Soil quality is a trait that has seemed difficult to quantify, until recently. Now, soil health is a very popular topic drawing large farmer crowds when seminars are offered.

Several years of preliminary soil tests have led to the launch of what is being called the Soil Health Tool, a new form of integrated soil test offered initially by 3 labs across the USA, and expanding to include more (see MAP).  The Soil Health Tool is “the next step” for labs already offering the Solvita test. The “Toolbox” has been under development by Will Brinton following a CRADA agreement with USDA-ARS -TX in 2005. “It started by integrating soil biology with chemistry since the modular Solvita test made this cost-effective possible for the first time”, according to Brinton.  Brinton’s lab has offered soil testing since 1975 and was one of the first labs to integrate physical, chemical and biological procedures in one unified report as early as 1988 – the first soil health report of its kind.

Rollout meetings with growers and consultants during 2013 and early 2014 (PA, ND, OH, NE) have shown a very positive response that fits with the sense that there’s a new soil health movement that farmers are keen to participate in. On the lab reports, growers will see new terms such as “CO2 rate”, “microbial active carbon” and “water soluble carbon”. These are used as indicators of biological factors linked to soil’s intrinsic nutrient supply powers. According to Haney (USDA ARS), “the methods use green chemistry, in that the soil analysis uses a soil microbial activity indicator, a soil water extract (nature’s solvent) and H3A, a soil extractant that mimics organic acids produced by living plant roots to temporarily change the soil pH, thereby increasing nutrient availability.”  “Time will tell if after experimental use this extract proves itself”, says Brinton. The end result of the new test is a rank called the Soil Health Score, “representing the overall health of the soil system.  This can be calculated by combining different test factors – the Haney test uses 3 factors and the Woods End Health Score employs atleast 5-factors.

Brookside’s Dr Luke Baker: “We are very excited to offer the Soil Health Tool to our clients since soil testing methods are currently missing the biological component. With the Tool, we can include soil biology when estimating plant available nutrients. After analyzing hundreds of samples, we feel that this could be the missing link in soil plant nutrient analysis. There is still gathering calibration data (which we are currently doing), but the future looks bright.”  The Soil Health Tool is an open-source system. The main goal, Brinton says, is to “save farmers money on unneeded fertilization while at the same time taking stock on your soil’s health”. Samples can be sent to Woods End by clicking on the soil test link, or use the Soil Solvita map to find a lab near you.