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Assessing soil organic matter quality as an attribute of soil health in long-term tillage and crop rotation experiments

Principal Investigator

Amanda Diochon

Research Institution

Lakehead University

Project Start

September 2015

Project End

August 2017


  • Quantify the impact of long term tillage system and crop rotation on soil organic matter attributes at four long term agricultural experimental installations in Ontario, which will contribute to identifying best management practices.
  • Identify a minimum data set from the measured soil organic matter attributes, which will contribute to the development of an improved soil health test for Ontario.


  • The development of an improved soil health test for Ontario farmers that will help to identify and quantify changes in soil health associated with farming practises.
  • The identification of best management practises for soil health for Ontario agroecosystems will improve the farmer’s profitability and allow them to maintain or improve soil health of their fields.

Scientific Summary

There is a large knowledge gap on the quantifiable effects of agricultural management practices on soil health. One key attribute of soil health is soil organic matter and its measurement is included in many of the commercially available soil health tests, such as the Cornell Soil Health Test. Though measurement of soil organic matter is straightforward, it can be difficult to assess its status and response to management practices because the change in soil organic matter that occurs in response to management practices is small relative to the large background pool in the soil. Since soil organic matter is positively related to resilience, management practices that promote the accumulation of organic matter should also be resilient to external environmental pressures like extreme moisture conditions. Detecting change in soil organic matter in response to management may be enhanced by measuring attributes such as microbial biomass carbon, mineralizable carbon, and light fraction carbon that are highly responsive to changes in the inputs or outputs of organic matter.

The goal of the project is to examine the response of seven attributes of soil organic matter to tillage and crop rotation (corn, soybean and wheat) practices at four long term agricultural experiments in Ontario (Ridgetown, Elora, Ottawa and Delhi). Soils from these sites are being used to develop an improved soil health scoring framework for Ontario by evaluating commercially available soil health tests. The results will also help to identify best management practices for growers of corn, soybean and/or wheat in Ontario. The findings from this project will contribute to a larger project that is developing an improved monitoring system for soil health in Ontario and to the establishment of sustainable management practices (no till or conventional; crop rotations) that enhance grower revenues and improve environmental quality.