North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements

The concept of soil health is gaining widespread attention because it promotes agricultural practices that are not only good for the farmer and rancher, but also good for the environment.

An abundance of research shows that improving soil health:

  • boosts crop yield,
  • enhances water quality,
  • increases drought resilience,
  • reduces greenhouse gas emissions,
  • increases carbon sequestration,
  • provides pollinator habitat, and
  • builds disease suppression.

However, lack of widely-applicable measurements and methods for assessing soil health are significant barriers to adopting soil health practices and systems. Read the full release and see the complete list of indicators and methods here.

One Step Closer To Measuring Soil Health

The Soil Health Institute has announced initial methods for creating standard measurements of soil health.

Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Steven Shafer tells Brownfield there is currently no universal way to measure soil health. “We hope to eventually be in a position to be able to undertake what we would call a national soil health assessment and really look at what’s happening in terms of status and trends in soil health across the United States.”

He says the Institute has defined tier one and tier two indicators of soil health, and a round table of experts have come to a consensus on how to measure them. Shafer says the next step is putting the methods into practice. “We will test these indicators and methods on sites where there has been long-term agricultural experimentation, so we know the history of the specific land management practices and test them, so we can see which ones really tells us something.”

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and partnering organizations have invested nearly $20 million in the project to help the industry adopt standard soil health measurements and enhance economic and environmental benefits for farmers.

Listen to the Interview here.

Earth Day Calls for Conservation

Opinion: Earth Day calls for conservation that starts from the ground up – literally

This Earth Day, it may be the earth right under our feet that matters most. While we do not think about it often, our soil impacts almost every element of our daily lives, from the food we eat and the water we drink, to the health of our local economies. Just ask any farmer, who will tell you that healthy soil is good for farms, farmers and farming communities because it leads to more productive farmland, cleaner water and a stronger agricultural economy.

Here in the Midwest, row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat are the cornerstone of the region’s economy, generating more than $120 billion in revenue annually. But, over the decades, growing these crops has taken a heavy toll on farms and the quality of the water that surrounds them.

Since the mid-1800s, agricultural soils in the U.S. have lost up to 60 percent of their original carbon content. This has altered the Midwestern landscape by exacerbating loss of key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that farmers add to the soil in the form of fertilizer. These nutrients are essential to growing soybeans and corn but are often unintentionally lost to rivers and streams, where they become pollutants and waste farmers’ money.

Today, in regions like the Mississippi River Basin, up to 40 percent of all streams are impaired, many from excess nutrients. Ultimately, these nutrients end up in the Gulf of Mexico and create ‘dead zones’ where fish and marine life can’t survive.

But this isn’t just about the environment; it’s about our economy. Losing nutrients into rivers and streams is bad for farm economics, and long-term profitability and prosperity of farms. However, many farmers have found that environmentally-friendly tactics that improve water quality also build soil health and also their bottom lines.

Read the Full Article Here:—literally

Earth Day 2018

Enriching Soil, Enhancing Life

Farmers, ranchers and other agribusiness professionals have the privilege of celebrating Earth Day every day.

On Earth Day 2018, we are both challenged and excited. We look forward to seeing what we’ll all accomplish together!


Decaying material, mostly from plants, makes up about 85% of all carbon-containing organic matter in our soils. This material includes everything from lawn trimmings to crop residue to animal manures. Roots, microbes and other decaying biological materials contribute a lot, too.


A stable, high level of organic matter in our soil gives us multiple rewards. Biologically, organic matter serves as a nutrient supermarket for living soil organisms and helps suppress diseases and pests by stimulating the soil’s microbial activity and diversity.

Soil organic matter physically improves our soil in a lot of different ways. Did you know soil can be a great water filter and serve as a gigantic rain barrel at the same time? And that these benefits are enhanced by soil organic matter?

What Does Organic Matter Contribute to Our Soil?

  • Holds soil together
  • Stores and helps recycle important nutrients that keep us healthy
  • Improves soil’s ability to store water
  • Improves the movement of air, nutrients, and water down through the soil to the plant roots
  • Stores carbon that was captured from the atmosphere by plant photosynthesis and makes it available as food for microorganisms, which then recycle the other nutrients for plants, animals and humans
  • Reduces runoff and erosion, protecting our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans
  • Cleans up our water and helps filter numerous pollutants, including heavy metals


Microbes that cause many diseases in humans spend a lot of their time hanging around in soil, waiting for their next host.  For example, we know that at least 300 out of more than 100,000 species of soil fungi cause disease in humans. (Source: Bultman et al. 2005) Some pathogens are even favored by unhealthy soil and soil under drought stress, such as Valley Fever, Cholera, and Fungal Meningitis.

There are many other ways that soil health and human health are connected:

  • Soil health influences the nutrient composition of crops that make up many of the foods we eat.
  • Soil health influences the movement and survival of microbes that can be a hazard to food safety.
  • Soil health influences which microbes inhabit our digestive system and affect how we absorb nutrients from food.
  • Soil health influences the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe.

So here’s to our soil…..not just something to walk on, but something that helps keep us healthy!


Bacteria and fungi found in soil make many of the antibiotics you’ve taken to cure infections, like penicillin, streptomycin, actinomycin, neomycin, and vancomycin.  And now, there’s an antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-battling drug that was generated from a Maine soil sample. Called teixobactin, this antibiotic kills methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and mycobacterium tuberculosis! (Source: Nature 2015)

It’s exciting to realize there are up to 1 billion bacterial cells in each gram (think a quarter of a teaspoon) of soil.  (Source:  Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.) To date, we’ve cataloged only about 1% of all soil microorganisms – fungi, protozoa, bacteria….  That means, we’re just starting to unlock the potential impact of healthy soil on people’s health.


Did you know about 815 million people (11% of the world’s population in 2016) are considered under-nourished? (Source:  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.)

Yet 18 elements considered essential for life are obtained from the soil underneath our farms and ranches. (Sources: Brevik 2013a, Nature Education 2014).  Agricultural experts are working to increase the plant uptake of these important earthly elements. Plant breeding and soil management improvements may help us produce up to 50% more food in the future. And, we’re working to strengthen the nutritional value of our food, too. (Source:  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.)


We can build up our soil and, as a result, water our lawns, gardens and farm fields less often!

Healthy soil that has a lot of organic matter can store up to 20x its weight in water.  (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization.)

If a soil with low organic matter content can get just another 1% of its weight in those carbon-containing substances from crop debris, animal manure, etc., in the top 6 inches of soil, we increase the volume of water stored by up to 27,000 gallons an acre!  (Source:  USDA-NRCS.) Based on climate data for the northeastern U.S., the probability of having an 8-day dry period is only 1 in 20 (5%), so imagine the impact of 27,000 gallons of water held in an acre-wide soil sponge! (Source:  Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE)). One long-term experiment showed that reducing tillage and using crop rotations increased plant-available soil-stored water by up to 34%. (Source: Moebius et al. (2008)​.

Soil organic matter……won’t make it rain, but it sure helps the soil hold on to the rain it gets!

Soil Health Affects Three Legs of Ag

From Agri-View;

The role of soil health in enhancing human health will receive increasing attention in the next several years. That increased focus will affect three main legs of agriculture – research, business and production. Panelists discussed the current and future effects of soil health at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, held March 20-21 in San Francisco.

Agricultural research – The Soil Health Institute has listed as a priority establishing and expanding the state of knowledge on relationships between soil health and human health. That priority was described in the “Soil Health Institute Action Plan,” published in May 2017. Interdisciplinary research is needed on how soil-health-management systems influence sustainable nutrition. Those systems impact plant-nutrient availability and uptake as well as the nutritional quality of food, the Soil Health Institute stated.

The Soil Health Institute is comprised of leaders from agribusiness, farms, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. It identifies and prioritizes gaps in soil-health research and develops strategies for funding that research.

Agricultural business – The increasing focus on soil health is attracting startup businesses and the investment community. As evidence, several entrepreneurs and investors attended the “Monetizing the Microbiome” panel discussion at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit.

William Buckner, president and CEO of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation of Ardmore, Oklahoma, moderated the discussion.

“Healthy soil is becoming more of a focal point in the foundation of creating a healthy ecosystem,” Buckner said.

But currently there are limitations to the agricultural industry’s understanding of the relationships between soil health and human health, he said. Buckner also serves as the chairman of the board of the Soil Health Institute.

Those limitations are resources, technologies and – to a degree – acceptance by land-grant universities to make soil health a greater priority, he said.

Read the Full Article:

Wrangler Shows Economic Benefits of Sustainable Cotton Farming

From the Environmental Leader

Wrangler analyzed dozens of scientific studies to show that sustainable cotton farming techniques improve crop yields and reduce costs while slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

For the new report, called “Seeding Soil’s Potential,” Wrangler’s soil health advisors reviewed more than 45 scientific papers and reviews from academic, government, and industry researchers, the company says. Expert input came from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Nature Conservancy, and the Soil Health Institute.

In the US, cotton is farmed on around 12.5 million acres, accounting for 16% of global production, the company says. The denim manufacturer concluded that practicing sustainable cotton farming techniques results in the removal of three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere compared to conventional farming methods.

“Conventional cotton cultivation practices disturb and degrade the soil with tillage, bare soil surfaces, chemical inputs, and continuous monoculture crop production,” the report says. “The value of strong and healthy soil can be underestimated, but there is burgeoning interest across the supply chain, from farmers to brands, to implement practices that build and protect the soil.”

Techniques highlighted in Wrangler’s report:

  • Conservation tillage includes practices that reduce soil disturbance and maintain a minimum of 60% residue cover on the soil surface throughout the year. “Conservation tillage can reduce the number of equipment passes required in the field, saving time and money,” the report says. Other benefits include a reduction in overall machinery costs and less maintenance.
  • Cover crops produce biomass above and below the ground, reduce erosion and nutrient loss, and enhance the soil structure and composition. “These cover crops are not typically harvested and are terminated prior to cotton planting with an herbicide treatment or by crimping the plant,” the report notes. Multiple benefits include nutrient cycling.
  • Conservation crop rotations can pay off over the long-term with greater cotton yields, lower production costs, and increased environmental benefits compared to continuous monoculture cropping. “[I]t is a well-accepted approach to manage pests and diseases and reduce the demand for herbicides,” the report says. Diverse crops also provide value by increasing diversity below ground, resulting in a more resilient soil.

Wrangler introduced a soil health program last year aimed at bolstering the supply of sustainable cotton and encouraging wider adoption of responsible farming practices. That program now includes cotton producers from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

Read the full story:

What’s the Big Deal about Soil? Everything

Your Soil is home to most of the Biodiversity in the World. Keeping it Healthy will Keep you and your cows Healthy, too.
By Robert Fears

Soil health has become a frequent topic of conversation and for good reason—it’s the basic element of the cattle industry. Healthy soil grows abundant forage which keeps cattle producing in good body condition. Unhealthy soils can cause ranchers to file for bankruptcy.

“Soil health is the capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans,” says Steven Shafer, chief scientific officer with the Soil Health Institute. “Key words in this definition are vital and living. Soil health is vital to our livelihood and soil is alive with physical, chemical and biological components.”

Physical component

“Soil has structure, which is the arrangement of primary particles into secondary units called aggregates. Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles held together by moist clay, organic matter, polysaccharide gums produced by bacteria and fungi and fungal hyphae (strands),” says Dennis Chessman, Southeastern regional soil health team leader, NRCS Soil Health Division.

“Pores between aggregates contain water and air and allow roots to grow. Structure affects water infiltration, water holding capacity, water and air movement, nutrient availability and root growth,” he explains.

An example of poor soil structure is plating, which is horizontal layers of soil particles created by compaction or lack of root growth. Plating prevents downward movement of water, nutrients and roots and reduces soil productivity.

“Soil texture is the percent of sand, silt and clay particles and determines water holding capacity,” Shafer says. “Water is lost to deep percolation below root zones in sandy soils, whereas clay soils hold water too tightly for it to be available to plants. Available water capacity occurs in medium textured soils between levels of field capacity and wilting point.”

Read the Full Story:

DNA Testing, Biocarbon And Custom Microbes:

How These Startups Are Improving Soil Health

There’s increased pressure being placed on farmers to improve crop yields in order to feed a booming global population. But increasing those yields has become harder in the past few decades, which have seen increasing degradation of the health of an essential component of agriculture: the soil itself. That declining health is in large part due to a loss of organic matter in the soil – decomposing plants, microbes, and other essential parts of the ecosystem.

“In many of the soils that we’re dependent on, we’ve lost 40-60% of its organic matter,” explained Dr. Wayne Honeycutt of the Soil Health Institute. “That’s important because it’s critical for water holding, filtration in soil, and enhancing nutrient availability.”

There’s hope on the horizon, though. In recent years, a number of startups have emerged to improve the health of soil – in the process helping farmers and ranchers improve yields and save money.

“There’s a great opportunity here,” explained Honeycutt. “When you look to improve soil health, it’s beneficial for farmers and the environment. When you can increase that soil organic carbon by 1%, you increase capacity to hold water from 2500 to 12000 gallons per acre. That means a lot for farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to withstand drought and stay in business.”

Here’s a look at just a few of the new startups moving into the space of soil health.

Read the Full Article Here:

Position Announcement

Soil Health Liaison

Part-Time, Term: 1 to 3 years
The Soil Health Institute – Research Triangle Park, NC

The Soil Health Institute (SHI), a non-profit organization created to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soil through scientific research and advancement, seeks a Soil Health Liaison. This part-time position (estimated 12-20 hours per week) is a 1-3 year term appointment, renewable per annual performance contracts. The incumbent will serve as a central SHI liaison to numerous stakeholder Action Teams who volunteer their time and expertise to advance soil health.

Duties include:

  • Regularly organizing and facilitating video-conferences/face-to-face meetings with numerous Action Teams to advance SHI priorities in research, measurements, economics, communications/education, and policy;
  • Serving as a positive, helpful contact for ensuring strategies for advancing soil health are implemented in a timely manner;
  • Coordinating and communicating Action Team needs and progress to SHI leadership;
  • Preparing reports documenting progress of all Action Teams for distribution via SHI’s newsletter, website, and social media outlets; and
  • Assisting SHI staff with travel, meeting, and other logistics, as requested.

Experience that has clearly demonstrated proficiency in personal relationship skills and organizational skills, while working with groups of individuals is required. At least one college degree in a Natural Resources related field (e.g., Soil Science, Environmental Management/Science, Agronomy, Ecology, Economics, etc.) is desired. The position is located at the Soil Health Institute’s office near Research Triangle Park, NC. Compensation to be commensurate with experience. To apply, email a letter of application addressing the experience required, curriculum vitae, college transcripts and the names/contact information of four references to Mr. Byron Rath: Please include “Soil Health Liaison” in the email subject line. First review of applications will begin on April 22, 2018, but the position will remain open until filled.

Steven Shafer, soil scientist interview

Steven Shafer is Chief Scientific Officer at the Soil Health Institute, which aims “to be to soil what NASA is to space.” He spent 33 years at the USDA Agricultural Research Service before coming to the institute.

Shafer studies the “phytobiome”—the environment that plants inhabit along with their surrounding organisms—and how it influences soil health. Shafer thinks that studying the phytobiome can help solve a potential food crisis: Currently, the world’s population of 7 billion people are fed by arable land that comprises 10 percent of Earth’s land mass. By 2050, it is estimated there will be 9.7 billion people, but crop yields are peaking. To counter this problem, Shafer says scientists should consider the numerous factors that affect crop yields, such as insects, microbes, weeds, weather, and nutrients. Scientists typically look at one interaction at a time. But examining these factors more holistically, Shafer says, might help farmers predict which crops do better under certain conditions, enhancing their performance and yields.

SciCom’s Anna Katrina Hunter sat down with Shafer in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

Read the Full Article Here: