Characteristics of healthy soil vary with user intent. However, according to the Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training Manual, there are 10 recognized traits of a healthy soil for agricultural purposes.
- Good soil tilth. This is a general characteristic of the soil’s capability to grow healthy crops. The soil does not readily compact and is easily penetrated by air and water while still having sufficient water-holding capacity.
- Sufficient depth. Is the topsoil deep enough for adequate root penetration or is there a confining layer due to natural or grower-induced causes?
- Sufficient but not excessive nutrients. Are nutrient levels adequate and accessible? Is there good nutrient cycling or is it excessive and prone to leaching and runoff and harmful to microbial life?
- Manageable population of plant pathogens and insect pests. Does the soil increase beneficial organisms while suppressing those that are harmful?
- Good soil drainage. Healthy soil rapidly drains water due to good structure and pore space while still retaining enough water for plant growth.
- Large population of beneficial organisms. Beneficial microbes are important for organic matter decomposition, nutrient cycling, soil structure, pest suppression and others.
- Low weed pressure. Proper soil management through cash crop and cover crop production contributes to reduced weed pressure.
- Free of harmful chemicals and toxins. Healthy soils are free of harmful chemicals and toxins or have the capability of neutralizing toxins so they do not adversely affect plant and microbial growth.
- Resistant to degradation. Resistant to wind and water erosion and to soil compaction.
- Resilient when unfavorable conditions occur. Healthy soil rebounds quickly after harmful events such as drought or harvesting under wet conditions.
Source: Michigan State University Extension