggregate stability. Soil aggregate stability is related to soil porosity and how well soil can resist raindrop impact and erosion. To assess aggregate stability in the field, one can conduct a slake test, a strainer test, or a Jornada soil aggregate stability test. These tests reveal healthy soils if at least 80% of the soil mass remains intact in a slake test; if the sample “stands up” for strainer test and runoff water is translucent; or if it meets the Jornada test criteria.
- Plant roots and biopores are another feature of healthy soils. Roots influence the soil immediately adjacent to them through exudates, growing and leaving soil organic matter as they die. Root systems and root channels can help address aggregate instability, soil organism habitat loss or degradation, and soil organic matter depletion. To assess this indicator of soil health in the field, look for evidence of dark root channels or biopores left by previous plants or earthworms.
- Healthy soils will also have adequate soil cover. Soil cover is the percent of the soil surface that is covered by plant residue, organic mulch, or live plants. Having adequate soil cover can help address aggregate instability, soil organism habitat loss or degradation, soil organic matter depletion, and surface compaction. Soil cover can be measured in the field using farmer interview, the photo estimation method or state-approved method, or the line intercept method. If the soil is more than 75% covered after planting, it meets the criteria for adequate soil cover.
- Another indicator is surface crusts. Crusts form after rain or irrigation on soils with weak aggregate stability. Surface crusts are an indicator of similar resource concerns as adequate soil cover. Crusts can be evaluated by visual observation after rainfall/irrigation and drying. Note whether crusts are throughout the field or only in patches. Near the surface, the soil will be dense and show layered sediment deposits. Poor crop emergence and uneven stand are also signs of surface crusts. Healthy soils should have surface crusts on 5% or less of the field.
- Evidence of ponding can be another indicator of soil health. Ponding involves areas of the field that collect and hold runoff water from other parts of the field. Ponding may play a role in aggregate instability and surface compaction and can be measured by farmer interview or visual observation after rainfall or irrigation. Note evidence of crop residue deposits, evidence of ponding from observation or on recent aerial photos, and poor crop conditions, especially yellowing. Healthy soils should show evidence of ponding 24 hours or less after a typical rain event.
- Another indicator or soil health is penetration resistance, or management-induced reduction of large pores and degraded structure (i.e., platy) that results in a decrease in root depth, plant growth, and soil biological habitat and activity. Penetration resistance contributes to aggregate instability, organic matter depletion, and surface compaction. To assess this feature of soil structure, one can evaluate multiple representative locations in the field, ideally when the soil moisture is near field capacity, and record the depths of restrictive layers and PSI readings, evaluate root development and distribution, and look for platy structure. In healthy soils, this evaluation should reveal granular structure, appropriate PSI readings, and vertical channels or roots. Health roots show unrestricted root growth and may have many fine roots.
For further description of these soil health indicators, see the NRCS Cropland In-Field Soil Health Assessment Guide Technical Note.
WatchUsing a penetrometer to detect soil compaction, UW Extension Soil Health Indicators: An Introductory Guide for Non-Operating Agricultural Landowners
Learn about a Laboratory Soil Health Assessment
Lab tests will look for different indicators of soil health than in a field assessment. These indicators are standardized and have been chosen for their agronomic relevance. A laboratory test for soil health may evaluate these indicators:
- Soil structural stability and water partitioning. An indicator of aggregate stability, this is an important part of water infiltration and determining available water capacity.
- Soil organic matter cycling is an indicator of soil organic carbon. This assists with carbon cycling and sequestration.
- Carbon food source, as permanganate oxidizable carbon (or active carbon). This active carbon is a source of food for essential soil organisms.
- Microbial activity is an indicator of short-term carbon mineralization, or respiration. This reflects organism activity in the soil.
- Bioavailable nitrogen is an acid citrate extractable protein. This is an indicator of an organically bound, environmentally stable soil nitrogen pool.
For more information on lab indicators of soil health, see the NRCS Technical Note on Recommended Soil Health Indicators and Associated Laboratory Procedures.
Regional calibration of soil health indicators is iterative and is now available for most indicators through the NRCS Soil Testing Conservation Activity 216.
Recognize Soil Health Resource Concerns
Once the properties of the soil have been identified through in-field or laboratory assessment, one can begin to address soil health resource concerns. NRCS defines a resource concern as “an existing or expected degradation of the soil, water, air, plant, or animal resource base to the extent that the sustainability or intended use of the resource is impaired.”
These concerns can be addressed through soil health management planning. There are both short-term and long-term management options for improving soil health. For example, if the soil displays poor aggregate stability, this could be addressed immediately by incorporating fresh organic materials into the soil, using shallow-rooted crops or cover crops in these areas, and adding manure, green manure, or mulch to the field. Longer-term means of improving aggregate stability include reducing tillage, using surface mulch on fields, and rotating sod crops with mycorrhizal host plants. Once the appropriate management practices have been implemented in the field, the next steps are to observe the effects of the new practices and adapt management practices as needed. Conducting soil health assessments periodically allows for ongoing improvement to soil health as management practices are further refined and continually adapted to address the current conditions of the soil.
Beyond helping to address resource constraints, a soil assessment can also:
- Measure soil improvement or degradation from management practices over time
- Facilitate applied research to identify successful soil health measures
- Improve awareness of soil health and its benefits
- Enable valuation of farmland based on management practices
- Inform an assessment of farming system risk
- Enable policy recommendations that are science-based
Soil health management practices, such as no-till and cover cropping, can build carbon levels in the soil in the form of soil organic matter. This organic matter provides nutrients for plants, improves soil structure, helps hold water, and moderates pathogen and pest pressure. These practices also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by drawing carbon into the soil. In this way, soil health management practices can both make soils more resilient and adaptive—a plus for farmers—and mitigate the effects of climate change. COMET, which stands for CarbOn Management Emissions Tool, is an online platform designed for agricultural producers who are interested in adopting climate-beneficial practices. COMET helps producers and those who work with producers to estimate the climate benefits of farm management practices.
Identify Carbon Management Emissions Tool Components
COMET is comprised of several components: COMET-Energy, COMET-Planner, and COMET-Farm. COMET offers many training resources, such as those that can help one decide which COMET component to use. The COMET components continue to be updated regularly.
COMET-Planner is a quick and easy assessment that provides estimates of the GHG mitigation impacts of implementing conservation practices. It is intended to be used for planning purposes. It is based on a larger-scale area, estimating impacts over Major Land Resource Areas (MLRAs). A positive value generated by COMET-Planner represents an increase in carbon sequestered or decrease in GHG emissions. A negative value generated would represent either a decrease in sequestered carbon or an increase in GHG emissions. Watch the COMET-Planner Demonstration for an overview of how to use this tool.
The output of the COMET-Planner calculator will be in tons of CO2 sequestered or released. To make sense of this number, the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator can be used to translate tons of CO2 into more concrete terms, such as the annual CO2 emissions of cars, households, and power plants. This component can be useful in communicating when developing a conservation plan or evaluating targets.
COMET-Farm is an in-depth, site-based, whole farm assessment that accounts for soil properties, weather, farming systems, and management strategies. COMET-Farm can be used for all types of operations, including more complex production systems. The COMET-Farm tool requires more input on the front end, so may take more time to set up, but the reports generated by the tool are more detailed, providing users with projected estimates of baseline “business as usual” emissions, future management scenario emissions, and the change in emissions between these two scenarios.
COMET-Energy allows one to calculate the reductions in GHG emissions based on fuel savings. This would often be used as a supplement to COMET-Planner or COMET-Farm because some of the practices in these tools do not incorporate fuel savings. You can enter annual energy savings in gallons, CCF, or kilowatts and COMET-Energy will generate a summary of energy savings, measured either in MMBTU or CO2-reduced.
The COMET suite has provided the groundwork for additional tools for identifying GHG-reducing agricultural practices. For example, the USDA’s Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry (CSAF) Mitigation Activities List, which includes 13 practices that have a quantifiable mitigative benefit, is informed by the COMET platform. The COMET emissions calculations also inform the Carbon Reduction Potential Evaluation Tool (CaRPE), a tool designed by AFT and ARS scientists to estimate how we can maximize the benefits of soil health practices, including those on the CSAF Mitigation Activities List, by increasing adoption. Estimates can then be scaled-up from the county-level to state, regional, and national levels (see AFT’s CaRPE Briefs for States).
Agricultural Conservation Easements and Referenced Plans to Encourage Soil Health
More information coming soon!