This quiz is based on observations that farmers make on a daily basis in working with the soil, water, and crops on your farm. Observations include: soil cover, residue breakdown, surface crusting, plant roots, biological activity, soil structure, ponding, penetration and soil color. These observations are used as indicators to give you a generalization about the amount of organic matter and organism habitat in your soil. They will also help you link these observations to potential aggregate instability or compaction of your soil.
The quiz largely draws on questions from the USDA Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) Cropland In-Field Soil Health Assessment Worksheet. The assessment uses “soil health concerns”, such as soil compaction, soil organic matter depletion, soil organism habitat loss or degradation, and lack of soil aggregates and structure.
Use the questions in the quiz to help you identify potential soil health concerns and associated soil health goals for your farm.
Description: Soil compaction results in platy soil structure and restrictive layers which can result in reduced rooting depth/structure, plant growth, biological activity, infiltration and other compounded effects that can negatively impact the healthy functioning of your soil and crops. In agricultural systems soil compaction can develop from repeated wheel or hoof traffic, or repeated tillage at the same depth.
Practices to loosen up compacted soil include: Avoid working in soil when it is wet because soil is most susceptible to compaction when it is saturated. Reducing tillage, leaving crop residue, cover cropping or providing soil cover can prevent the soil surface from sealing and compacting. Keeping the soil covered with growing plants can create roots channels, provide organic matter, and improve infiltration to break up compaction.
Description: Soil organic matter is a vital part of soil. Organic matter acts like a sponge retaining water and nutrients, reduces compaction, and provides food for soil microbes that recycle nutrients and aggregate soils. Soil organic matter (SOM) is formed by the biological, chemical, and physical decay of organic materials below and on top of the soil surface. Adding and increasing your soil’s SOM builds humus. Humus not only holds moisture in the soil, it also stores nitrate, nitrogen, and increases the soils cation exchange capacity (CEC).
Practices to loosen up and build soil organic matter include: Maximizing ground cover, mulching, adding biomass to your field through cover crops, leaving crop residue in the field, and adding carbon-rich inputs such as compost, humates, and products such as vermicast and biochar will increase SOM. Using a diverse mix of ground covers, cover and cash crops can also increase soil flora, accelerate soil regeneration and build SOM levels. However, it can take several growing seasons or years for significant organic matter gains.
Description: Soil aggregates are groups of soil particles that bind to each other more strongly than adjacent particles. Aggregate stability is the capacity of soil aggregates to withstand disruptive forces such as water, wind, or tillage. Stable aggregates improve water holding capacity, infiltration, aeration, and structure promoting root growth and soil organism habitat.
Practices to loosen up and build soil organic matter include: Any practice that increases soil organic matter and biological activity improves aggregate stability. Aggregates form readily in soil receiving organic amendments, such as manure and composts. Cover crops, residue management, and reduced tillage also can improve aggregate stability.
Soil organisms include everything from microscopic cells that digest decaying organic matter to small mammals that live underground. Soil organisms can influence all aspects of soil function including nutrient cycling, pest suppression, water dynamics, and aggregation. Soil organism habitat is improved by providing adequate moisture, aeration, temperature, structure, organic matter, and plant diversity.
Maintaining soil cover improves moisture retention, stabilizes soil temperatures, and reduces erosion. Utilizing cover crops and keeping roots in the ground provides sources of organic matter, promotes aggregation, and improves nutrient retention. Reducing tillage, or using conservation tillage or strip tillage, can limit compaction, maintain soil aggregation, and prevent disruption of mycorrhizal fungi.
Resources to Support Integrating Regenerative Practices to Improve Soil Health
Educational resources to learn more about the soil health goal of increasing soil organic matter
Educational resources to learn more about the soil health goal of increasing aggregate stability
Educational resources to learn more about the soil health goal of decreasing soil compaction
Educational resources to learn more about the soil health goal of increasing soil organism habitat
Technical and financial resources to support the integration of soil health practices on your farm:
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) assistance is available to help farmers and landowners plan and implement conservation practices to improve water quality, build healthier soil, improve grazing and forest lands, conserve energy, enhance organic operations, establish or improve wildlife habitat and achieve other environmental benefits on cropland and pasture, forestland, and associated agricultural land including farmsteads. Popular practices include those that support soil health improvement, such as cover crops and no till; pasture improvement, such as prescribed grazing and watering systems; manure handling and storage systems, such as dry litter and deep litter piggeries; forest improvement, such as invasive species control practices and forest stand improvement; and habitat improvement, such as early successional habitat management.
EQIP applications are accepted on a continuous basis. If a producer’s application is funded, NRCS will offer an EQIP contract for financial assistance to help address the cost of implementing the practices. Payment rates for conservation practices are reviewed and set each fiscal year.
The Conservation Stewardship Program is a voluntary conservation program that helps agricultural producers maintain and improve their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns. Participants earn CSP payments for conservation performance ‐ the higher the performance, the higher the payment. Through CSP, participants take additional steps to improve the resource conditions on their land—including soil, air and habitat quality, water quality and quantity, and energy conservation.
Aggregate – A group of primary soil particles that cohere to each other more strongly than to other surrounding particles resulting from biological, physical, and chemical processes.
Aggregate stability – A measure of the proportion or percentage of the aggregates in a soil that remain intact and do not easily slake, crumble, or disintegrate; Ability of soil aggregates to resist disintegration when disruptive forces associated with tillage and water or wind erosion are applied
Biopore – Soil pores, usually of relatively large diameter, created by plant roots, earthworms, or other soil organisms.
Crust (soil), physical – A surface layer of soils, ranging in thickness from a few millimeters to 3 cm., that physical-chemical processes, in conjunction with the lack of biological aggregation processes, have caused to be much more compact, hard, and brittle when dry than the material immediately beneath it. *Not to be confused with a biological (microbiotic) soil crust.
Hyphae – Filaments of fungal cells. Many hyphae constitute a mycelium.
Resource concern – An 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.
Rhizosheath – Structures composed of mucilage and soil particles that form a cylinder around the root.
Fencerow – an uncultivated strip of land on each side of and below a fence.
Soil Compaction – process in which stress applied to a soil causes densification as air is displaced from the pores between the soil grains. This lowers soil porosity and increases the bulk density of soil.
Soil organic matter (SOM) – The organic component of soil, consisting of three primary parts including small (fresh) plant residues and small living soil organisms, decomposing (active) organic matter, and stable organic matter (humus).
Soil organism habitat loss or degradation – Quantity, quality, diversity or connectivity of food, cover, space, shelter and/or water is inadequate to meet requirements of soil organisms and other beneficials
Platy structure – Soil particles aggregated in thin plates or sheets piled horizontally on one another. Plates often overlap, greatly impairing water circulation.
Penetration resistance – a soil attribute that identifies areas with restrictions due to compaction, which results in mechanical impedance for root growth and reduced crop yield. Resistance is the result of cohesive forces between individual soil particles and frictional resistance met by particles that are forced to slide over one another or to ride out of interlocking positions in order to make way for growing roots
Soil health goal – articulating management objectives to achieve changes in resource concerns
Soil health practice – production and land management methods that consider different aspects of soil maintenance
Soil structure – Arrangement of the solid parts of the soil (sand, silt, clay particles) and of the pore spaces located between them
Ponding – Standing water in a closed depression. The water is removed only by deep percolation, transpiration, or evaporation or by a combination of these processes.
Crop residue – Plant material remaining after harvesting, including leaves, stalks, roots.