Intensive crop production in the Northeast region has often resulted in soil degradation, contributing to reduced crop yield, increased production inputs and lower farm profitability, thus there is an increased interest in soil health. This three-year project was initiated by our team of growers, extension educators and academic staff in New York, Maryland, and Vermont with the overall goal to provide soil health outreach programs and research collaborations in the NE region.
Our team has considerably exceeded its target and reached >2,550 growers and other agricultural service providers by holding or participating in over 53 grower meetings, field days, special educational sessions, and hands-on workshops in New York, Maryland, Vermont and other states in the NE region. In addition, several of the team members made presentations on various soil health issues at professional meetings in the region, nationally and internationally. Furthermore, team members completed the publications of numerous informal and formal publications on various soil health issues as well as revising and expanding the offerings on the soil health website at Cornell (http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu).
A total of 2,450 soil samples were analyzed for their soil health status according to the Cornell Soil Health Assessment Protocol during the 3-year duration of this project. Of the latter, 810 soil samples (one composite soil sample/field or production unit) were submitted by growers in New York, Maryland, Vermont and other states in the NE region. Team members assisted participating growers in the interpretation of the user-friendly soil health reports and also with the list of suggested soil management options to address identified constraints. Positive feedback was received from participating growers and other agricultural service providers on the benefits of soil health testing and addressing the identified soil health constraints in the report as well as the educational program provided by our team. Results of a mailed survey conducted in summer 2009 showed that 96% and 92% of respondents stated that the soil health report was helpful, and assisted them in identifying critical soil health constraints on their farms, respectively. In addition, 63% of respondents thought they have already noticed an improvement in their operation or farm profitability as a result of modification in their practices (tillage systems, cover cropping and/or crop rotation). Personal discussions with 7 participating growers confirmed the results of the mailed survey.
Our team also maintained and sampled a number of long-term soil health research sites to increase our understanding of how production practices and their various combinations impact soil health. In New York for example, results obtained from the replicated long-term soil health site at the Gates Farm in Geneva (about 14 acres consisting of 3 tillage systems X 3 cover crops X two rotations) showed that the reduced tillage systems improved the values of measured soil health indicators compared to plow-till system. To-date, soil health indicators showing significant differences include wet aggregate stability, active carbon, potentially mineralizable nitrogen and several macro- and micronutrients (phosphorus, potassium, and zinc). In Maryland, results of a cover crop experiment showed that winter rye increased mycorrhizal colonization of the following corn crop and also increased available phosphorus, active carbon and aggregate stability of the soil. In another test in Maryland, forage radish cover crop almost eliminated run-off and erosion during medium intensity rainstorms. Also, roots of corn were found to be more abundant in the deeper layers of compacted soil after a cover crop of forage radish.
The extensive soil health dataset of over 5,000 samples now has been shared with collaborators and been used in the interpretations and setting ranges for the measured soil health indicators. Our team has already modified the scoring functions for rating a number of critical soil health indicators based on this valuable dataset. The team also completed the revision, printing and posting on the team’s website of the second edition on the Cornell Soil Health Training Manual, which continues to be of great value and in high demand. The new edition contains new chapters on the revised scoring functions and a step-by-step approach on how to use the soil health report to design a practical and sustainable soil management program to address the identified soil constraints.
• Of the 1500 growers that will be reached in New York, Vermont and Maryland; 200 will have their soils assessed using the developed soil health protocol in New York and Maryland, and 100 growers will implement a long-term improved and sustainable soil management program (including reduced tillage system(s), improved crop rotation(s), new cover crops and/or compost and green manure applications). [Gone beyond it].
• A web-accessible database of regional soil health data will be made available for researchers and extension educators to conduct query-based research and data analysis. [Achieved it, with research collaborators].
• Decision support software will be developed to aid in: (i) determining an optimal site-specific set of soil physical, chemical and biological parameters to test, (ii) interpreting the results obtained and, (iii) providing guidelines on needed interventions. [Achieved it in principal: We are offering testing in packages, and for researchers on “a la carte” basis, (see website). We have posted the guidelines for report interpretations and suggestions for remediation of constraints, and a step by step process for management decisions on our website and in publications. However, we have determined that a software package is not necessary for this purpose at this point. Indicators, which represent agronomically essential soil processes, are relevant to all agricultural sites, with the exception of PMN and Root Health Bioassay, thus they are offered as part of a comprehensive package. Management decision needs to be a more interactive process that can incorporate individual grower opportunities does not appears to lent itself to a software approach at the present].