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Getting to the Root of Soil Health in the Magic Valley

By Jackie Jamison
Soil Health Extension Instructor, University of Idaho and NRCS

Rainfall simulator at a Soil Health Workshop in the Magic ValleyThe Magic Valley is one of Idaho’s highest producing agricultural areas for a wide variety of crops. While producers depend on healthy and productive soils for their farms to be profitable, sustainable and resilient, the soil health movement has been slow to reach this area. As a result, producers have been left wondering how management practices impact the health and functioning of the soil on their farms. Fortunately, that information is coming.

The five-year Magic Valley Soil Health Project is assessing how local management practices impact soil health in Idaho’s Magic Valley. This study is designed to help clarify those soil health parameters that are not only most indicative of soil function but are also sensitive to management changes. Ultimately, this project will provide producers with a regionally appropriate baseline for understanding soil health in the context of their farms.

This project began in 2019 and will continue over a period of five years in order to monitor changes in soil health under different management practices. A total of 31 fields across the Magic Valley were assessed in the summer of 2019, and these same fields will be assessed throughout the duration of the study. Fields represent a wide range of crops (hay, corn, dry beans, sugar beets, and small grains), management practices (cover crop usage, manure application, irrigation type, tillage operations, etc.) and soil textures (silty loams, loams, and sandy loams).

In 2019, samples were collected for analysis of soil chemical (standard fertility testing), physical (bulk density, saturated hydraulic conductivity, infiltration, and penetration resistance), and biological properties (phospholipid fatty acid assay (PLFA) and Haney tests). Future analyses will include standard chemical testing every year, as well as physical and biological tests for soil health every other year.

Results from the first year of analysis were made public earlier this spring by State Soil Scientist, Shawn Nield, and Dr. Linda Schott with University of Idaho. Those first numbers showed that most biological parameters were highest in perennial, no-till fields. However, there were several stand-out results from fields planted to annual cash crops, and future assessments will indicate whether these are indeed actual trends.

Moving forward, results will be used to understand what specific management practices impact key parameters of soil health. This will provide land managers and conservationists alike with valuable information to better manage for and improve soil health in Southern Idaho.