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Dig A Little, Learn A Lot This Spring

Earthworms are a sign of healthy, living soil.As temperatures go UP and the weather begins to feel more like Spring, it is the perfect time for Iowa farmers to focus their attention DOWN by investigating their soil. If farmers dig a little, they can learn a lot – by simply smelling, feeling, and looking at their farm’s most important production asset.

“It doesn’t matter if you operate a large or small farm, grow organic crops, or if you’re simply a homeowner or gardener who wants healthy, productive soil. It’s easy to examine your soils,” says State Soil Scientist Rick Bednarek with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Des Moines. “Take a quick look and you can learn a lot.”

To investigate your soil’s health, simply use a digging tool such as a garden spade or shovel, and your eyes, nose and hands to look, smell and touch.

  • LOOK—Look for plant residue on the soil surface and a living canopy or cover. The soil structure should look like chocolate cake with air holes permeating throughout. You should see earthworms, organic matter and live roots that extend deep into the soil.
  • SMELL—Healthy soil should have sweet, earthy aroma of geosmin, which is a byproduct of soil microbes called actinomycetes.
  • TOUCH—Soil should be loose and crumble easily. In healthy soil, roots can grow straight and deep, allowing plants to reach needed nutrients and water.

Soils damaged by disturbing activities like tillage or continuous grazing damage are typically lighter in color with a more flour-like consistency and less color diversity. Unhealthy soils typically feel heavier than healthier soils, but they will break apart much easier in your hands.

Why should we care about soil health? According to Bednarek healthy soil provides an abundance of benefits. Healthy soils:

  • sustain plant and animal life,
  • filter potential pollutants,
  • cycle nutrients,
  • hold more water, reducing flooding and help with drought,
  • resist runoff and erosion, and
  • naturally suppress weeds and pests.

To learn more about improving soil health visit:


Rick Bednarek, NRCS State Soil Scientist
Phone: 515-284-4135

Barb Stewart, NRCS State Agronomist
Phone: 515-284-4370