How do You Define Soil Health?

How do You Define Soil Health?

Christina Curell, Michigan State University

Over the past several years, state and federal agencies and researchers have been trying to come up with a definition for soil health. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” Another definition that is embraced by many is the improved function in terms of crop yield response to inputs, such as fertilizer efficiency.

Different People, Different Definition

soil in a hand

The challenge is that farmers, researchers and general homeowners could all view soil health differently because soil function means different things to them. To a farmer, the primary function of the soil could be to hold enough water, sustain enough nutrients, and provide pest control to produce sustainable crops. To a soil microbiologist, the primary function of soil could be the media that provides food and shelter to soil organisms. To the general homeowner, the primary function of soil could be to provide the nutrients for their lawn and garden. So the question becomes which is correct and why? The answer to that question is not simple. I propose that the answer is that it depends on who you are and what you expect the soil to do for you.

Protect Soil Organisms Regardless

Regardless of your definition of soil health, it is important that the soil biota is protected and nurtured. There are four ideas defined by USDA-NRCS that everyone should consider to ensure healthy soil biota:

  • Keep the soil covered as much as possible.
  • Disturb the soil as little as possible.
  • Keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil.
  • Diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.

Funding support is from North Central Region Water Network. To learn more about how you can build soil health visit the Soil Health Nexus or USDA-NRCS Soil Health site.

Note: This article was originally published by Michigan State University on 3/7/18 and shared here with permission.

Online Master of Science in Agronomy

With a focus on industry applications and research, the online program is designed with maximum flexibility for today's working professionals.

A field of corn.