Submitted to: Agronomy Journal
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 5/1/2000
Publication Date: 1/1/2002
Citation: DITZLER, C.A., TUGEL, A.J. SOIL QUALITY FIELD TOOLS: EXPERIENCES OF USDA-NRCS SOIL QUALITY INSTITUTE. AGRONOMY JOURNAL. 2002. V. 94(1). P.33-38.
Interpretive Summary: Soil quality can be assessed through the use of key soil properties, or indicators, that reflect important soil processes. The SQI of the USDA-NRCS has developed a qualitative tool (Soil Quality Card Design Guide) and a quantitative tool (Soil Quality Field Test Kit Guide) for soil quality assessment in the field. We know of seven soil quality cards that have been developed. We learned that farmers often link related features, or soil properties, in one indicator. For the farmer, properties such as drainage and infiltration are often inseparable for management and plant growth considerations, and thus are combined in one indicator even though these properties are often considered separately by researchers. Addressing the interrelationships between soil properties may be critically important for effective communication between scientists and farmers. It should be noted that an individual card reflects the work of only a small group from the region and may require revision as it is tested and used in the field. In addition, the cards described in this paper were developed primarily by farmers and, therefore, emphasize the soil function of sustaining productivity. Our experience indicates that workshops introducing the soil quality field test kit and guide are an effective vehicle for training in soil quality concepts and for describing the importance and interaction of physical, chemical, and biological components of the soil. We have also found it useful for raising awareness regarding the potential impact that management can have on individual indicators of soil quality. To date, the soil quality kit has not been widely used on a routine basis by NRCS field personnel. The time required to conduct tests in the field and the need for readily available technical support in interpreting results seem to be the main obstacles. The best results seem to be where technical staff specialists, such as soil scientists or agronomists, have been trained to use the kit as one of their tools when providing technical assistance to field office personnel in their assigned geographic areas. The SQI will continue to work in partnership with others to develop information and tools such as those described here to help people conserve and sustain our natural resources and the environment.
Technical Abstract: The mission of the Soil Quality Institute (SQI) of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is to develop and disseminate tools for soil quality assessment. In keeping with this mission, the SQI, through partnerships, has developed two assessment tools for use by farmers and field staff. We review these efforts here. The first, the Soil Quality Card Design Guide, provides a nine-step process for conducting workshops to guide farmers in developing locally adapted soil quality assessment cards. The second, the Soil Quality Test Kit Guide, provides instructions and interpretations for 11 field tests representing physical, chemical, and biological properties of soil. In this paper, we present a summary of soil quality cards developed in seven states. An important strength of the soil quality card design process lies with the active participation of farmers to design the cards themselves as part of locally led conservation activities. We also present results from soil quality test kit training workshops showing that the test kit provides an excellent framework for teaching soil quality concepts in the field. Regular use to compare effects of management systems or monitor changes over time will likely be limited to farmers with fairly high skill levels, specialists, and agricultural consultants.