Dr. G. Mac Bean: Effects of Soil Health Practices on Soil Water Characteristics

Soil structure and aggregate stability regulate the capacity of the soil to capture, transmit, store and release water. Damaging these soil properties can result in greater soil water runoff and erosion. Therefore, determining how agricultural management practices such as tillage, cover crops, and organic amendments affect soil water cycling is important for regenerative agriculture.

There are several soil measurements related to soil water cycling, including bulk density, saturated hydraulic conductivity and available water holding capacity (AWHC). These measurements were included as part of the Soil Health Institute’s North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements and were collected at more than 120 long-term agricultural research sites. The measurements at each site represented a business-as-usual practice as well as comparison treatment with soil health management practices. The measurement differences between the treatments were compared to evaluate the sensitivity of each measurement to soil health practices such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, and organic amendments.

Preliminary results show that bulk density and saturated hydraulic conductivity were both responsive to changes in tillage intensity. However, AWHC, measured using intact soil cores, was responsive to changes in both tillage intensity and cover crops with increases in AWHC by 7% and 6%, respectively. No measurement was sensitive to the addition of organic amendments. Overall, AWHC was the most sensitive measurement for determining the effects of management on soil water cycling.

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