The first page of the digital document

Measuring soil health


April 8, 2020 - Author: ,

Top soil health challenges

  • Erosion
  • Nutrient management
  • Soil compaction
  • Poor crop emergence, disease
  • Poor water infiltration, moisture
  • Poor pore structure (no tilth)

Soil Health

Soil health is defined as the ability of a soil to function

  • Crop yield over time and high response to inputs (fertilizer, seeds)
  • Healthy root systems  Nutrient supply for crops
  • Conservation:
    • Minimal nutrient losses through leaching or volatilization
    • Minimal erosion, resilience to loss from intense rainfall,
  • Water management:
    • Infiltration fast, water doesn’t pond
    • Water storage high, crop resilience to dry spells

Soil organic matter and soil carbon

  • Soil organic matter is closely related to soil organic carbon
  • Soil organic matter also includes hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen and is commonly measured by ignition in a very hot oven (loss = burned up organic material)
  • Soil organic carbon = Combustion or Walkley Black hot acid method Multiply soil carbon X 1.72:

Organic matter (%) = Total organic carbon (%) x 1.72

Soil monitoring LAB: goals and timeframe

What is the primary goal?

  • Crop health?
  • Conservation of soil water and nutrients, efficient use of inputs?
  • Environmental protection?

What is the timeframe?

  • Soil organic matter (organic carbon) requires five or more years to measure change accurately!
  • Crop yield varies with weather and may take five or more years to detect trends, increasing or decreasing
  • Pests and diseases: variable occurrence

Monitor your soil: make a plan

  • Observe crops above and BELOW ground
  • Notice how crops respond by zone not just the field
  • Test your soil the same time each year
  • Set goals and build your soil

Soil health: sample consistently & dig deep 

  • Sample at the same time of year, use same tests over time
  • Less frequent, many samples better practice (once every ~four years comprehensive and include deeper soils, fence rows and multiple zones)
  • Combine five or more samples - shovel or auger samples in a bucket per zone sampling, mix well and subsample
  • Take samples from plow layer, plus deep subsoil samples
  • Dig a pit and make observations, or use a fence posthole

Rules of thumb for measuring soil health

  • Set your goals (nutrient supply, root health, soil organic matter, which is most important?)
  • Be Consistent (sample same zones, same time of year spring or fall, use same soil health tests, same laboratory)
  • Be Patient (often takes four or more years)
  • Use Benchmarks (fence rows, natural areas)


Tags: agriculture, beginning farmer soil, beginning farmer webinar series, farm management, msu extension, soil health

Related Topic Areas

Beginning Farmer Webinar Series, Agriculture, Soil Health, Farm Management


Sieglinde Snapp

Sieglinde Snapp

Accessibility Questions:

For questions about accessibility and/or if you need additional accommodations for a specific document, please send an email to ANR Communications & Marketing at