How would you define soil health?

Farmers, in general, are good stewards of their land. It is their lifeblood that must be maintained for their operation to be sustainable for many generations. Over the last several years, soil health has become a prominent topic in production agriculture. How would you define soil health?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” This description explains the end-goal for soil health excellently, but I struggle with how one might measure soil health by this definition.

Sometimes “soil health” and “soil quality” are used interchangeably. Soil quality is often referred to as the capacity for a soil to function in its intended use. Once again, measuring soil quality seems to be a difficult task.

Soil health encompasses characteristics of the physical, chemical and biological properties of a given soil. Traditional soil testing has focused on the chemical properties like nutrient levels. The biological characteristic of a soil is the area that has become a focus of many recently.

While the actual measurement tools are widely debated, many soil scientists believe that soil carbon level is linked to soil biological activity. In an over-simplification, measuring soil organic matter may be the easiest way to estimate soil carbon levels, and thus soil health.

Other tests attempt to measure the biological activity of the soil. Like organic matter, the higher the biological activity, the healthier the soil would be. Unlike traditional soil tests for nutrients which are recognized across regions (or even further), the biological activity tests have not yet been standardized.

In February, there will be a couple meetings in southeast Kansas that will cover soil health topics. This series has been titled “Managing Your Soils to Improve Productivity and Profitability.”

On Feb. 5, there will be presentations on cover crops for weed control, corn emergence, soil variability and the economics of production practices at the Wildcat Extension District Office in Girard, starting at 8:30 a.m.

On Feb. 28, topics will include cover crops for grazing, forage production, and quality, soil health and economics and practical experiences with cover crops on the Falkenstien Farm in Labette County starting at 9 a.m.

Speakers for the series will include Anita Dille, Kansas State University professor of Weed Ecology, Jaymelynn Farney, Kansas State University assistant professor and Beef Systems Specialist, Doug Spencer, NRCS Rangeland Management specialist, and Gretchen Sassenrath, Kansas State University associate professor of Cropping Systems.

For more information on these meetings or if you have any questions, please call the office at 620-724-8233 or e-mail me at [email protected]. You can also visit the Wildcat Extension District website at