Soil "Fingerprinting": Opening Doors to Improved Soil Monitoring

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A key question for agricultural producers is "how do I know if what I'm doing is enhancing the quality of my soil?" Soil quality directly affects crop yields and sustainable agricultural production; however, monitoring and tracking changes in soil quality is a complicated process.

Because there are many soil attributes, land use decisions, and environmental issues to consider, a team led by an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientist, Dr. Catherine Fox of the Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre in Harrow, Ontario, has developed the "A-Horizon Framework" with an electronic Field Form to record detailed characteristics of the surface layer of the soil to create a "soil fingerprint".

This new Framework offers an innovative and systematic approach to record soil properties that affect soil quality and are subject to change, such as soil structure, bulk density (extent of compaction), amount of organic matter, pH, and salinity.

As the properties of the soil are recorded electronically in the Field Form, a soil fingerprint is automatically generated. This soil fingerprint is applied to field and landscape soil assessments in order to monitor changes both during the growing season and over several years. A database of many soil fingerprints can also be used by researchers to develop models to evaluate soil quality, assist in soil remediation efforts, and assess overall environmental impacts.

"This soil fingerprint is a concise way to describe the characteristics of the soil surface layer. Changes to the fingerprint of a soil can be compared over time or under different management practices. Having this knowledge will help producers identify management practices that improve the quality of their soils."

– Natalie Feisthauer, Project Co-lead, Knowledge & Technology Transfer

The built-in adaptability and flexibility of the Framework and Field Form allows the inclusion of additional soil properties (for example, water flow, soil organism populations) depending on what is being evaluated (for example, specific effects of a best management practice or soil remediation efforts, et cetera.). AAFC Knowledge Technology and Transfer (KTT) project co-leads Natalie Feisthauer (Ontario KTT Office, Guelph, Ontario) and David Kroetsch, (Eastern Cereals and Oilseeds Research Centre, Ottawa, Ontario) are working to transfer the Framework to the agricultural community. Collaboration on this project includes soil specialists from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), and researchers from the University of Guelph, the University of Osnabrϋck, and ZALF-Mϋncheberg in Germany. The research team led by Dr. Fox included Charles Tarnocai, David Kroetsch, and Elizabeth Kenny of AAFC in collaboration with German counterparts Dr. Gabriele Broll and Dr. Monika Joschko.

The Framework will be applied to different farming systems and management practices to further validate its application for identifying soil quality change. Enhanced guidance material will be developed for its use. Ultimately, the goal is to provide the agricultural community with a useful 'tool' to assist in the evaluation of the effectiveness of best management practices on soil quality.

Key Highlights

  • Soil quality is an important component in agriculture. However, it is currently difficult to track.
  • Dr. Fox has developed a system, known as soil "fingerprinting", to help accurately track changes in the soil in a very concise manner.
  • These "fingerprints" can help show producers how management practices impact the soil and the best way to enhance soil quality.
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