Morgan explains soil health basics at Soil Health U 

Closing keynote speaker, Cristine Morgan, chief scientific officer, The Soil Health Institute discussed measuring and evaluating soil health at Soil Health U, Jan. 18 in Salina, Kansas. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

The chief scientific officer at the Soil Health Institute, Cristine Morgan, told attendees how to watch for and assess their own soil health. 

Morgan was the keynote speaker earlier this year at the Soil Health U and Trade Show in Salina, Kansas.  

“One of our goals with the institute is to have quantitative data to support practice change and a lot of that being soil scientist is really about measuring soil,” she said. “But we also do partial budget analysis.” 

Morgan shared some new data from farmers who had adopted soil health, but she first discussed what soil health is.  

“I always start out with what is soil health because we always talked about it and everybody seems to have different ideas of what it means,” she said. “It’s the soil’s ability to function. A soil that’s highly productive agriculturally, can be healthy, and a sandy soil from east Texas can also be healthy, right?” 

Soils have different capacities to produce food or produce a row crop. As a soil physicist, Morgan is “all about” water and soil structure, and the functions of the soil is what she’s usually interested in the most. 

“The functions that we’re usually interested in general, but particularly in production agriculture is cycling water, cycling nutrients, and cycling carbon,” she said. “And when I’m talking about soil health, I’m really thinking about what is the soil’s ability to do that.” 

In a row crop system or a food production system it’s also the ability to produce biomass.  

“That depends on water cycling, carbon cycling and nutrient cycling,” she said. 

Need for data

Data is very important at the Soil Health Institute and Morgan explained a partial budget analysis of several farms in Kansas and others in North Dakota. She said when SHI does an analysis, an ag economist calls a farmer who’s adopted soil health management practices and asks about his operation with those practices. Then, they’ll ask about similar production systems that don’t use no-till or cover crops. 

“He doesn’t ask to see receipts or actual dollars,” she said. “(He asks) things like what do you do to grow your crop.” 

Different categories are dedicated to responses the economist collects.  

One example shared was a case where expenses were reduced. “Are there fewer fertilizer amendments? There’s more reduced expenses from adoption, adoption of soil health management system, but notice the big one here, equipment ownership.” 

There are additional costs—buying cover crop seed, additional pesticide costs, additional labor and managing the cover crop. Farmers should consider equipment ownership needed to add to the soil health management system. Be aware of increases in revenue due to yield too.  

“Ultimately when you balance out both of these things, what are the extra costs and what are the extra benefits?” she said. “The idea here is that on average, the change in net farm income for the wheat production system was about $19 per acre for these nine farmers in Kansas that has adopted soil health management.” 

Working in partnerships

SHI also was in a partnership with General Mills, as the company was interested in a small grains component of adopting soil health management systems. The data was released in February with a partial budget analysis for several crops averaging 100 farmers across the Midwest. 

“And we’re also doing this for cotton, and corn and soy farmers in the Midwest, not including Kansas farmers, on average gain about $50 more per acre for no-tilling and cover cropping and cotton,” she said. “So you can imagine cotton is pretty big cash crop so it ranges by state in Texas and southern high plains of Texas.” 

The net farm increase in net farm income ranged from $57 to $150 per acre, depending upon cropping system.  

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“You’re also seeing that there’s quite a big range,” Morgan said. “We hope by providing this information is information you can share with your neighbors.” 

Morgan said producers can look over the details in an SHI publication. 

“But hopefully that provides some insight to what the risks and potential costs are for adopting these systems and what some of the benefits are,” she said. 

That’s one way to assess the impact of soil health on the farm. Another is to look at assessing and measuring the change in soil health on the farm.  

“But as you all probably know, there’s a lot of ways to measure soil health, as soil scientists are very creative people and we have all sorts of different measures to measure different ratios of things and the microbiome and then the small businesses have measures,” Morgan said. “We all have different ways to measure.” 

North America project

SHI has a North American project to evaluate soil health measurements. 

“Our goal was to identify the most effective indicators of soil health, and we use 124 long term research sites across North America,” she said. “There are about 18 in Canada and 18 in Mexico and the rest were across the United States.” 

The top 15 centimeters of soil were evaluated and measured. 

“But the cool thing of these long-term experiment sites is they were paired treatment,” Morgan said. “We had control-like business-as-usual cropping systems, and then cropping systems that had adopted various soil health practices.” 

From the data, researchers were able to disseminate the information. For each soil they had changes in soil health for the control and the treatments.  

“We’re thinking what is this minimum suite of effective soil health measures?” she said. “A lot of the soil health measures that you did measure changes in soil health. But when we think about scaling soil health assessment, continentally and globally, we need this minimum suite it needs.” 

Expense of it needed to be low, as well as accessible for commercial labs.  

“It can’t just be an academic measurement that gets made,” she said. “Commercial labs need to be able to do it. So it needs to be applicable and needs to be easy to do.” 

As a soil scientist, Morgan is big in the soil physics. She believes everyone should know the bulk density of his soil.  

“But anybody that’s taken a bulk density sample knows that’s a really hard sample to collect,” she said. “That’s just not a practical measurement to do.” 

After looking at some other tests and measurement data, Morgan’s team landed on three measurements and a prediction function. The first measurement is solar organic carbon concentration.  

“That’s a shocker right? You need to measure your organic carbon, but it’s important to measure it by drag combustion, so it’s a very standard way to measure carbon,” she said. 

The next one is carbon mineralization potential. That one is like the Haney tests that have 24-hour respiration. The third recommended measurement is aggregate stability via image analysis. SHI has an app that can help measure soil bulk density, and Morgan suggests checking it out.  

“Y’all depend on the soil,” she said. “Your soil is variable in space, just as your management can change your soil the inherent soil properties, it can also change how it responds to manage it.” 

Scientists get to see some of the same observations.  

For more information about the Soil Health Institute visit

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].