Ohio State soil researchers Steve Culman and Christine Sprunger have analyzed soil health and management data from around 900 Ohio farm soil samples. The samples were collected during various on-farm research projects in the last few years, including about 200 from organic operations.
The Culman and Sprunger labs have looked for relationships between soil health metrics and the corresponding soil type, sampling depth, and management practices. Below are a few quick highlights and opportunities to learn more.
Management Impacts on Soil Health
The study suggests that the most effective way to increase microbial activity and other soil health indicators was to include perennials in the crop rotation, especially for multiple years.
Organic growers will be happy to hear that, so far, cover crops appear to be a better soil health building strategy than no-till. That’s not to say that tillage is good for soil health. More complex crop rotations and increased tillage showed a negative effect on organic matter and microbial activity.
Culman cautions that this is “noisy” data based on observation, not a side-by-side controlled study, nor is it a comprehensive sampling of soils. More work is definitely needed. Some of this future work will look at aggregate stability (a measure of soil physical health), compare the soil health impact from different types of tillage, and compare organic vs. conventional practices (for example, the effect of organic vs. synthetic fertilizers). The researchers are also interested in ways to decrease tillage passes in an organic system.
Emerging Tests for Soil Health
As farmers and consumers focus increasingly on soil health, there is a growing need for better soil health measurements. Data from these on-farm soil surveys is helping to further this goal as well.
Standard soil tests include a total organic content measure, but most organic matter in the soil is not available to plants. Recent research also suggests that total organic matter changes very slowly over time and is probably not the best tool if you want to track how new management practices are impacting soil health.
Ohio State’s soil labs have been evaluating soil health tests for accuracy, for their value in management decision-making, and for cost and turn-around time. The goal is to recommend useful tests to commercial labs so that these can be offered directly to farmers, along with information about state averages, ranges, and how the test values vary with soil type.
It's important that organically managed soils continue to be part of this sampling project. Ohio State will collect soil samples again in 2021 as part of eFields – an agronomic crops program to conduct and share on-farm research. Contact your local extension educator or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details on getting your soil sampled for this statewide study. Individual soil test results will be shared with participating growers.
- Management Practices That Impact Soil Health and Organic Matter
March 17 Sprunger presentation (45 minutes) - part of Ohio State's 2021 Winter Organic Webinar Series
- Using Research and Data to Improve Soil Health
February 25 presentation, Steve Culman & Elizabeth Hawkins - part of Ohio State's 2021 Soil Health Webinar Series
- eFields report 2020 - see page 224 for Soil Health Survey report.
- eFields program
Organic farms are excellent hosts for pollinators because of the reduced danger of pesticides, but also because of the greater diversity that organic operations often support, says Ohio State Bee lab director Denise Ellsworth. With over 450 different species of bees in Ohio, a variety of plants and habitats is important.
Ohio State’s Bee Lab is dedicated to research and outreach on topics related to honey bees, wild bees, and other pollinators. Ellsworth has partnered with others to develop numerous factsheets and resources on Ohio-specific bee and pollinator topics, including id guides to common Ohio bees, and tips for creating pollinator habitats with specific tree and plant suggestions.
Honey bees can of course serve as an additional source of income. Honey production comes to mind immediately, but some farmers also manage pollinator services, renting out their hives to various fields during the growing season. For those not looking to raise bees commercially, there are still benefits to creating pollinator habitats. According to Ellsworth, pollinators share the same habitat needs as other beneficial insects. “So even if you’re not growing something that relies on pollinators, you’ll be creating a habitat for other beneficial insects: wasps, lady beetles, and other ‘good guys,’” she says.
Whether you’re managing a small personal garden or a multi-acre farm, areas to develop for pollinator habitat are easy to identify: Fallow fields, cover crops, hedgerows, windbreaks, riparian buffers, ponds and ditches, natural or undeveloped areas, pastures, and flower gardens can all be improved with features and plants to attract pollinators.
Selected Ohio State resources are listed below. You can also visit the Ohio State Bee Lab website for more resources including current research, and information on the Ohio Bee Atlas, to which citizen scientists can contribute photos and observations. Additional resources are available through the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. They have several general factsheets and guides related to organic farms and pollinators. https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/organic-farms/
Honey Bee Resources
Getting Started with Honey Bees, IPM for Bees, etc.
Creating Pollinator Habitat
presentations from 2019 OEFFA Conference and 2019 Grazing Conference
Attracting Pollinators to the Garden
Bee, Wasp, Hornet, and Yellow Jacket Stings for Trainers and Supervisors
Bumble Bees in Ohio: Natural History and Identification of Common Species
How to Identify and Enhance Ohio’s Wild Bees in Your Landscape
Ohio Bee Identification Guide
Ohio Bee Identification Cards and Posters
Ohio Trees for Bees
Pollinator Quick Guide: What You Can Do to Help Bumble Bees
Pollinator Quick Guide: What You Can Do to Help Honey Bees
Pollinator Quick Guide: What You Can Do to Help Native Bees
Pollinator Quick Guide: What You Can Do to Help Pollinators
Honey Bees in House Walls