Soil Health: Measuring and Managing


Soil health is the ability of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem. Many questions arise regarding the impact of management decisions on soil chemical, physical, and biological health. How do herbicides, fertilizers, and soil amendment applications affect soil microbial communities?  How does soil acidification happen and how do we manage it? What changes I can make to improve soil nutrient cycling and water storage?
Microbial communities are constantly evolving and responding to changes in their environment, including soil pH, soil moisture and temperature, crops, tillage and residue management, carbon input, and more. A healthy soil environment promotes healthy microbial communities which in turn, can suppress yield-reducing soil pathogens. The question is what we can do to provide a healthy environment for microbial communities?
Amount and types of organic carbon can be highly variable across the landscape and with depth in the profile in dryland eastern Washington. High levels of soil organic carbon are associated with functional, healthy soils, and high levels of microbial activity because carbon is an essential feedstock for microbial processes. Soils with higher carbon levels retain more moisture as a result of increased infiltration and water storage capacity, which is the primary factor driving yield potential in dryland production systems. Increased infiltration and aggregate stability can also lead to reduced erosion and nutrient loss. Carbon sequestration is not only important for soil health at the field-scale, but it is important at the global level for mitigating climate change. Soil organic carbon is one of the key attributes of soil health that responds to changes in management practices. However, different pools of soil organic carbon have different sensitivity to changes in management practice. A metric of measurements on carbon (C) dynamics in the soil is important for documenting carbon (C) sequestration and carbon (C) credits.
As increased attention is paid to improving soil health, and management practices are adapted with that goal in mind, there is a demand for tools to benchmark soil health goals and progress. Soil testing can provide a direct measurement. However, soil testing goes beyond nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) recommendations to total soil organic matter, soil pH, essential macro and micronutrients. Local soil testing labs have applied knowledge of the soil characteristics found in a particular region and provide insights on additional methods to document soil health. Resources for learning more about measuring and managing soil health, also include university extension, conservation services, consultants, and farmers. Some have tapped into innovation and adoption of practices by forming producer-led networks driving research and education that is the best fit for their soil health goals.
Soil health is a key piece of whole-farm wellbeing, and so is farm-worker health. The best way to invest in soil health is to start with a healthy farmer, farming can be stressful with so many management decisions, being at the mercy of the market, and the burden of equipment costs, just to name a few. It is important to know that there are tools available to more effectively manage the mental load required of today’s producers.
Please join the WSU Farmers Network to learn more about soil health, carbon, microbes, soil health measurements, and mental health tools for producers in the upcoming workshop series: Soil Health-Measuring and Managing. The live online Soil Health Webinars January 11-14 from 9 am -11 am each day will be available free, with registration on the WSU Farmers Network website.

For more information, please contact Carol McFarland at or Keith Curran at