How can I tell if my soil is healthy?

Answer from Nick Guetterman, Bucyrus, KS:

My first simple gauge to tell if my soil is healthy is to look at soil organic matter content compared to organic matter in similar soils that are in pasture or native grass.  This can be a benchmark on where we need to be.  The other simple measure is to just simply see how hard it is to insert a spade in the soil.  A nice healthy soil should allow the spade to go in relatively easy.  Finally, one of the last simple measure is to see if the soil is like cottage cheese and not a block of cheese.  If the soil is like cottage cheese it is a good indication that there is a lot of life in the soil.

Answer from Candy Thomas, NRCS, Salina, KS:

Getting out a shovel and digging a little can help you learn a lot.  Things I look for is the presence of different sized aggregates, cloddy vs. crumbly.  I also look to see if there is root restriction: L shaped or J shaped roots vs. roots going through old layers.  You can also look at your residue: is it turning over or do you see stalks from two years ago or wheat straw that has survived three seasons if you see long lasting residue that’s not good.  Look to see if you have areas where water is ponding and if you see surface sealing: soil that is smooth on the surface and cracks shaped like a stop sign, that is not good as well.  Then I look for the presence or absence of soil life.  Three or more critter is good, an overload of pest species is an indicator of things going wrong. 

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