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DIY Tips for Scouting Your Soils

An NRCS soil health specialist shares simple, on-farm techniques growers can use to evaluate soil biology, aggregate structure and compaction of their soils.


Pictured Above: IT’S ALIVE. A visual inspection of a healthy soil should turn up several living organisms, including beetles, spiders, fungi and earthworms, as shown above

SOIL HEALTH SPECIALISTS are in demand at farms and field days across the country, as their targeted knowledge about the life below ground increasingly offers keen insights about nutrient cycling, water infiltration, biological activity and more. Rainfall simulators, slake tests, and soil pits are their calling cards. 

But the soil scientists can’t be everywhere all the time, and there are several low-tech ways farmers can evaluate their own soils, says Stephanie McLain. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil health specialist in Indiana demonstrated techniques that farmers can use to assess the health of their own soils during a field day held at no-tiller Rick Clark’s Williamsport, Ind., farm. 

“As you work on this process of building soil health in your fields, these techniques can build confidence in your cropping system,” McLain says. “They’re not obvious things at a glance, but they are important.”

1. Visual Inspection

Before doing anything else, it’s helpful to simply observe the soil. Dig out a chunk of soil and look at the plant roots. “Gently shake the soil off to see if you have a rhizosheath,” she says, referring to the layer of soil particles that will adhere to the root surface. “That’s an indicator of biological activity, that your plant is working to feed its system.”

Examine the way the roots grow. Do they go straight down…

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Julia gerlach web

Julia Gerlach

Julia Gerlach is managing editor of No-Till Farmer. She has a lengthy background in publishing and a longtime interest in gardening and mycology. She graduated with a B.A. in music and philosophy from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis.

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