Biological Soil Health and Water Quality in Sustainable Agroecosystems

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,912.00
Projected End Date: 05/05/2023
Grant Recipient: The Ohio State University
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Ryan Winston, P.E.
The Ohio State University
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Margaret Kalcic
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Dr. William Osterholz
USDA Agricultural Research Service


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage, cover crops, cropping systems, forest/woodlot management, no-till
  • Education and Training: display, extension, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: indicators
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil physics, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    This project explores the co-benefits of long-term soil health practices (SHPs) and their potential impacts on soil biology and water quality. Difficulty monitoring long-term SHPs has led to few studies assessing their effects on in-field biogeochemistry. Most studies in this area focus on the loss and movement of nutrients through the system in a transitional state (3 to 10 years). Preliminary studies conducted through past SARE-funded research projects suggest that mature (40+ year) SHPs display unique soil health properties compared to their transitionally and conventionally managed counterparts. Water quality in the Midwest is an urgent concern as harmful algal blooms become more persistent due to non-point agricultural runoff pollution. Agricultural pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, flow through subsurface tile drains to receiving water bodies, and these pollutant discharges have been linked to deleterious impacts on watershed health. This project analyses soil biological health, as determined by a suite of soil enzyme activities and microbial community structure measurements, in paired fields with different SHPs. The comparison of SHPs includes three cropland systems (conventionally managed, transitional, and mature) as well as a natural forested system. The goals of this project are to 1) determine how long-term management practices affect soil enzyme activity and microbial communities and 2) relate enzyme activity to nutrient losses into the watershed. We will collaborate with farmers to collect soil samples from nine sites across Ohio to aid in site-specific comparisons among the treatments while controlling for spatio-temporal and climatic factors. Concurrent edge-of-field water quality data is being collected as part of a related SARE-funded research project. This will be used for a systems approach analysis of management practices, by simultaneously looking at biological, chemical, and physical processes.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This study is the first to measure the effects of long-term SHPs on enzyme activity and water quality in agricultural and forested systems. The measurements of enzyme activity, microbial communities, and water quality will be used to relate land use type to soil health and attempt to create a health matrix to share with farmers. The results of this study will be used to aid farmers in understanding how SHP duration and type can affect in-field biological health, nutrient loss, and watershed health. Water quality measurements collected by research collaborators (i.e., USDA-ARS led by Kevin King) will be compared to the soil indicators to create relationships between nutrient loss, management type, and enzyme activities. The results from these tests will be used to assess the long-term benefits of SHPs and provide farmers with a better understanding of the benefits. Farmers will learn how soil biological indicators can relate to water quality and can aid them in making management decisions. Specifically, enzyme activities can provide them with insight into the nutrient mineralization reactions occurring within the soil and how that might affect crop yields and runoff water quality.






    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.