Although farmers have intuitively understood the importance of soil quality and health for generations, recent efforts have focused on how to better measure and quantify soil health. Here we present information on soil health measurements and indicators, how these assessments are done, and what they can tell you about your soil.
Learning more about your soil is essential to setting realistic goals for maintaining or improving soil health. What properties can be changed and how long will it take? Will the costs outweigh the potential benefits? See our Soil Health Management section for more details on common soil health concerns and management strategies to help you address these.
The Ohio landscape includes a variety of soil types, natural history, and climatic factors which contribute to your soil’s inherent properties. Your soil parentage and recent land use history are important considerations when assessing and setting soil health management goals. To learn more about the soil types where you live or farm, visit the NRCS Web Soil Survey.
Soil Health encompasses physical, biological, and chemical properties of soil. Common assessment methods in each of these areas will help you make sense of what types of information soil tests can provide.
Chemical | Biological | Physical (these 3 links do not work yet; click on them at your own peril.)
We recommend a commercial soil test for any new field or site and every 3-4 years for existing sites. A standard soil test will provide information on your soil pH, cation exchange capacity, and the amounts of various plant nutrients—all critical for guiding decisions on planting, fertilizing, and choosing soil amendments or management tactics. You can take a soil sample any time the ground is not frozen. For those who use lime, gypsum, or manure, soil testing at or near the end of the growing season allows time for soil test results to guide your use of these products. Learn more.
Basic Soil Health Observations
The Ohio Soil Health Card is a handy tool to help track soil health over time. It helps to track several observable characteristics such as structure, drainage, and plant vigor, along with laboratory soil test results. The Soil Health Card also provides guidance about the best times to assess each characteristic. Click here for a printable soil health card, along with descriptions of these general soil characteristics and how to measure them.
Plants vary in their nutrient requirements, optimal pH, and tolerance of standing water or shade. To make the best decisions for planting and soil health management you should be knowledgeable about your plant requirements and your soils’ ability to meet those. Urban gardeners can choose species of vegetables or landscaping plants that are able to thrive in the sunlight and drainge conditions specific to their own backyard conditions. A field crop farmer should make fertilization choices based on the level of nutrients typically used by the last crop grown and the needs of the crop to come. Ohio State offers several resources to help with these decsions. Learn more.