The Meaning of Soil Health Testing and the Big Picture

This submission is courtesy of Dr. Caley Gasch, Assistant Professor of Soil Health, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. It was originally published in the AGVISE Newsletter Winter 2017.

Multiple definitions of “soil health” exist. In general, they all recognize that soil is a complex system, with interacting physical, chemical, and biological factors, which should be managed in a manner that sustains its function and integrity over the long term. Conceptually, soil health is a topic that is easy to understand and support.

Yet, it has been difficult to capture this definition with measurements. Soil scientists can choose from hundreds of field- or laboratory-based methods to quantify different properties in the soil, but there is no single best test for assessing soil health. Research and commercial labs and focus groups across the country have compiled lists of properties that are being used to assess soil health, but we still have a lot to learn about how these suites of measurements can guide management decisions.

As much as we desire hard numbers that support the concept of soil health, I argue that we should keep the big picture in mind. Last summer, I heard a perfect analogy that demonstrates the disparity between the concept of soil health and the push for soil health testing. The idea solidified for me on a recent doctor visit.

You visit your doctor for a routine check-up. The doctor will ask you about your lifestyle: How often do you exercise? Do you smoke? What do you eat? How many drinks do you have per week? Which medications are you taking? What is your family history? They’ll take your weight, pulse, blood pressure, and temperature. They may order a few more tests, and they’ll most likely give you some advice: Wear sunscreen, eat more oatmeal, and come back in a year.

The doctor learns something from your vital signs and can compare them to the past; however, the doctor learns more about your overall health after understanding your eating habits and levels of activity. After all, it wouldn’t be good practice for the doctor to prescribe blood pressure medication solely based on a single blood pressure reading, or claim to know your heart condition based on your pulse alone (what if you ran up a flight of stairs on your way to the doctor’s office?). You are not given a mathematical health score or rank. The doctor knows that your body is a complex system, and that to understand its overall condition, we need to consider how you care for yourself, any risky behaviors, and the results of some routine tests. Certainly, if you have a specific complaint, or if the doctor identifies a particular problem, appropriate tests are available to diagnose and monitor the malady.

I propose that we take a similar approach to soil health. First, understand the “lifestyle” of a soil: What is the rotation? What kind of tillage do you use and how frequently? Do you ever use cover crops? What is your fertility plan? What are the “genetic” limitations of the soil? Second, identify specific barriers to overall health: salinity, erosion, poor drainage, disease issues, etc. Third, identify areas for improvement, address them with a lifestyle adjustment, and develop a monitoring plan to track specific problem areas, realizing that it may take a few years to see change.

For humans and soils alike, we know that there are certain risk factors associated with health and condition. We know a great deal about how practices influence soil properties,
and we don’t usually need a test to detect whether or not a practice is healthy. The testing becomes meaningful only after we focus on a specific challenge area, which will differ from person to person and from field to field. Targeted testing and acute treatments are useful and necessary, but they should not be the basis for managing a complex system.

I’m grateful that soil health is a popular topic, because it is helping us all to think about soil in a way that recognizes its true value and potential. But I challenge us to remember our overall goal for soil health, rather than focusing solely on the vital signs. Approach each field with a broad view, understanding that it is a unique case that reflects its own history and management. From this perspective, we can identify and adopt practices that will protect our soil and improve its value throughout our region.