Soil quality is evaluated to learn about the effects of management practices on soil function. Reasons for evaluating soil quality fall into three categories:
The soil quality concept emphasizes an ecological approach to land management. Management actions don't have simple, single effects in complex systems, such as soil. Management has multiple effects, both direct and indirect. For example, tillage is used to loosen surface soil, prepare the seedbed, and control weeds and pests. But tillage can also break up soil structure, speed the decomposition and loss of organic matter, increase the threat of erosion, destroy the habitat of helpful organisms, and cause compaction. Understanding the tradeoffs that exist for the range of management options is a first step towards improved land management and public policy. Assessment as an Educational Tool includes one-on-one and field day use of in-field testing tools.
Soil quality is often referred to as "Soil Health" because of objectives similar to the monitoring and maintenance of human health. Doctors monitor health indicators and watch for irregularities or declines in status. The set of health indicators measured during a check-up is familiar to all of us: temperature, pulse, blood pressure, heartbeat, urine samples, etc. Monitoring of these indicators may reveal potential problems even before painful symptoms occur; the earlier problems are observed, the easier they are to treat.
Likewise, soil indicators that appear irregular or decline over time provide a signal that some aspect of the management should be reconsidered. Although soil fertility testing already serves this role in regard to plant nutrition, soil quality assessment expands this to include the wider range of soil functions and environmental outcomes.
Soil quality measurements are also a way of investigating specific problems. Low productivity in a specific area for example may have several causes of which low nutrient status may only be one, or indeed a symptom rather than a cause. For more information on how to assess trouble spots, go to How to design evaluations. When soil quality is assessed over time, it can tell you something about the sustainability of management practices.
Beyond awareness and evaluating current practices, soil quality assessment methods provide a framework for comparing management tradeoffs and deciding which management options provide the greatest good, whether for one's farming operation or at a watershed or regional scale.
Soil quality assessment tools allow one to examine the effects of making a change in management before actually committing full resources to that change. Soil quality assessments can be used to compare the effects of management practices on similar soils.
An Introductory Guide for Adaptive Management is available for those who are ready to institute changes on the land.