Building Soil Health Potential


In production agriculture, soil health can be broadly defined as the ability of the soil to perform to its agronomic potential. For hundreds of years, many societies failed to consider soil as the foundation of an environmentally sound sustainable web of life.  Ignoring the essential roles of millions of species of soil organisms (fungus, algae, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, etc.) was another critical oversight in understanding soil as a living breathing organism.  While physical properties and chemical nutrients were extensively studied, little consideration was given to the soil biological component until most recently.


 The introduction of chemical fertilizers following WWII and the subsequent replacement of draft animals by mechanization followed by synthetic pesticides provided major changes in US production management strategies.  Eventually, crop diversity was replaced by monocultures or short-term crop rotations for temporary improved economic gain.  This change in management strategies provided considerable neglect to soil biological impact, reductions in soil health potential and the subsequent negative long-term legacy effect.  




Soil health research and understanding continues to improve through scientific interest and newer methodologies and technologies. Now management strategies should focus on the benefits of utilizing new soil tillage and crop management practices, such as cover crops, specifically designed to more closely imitate natural ecosystems.  The resulting effect has shown reduced need for herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, thus reducing farming costs while improving environmental quality. Building soil health is a legacy that can be passed on through the generations.  The scientific challenge is quantifying the impact of various management decisions and their impact on building soil health potential.




Studies by Veum (2014) (Figure 1), indicated that soil health potential is a continuum which improves with perennial vegetation including grasses and legumes; a reduced tillage/soil disturbance; incorporation of livestock grazing and manure into the system; increased rotation diversity including cash crops and forages; and cover crops for increased soil cover and diversity of the microbial population.  Utilizing all of these options for improving soil health may not be practical in every management scenario.  However, implementing some of these considerations in an integrated and diversified systems-management approach will likely improve soil health potential and benefit production agricultural overall. Predicting soil performance requires a better understanding of the relationship between various soil properties and the potential for improved management decisions.




  Research has confirmed that biologically diverse systems are much more resilient in the face of environmental stresses.  Reliance upon current production system during times of increased weather variability, especially increased frequency and duration of drought, is a potential recipe for economic and environmental disaster. It is expected that along with the new interest in Soil Health, increased rigorous research will help guide producers in best management practices to improve our nation’s food security while increasing environmentally sustainable agriculture production for generations.

Figure 1.  Continuum of soil health in various systems (Veum et al. 2014). {Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Corn (C), Soybean (S), Continuous Tillage (CT)}




Veum, K.S., R.J. Kremer, K.A. Sudduth, N.R. Kitchen, R.N. Lerch, C. Baffaut, D.E. Stott, D.L. Karlen, and E.J. Sadler. 2015. Conservation Effects on Soil Quality Indicators in the Missouri Salt River Basin. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 70:232-246.

Source: Todd Lorenz, MU Extension Agronomy Specialist