Guidelines for Soil Quality Assessment in Conservation Planning


Soil quality is the capacity of a specific kind of soil to function within natural or managed ecosystem boundaries to:

  • sustain plant and animal productivity
  • maintain or enhance water and air quality
  • support human health and habitation Soil function describes what the soil does. Soil functions are: (1) sustaining biological activity, diversity, and productivity; (2) regulating and partitioning water and solute flow; (3) filtering and buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal by-products and atmospheric deposition; (4) storing and cycling nutrients and other elements within the earthís biosphere; and (5) providing support of socioeconomic structures and protection for archeological treasures associated with human habitation. (Seybold et al, 1998). For the purposes of this guide, the terms soil quality, soil health, and soil condition are all interchangeable. Soils vary naturally in their capacity to function; therefore, quality is specific to each kind of soil. This concept encompasses two distinct but interconnected parts: inherent quality and dynamic quality. Characteristics, such as texture, mineralogy, etc., are innate soil properties determined by the factors of soil formationóclimate, topography, vegetation, parent material, and time. Collectively, these properties determine the inherent quality of a soil. They help compare one soil to another and evaluate

soils for specific uses. For example, all else being equal, a loamy soil will have a higher water holding capacity than a sandy soil; thus, the loamy soil has a higher inherent soil quality. This concept is generally referred to as soil capability. Map unit descriptions in soil survey reports are based on differences in the inherent properties of soils.

More recently, soil quality has come to refer to the dynamic quality of soils, defined as the changing nature of soil properties resulting from human use and management. Some management practices, such as the use of cover crops, increase organic matter and can have a positive effect on soil quality. Other management practices, such as tilling the soil when wet, adversely affect soil quality by increasing compaction.

In this guide, soil quality refers to the dynamic quality of soilóthose properties that are affected by management.

Soil quality assessments are thus used to evaluate the effects of management on the health of the soil. The guidelines in this booklet provide information for performing the most typical soil quality assessments, which include:



The NRCS, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Cooperative Extension Service, and others have been working toward improving soil quality for many years by encouraging best management practices such as erosion control and nutrient management. As soil quality has emerged as a leading concept in natural resource conservation and protection, stronger emphasis is now being placed on the relationship between specific dynamic soil properties and soil performance. Enhancement of these dynamic soil properties is the goal of soil quality management.

Multiple Benefits and Applications

Conservation measures utilized by farmers, agricultural professionals, and public and private agencies are already tightly linked to soil quality management. Conservation practices, such as conservation tillage, buffers, nutrient and pest management, range and pastureland management, and wetland and stream bank restoration incorporate soil management goals and treatments. Achievement of water quality, air quality, and carbon sequestration goals rely on improving soil quality. For example, one typical method for improving soil quality by
increasing organic matter involves reducing tillage, a fundamental practice

for reducing erosion. Decreasing erosion improves water quality by reducing sediment runoff. In areas subject to wind erosion, conservation tillage reduces the amount of particulate matter in the air. Thus, reducing tillage to improve soil quality also benefits erosion control, air quality, and water quality goals.

Integrated Approach

Soil quality is a useful model to evaluate and improve the soil resource as it provides an integrated method for assessing multiple aspects of the soil and their connections. By linking biological, physical, and chemical properties of soil, all of the components and interactions of a soil system are viewed together. This integrated approach leads to more comprehensive solutions as compared to assessing each soil property independently.

Familiarity Promotes Learning and Acceptance
Soil quality management is a useful and effective approach to resource conservation and best management strategies. Producers are already familiar with many soil building practices and many producers already use the approach of integrated soil management when evaluating the effects of their practices on soil health. A model familiar to farmers will promote faster learning of the approaches outlined in this guide. Joint soil quality assessments between conservationist and producer will facilitate the blending of producerís knowledge and scientific information, thus strengthening the information base, the ability to formulate workable solutions, and the likelihood of adoption of best management practices. (Romig et al, 1995).