"Years of research have led to this new way of testing soil," Woods End Founder William Brinton, Ph.D., said. "Three labs are offering the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Soil Health Nutrient Toolbox, and we hope to expand its availability worldwide."
The new soil test was rolled out last year in meetings with growers and consultants, with a very positive response, but the idea has been under development since early 2000, paralleling a huge increase of farmers using cover crops to build soils.
Brinton and Richard Haney, Ph.D., a soil scientist with USDA Agricultural Research Services (ARS) in Texas, collaborated extensively to standardize a cost-effective soil biology test adaptable to commercial labs. The basis was the Woods End Solvita test, which measures microbial CO2-respiration in a simple, pre-calibrated procedure. Then, the USDA-ARS expanded it to include "green chemistry" as a new way of measuring soil nutrients to address farmer fertilizer issues. The result is considered the next step for soil labs performing routine testing.
An open-source system, the main goal of the Soil Health Nutrient Toolbox is to "save growers money on unneeded fertilization while taking stock of their soil's health," Brinton said. "Growers getting a soil health report will see new terms such as 'CO2-Burst,' 'microbial active carbon' and 'water soluble carbon.' These traits are indicators of biological factors linked to soil nutrient supplying powers."
Haney added: "The methods use green chemistry in that the soil analysis uses a soil microbial activity indicator, a soil water extract (nature's solvent) and H3A, a soil extract that mimics organic acids produced by living plant roots to temporarily change the soil pH, thereby increasing nutrient availability. The end result is a Soil Health Score, which represents the overall health of the soil system. It combines five independent measurements of the soil's biological properties."
The toolbox is currently available at three American labs: Woods End, Brookside (New Bremen, Ohio) and Ward Labs (Kearney, Neb.), but growers can ask labs to incorporate the test into their services.