What makes a soil “healthy”?

  

“The key to soil health is to strike the right balance between all of these components.”

Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of a soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.

According to Dr. Nick Goeser, executive director of the Soil Health Partnership, there are three major components that determine the quality or “health” of a soil: 

Physical: The ability of the soil to hold water; the
overall stability of the aggregate; the physical nature of the soil in terms of its texture, structure and compaction.

Biological: The presence of beneficial bacteria and fungi; organic matter such as roots and decaying vegetation; living organisms such as worms and insects.

Chemical: Levels of fertility including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients; soil pH; and the soil’s cation exchange capacity, a measure of the “electrical” environment within soil that determines its ability to retain water and nutrients.

About 45% of a healthy soil is actually porous space made up of air or water. That’s the space where plant root systems can grow and where beneficial microbes can thrive.

“The key to soil health is to strike the right balance between all of these components,” Goeser said. “There is no one solution that works for all fields since soil types and characteristics vary greatly–even within the same field. But helping farmers better understand what impacts soil health and how they can better manage their soils is a huge step in terms of sustainability of this precious resource.”

Nick Groeser
executive director of the Soil Health Partnership

Standing in a soil pit near Shelby, Neb., Dr. Nick Goeser of the Soil Health Partnership speaks to a group of farmers about ways to improve soil quality.

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