Soil health at your fingertips

Technology is revolutionizing soil health testing.

With a resurgence of soil health practices on the farm, ag tech companies are seizing the opportunity to dive deep into soil health data to measure the productivity of soil in real time. Yet, testing for soil health is still relatively new and complicated.

Shane Bugeja, Extension educator with the University of Minnesota, explains, “Soil health tests not only focus on the physical or chemical characteristics of the soil but also try to measure biological life. Think about how complicated life is; it’s just as complicated underground.”

Bugeja says while older, more traditional soil tests give a general overview of your soil, soil health tests give more detail about the function of the soil, adding color to the results of traditional soil tests.

Soil health data might help to explain an issue or estimate how much organic matter nitrogen exists that can be broken down and used by plants and microbes.

Several soil health tests exist today, such as the Haney test, phospholipid fatty acid (PFLA) test, and Cornell University’s soil health analysis package. However, not every test functions the same or gives you the same results and recommendations. These tests and other testing procedures vary, may be packaged with other tests, may not be widely available, and range in cost between $20 and $170 per sample.

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Microbes Indicate Soil Quality

If you consider soil as a living thing, it’s the soil microbes that are key indicators of health. Soil microbes help release otherwise unavailable plant nutrients, they can outcompete harmful bacteria or fungi, and help sustain the environment in the soil. Knowing the microbial biomass of your soil gives you a baseline for soil quality.

To ensure you receive accurate data quickly about your soil’s microbes, MicroBiometer developed a test that measures the microbes and displays results on your smartphone within 20 minutes.

“You can’t really look at a plant separately from its microbes,” says Judith Fitzpatrick, founder of MicroBiometer. “It’s like you can’t look at a person separate from his or her microbes. We can’t live without them, and plants can’t either. In fact, it’s more important for a plant than it is for us, because the plant’s immune system is actually the microbes that are in the soil.”

Microbes are challenging to measure because they are stuck very tightly to the soil. However, being stuck very tightly to the soil is good, because the nutrition doesn’t wash away easily and can be delivered to the plant. The nutrition remains in the soil, where it should be.

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How MicroBiometer Works

Fitzpatrick says, “The first challenge we faced in developing a test was to separate the microbes from the soil in order to measure them, which we can do with a high-salt solution with some detergent, plus a whisking procedure. We developed our own probe so as not to disrupt or break open the microbes.”

Once the microbes are captured on a membrane in the MicroBiometer testing device, you take a picture of a test card  (included in the kit) via the smartphone app. The platform reads out the micrograms of microbial carbon based on the amount of soil measured.

At $10 a test, MicroBiometer offers a cost-effective solution compared with other tests available today.

When you invest in your soil, you should have a method to measure the effectiveness of the management practices you choose.

Fitzpatrick says this is where the MicroBiometer test is useful. “The microbes respond very rapidly to a change, as quickly as within one month,” she says.

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Interpreting Results Remains a Challenge

Even if you do regular soil testing and are considering the options available to analyze your soil health, take care to evaluate your needs and the systems on your farm, and think critically about what benchmarks to use to measure change.

“One of the things you have to be careful about is if you are really increasing the health of the land or just trying to bump up a number,” cautions Bugeja.

“Use more than one information source just like you use more than one soil health practice,” Bugeja recommends. “We know cover crops help the soil and so do diversified rotations and no-till. Many parts are working together in the soil, and you might measure one little cog. Yet, how much does that tell you about the whole picture?”

Fitzpatrick says MicroBiometer has been working with customers on interpreting the results of their soil microbe test and identifying what relevant recommendations they could make based on the data.

Like many of those in the industry today, this is a new test and there aren’t straightforward formulas to apply based on the results. It depends on each farmer, the crop, the cover crop, the fertilizer, and the soil.

“It’s like if you go to the doctor, there isn’t just one pill for everything and everyone. In agriculture, people are used to being told what to do. That’s why MicroBiometer is considered a disruptive technology,” she says.

Tests like MicroBiometer’s can indicate what amendment or cover crop is best suited to improve the productivity of your soil.

“It takes about three years to figure out if you’re actually increasing your soil organic carbon,” explains Fitzpatrick.

“Within days or weeks, you can see a dramatic increase in microbes if you have given your soil microbes just the boost they need,” she says. 

“An increase of microbial content is an indicator of soil organic carbon, and measuring that can tell you if you’re going in the right direction. This is especially important if you are in a situation as a farmer where you lease land for five years. Knowing that you’re on the right track before seeing the results three years down the road is essential,” she says.

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