Soil health and water quality nexus in sustainable agroecosystems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $249,932.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2024
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: cover crops, drainage systems, no-till
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: risk management
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil stabilization, water quality
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:


    This project explores co-benefits of long-term soil health practices (SHPs) and their potential impacts on water quality. Long-term, continuous, and integrated SHPs (e.g. no-till+crop rotation+cover crops) build healthy soils and are important element of sustainable agroecosystems. Few studies assess the effect of improved soil health on edge-of-field (EOF) water quality, i.e. nutrient and sediment loss. Those studies that have focused on both soil health and water quality have primarily considered the short-term effects of a single SHP. However, these studied systems are in fact “transitional” and measurement likely ceases before the systems become “mature” and manifest their full potential. Our preliminary studies piloted through past SARE-funded efforts suggest that fields with transitional (3 to 10 years) to mature (40+ years) SHPs not only exhibit unique soil health indicators, but also have unique water quality signatures compared to conventionally managed systems. Through this interdisciplinary and farmer-oriented project we will compare soil health and EOF water quality on paired-fields that have different histories of integrated SHPs, specifically (1) conventionally managed (2) transitional, and (3) mature SHP systems. We will work with farmer collaborators to assess soil health and monitor EOF water discharge, concentrations of sediment, soluble and total reactive nutrients in surface and subsurface drainage. Using soil health and crop yield data we will derive a ‘relative SHP-maturity index’ for each site. The paired-field design will aid in site-specific comparisons among the treatments while controlling for spatio-temporal and climatic factors. We will conduct inter-site comparisons of water quality impacts using correlation, multivariate regression, and principal component analyses. New information will be disseminated to stakeholders through farmer-led field days, conferences, news articles, peer reviewed publications/factsheets, and social media. The long-term funding option will enable us to (1) follow the sites through multiple crop rotations, and (2) track the 'transitional' sites as they become more mature, and over a range of climatic conditions. Such extensive dataset from the long-term project would validate and increase the confidence in findings. The learning outcome of the project will be an improved understanding of the relationship between soil health and EOF water quality in transitional and mature systems. The action outcome will be enhanced adoption of long-term SHPs by growers and promotion by educators who understand the environmental impacts/benefits of long-term soil health improvements. The project outputs and outcome will benefit agroecosystems, waters, and communities in Ohio as well as the North Central region.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    • Objective-1: To assess soil health at conventional, transitional, and mature soil health practice (SHP) sites.
    • Objective-2: To monitor edge-of-field water quantity and quality at these sites.
    • Objective-3: To determine relationships between progressive soil health improvement and water quality at individual sites and across all sites.
    • Objective-4: To inform decision-makers about the soil health-agroecosystem-water quality nexus.

    Learning outcome: improved understanding of the relationship between soil health and edge-of-field water quality in transitional and mature systems compared to conventional systems.

    Action outcome: Clarifying the relationship between healthy soils and healthy waters will encourage broader adoption and incentivization of SHPs.

    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.