Concept, Components, and Strategies of Soil Health in Agroecosystems


  • Fred Magdoff


soil health, soil organic matter, soil quality


The terms ''soil health'' or ''soil quality'' as applied to agroecosystems refer to the ability of soil to support and sustain crop growth while maintaining environmental quality. High-quality soils have the following characteristics: (i) a sufficient, but not excess, supply of nutrients; (ii) good structure (tilth); (iii) sufficient depth for rooting and drainage; (iv) good internal drainage; (v) low populations of plant disease and parasitic organisms; (vi) high populations of organisms that promote plant growth; (vii) low weed pressure; (viii) no chemicals that might harm the plant; (ix) resistance to being degraded; and (x) resilience following an episode of degradation. Management intended to improve soil health involves creatively combining a number of practices that enhance the soil's biological, chemical, and physical suitability for crop production. The most important general strategy is to add plentiful quantities of organic matter-including crop and cover crop residues, manures, and composts. Other important strategies include better crop rotations, reducing tillage and keeping the soil surface covered with living and dead residue, reducing compaction by decreasing heavy equipment traffic, and using best nutrient management practices. Practices that enhance soil quality frequently reduce plant pest pressures.