Soil health assessment for sustainable land use and profitable crop production in the Northeastern USA

2008 Annual Report for LNE06-235

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $249,203.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
George Abawi
Cornell University, NYSAES

Soil health assessment for sustainable land use and profitable crop production in the Northeastern USA


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. Our Cornell Soil Health Team has made significant progress in increasing soil health literacy, developing a cost-effective protocol for soil health assessment, facilitating soil health demonstrations by growers, and promoting multi-disciplinary research and outreach. To build on this progress and momentum, our team of growers, extension educators and academic staff in New York, Maryland, and Vermont aim to continue to network as a team to provide soil health programs and research collaborations in the NE region.

We plan to reach 1500+ producers via surveys, participatory trainings, field days, annual meetings and web-based and written materials. The soil health status of 50+ fields in MD, VT, and NY will be assessed annually using the developed assessment protocol. The team will also investigate the mechanisms contributing to improved soil health status by implementing recommended management practices (rotation, cover crops, tillage systems, etc.) and evaluating visible-near infrared sensing as a potential rapid assessment tool of soil health. Another major objective is to develop a web-based, accessible database for NE soils and decision making software to assist in selecting what to test and interpreting the results.

Our final targets will be that 200+ growers will have assessed the soil health status of their fields and 100+ will have implemented a long-term soil health management program. Targets will be documented by mailed surveys, personal interviews and on-farm visits. The direct beneficiaries are vegetable, cash grain, and dairy producers, whereas indirect beneficiaries are rural communities and consumers.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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).

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.

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.


Milestones (Progress)

•Identification of participating growers and sites to be sampled in Vermont,
Maryland, New York, and possibly other states.

We have continued to involve more growers in the project by sampling their fields and provide soil health report as management guide for improving soil productivity. In 2008 we analyzed a total of 386 growers’ samples (NY-305, VT-47, PA-7 and MD-27) as a part of NE-SARE project. Soil Health Reports of the sampled fields have been sent to the collaborating growers. Growers, educators and consultants in the Northeast have continued to show interest in the new Cornell Soil Health Test. We received significant numbers of samples from growers/educators in other Northeastern States including CT, MA, NJ and RI.

•Finalization of the recommended soil health assessment protocol and uniform sampling procedures to be used in the Northeast region.

The Cornell Soil Health Test is now widely accepted among growers as a tool for holistic management of their fields. The measurement protocol and assessment strategy is now standardized. One of our main goals for 2008 was to help growers, educators and consultants understand the interpretation and the utility of the soil health reports of their fields. Several educational activities were therefore conducted to achieve this goal. The standard Cornell Soil Health Test consists of assessing 15 soil indicators (13 measured in the laboratory and 2 in the field). In 2008, we started to measure soil texture (fraction of sand silt and clay) as a part of the Cornell Soil Health Test. This became necessary because the interpretations of the reports are highly dependent on soil texture and a quantitative estimate of soil texture will facilitate accurate interpretations of selected soil indicators. However, we chose an inexpensive method for soil textural analysis in order to keep the cost of soil health analysis as low as possible.

•Processing of the collected soil samples in the region at Cornell and holding joint meetings to discuss the results, reach consensus on interpretations and formulate guidelines for appropriate interventions.

We have continued to expand our database of soil health in the Northeast. Our database is becoming more robust and better representative of the NE soil conditions. We have been processing large number of samples from several Northeastern States and we have started to query our data sets to answer important soil management questions. Examples of questions being asked include: i. how the selected soil indicators are affected by the different management systems? ii. what is the impact of tillage on various soil indicators iii. how does soil texture affect soil health indicators? iv. what are the impacts of interactions between management systems, tillage and soil texture on the measured soil indicators. We have started answering a number of these crucial questions which will help us provide better interpretations and recommendation to growers in the region. We hope to continue to maintain and expand our database even beyond the lifespan of the current project so that additional mechanistic questions can be answered in the future.

•Organization of annual field days and soil health training sessions for growers, CCA and extension educators in each participating state.

We have continued our efforts to reach more growers in the Northeast. We held 15 grower focused meetings in NY, 3 meetings in VT and 2 meetings in MD. Each of these States also had a major soil health workshop in 2008. The Maryland workshop was held in Hagerstown, Maryland on January 18, 2008 as a pre-conference workshop in conjunction with the Future Harvest “Farming for Profit and Stewardship” Conference. Thirty farmers learned about the principles of soil health and how to interpret the Cornell Soil Health Test. In a hands-on component of the workshops, farmers were able to test soil samples from their own fields for active carbon, aggregate stability, and observe bean roots grown in soils with varying levels of disease pressure. The Vermont Soil Health Workshop was held at the Natural Resource Conservation District and was attended by 25 farmers and 10 NRCS staff members. The workshop taught class participants about characteristics of healthy soil and how to maintain the health of their soils. In NY, the soil health workshop was held on March 18, 2008 and was attended by over 70 CCE staff, CCA, consultants and several farmers. The workshop focused on how to use the Cornell Soil Health Test for practical farm management. We also had other outreach events in some other parts of the Northeast including Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Through our outreach efforts in the NE, we were able to reach 1000+ growers, discussing the importance of soil health management and the utility of the Cornell Soil Health Test for the management of production fields.

•A multi-state annual conference on soil health hosted by one of the cooperating states for improved networking and coordinated soil health outreach.

We have continued with our model of traveling within the region to hold meetings involving multiple States. We judge this model as being more effective in reaching more target audiences than just a one-time multi-state annual conference. For example, the team from VT and MD participated as resource persons in the NY Vegetable EXPO conference in February, 2008. Also the NY team participated in soil health training workshop in Pennsylvania, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Meanwhile we have continued to maintain a strong linkage among the soil health collaborators and team members in NY, VT and MD through regular exchanges of emails and phone conferences.

•Development of private-sector services for soil health assessment on a fee basis.

We are continuing our discussions with private laboratories wishing to include the Cornell Soil Health Test as a fee for service analysis. At present, we are aware of two private laboratories that have shown interest in offering the test. However, some time of transition is necessary for the staff of these private laboratories to be trained in the procedures and protocol for soil health analysis. These laboratories may also need to invest in additional equipment in order to be able to offer the current suite of measurements included in the Cornell Soil Health Test.

•Development of a web-accessible database for the regional sharing of information relevant to soil health.

Our soil health website is currently being updated with new information for our stakeholders. We are presently in consultation with a web expert to help with interfacing our soil health data with our website in an appropriate and secured way. Information that we have structured to be presented on the soil health website include representative soil health reports of different soils under various management scenarios and the statistics of soil health measurements of soils under different management systems for the past three years.

•Development of software and a web-based user interface for determining what soil health parameters to evaluate and for the interpretation of results and guidelines of solutions.

We are still fine tuning the decision support system for choosing appropriate soil health indicators for different management systems. We are working on appropriate weighting schemes that can help us determine which soil indicators are most related to crop yields in different management systems. We hope to conclude this vital research goal in the first quarter of 2009 which will form the basis of the decision support software. We are also developing a soil health interpretation matrix that will assist growers and educators in choosing soil health management options to address specific soil health constraints. This new soil health management matrix will also be on the website for easy accessibility.

•Determining the mechanism(s) contributing to soil health improvement by implementing promoted soil management practices.

Replicated research and on-farm trials in NY, VT and MD were performed in 2008 to determine how specific practices affect the soil health indicators. Trials in Maryland during 2008, took place at research stations and on cooperating commercial farms. A cover crop experiment measured the effects of forage radish and winter rye cover crops on mycorrhizal fungi, active carbon, aggregate stability, and available phosphorus and a compaction experiment measured the ability of different cover crops to alleviate soil hardness. Farmers at Larriland Farm, One Straw Farm, and Accokeek Ecosystem Farm worked with us to design on-farm experiments to determine if a forage radish cover crop can be used to improve soil health by reducing erosion, reducing the need for tillage and improving early spring planting conditions. Results from the cover crop experiment show that the winter rye cover crop increased mycorrhizal colonization of the following corn crop, while the forage radish cover crop had no effect on mycorrhizal colonization compared to growing no cover crop at all. After two years of cover cropping, the rye and forage radish cover crops both increased active carbon and aggregate stability. Both forage radish and rye increased available phosphorus as well. The compaction experiment showed that the forage radish cover crop has a better ability to penetrate compacted soil layers than a winter rye cover crop, and that root of a corn crop were more abundant in the deeper layers of a compacted soil following a forage radish cover crop than following either winter rye or no cover crop. In the on-farm experiments, we documented that a forage radish cover crop almost completely eliminated run-off and erosion during medium intensity rainstorms in February and March 2008 compared to both a winter rye cover crop and no cover crop. This effect is due to improved infiltration by the large radish root holes that remain in the soil following the cover crop’s winter decay. Furthermore, the very light residue cover left in spring after a forage radish cover crop creates a warmer and drier seedbed than other high residue cover crops such as winter rye, allowing for earlier planting dates. Cover crop experiments set up on the three cooperating farms in the fall of 2008 are designed to test whether a forage radish cover crop can eliminate the need for spring tillage, which is usually necessary for the establishment of a suitable seedbed. Spring tillage is a limiting factor for many farmers due to its dependence on appropriate weather and soil conditions and the time and cost required for completing it. Excessive tillage is also a factor that leads to degraded soil health on many farms. The results of the on-farm trials will be collected in 2009.
In NY, we have continued to maintain the Gates Farm which is our long term soil health demonstration site. The Gates farm experiment consists of vegetable rotations with and without intervening soil building crops, each under three tillage methods (no-till, plow-till and zone-till) and three cover cropping systems (none, rye and vetch). From the statistical analysis of the Gates farm experiment, several soil health indicators showed significant differences with tillage and cover crop treatments especially under the continuous vegetable rotation. The overall Cornell Soil Health Index was significant for tillage treatment in the continuous vegetable rotation with the reduced tillage treatments generally having better soil health than the plow-till treatment. Indicators showing significant differences include wet aggregate stability, active carbon, potentially mineralizable nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Generally, The zone-till system tend to be better for soil health improvement than the plow-till system.

•Documenting the number of growers that have benefited from the project and the number that have implemented long-term soil management strategies (project target is 100+).

We intend to conduct a final survey at the end of this project to document how growers have improved the soil health of their fields based on the impact of our project. A baseline survey has already been conducted in 2006. We will conclude a follow up survey in 2009 to document the number of growers who have adopted improved soil health management practices based on the Cornell Soil Health Test reports, intervention practice employed and impact on yield as well as other possible information on profitability and environmental quality.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In 2008, we analyzed 386 fields from New York, Vermont Pennsylvania and Maryland using the Cornell Soil Health Test. Soil health test reports was forwarded to the collaborating growers. We conducted several outreach activities within the Northeast region explaining the utility and the interpretations of the Cornell Soil Health Test. Apart from the collaborating States, our soil health outreach extended to Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts New Jersey and Rhode Island. In VT, the NRCS-VT added a Soil Health Standard to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. NRCS now offers all farms the option to have the Cornell Soil Health Tests conducted on up to 10 fields per farm and cost shares at 100%. NRCS also provides technical assistance money to provide farmers with soil health interpretation and implementation strategies.


David Wolfe
Cornell University
Department of Horticulture
166 Plant Science Building
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072557888
Lynn Fish

Fish Farms
4494 Mt. Payne Rd.
Shortsville, NY 14548
Office Phone: 7162894957
Janice Thies
Associate Professor
Cornell University
Department of Crop and Soil Science
722 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072555099
Jean-Paul Courtens
Roxbury Farms
2501 Route 9H
Kinderhook, NY 12106
Office Phone: 5187588515
Beth Gugino
Post-doctoral Fellow
Cornell University, NYSAES
Department of Plant Pathology
630 W. North Street
Geneva, NY 14456
Office Phone: 3157872412
Ray Weil
University of Maryland
Dept. of Nat. Res. Sci. and Landscape Architecture
1103 H.J. Patterson Hall
College Park, MD 20742
Office Phone: 3014051314
Anita Deming
Executive Director
Essex Co. Cornell Cooperative Extension
P.O. Box 388
Westport, NY 12993-0388
Office Phone: 5189624810
Molly Shaw
Vegetable and Fruit Specialist
Tioga County Cornell Cooperative Extension
56 Main St.
Owego, NY 13827
Office Phone: 6076874020
John Idowu
Research Associate
Cornell University
Department of Crop and Soil Science
1001 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072551706
Steve Groff
Cedar Meadow Farm
679 Hilldale Road
Holtwood, PA 17532
Office Phone: 7172845152
Harold van Es
Cornell University
Department of Crop and Soil Science
1005 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072555629
Heather Darby
Assistant Professor
University of Vermont Extension
278 S. Main St.
St. Albans, VT 05455
Office Phone: 8025246501
Carol MacNeil
Vegetable Extension Specialist
Cornell Cooperative Extension
480 N. Main St.
Canandaigua, NY 14424
Office Phone: 5853943977