To some, it’s a freezer bag stuffed with soil. To those who run the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Soil Health Assessment Center, it’s the lifeblood of a national initiative to analyze the organic matter quality of soil that could reap significant dividends for Missouri farmers and landowners.
Traditional soil testing practices — checking the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, for example — date back to the 1840s. The work that Randy Miles and his staff have been doing for the last three years at the center represents a movement that is essentially a few weeks old by comparison.
“We’ve done a good job of assessing the physical and the chemical properties over the years. Now it’s the biological assessment,” said Miles, an associate professor in soil science at CAFNR who also serves as the director of the Sanborn Field and Duley-Miller Research Plots.
As part of the five-year initiative spearheaded by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the assessment center has received recent funding from the state office of the NRCS as well as the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has recently placed additional emphasis on the testing by making it mandatory for those farmers and landowners who take part in its cost-share program. Within the next couple of days, the program will be begin to be partly funded through the Missouri Parks & Soils Sales Tax (one-tenth of one percent), which also helps fund the maintenance of state parks.
“The Soil and Water Conservation Program in DNR is supporting this because they want to know that as they do cost share with a farmer who says I’m going to get X dollars per acre to put in these improvements, they want to know what the improvement is after three years or five years,” Miles said. “We’re trying to get a baseline to understand what happens and so [farmers] can show or at least somehow account for the money they spend and how much improvement in quality of the soil or health of the soil there’s been.”
By researching active carbon and overall microbial activity in soil, the center hopes to be able to make more informed recommendations on possible cover crops or other factors that could stimulate plant growth and lead to healthier soil. Other benefits of this new approach could less erosion and runoff, and therefore, a cleaner water system by reducing sedimentation in rivers and streams.
“The soil microbes have been found to be a lot more important that what we previously thought for a variety of reasons,” said center research specialist Donna Brandt. “The soil is a huge sink for carbon and the amount of carbon in the soil has decreased greatly through the years and if you can, for example, grow cover crops and have that carbon go back into the ground instead of harvested and taken off, then you’re taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil.”