What if farmers could conduct a simple, low-cost test to find out how healthy their soil is and then market their crops with a soil health certification? It might sound futuristic, but thanks to soil scientists and investments by organizations like the Ohio Soybean Council, a new way to evaluate soil health is on the horizon.

Richard Dick is a professor of soil science and microbiology at The Ohio State University who’s been researching soil biology and contributing to the development of a soil quality health system for more than a decade. While his latest soybean checkoff funded project is hyper-focused on determining a method to measure microbial activity consistently across soil types, it plays a critical role in bringing the full system to the field.

“The global goal is to develop a suite of physical, chemical and biological measurements that farmers across the U.S. can use to quickly and easily test their soil quality and to guide them in managing soils sustainably,” said Dick, who works on the biology component of the system. “We are making sure it works for all Ohio’s soils.”

To date, Dick’s research has focused on biological indicators. He’s found that the activity of two soil enzymes, beta-glucosidase and arylsulfatase, are quick and sensitive in detecting soil management. They are also consistent and cost-effective for measuring soil health.

Now, he and his team are taking it a step further by sampling soils on more than 20 farms to see how clay content factors into the equation. The sampling will occur before planting and after harvest over a two-year period.

“Ohio soils range from sandy to loamy, depending on their level of clay. We need to calibrate a method that works independent of soil types,” Dick said.

As Dick and his team analyze the soil samples for enzymes and biology, they will also look for correlations between healthy soils and higher yields. A direct link could provide a greater incentive for farmers to test and adopt new management practices.

This is a great example of how local soybean checkoff investments provide benefits to Ohio farmers that also impact agriculture around the world.

“There is a global concern for degraded soils across the tropics and other developing nations. This system could be used by others to better understand soil health and the effectiveness of their management practices,” said Dick.  

Cover crops are an excellent tool for building soil health. Find expert tips on how to get started with cover crops or ideas for adjusting your current plan in this blog.

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