Soil Health is Much More than Nutrient Levels

Apple tree roots grow through a bark mulch in this USDA-SARE funded research project (LS13-258) being conducted by Greg Peck. (Photo credit: Greg Peck)

We asked Thomas Björkman, Associate Professor of Vegetable Crop Physiology at Cornell University, who is involved with Cornell’s Soil Health Testing Laboratory, and Gregory Peck, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Fruit Production Systems at Cornell University, to answer questions about the lab’s Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health tests and the importance of knowing more than just your soil’s nutrient levels to produce healthy crops.

Q: Why would growers bother to go further than just knowing their soil’s nutrient levels?

Greg Peck

Björkman: These tests let you know what aspects of soil tilth need management attention in order to maintain the productivity of your land. While many growers feel the soil in their hand, or even smell and taste it, the biological and physical quality of the soil has still declined. A lot of on-farm research has shown, and participating growers have recognized, that instrumental tests of this important soil quality results in more effective management decisions.

 

Peck: Our understanding of the relationship between soil and plant productivity has increased greatly over the last several decades. Nutrient management plans used to be based on an input-output model for macro and micronutrients. We now know that soil biological and physical properties contribute to the well-being of the target crop, as well as the rest of the agroecosystem. The Cornell Soil Health tests provide growers with a suite of tests to develop more comprehensive nutrient plans. However, tree fruit producers should know that most of the recommendations target annual cropping systems. Developing recommendations for perennial fruit systems is an active area of research in my lab.

Q: What are the key differences between Cornell’s new soil tests and the other tests currently available?
Björkman: Measurement of physical and biological properties of the soil has been around for some time. The Cornell Soil Health team set out to develop tests that met several criteria. First, they had to be relatively inexpensive and relatively fast to do. Second, they needed to be repeatable, so that growers could collect samples with reasonable constraints on time and soil condition. Third, they needed to be agronomically important and accurately reflect the conditions that growers are trying to manage. The assessment team has been using big data methods to use the thousands of sample results to help interpret what the values mean. I find that interpretation — essentially into the general categories of bad, fair, and good — to be especially valuable. The current tests balance those criteria to provide a package that gives growers information they can act on at a reasonable cost.

 

Thomas Björkman

Q: Why should growers measure their soil’s organic nitrogen and microbial activity?
Björkman: The organic nitrogen is the bank of mineralizable nitrogen that the crop can draw from in the coming seasons. The microbial activity reflects the amount of microbes present to mineralize the nitrogen and performs other valuable soil-improving functions.

 

Peck: Exactly. The idea is to let the microbes make nitrogen available for the crops so growers don’t need to apply as much fertilizer.

Q: The new soil tests often prescribe two management practices to improve soil health: reducing tillage and increasing soil-building through cover crops. What do growers gain by doing both?
Björkman: Tillage provides a short-term benefit to crop growth, but causes a long-term decline. Tillage does two detrimental things: It breaks up soil aggregates and it causes organic matter to be respired quickly. Reducing tillage slows the decline of both measures of soil health.

Cover crops increase the amount of organic matter that goes into the soil, and the living roots cause new aggregates to form. Cover crops can be chosen that meet those goals to complement vegetable crops that leave little residue or are weak aggregators.

These two practices can be complementary if cover crops are used to do some of the soil loosening and weed suppression that would otherwise require tillage. It would be valuable if growers could change to low-tillage approaches before their soil health has declined and they have committed to a lot of equipment to a high-tillage production system. Having a test like this can give growers advance warning that the soil condition is heading in the wrong direction.

Peck: Perennial crops have certain inherent advantages over annual cropping systems for maintaining soil health. For example, there is little to no soil tillage after the orchard has been planted and plant cover often exists year round in the row middles, which account for up to 75% of the land area.

Conversely, there is no crop rotation, and soil organic matter additions through cover crops, composts, and mulches are typically not practiced by larger-scale conventional growers. Developing management practices and recommendations for increasing organic matter in orchards can support tree fruit growers economically through more efficient fertilizer use and ecologically by developing healthier soils that reduce negative environmental impacts.

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

7 comments on “Soil Health is Much More than Nutrient Levels

  1. About 10 years ago, growers started using cover crops in California. There seems to be less now though. I believe it is because they have been unable to demonstrate real life yield increases or fertilizer savings. It all sounds good but does it make sense economically.

  2. I fully acknowledge the above. As i have been fully associated with soil health improvement programe.
    Many grower in africa hold the farm on lease, therefore these farmers use short term approtch and do not care for proper use of micra n mocro nutrients.
    In fact cover crop is beneficial on many account, Like improvement of soil health due to continoue addition of organik matter, which further improve in moisture holding capacity too.
    Dr Vishwakarma

  3. I would like to know more about soil test for microbial activity, how to conduct such test? What is reasonable cost of such test, we have products and kits for conducting soil, water and leaf extract analysis at very reasonable cost.

    But we don’t have anything on hand to check the microbial activity level of soil.

    We belive that farming is not growing crops but growing your soil, in such process crop becomes the by-product.

  4. From experience a combination of soil management for the long term and an input-output model for the short term gain is sustainable!

Crop Protection Stories
Laurel wilt-damaged avocado tree leaves
Disease Control
September 15, 2017
Scientist Uncovers Chilling Side of Deadly Avocado Disease
Lab tests indicate laurel wilt pathogen grows faster in the fall and winter. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 13, 2017
Get Better Results From Your Biopesticide Program
Softer crop protection programs are becoming a must in specialty crop production. Growers who aren’t learning more about their options Read More
Packinghouse damage from Irma at SWFREC in Immokalee
Citrus
September 13, 2017
Florida Farmers Digging out From Impacts of Irma
Damage reports starting to flood in from the field following monster storm, and it's not pretty. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 11, 2017
The Grower’s Take: Citrus, HLB, and Biological Control
Uncle Matt’s Organic orange juice brand has enjoyed steady growth since its 2002 inception. The brand’s success is due to Read More
Insect Control
September 6, 2017
Vegetable Pest Populations Can Soar in High Tunnels, Study Shows
High tunnels alone are not enough to control pest populations, the study shows. To control pest levels, growers need to take other steps that allow ventilation while screening crops, and supporting natural predators. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 1, 2017
Dispelling the Rumors: Using Biologicals and Biochemicals in IPM Programs
Whether you’re a grower, packer, processor, or retailer, you have experienced the dramatic shift in consumer preference for sustainable practices Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 1, 2017
Silicon: a Biocontrol Agent that Boosts Plant Immunity
Quality and profitability are two important factors that drive our agricultural markets. We have fine-tuned our cultivation processes over centuries Read More
CEU Series
September 1, 2017
CEU Series: Protect Crops and the Environment
Pay mind to your surroundings by practicing proper pesticide use. Read More
two-spotted spider mite
Citrus
August 25, 2017
California EPA Seeking to Review Chlorpyrifos
Department of Pesticide Regulation, Office of Environmental Health pursuing health protections. Read More
fall armyworm
Insect Control
August 24, 2017
Stop Fall Armyworm from Getting the Drop on Your Sweet Corn Crop
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this notorious pest. Read More
Assorted vegetables
Crop Protection
August 23, 2017
New Biological Fungicide Approved for Fruit and Vegetable Crops
Howler fungicide, developed by AgBiome, receives EPA registration for high-value, specialty crops. Read More
Insect Control
August 22, 2017
Stink Bug Threatens High-Dollar Crops in California
While populations are low, it appears invasive pest has recently stumbled upon the state’s peaches and almonds. Read More
Crop Protection
August 11, 2017
Do Fungicide- and Insecticide-Treated Seeds Boost Weeds?
The University of New Hampshire has received half a million dollars to investigate if seed treatments inadvertently protect weed seeds from its usual predators. Read More
Citrus
August 11, 2017
Field Scouting Guide: Common Lambsquarters
Take a look at these tips for identifying and treating this pervasive weed. Read More
Crop Protection
August 9, 2017
Why Some of the Most Dangerous Potato Diseases are Successful
If you understand the role oxygen, and its lack, plays in potato diseases, you'll be better equipped to battle them. Read More
The Latest
Biocontrols Conference
September 13, 2017
Get Better Results From Your Biopesticid…
Softer crop protection programs are becoming a must in specialty crop production. Growers who aren’t learning more about their options Read More
Citrus
September 13, 2017
Florida Farmers Digging out From Impacts…
Damage reports starting to flood in from the field following monster storm, and it's not pretty. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 11, 2017
The Grower’s Take: Citrus, HLB, and Biol…
Uncle Matt’s Organic orange juice brand has enjoyed steady growth since its 2002 inception. The brand’s success is due to Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 1, 2017
Dispelling the Rumors: Using Biologicals…
Whether you’re a grower, packer, processor, or retailer, you have experienced the dramatic shift in consumer preference for sustainable practices Read More
Biocontrols Conference
September 1, 2017
Silicon: a Biocontrol Agent that Boosts …
Quality and profitability are two important factors that drive our agricultural markets. We have fine-tuned our cultivation processes over centuries Read More
Citrus
August 25, 2017
California EPA Seeking to Review Chlorpy…
Department of Pesticide Regulation, Office of Environmental Health pursuing health protections. Read More
Crop Protection
August 23, 2017
New Biological Fungicide Approved for Fr…
Howler fungicide, developed by AgBiome, receives EPA registration for high-value, specialty crops. Read More
Crop Protection
August 11, 2017
Do Fungicide- and Insecticide-Treated Se…
The University of New Hampshire has received half a million dollars to investigate if seed treatments inadvertently protect weed seeds from its usual predators. Read More
Citrus
August 11, 2017
Field Scouting Guide: Common Lambsquarte…
Take a look at these tips for identifying and treating this pervasive weed. Read More
Crop Protection
August 9, 2017
Why Some of the Most Dangerous Potato Di…
If you understand the role oxygen, and its lack, plays in potato diseases, you'll be better equipped to battle them. Read More
Crop Protection
August 3, 2017
Can Avocados Be Saved from Deadly Laurel…
Scientists from Florida and California are on the case and collaborating. Read More
Crop Protection
August 2, 2017
Report: 90% of NY Beehives Had Varroa Mi…
Cornell University's NYS Beekeeper Tech Team recent report also shows most hives are infected with Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), a disease linked to the mites. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
July 31, 2017
11 New Biocontrol Products You Need to K…
One of the highlights of the Biocontrols Conference & Expo Series is getting an early look at some of the Read More
Crop Protection
July 25, 2017
Vegetable Field Scouting Guide: Diamondb…
Due diligence is needed to help take down this pest of biblical proportions. Read More
Citrus
July 23, 2017
USDA Invests $7.6 Million toward Benefic…
Projects to promote beneficial organisms as part of a pest control strategy. Read More
Citrus
July 12, 2017
Tomato Pests Can Be Induced to Cannibali…
The University of Wisconsin's John Orrock says when beet armyworms are exposed to concentrations of methyl jasmonate, they will abandon eating tomatoes — and start eating one another. Read More
Citrus
July 12, 2017
USDA Pulls 8 Products from Approved Orga…
After a few months of speculation, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has published its Sunset 2017 final rule on approved products for organic production and handling. Read More
Crop Protection
June 25, 2017
Study Suggests Closer-Proximity Lures He…
Research shows single-trap locations are not as effective as those kept close together. Read More