Woods End Laboratories

Healthy Soil

Healthy Science

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Healthy functioning of soil

Soil Health Tool

A vibrant healthy soil arises not from soil itself but from the interactions of plants, microbes and animals in the soil environment.

THE CONCEPT: Soil Health is an emerging concept of soil fertility that combines biological and ecological factors with conventional nutrient approaches. The objective of soil health assessment is to represent soil in a broader context than only the supply of nutrients for annual yield.

THE CHALLENGE: Farmers are often characterized as challenged to shift management practices favoring healthier soil.  But scientists and soil labs should be equally challenged.  Scientific soil concepts and practices of soil analysis in laboratories are not sensitive to biological factors associated with soil vitality. Woods End Labs is perhaps unique in viewing science in farming as the primary source of the problem, not farmers. Presently, the demand that growers and soil labs improve methods that relate to comprehensive productivity is colliding socially and politically at a time in which worldwide, soil degradation and carbon loss are at an all-time high. This is so for two reasons: the harmful pressure of population growth on the land and the debilitating role reductionist forms of modern science play in formulating solutions.

INTEGRATION:  Technically, “soil health” is a misnomer since soil alone cannot be healthy.  Rather, healthy functions in soil arise only to the extent that plants, microbes and soil-inhabiting animals actively participate in building and sustaining their environment.  This phenomena of organisms acting to modify and improve their habitation is recognized in modern biology as niche construction. With this view, the emphasis of soil analysis in farming must shift from chemistry alone to inclusion of  bio-chemistry.

Soil Health Tool

Cornerstone soil tests that integrate biological traits include Solvita-CO2 for microbial activities and Solvita-SLAN for humus quality.

SOIL TEST CHALLENGE: The challenge is  “testing soil health” is to provide practical results. As an analogy, a century of scientific medical-biology advances in understanding human health has failed to produce a single lab test or small combination of tests to properly reveal “healthiness”. There is no reason to expect soil health testing will be any more successful.  Moreover, at the human health level, consciousness enables self-evaluation, which completes the analysis, and health expresses itself at the level of the individual. Translating this into the perspective of the inanimate soil and farm environment, many obstacles must be overcome to make any useful analysis. All inquiry must be individuated to the local environment level of climate and soil type, which soil labs are disinclined to do.

WOODS END ROLE:  Woods End Laboratory was founded in the early 1970’s to provide alternative soil testing services to farmers choosing biologically oriented farming methods. These early farmers were constrained to translating post WWII era inorganic N-P-K tables into biological management, resulting in highly inaccurate recipes. The concept of biological nutrient release and its calibration to conventional soil tests was largely unknown. Woods End Laboratory sought to overcome these  barriers with research on the ways that “green manure” crops interact to improve soil nutrient release. Also, Woods End pioneered nutrient release models for gauging mineralization of nitrogen contained in manures and composts, and developed some of the earliest calibrations of soil-tests with non-chemical fertilizers. More recently Woods End developed Solvita, a form of bioassay which enables biological functions in soil to be observed with reasonable accuracy. This test has been calibrating the pioneering European work on soil biological indicator scales. The goal is to enable laboratories to incorporate cost-effective biologically-oriented tests into existing structures while providing practical interpretations.

DIVING DOWN INTO SOIL AGGREGATES: Another key innovation at Woods End is “VAST”, a test which helps establish the prerequisite that for soil health, testing must be more comprehensive. While VAST was originally developed early in the 1980’s within Woods End, it has been made available recently to soil labs under the Solvita brand. The test provides a powerful visual and quantitative means to assess the stability of soil micro-structures, the intersection of degradative and soil-building biological forces.

Aggregates – the foundation of “erosion resistance” and basis of a new test offered to soil labs by Woods End.

CORNERSTONES OF SOIL HEALTH TESTING:  Putting all the new tests together – active respiration, aggregate stability, organic nitrogen pools – results in a comprehensive soil bio-chemistry test that may serve as an indicator of healthy functioning.  Combining this test with rainfall, soil-temperature and physiographic models helps tailor it to the local environment, the only way that soil health tests can ultimately be usefully interpreted. Woods End labs is one of the few labs presently working on this integration – and if history is any guide, it is a work in progress.

MOVING FORWARD With new excitement for soil quality evident across wide sectors of farming, a caution is needed. Historically soil test methods have evolved slowly. Soil improvement and soil decline themselves are very slow over decades or centuries, and are not readily noticed.  There are new concerns about sensitivity of soil tests to adequately show relevant gains. For example, it has been determined statistically that it is not possible to measure soil carbon changes in less than 2 years without a sample size of hundreds probes per individual field. For routine sampling, a resolution more precise that 5 tons/carbon/acre is barely possible. By drawing on some of the best long-term soil management studies conducted around the world over the past 5 decades, it may be possible to adjust to the required “imprecision” in short-time of soil quality measurements.

As a summary, the Soil Health Toolbox:

  • Accounts for soil microbial activity, with a view that this is very nutrient-relevant;
  • Evaluates N + P mineralization potential, the core of the nutrient supply mechanism for plants
  • Represents nutrients such as organic-amino-N likely to be “plant relevant”

For instructions on sampling soil, download the ‘Soil Sample Info Form‘ or contact: lab@woodsend.com


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