Is soil health driving any of your on-farm decisions?

Powering up the soil is like supercharging an engine. There are lots of things you can do to an engine to draw more horsepower. Same goes for the soil, but instead of measuring horsepower as with an engine, you can measure soil respiration.

“Soil health” is the latest ag buzzword and it is being promoted by university extension, state soil health coalitions, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Health Partnership and a newcomer – the Soil Health Institute (SHI). Each organization has a role to play in communications, education, research and policy. However, the SHI also has a role to play in influencing policy. And we can’t leave out companies selling biological products, cover crop seeds or organizations promoting no-till. Each has an impaction on soil health and they are already actively playing a role.

This July, I attended the second-annual SHI conference in St. Louis. I went there hoping to gather some new facts and tactics about measuring and improving soil health. The conference was primarily an update on what the SHI has been doing since its launch and recent unveiling of its new action plan. The institute looking for input on the action plan and activities of the action teams.

The SHI is a national nonprofit association dedicated to research and information on soil health. The tasks they are focusing on include:

  • Research
  • Economic assessment
  • Standards and measures
  • Education and communications
  • Policy

SHI has formed action teams of volunteers who provide expertise, which allows the institute to focus on its mission and achieve real-world applications and benefits. To learn more about what the action teams plan to accomplish, visit

Measurement of soil health is crucial to mission. You can’t change what you don’t know. For example, I have interest in standards and measuressince I like to measure parameters related to soil health as I strive to improve the health of soil on our family farm. Tracking measurements has taught me a lot about soils, how to improve them and how soil health really functions. I have made several startling discoveries of my own. Improving soil health is all about self-discovery, and each and every farmer can make their own.

Research is another activity. The institute wants to compile past research as well as fund and lead future research in soil health. The SHI can bring researchers together into a collaborative environment, align and focus research, make research efforts more efficient and prevent duplication, and provide funding. Many academics, companies and individuals already are conducting their own research on soil health and moving the needle. While I have been building soil health on our family farm for over a decade, over the past five years I have been conducting my own research trials because of the growth in measurement tools available today.

Soil health is important to economics and farm profitability. SHI intends to develop economic models that explore the profitability of adopting better soil health practices. I have been saying for the last four or five years that farmers need to learn how to farm the soil and not just the crop, and by doing so they will improve on-farm profitability, field by field. I can personally attest to that.

Of course, education and communication is always important and a task associations excel at. Communication builds awareness and a desire to change, and education brings about adoption, resulting in change over time. Over the past decade, I have written numerous articles, given multiple presentations, and don’t mind sharing my knowledge or my story with anyone who will listen. And many farmers are also sharing their story about their soil health achievements. You can do so, too.

Lastly, SHI wants to impact how policy can influence soil health and technology adoption. People that write policy can be influenced through communication and education. We need policy that promotes soil health and better management practices to achieve

One of the SHI’s long-term goals is to do an assessment of soil health across the U.S. But before doing so, the institute needs to select the right measurement metrics and standards for assessment that are accurate and actually tell us something about soil health. Many of those metrics and methods exist already and are available from different sources.

After attending the conference, I have a better understanding of SHI’s mission and how the institute needs the support and involvement of soil health experts and practitioners across the U.S. to achieve its goals.

Soybean agronomist Daniel Davidson, Ph.D. posts blogs on agronomy-related topics. Feel free to contact him at or 402-649-5919.

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About the Author: Dan Davidson

Soybean agronomist Daniel Davidson, Ph.D., posts blogs on topics related to soybean agronomy. Feel free to contact him at or ring him at 402-649-5919.