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Soil health, more than a test

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Soil health research at Michigan State University is looking for ways to expand traditional soil tests.

Brendan O’Neill is a graduate student whose work is focused on soil biology at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station in West Michigan. He tells Brownfield soil tests have remained mostly unchanged and research has shown there are many components that make up a healthy soil. He’s working to combine the two.

“There’s a lot more going on than just the chemistry of what plants might need and any grower can tell you that—they know when a field works well or doesn’t work well, or has some kind of problem.”

O’Neill says their research is looking at types of tests that can measure factors of soil health, like compaction.  “What we’re interested in is this combination of chemical tests together with physical and biological measures that really to help inform us much more about the condition of soil.”

He says the challenge for researchers will be narrowing the parameters to what’s most important to growers and makes management sense.  “Down the road, it’s not going to be a one size fits all test for soil health, I think it’s going to be hopefully very tailored to growers and the special management needs that they may have across different fields.”

To improve soil health, O’Neill recommends farmers choose management practices that build soil organic matter such as cover crops, no-till or leaving more crop residue in fields during harvest.

AUDIO: Interview with Brendan O’Neill

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