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
Berries
May 15, 2017
Grower Comments on Pyrethroids Being Sought by EPA
Comment period on popular class of insecticides opens today. Read More
Crop Protection
May 14, 2017
Springtail Is an Unexpected Vegetable Pest
One springtail species is targeting germinating seeds, impacting seedling growth. Read More
Citrus
May 9, 2017
Barn Owls Can be an Effective Control for Rodents and Gophers
The predators are already getting results in vineyards and orchards. Research is showing they’re just as effective in vegetable and fruit fields. Read More
Fruits
May 2, 2017
Penn State Offers Tips To Manage Early Season Orchard Pests
Warm weather has quickly accelerated development of insects. Read More
CEU Series
May 1, 2017
CEU Series: Make Sure to Stow Your Pesticides Before You Go
Your job isn't finished until all pesticides, containers, and equipment have been put away properly. Read More
Crop Protection
April 30, 2017
BASF Adds Pest, Crop, Weather Modeling to Agricultural Intelligence Portfolio
ZedX’s agronomic models help farmers make better production decisions. Read More
Crop Protection
April 29, 2017
BioSafe Systems Introduces Broad-Spectrum Bactericide Fungicide for Specialty Crops
Alternative to potassium bicarbonate and lime sulfur for tree and vine crops. Read More
Crop Protection
April 26, 2017
A Guide to Experts Tips on Vegetable Insect Pests
Here's a resource to quickly reach advice on how to handle insect pests in most regions of the U.S. Read More
UF/IFAS scientist Jonathan Crane inspects avocado trees in South Florida
Crop Protection
April 20, 2017
Beetle Battle Burgeoning for South Florida Avocado Growers
Scientists identify more species of pests that vector deadly fungus. Read More
Alternaria Leaf Spot of Cucurbits
Cucurbits
April 19, 2017
Alternaria Leaf Spot Awareness Can Save Your Cucurbit Crops
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this malady. Read More
Apples & Pears
April 18, 2017
Researchers Say it is Time to Scout for Apple Diseases
With bloom underway, the risk for fire blight and scab are high. Read More
Citrus
April 17, 2017
Natural Enemies for Asian Citrus Psyllid
The eventual spread of Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening, to commercial groves in California seems inevitable. But the devastation seen Read More
Close-up of mature diamondback moth
Crop Protection
April 5, 2017
Biggest Vegetable Insect Threats for 2017
Entomologists across the country share which pests they see as potential problems for vegetable growers this year. Read More
Crop Protection
April 5, 2017
Potato Psyllids are Gaining Resistance to Neonicotinoids
Neonicotionoids, a key weapon in the grower’s arsenal against potato psyllids, is becoming less effective, a team of researchers from Texas Read More
Citrus
April 5, 2017
Chlorpyrifos’ Ban Reversed: Researchers React
Last week, EPA declined to ban the pesticide, which had been recommended for removal during the Obama administration. Read More
The Latest
Crop Protection
May 23, 2017
Valent Grants Organic Farming Scholarshi…
University of Florida Doctor of Plant Medicine student receives $1,500 toward the development of training materials. Read More
Berries
May 15, 2017
Grower Comments on Pyrethroids Being Sou…
Comment period on popular class of insecticides opens today. Read More
Crop Protection
May 14, 2017
Springtail Is an Unexpected Vegetable Pe…
One springtail species is targeting germinating seeds, impacting seedling growth. Read More
Citrus
May 9, 2017
Barn Owls Can be an Effective Control fo…
The predators are already getting results in vineyards and orchards. Research is showing they’re just as effective in vegetable and fruit fields. Read More
Crop Protection
April 30, 2017
BASF Adds Pest, Crop, Weather Modeling t…
ZedX’s agronomic models help farmers make better production decisions. Read More
Crop Protection
April 29, 2017
BioSafe Systems Introduces Broad-Spectru…
Alternative to potassium bicarbonate and lime sulfur for tree and vine crops. Read More
Crop Protection
April 26, 2017
A Guide to Experts Tips on Vegetable Ins…
Here's a resource to quickly reach advice on how to handle insect pests in most regions of the U.S. Read More
Crop Protection
April 20, 2017
Beetle Battle Burgeoning for South Flori…
Scientists identify more species of pests that vector deadly fungus. Read More
Citrus
April 17, 2017
Natural Enemies for Asian Citrus Psyllid
The eventual spread of Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening, to commercial groves in California seems inevitable. But the devastation seen Read More
Crop Protection
April 5, 2017
Biggest Vegetable Insect Threats for 201…
Entomologists across the country share which pests they see as potential problems for vegetable growers this year. Read More
Crop Protection
April 5, 2017
Potato Psyllids are Gaining Resistance t…
Neonicotionoids, a key weapon in the grower’s arsenal against potato psyllids, is becoming less effective, a team of researchers from Texas Read More
Citrus
April 5, 2017
Chlorpyrifos’ Ban Reversed: Resear…
Last week, EPA declined to ban the pesticide, which had been recommended for removal during the Obama administration. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
April 3, 2017
5 Graphics that Show How Biocontrols are…
American Vegetable Grower was curious about how biocontrols are impacting the industry. So we took a look at our State of the Vegetable Industry Survey to see what patterns may emerge. Read More
Biocontrols Conference
April 3, 2017
Silicon: Plant Nutrient and Biocontrol A…
Editor’s note: Wendy Zellner made an in-depth presentation on silicon and its use as a biocontrol agent in vegetable crops Read More
Citrus
March 31, 2017
FMC to Acquire Portion of DuPont Crop Pr…
Deal makes FMC the fifth largest agriculture chemical company, valued at $3.8 billion annually. Read More
Crop Protection
March 31, 2017
New Product Offers 2-in-1 Insect and Dis…
Crossover Pro offers early protection from insects, powdery mildew, rust, and leaf blight. Read More
Citrus
March 30, 2017
EPA Denies Order to Ban Pesticide
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide that controls foliage and soilborne pests. Read More
Crop Protection
March 29, 2017
Yara Recently Opens West Sacramento Faci…
Terminal to help boost the company’s importing of urea. Read More