By Christina Curell Paul Gross & Kurt Steinke Michigan State University Extension
December 10, 2012 – Soil is one of the common factors that bring all agriculture together. Regardless of what you farm, the quality of the soil is important. The terms used most often are soil quality and soil health. While many use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between the two.
According to The Nature and Properties of Soils (Brady and Weil, Fourteenth Edition) the concepts of soil health and soil quality are described as being “used synonymously, (but) they involve two distinct concepts. The soil health refers to self-regulation, stability, resilience, and lack of stress symptoms in a soil as an ecosystem. Soil health describes the biological integrity of the soil community-the balance among organisms within a soil and between soil organisms and their environment.”
Soil quality is a term that we use when we talk about the physical attributes of soil. Physical attributes can be as basic as colour. It can also be used to describe more complex soil characteristics such as soil organic matter, nutrient amounts, soil structure, etc. These attributes can all be influenced by management practices and have the capability to enhance or diminish soil health.
Soil quality is often more discussed than soil health because practitioners can visually observe and physically affect this soil property.
Dr. Kurt Steinke, Michigan State University Extension soil scientist, describes soil quality as the physical and chemical properties of a soil as indicated by the factors of soil formation that together function in support of plant growth. Soil health is a description of the condition or status of a soil and may comprise multiple factors including soil quality characteristics that come together to create a hospitable environment for soil life. These factors may include soil structure as a framework for soil life, fuel in the form of organic matter to drive the entire system, and the diversity or population of soil micro- and macro-fauna. Soil texture and soil fertility are examples of characteristics that we may attempt to enhance. We can add amendments to better our soil tilth or to make the soil more fertile but little information is available on how these practices influence soil health.
Regardless of what terminology we use, soil health and soil quality both play an important role in agriculture. Over the next several months, MSU Extension educators will be working on projects and demonstrations centered on helping farmers understand soil health and soil quality.