Soil Health Assessment, Management, and Training: Vegetable Production Systems

Final Report for LNE03-175

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $209,841.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
George Abawi
Cornell University, NYSAES
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Project Information

Summary:

This project was initiated by the Cornell Soil Health Work Team (consisting of vegetable growers, cooperative extension staff and multidisciplinary faculty) in order to address the progressive deterioration of vegetable soils and to develop appropriate management solutions. During the project, the soil health status of over 100 fields on over 50 vegetable farms throughout the production areas in New York was determined. Project impact on the awareness and knowledge of soil health issues and production practices of approximately 250 growers was monitored through mailed surveys, interviews and participatory activities. Demonstration trials on various soil management practices were conducted in five commercial production regions on over ten farms and also on six established long-term soil health research sites across New York State. The established research and demonstration trials (included comparisons of different crop rotations, cover crops, soil amendments, tillage systems, pest control, transition to organic production both singly and in combination) were intensively monitored for biological, chemical and physical soil quality indicators.

From the initial 40 potential indicators evaluated across 1000 soil samples, a sub-set of ten indicators were selected and included in a soil health (Tier I) assessment protocol. The raw data was synthesized into a grower-friendly auto-generated report (similar to a nutrient analysis report) that includes ratings for individual indicators as well as a total soil health rating for the field. Whenever an indicator scores below the acceptable range, the report highlights the specific constraint(s) that may be limiting field productivity and sustainability. Suggested soil management options for addressing specific soil health constraints are also provided. The developed soil health protocol will be offered as a fee-for-service in 2007 as part of a pilot project with the anticipation of passing on the protocol to established soil analysis laboratories.

To increase the soil health literacy among growers, county educators and other agricultural service providers in New York State, numerous field days, workshops, presentations, and on-farm visits with growers were held/made in collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension educators. A Cornell Soil Health website (http://www.hort.cornell.edu/soilhealth/) was developed as an important resource on soil health and soil health related issues including information on the research and outreach efforts of this project. The educational outreach efforts of the Cornell Soil Health Team activities have been very successful. Based on results of the 2006 soil health survey, of those who had attended either one or more of the annual meetings, workshops or field days held during the past three years, 93% indicated that attending had improved their knowledge and understanding of soil health. Seventy-one percent indicated they had made changes in their use of cover crops, crop rotation and/or organic amendments on the farm. The increased use of both winter and summer crops was most frequently indicated followed by the increased use of slurry or manure applications. Among these growers, 42% indicated they had also reduced the frequency and/or intensity of tillage over the past three years.

Introduction:

The intensive production of agronomic crops, especially vegetables, in New York has contributed to reduced soil quality, and resulted in lower crop productivity and farm profitability. Among the causes are soil compaction, crusting, low organic matter, increased pressure and damage from diseases, weeds, insects and other pests as well as a lower density and diversity of beneficial organisms. These constraints have increased the interest of growers and other land managers in assessing the health status of their soils and in implementing sustainable soil management practices. Many New York growers were starting to realize that poor soil health severely limits their farm’s profitability and viability, as degraded soils increase the need for additional crop inputs (fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, diesel fuel, etc.) and reduce yields (quantity and quality).

To address this recognized need, a group of interested growers, extension educators, researchers and private consultants established a Program Work Team (PWT) on Soil Health. The initial Soil Health PWT consisted of 35 members, including 14 growers and 9 extension educators and since then the membership has increased to over 45 and has been opened up to all interested individuals. As a result, the formation of this group has been instrumental in focusing soil health activities and securing outside funding.

In the past, soil health/quality initiatives were focused on the better understood soil physical and chemical properties until more recently, when a new concept of soil health emerged. This concept integrates new information about soil biological properties with our knowledge of soil physical and chemical processes affecting crop health, crop productivity, and environmental impacts of farming (Magdoff and Weil, 2004; Pankurst et al, 1997). Numerous methods can be used to measure the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil including but not limited to bulk density, pore size distribution, aggregate stability, organic matter, cation exchange capacity, micronutrients, nitrogen mineralization, glomalin, and decomposition rate, etc. While each measurement can provide information about the soil, when assessing soil health in an agricultural system it is important to identify measurements or indicators that are not only relevant to soil functions (such as adsorption and infiltration of water, retention and cycling of nutrients, decomposition of organic amendments, pest and weed suppression, detoxification of harmful chemicals, sequestering of carbon, etc.) but are sensitive to changes in management practices such as tillage, crop rotation, and use of manures and composts (Abawi and Widmer, 2000; Doran and Zeiss, 2000). Also, it is critical that the measured properties are good indicators of important soil processes, suggest major constraints to productivity and are practical, rapid and inexpensive.

Performance Target:
  • Fifty growers will implement two or more promoted management practices to improve soil quality and health on their farms. The latter may include: using new soil health tests to determine appropriate management practices; incorporating a new main and/or cover crop into their rotation scheme, changing tillage practices employed, using compost or other soil amendments, and adopting sustainable pest management practices, including IPM strategies. Gone beyond it.A “soil health assessment protocol” will be developed and field-tested to the stage where it is ready to be institutionalized (i.e., become a permanent feature of fee services) offered by Cornell University and/or commercial soil testing laboratories. Achieved it.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Ted Blomgren
  • Donn Branton
  • Jean-Paul Courtens
  • Lynn Fish
  • Tom Giles
  • Beth Gugino
  • Elizabeth Henderson
  • Klaas and Mary Howell Martens
  • Omololu (John) Idowu
  • John Johnson
  • Carol MacNeil
  • Dale Moyer
  • Curt Petzoldt
  • Phil Schmitt
  • Molly Shaw
  • Janice Thies
  • David Wolfe
  • Harold van Es

Research

Materials and methods:

Description of Soil Sampling Sites in New York:

In order to develop a simple and cost-effective set of soil health assessment protocols as well as document the health status of vegetable production soils in New York, soil samples were collected across the state from seven research sites (representing 10 replicated trials), 10 grower demonstration/ comparison sites (Barber, Branton, Courtens, Fish, Henderson, Martens, Schmidt, Hemminger, Lee, Martin, Ayers) and from one or more fields belonging to 57 commercial growers in collaboration with county extension educators during 2003 through 2006.

The replicated research trials sampled included:

• The Gates Farm (Geneva, NY), a 14-acre site that consists of a total of 72 plots which represent three tillage (no-till/ridge-till, strip-till, and conventional tillage systems), three cover crop (no cover, rye, and vetch), and two rotation treatments. One rotation emphasizes continuous high-value vegetable production whereas the second rotation includes season long soil-building crops.

• The IPM systems comparison site (Geneva, NY; C. Petzoldt, PI USDA/RAMP-IPM program 2001 to 2005) is an eight-acre long-term research site comparing conventional, organic, IPM present (fall cover crops) and IPM future (fall cover crops and season-long soil building crops) vegetable production systems.

• A long-term factorial designed tillage trial that was established by Professor Robert Lucey in 1974 at the W.H. Miner Institute near Chazy, NY to compare conventional and no-till corn harvested for either grain or silage.

• Three tillage trials that were established near Willsboro, NY in 1992 and involve zone-till, ridge-till and conventional plow-till and orchard grass versus corn cropping systems on predominately clay or sandy soils.

• A replicated research trial established at the Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in a sandy loam soil with low soil organic matter levels to compare the application of compost and crop rotation.

• An organically managed replicated vegetable research trial and a replicated reduced tillage and weed control trial both located in Freeville, NY.

• A long-term reduced tillage trial was sampled at the Aurora research farm to compare soils cropped to continuous field corn and managed using conventional plow, zone or ridge tillage systems.

In collaboration with several growers, demonstration sites were established in commercial production fields to compare the impact of various grower selected soil management practices on the health status of the soil as determined using the selected soil health indicators. The on-farm comparisons included the use of reduced tillage (Branton, Fish, and Hemminger), compost (Schmidt, Martens), cover crops (Lee, Johnson, Courtens, Henderson) and rotations including soil building crops (Barber, Henderson, Courtens, Martens). Soil samples were collected from each demonstration site over several years.

In collaboration with county extension educators, numerous fields of interested growers across New York State were also soil sampled from 2003 through 2006. One or more samples were collected per field and were analyzed using selected physical, chemical and biological indicators and the results obtained used to build a database of information describing the health status of soils in New York. The soils sampled ranged from a sandy loam to a silty clay. Specific sampling design and protocols are described in the results and discussion section of the report. The list of cooperating growers and extension educators can be found in Appendix A.

At some locations, soil samples were collected several times per year from early spring to fall to assess the effect of soil sampling time on the results obtained in assessing specific indicators. Replicate samples were also collected at some locations to assess for variability in the field and streamline the soil sampling protocol. Also, different types of soil samples were collected at each location based on the requirements of the indicators measured, a composite bulk soil sample, an undisturbed core and/or a disturbed core. Each soil sample collected was analyzed for the initial 40 potential indicators in one of three labs based on research expertise. The data collected from the analysis of over 1000 soil samples collected from these sites was compiled into Excel-based databases to facilitate statistical analyses within individual indicators, between indicators and across treatments, soil types and sampling dates. Individual samples received unique sample identification numbers that were used to track the samples through processing and analysis. See Appendix B for a New York State map labeled with all the soil sampling locations.

Design and Implementation of Surveys Distributed in 2002 and 2006:

In March 2002, a survey was mailed to over 1000 growers in New York State to: (1) assess current grower practices relevant to soil quality; (2) identify grower perceptions of soil factors most limiting profitability on their farms; (3) identify types of information and assistance that would be most helpful to growers interested in improving the health and productivity of their soils; and (4) serve as a benchmark for the evaluation of effectiveness of the Soil Health Program Work Team educational efforts. A total of 244 completed surveys were returned in the pre-stamped and addressed envelopes sent with the surveys. In 2006, a similar follow-up survey with several additional questions regarding the specific impact of this project was mailed to the original recipient list with the goal of documenting changes in soil health knowledge and in soil management practices as well as helping guide future soil health research and outreach. The survey was mailed out in April 2006 and 173 growers returned a completed survey. The results of these surveys are discussed in the farmer adoption section of the report. The 2006 survey can be found in Appendix C and the 2006 soil health survey report in Appendix D).

In order to further assess the impact of the Cornell Soil Health PWT outreach activities, a shorter single-page survey consisting of four questions was distributed during the soil health session at the New York Fruit and Vegetable Expo held on 17 February 2006.

Research results and discussion:

Development of Tier I soil health assessment protocol:

One of the project performance targets was to identify soil health indicators that were most useful for adoption as part of routine soil health testing. Initially, forty soil physical, biological and chemical indicators were measured in the field and laboratory to evaluate them as potential soil health indicators (Appendix E – a complete list of indicators). The chemical properties are those associated with the standard soil test, while the physical and biological properties are newly-established or existing methodologies that allow for fairly rapid soil testing. As described in the materials and methods, soil samples collected from replicated research sites, on-farm grower demonstration trials and commercial farm fields across New York State were used to evaluate the selected indicators. All the data collected from the sample identification sheets and the measured indicators was compiled into a soil health database.

The five criteria used for the selection of the indicators used in the Tier I soil health assessment were: 1) sensitivity to changes in soil management; 2) relevance to soil function and crop production; 3) results obtained were consistent and reproducible; 4) ease and time of sampling; and 5) cost (materials and time) of field and laboratory analysis. Based on these criteria, we developed a Tier I soil health assessment protocol for New York soils. Tier I consists of indicators that can be measured or estimated rapidly and are relatively inexpensive to process. Tier I relies on sampling methods that are similar to those used for standard chemical testing and are discussed in detail later in the report. The selected Tier I soil health assessment indicators include bulk density, wet aggregate stability, available water capacity, field measured penetration resistance to assess surface and subsurface hardness, potentially mineralizable nitrogen, active carbon, organic matter, root health measurement, and the standard soil chemical measurements (available phosphorus, exchangeable potassium and magnesium, pH, magnesium, iron, manganese, and zinc).

Soil sampling and development of centralized soil sample analysis:

Developing a soil sampling protocol that met the requirements of all measured indicators was a challenge. Sampling for the initial set of 40 indicators required the collection of both disturbed and undisturbed (250 cc capped metal rings) soil samples. Although the information collected from the undisturbed cores (pore size distribution, bulk density, soil respiration, etc.) was important, the logistics and practicality of distributing and collecting that type of sample made it not time or cost-effective to include for the basic soil health assessment measurements. In order to assess bulk density and other selected physical indicators for which a known volume of soil is required, it was determined that undisturbed core samples pushed into a small bag (now, a disturbed core sample) could be used for assessment. All other soil chemical and biological indicators are assessed from a bulk soil sample collected into a larger bag. Initially replicate soil samples were taken from each field, a practice that is still encouraged, but it is not cost-effective for routine assessment. It is recommended that the field to be sampled is sub-divided (or not) based on soil type, topography and management practices similar to a nutrient analysis sample. At each of four locations (sampling stations) in the field, one disturbed core sample is taken and pushed into a small bag labeled with field identification, three bulk soil samples are taken and placed in a larger bag also labeled, and the penetrometer resistance measurements are taken at the 0-6, 6-12 and 12-18 inch depths in three locations and recorded on the grower data form. The smaller bag (containing a total of four disturbed cores) is placed in the larger bag (containing a total of 12 bulk soil samples) that make one complete soil health sample per field (see Appendix F for more detailed instructions).

The timing of sampling (early spring/ pre-land preparation, mid-season, after harvest) did have a significant effect on soil indicator measurements and therefore the interpretation of the results and management recommendations. To reduce variability, standardize the protocol, and reduce costs, a one-time sampling in early spring prior to land preparation and planting is recommended. This also enables growers to use the included nutrient analysis report to make current season nutrient management decisions.

Initially upon collection, soil samples were divided between four separate labs for analysis, one lab measured the physical indicators, two the biological indicators, and a portion of the sample was sent to the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab for standard chemical analysis. As the number of samples collected increased, the logistics of sample identification, assessment and data management became a growing challenge. Once the Tier I assessment indicators were selected, the lab procedures, data entry and report generation were centralized in one location to expedite sample processing.

Development of the Tier I soil health assessment report and suggested management options:

The raw data from the individual indicators and background information about the sample locations was synthesized into the developed auto-generated and grower-friendly report. The standard soil health test report presents soil health information for a given field in a way that enables growers to identify areas where to target their management efforts. From our research, we found that the textural differences in the surface soil have significant impact on the interpretation of soil health measurements. We therefore developed a soil health test report template based on the three major textural classification of the soil (sand, silt and clay). The soil health test report is presented on a single page and consists of different sections laid out in a visually enhanced format to present information to the growers (Appendix G). The sections of the report include:

1) Information section: The information collected during sampling is presented in this section. This information includes the farm name and contact information, the sample number, the date of sampling, the local extension educator, both current crop and tillage and their history over the past 2 years, drainage and slope conditions, soil type and soil texture.

2) Indicator list: This section gives a list of indicators that were measured for soil health assessment. They are color coded to separate the physical, biological and chemical indicators.

3) Indicator values: This presents the raw values of the indicators that were measured either in the laboratory or field.

4) Rating: This section presents the scores and color coded ratings of the soil quality indicators. The indicators are scored on a scale of 1-10 based on scoring functions developed for individual indicators. In addition, the indicators are rated with color codes depending on their scores. Generally, a score of less than 3 is regarded as low and receives a red color code. A score from 3-8 is considered medium and is color coded as yellow. A score value higher than 8 is regarded as high and color coded as green.

5) Constraint: If the rating of a particular indicator is poor/ low (red color code), the respective soil health constraints will be highlighted in this section. This is a very useful tool for the growers in identifying areas to target their management efforts.

6) Percentile: This section is presented as a sliding horizontal bar indicating the percentile rating of the indicator values of the soil sample relative to accumulated values in our database for the particular indicator. For example, a score of 75 percentile means that the indicator value of the sample is equal to or greater than 75% of the values recorded for that indicator among the total samples processed from New York and included in the soil health database.

7) Overall quality score: An overall quality score is also computed from the individual indicator scores. This score is further rated as follows: less than 50 is regarded as low, 50-79 is regarded as medium and greater than 79 is regarded as high. The highest quality score is 100 and least score is 10, thus it is a relative overall soil health status indicator.

Based on reports in the literature and research conducted by Cornell Soil Health Team members, we have compiled a list of both short and long-term management options to address the specific constraints identified by the Tier I soil health assessment protocol. For example, to address the constraint of low aggregate stability, in the short-term the integration of shallow-rooted cover or sod-rotational crops and use of manure is recommended to help stimulate soil microbial activity that indirectly improves soil aggregation. In the long-term reducing tillage intensity is recommended. The soil constraints identified using the Tier I assessment protocol and corresponding suggested management recommendations are listed in Appendix H.

Overall assessment of soil health on sampled vegetable fields in New York State:

Using our newly developed soil health protocol, we assessed the status of soil health on vegetable fields in New York. The results of the rating of indicators for 84 vegetable fields are presented in Appendix I. Most of the indicators showing poor quality on many of these fields were the physical and biological indicators. The physical indicators seemed to be the most affected. Over 50% of the fields assessed had low soil aggregate stability, high bulk density and high subsurface hardness. Over 40% of the fields assessed had low available water capacity. Soil physical processes affected by these indicators include aeration, infiltration, shallow rooting, crusting, and water retention. Over 40% of the fields assessed had low organic matter, active carbon and potentially mineralizable nitrogen. Soil processes affected by these include energy and carbon storage, water and nutrient retention, organic material to support biological functions, and nitrogen supply capacity of the soil. The root health conditions for the assessed field were in the medium to good range, probably mainly due to the good rotations employed. Most of the fields have good to medium values for soil chemical indicators except for extractable phosphorus where 20% of the fields assessed had either too low or too high phosphorus. From this assessment it appears that many of the fields have undergone physical and biological degradation as suggested by the limiting values of the soil health indicators measured. This degradation undoubtedly is limiting optimal growth and yield of vegetable crops grown in NY soils.

Outreach activities:

One of the primary objectives (and subject of several milestones) of this project was to increase the soil health literacy among vegetable growers, extension educators and other agricultural service providers. Our team has devoted considerable time and effort to provide extensive and varied outreach activities that we believe have greatly increased the soil health literacy among stakeholders throughout New York and the Northeast region. The team held a large number of field days and twilight meetings (>24 in NYS) to discuss soil health constraints, view trials that were being conducted at the site, and demonstrate selected soil health field measurements. Also, the team has organized and presented annual soil health sessions at the NYS Fruit and Vegetable EXPO that have been well attended (100-150 people annually). In addition, the team held three soil health workshops attended by extension educators, consultants, NRCS personnel and other agricultural service providers during 2005 and 2006 (about 80 attendees). Furthermore, we have written a large number of articles in extension publications and several of our team members have made presentations at grower and professional society meetings held regional, nationally and/or internationally. See Appendix J for a list of soil health outreach activities.

A soil health website (http://www.hort.cornell.edu/soilhealth) was established in 2003. It continues to be an important source of information on soil health and soil health related issues in addition to information on the research and outreach efforts of this project. It contains a calendar of upcoming events as well as soil health related presentations made at various grower and professional meetings. The website is in the progress of being reorganized to make the results of this research project more readily accessible to the end-users. The primary “buttons” will include Cornell’s Soil Health Team, the soil health manual, a photo gallery, about soil health, measuring soil health and links/ other resources.

A soil health manual is in the latter stages of development and is anticipated to be in print in February 2007. The objectives of the manual are to: 1) provide an overview of the concept of soil health; 2) describe soil constraints and soil quality issues common to soils in New York and the Northeast region; 3) provide guidelines about how to conduct in-field soil health assessment; 4) provide a how-to guide for sampling and analyzing soils to assess for soil health; 5) provide an overview of methods used to assess the health status of soil; 6) identify management options for improving soil health based on the constraints detected; and 7) increase awareness of and literacy on soil health issues.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Abawi, G.S., J.W. Ludwig, and C.H. Petzoldt. 2004. Assessing root health by a soil bioassay with beans as an indicator of soil health. Phytopathology 94:S1 (Abstr.).

Wolfe, D.W., G. Abawi, L. Drinkwater, and J. Thies. 2004. New tools for monitoring soil biological health. Pp. 37-38. Proceedings Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, CCE, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Gugino, B.K., G.S. Abawi, and J.W. Ludwig. 2005. Root health and pathogenic/ beneficial nematodes as indicators of soil health. Pp. 161-163. Proceedings Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, CCE, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Gugino, B.K., G.S. Abawi, and J.W. Ludwig. 2005. Relating soil health management practices to root health and nematode populations. Phytopathology 96:S178 (Abstr.).

Idowu, O., G. Abawi, H. van Es, D. Wolfe, R. Schindelbeck, and B. Moebius. 2005. Investigation into soil quality indicators for New York State. ASA-CSSA-SSSA Meeting, Salt Lake City, UT November 7, 2005 http://crops.confex.com/crops/2005am/techprogram/
P6206.HTM. (Abstr).

Mayton, H., and D.W. Wolfe. 2005. New approaches to assessing and managing soil health in relation to crop health and productivity. Proceedings: Ninth International Workshop on Plant Disease Epidemiology. ( www.rennes.inra.fr/epidemio2005/) International Society for Plant Pathology. (Abstr).

Moebius,B.N., H. van Es and R. Schindelbeck. 2005. Indicators of soil health: rapid lab assessment of soil physical quality for public service. ASA-CSSA-SSSA Meeting, Salt Lake City, UT November 7, 2005 http://crops.confex.com/crops/2005am/techprogram/P6825.HTM. (Abstr.).

Wolfe, D.W. 2005. The soil health frontier: new techniques for measurement and improvement. Pp. 158-163. Proceedings New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Portland, ME.

Abawi, G.S., B.K. Gugino, and J.W. Ludwig. 2006. The Gates farm long-term soil health research site: what, how, and results to-date. Proceedings Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, CCE, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Gugino, B.K., G.S. Abawi, and J.W. Ludwig. 2006. An interdisciplinary approach to soil health and its impact on vegetable root disease management. Phytopathology 96:S44 (Abstr.).

Gugino, B., O.J. Idowu, H. van Es, R. Schindelbeck, G. Abawi, D. Wolfe, J. Thies, and B. Moebius. 2006. Soil health assessment and tillage systems in New York. Acres: The Voice of Eco-Agriculture 36(11):22-25.

Idowu, J., H. van Es, R. Schindelbeck, G. Abawi, D. Wolfe, J, Thies, B. Gugino, B. Moebius, D. Clune. 2006. Soil Health Assessment and Management: The concepts. What’s Cropping Up 16(2):1-3. A newsletter for NY field Crops & Soil Crop & Soil Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca.

Idowu, J., H. van Es, R. Schindelbeck, G. Abawi, D. Wolfe, J. Thies, B. Gugino, B. Moebius, D. Clune. 2006. Soil Health Assessment and Management: Measurements and Results. What’s Cropping Up 16(3):2-4. A newsletter for NY field Crops & Soil Crop & Soil Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca.

Moebius, B.N., H.M. van Es, G. Abawi, D. Wolfe, O.J. Idowu, J.E. Thies, D.J. Clune, R.R. Schindelbeck, A.V. Bilgili, W.D. Hively, and B. Gugino. 2006. Indicators of soil health: rapid assessment of soil quality using laboratory procedures and VNIR reflectance spectroscopy. 18th World Congress of Soil Science. http://crops.confex.com/crops/wc2006/techprogram/P17218.HTM. (Abstr.).

Wolfe, D. W. 2006. Approaches to monitoring soil systems. IN: Uphoff, N. et al. (eds.) Biological Approaches for Sustainable Soil Systems. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, Chapter 47.

van Es, H., B. Moebius, J. Idowu, R. Schindelbeck, J. Thies, and D. Clune. 2006. Examples of soil health assessment on New York Farms. Pp. 106. Proceedings Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, CCE, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Work is underway to publish the results from this research in several refereed journals.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Increased awareness of soil health constraints and their negative impact on soil productivity has resulted in the implementation of long-term soil health management practices that improve soil quality, thus increasing yield and soil productivity in general. The latter is definitely contributing to increased farm profitability as well as environmental quality. The soil health team has developed and field tested a cost-effective soil assessment protocol and a grower-friendly report that are helping growers and land managers in identifying soil health constraints and the effectiveness of implemented solutions. The extensive soil health trainings conducted by the team have increased the contributions of extension educators and farmer to farmer outreach efforts on soil health and needed long-term management strategies.

Farmer Adoption

From the results of the 2006 mailed soil health survey, of the growers who specified that they had participated in one or more of the Cornell Soil Health Team’s outreach activities (n=59) in the past three years, 71% indicated they had made changes in their use of cover crops, crop rotation and/or organic amendments on the farm. The increased use of both winter and summer crops was most frequently indicated followed by the increased use of slurry or manure applications. Among these growers, 42% indicated they had also reduced the frequency and/or intensity of tillage over the past three years. At the 2006 Empire Fruit and Vegetable Expo, 81% of survey respondents indicated that they had implemented or changed soil management practices on the farm to improve soil health and quality. Similar to the mailed survey results the practices most frequently implemented/changed (in descending order) were the use of cover crops, different tillage systems, crop rotations and organic amendments.

The educational outreach efforts of the Cornell Soil Health PWT’s activities have been very successful. Of those who had attended either one or more of the annual meetings, workshops or field days held during the past three years, 93% indicated that attending had improved their knowledge and understanding of soil health. Growers are most interested in receiving additional information regarding selecting and using cover crops to address soil quality constraints and the economics of incorporating cover crops into their production systems. They would also like to receive more information in the form of bulletins and newsletters regarding the available soil management options and information about research being conducted on established research sites.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

To-date, over 1500 soil samples have been processed and the data used to evaluate and select a sub-set of soil health indicators that currently constitute our Tier I soil health assessment protocol. However, we need to conduct a more vigorous “mining” of this large data set to learn more about the possible interactions and correlations that might exist among the measured indicators to further improve data interpretation and management recommendations. We also need to continue to collect larger sets of data on crop yield and correlate it to measured indicators; since such data are currently limited. In addition, we need to understand how soil health indicators are impacted and improved by crop rotations, cover crops, tillage practices and/or various composts so that we can be more specific in identifying the particular intervention in addressing the identified soil constraint. For, example, what specific cover crop is adapted to the Northeast region and is best for reducing soil compaction, improving root health or increasing aggregate stability?

References for report:

Abawi, G.S. and T.L. Widmer. 2000. Impact of soil health management practices on soilborne pathogens, nematodes and root diseases of vegetable crops. Applied Soil Ecology 15: 37-47.

Doran, J.W. and M.R. Zeiss. 2000. Soil health and sustainability: managing the biotic component of soil quality. Applied Soil Ecology 15: 3-11.

Magdoff, F and R.R. Weil, (eds) 2004. Soil organic matter in sustainable agriculture. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 398p.

Pankhurst, C.E., B.M. Doube, and V.V.R. Gupta, eds. 1997. Biological indicators of soil health. CAB International, 198 Madison Ave., New York. 451 Pp.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.