Research & Projects
Soil health research uncovers tools that allow scientists and producers to quantify changes in soil health and identify measurements that best demonstrate these changes, as well as tells us how our management impacts the soil. University of Idaho and partners have several ongoing and completed soil health research projects.
The Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE) is a $45 million project between University of Idaho, industry members and the state of Idaho. The research dairy will be home to 2,000 dairy cows located on 640 acres in Idaho’s dairy producing region which spans three counties in the Magic Valley.
This project will investigate long term sustainability of water usage constraints and environmental quality. A research dairy and demonstration farm focusing on soil health and water are in the plans as well as an educational center and food processing plant.
Bronte Sone, Ph.D. candidate, Strickland Lab
There has been a significant loss of biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems. The lack of aboveground diversity has been shown to reduce soil microbial diversity, which has implications for soil health. The implementation of cover crops on farms is a proposed management strategy to increase plant diversity — a soil health principle. In grassland ecosystems, an increase in aboveground diversity results in increased belowground diversity. However, it is unknown how increasing diversity over short time scales (i.e. cover crops) in agroecosystems impacts microbial communities and their function.
This research investigates how six species of cover crops including oilseed, grass and legume species affect soil microbial diversity and composition. Soil microbial communities are critical for soil carbon storage, nutrient cycling and agroecosystem function. Soil microbes are key players in soil carbon cycling by degrading organic matter and producing simple compounds that are then stored in the soil long-term. Soil carbon is known to improve soil health by increasing soil water and nutrient holding capacity and soil structure. Microbial communities are also responsible for most of the nutrient cycling in the soil and making nutrients available for plant growth. Increased soil microbial diversity means there is a greater likelihood that more than one species will perform the same function (e.g. making nitrogen available for plants). Not all microbial species will be affected equally by a disturbance, which increases the chance for continued function after a disturbance, leading to greater agricultural ecosystem stability and maintained soil health.
The Magic Valley Soil Health project is a five-year research project assessing how management practices impact soil health in the Magic Valley. The project, beginning in 2019, assesses 34 fields across the Magic Valley, evaluating different soil physical, biological and chemical properties.
In odd years, 2019, 2021, 2023, physical properties such as bulk density, soil moisture and infiltration, chemical properties assessing standard nutrients and biological assessing Phospholipid Fatty Acid (PLFA) and Haney test were measured. In even years, chemical testing and another biological test called Soil Your Undies are assessed.
Preliminary results showed that biological measurements were highest in no-till perennial fields. Results can be used to determine which management practices best correlate to soil health, which will allow producers to make more informed decisions about management.
The Potato Soil Health Project was established to address two related issues with soil health in potato cropping systems across the United States:
- Despite the frequent use of fumigation in most farms, pressure from soil-borne diseases is increasing over time.
- At the same time, soil productivity is declining. Our overall objectives are to determine how best to measure soil health in potato cropping systems, identify the tools (cover crops, soil amendments, rotation schemes) that best enhance both soil health and tuber production, and communicate our findings to potato growers.
Find more information at https://potatosoilhealth.cfans.umn.edu/.
The Soil Your Undies Campaign is a part of the Magic Valley Soil Health project. A new pair of cotton underwear is buried in each field, after eight weeks they are dug up and examined.
Microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi break down the cotton parts of the underwear, leaving the rubber materials. The amount of breakdown is associated with microbial activity and decomposition in the soil, which is indicative of soil health. Percent loss by weight is calculated at the end of the eight weeks.
Historically management of agricultural soils has resulted in depletion of soil biodiversity and inefficiencies in biogeochemical cycles. Soil health management strategies have often combated these negative effects, but stakeholders are hungry for information regarding potential synergies between management practices.
We will pair a common garden experiment with a stable isotope pulse-chase, while simultaneously quantifying the composition, diversity and function of soil microbial communities, enabling for a better understanding of how soil health management practices interact (i.e., cover crop diversity, intercropping, compost addition and livestock-crop integration).
We will then expose soils to an array of global change factors, using a microcosm approach, to address how resistant/resilient soils are to these perturbations.
Together the results of these objectives will illustrate synergies between soil health management practices, and how these practices impact soil biogeochemistry and microbial communities.
Additionally, this work will provide critical links between soil health metrics and soil microbial community composition and function while also highlighting the resistance/resilience of these communities to global change.
Landscapes in Transition (LIT) was a collaborative research project between University of Idaho, Oregon State University, Washington State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. LIT research used systems thinking to investigate pathways to increase resiliency and diversification in the Inland Pacific Northwest rain fed wheat-based cropping systems and by identifying alternatives to fallow.
Regional Approaches to Climate Change (REACCH) was a collaborative research effort that sought to increase sustainability of Inland Northwest cereal production and investigate approaches to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions from agriculture.