What is soil health?
Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Soil is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during drier periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide habitat for soil microbes to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem running smoothly. Soils have both inherent and dynamic properties. A soil’s dynamic properties depend on how the soil is managed. Understanding soil health means assessing and managing soil so that it functions optimally now and is not degraded for future use. By monitoring changes in soil health, a land manager can determine if a set of practices is sustainable. (Information from USDA-NRCS.)
Who is the SoilHealth Module for?
Farmers, gardeners, and other land managers.
What does the SoilHealth Module do?
The LandPKS Soil Health module allows users to input and track data about the dynamic properties of soil that are important for productivity and sustainability. Soil health indicators, when observed over time, can provide land managers critical information about how management practices are affecting their soil’s health. Users can track data over time using the Field Calendar and then download PDF reports about their soil health in the Reports tab.
The SoilHealth module currently allows users to record the following soil health indicators (field and laboratory).
- Erosion indicators, including water flow patterns, rills and gullies. Erosion indicators reflect soil movement and loss from the site. They can also be used to detect excessive runoff, which can reduce water availability for plants. Water flow patterns are soil surface patterns caused by runoff. They are made visible by litter, soil, and gravel redistribution. Steep cuts may occur on one side.
- Compaction layers. A compaction layer is a near-surface layer of dense soil that is hard for crop roots and water to penetrate. Record depth to top of compaction layer, thickness of compaction layer, level of development, and extent.
- Aggregate stability, or the ability of soil aggregates to resist collapsing into smaller pieces due to tillage and wind or water erosion
- Soil Smell. Sweet, earthy soil smell indicates a biologically active soil. Soils that lack smell may have little biological activity. Soils with a stagnant, swampy or mineral smell may suggest a lack of oxygen and therefore poor soil structure.
- Biological Activity. Soil is filled with microscopic and larger organisms that perform many vital functions including converting dead and decaying organic matter, as well as minerals, to plant nutrients. They affect soil structure and therefore water availability and soil erosion. They can protect crops from pests and diseases. The SoilHealth module allows you to track if there are many, some, or no signs of organisms in the soil.
- Soil Organic Carbon/Matter. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is a measurable component of soil organic matter (SOM). Reduction in soil organic matter levels lead to deficiency of nutrients for crops, decrease in soil aggregate stability and water holding capacity, and decline in soil biological activity.
- pH. Soil pH is a measure of soil acidity (pH<7) or alkalinity (pH>7). Soil pH levels that are too high or too low lead to deficiency in many nutrients, decrease in crop yield, and decline in soil biological activity.
- Electrical Conductivity (EC). Soil electrical conductivity (EC) is a measure of the amount of salts in soil (salinity of soil). EC that is too high can reduce crop yields and even prevent some crops from growing. It reduces water and nutrient availability for both plants and soil organisms.
Download a PDF of Intro to the LandPKS SoilHealth Module
J.E. Herrick et al, “A strategy for defining the reference for land health and degradation assessments,” Ecological Indicators 97: 225-230.
What is the LandInfo Module for?
The LandPKS LandInfo module is designed for rapid soil characterization and identification. In LandInfo, users can access soil and ecological site information based on both location and user inputs. The LandInfo Module is useful to anyone who is interested in characterizing and identifying their soils. The module can be used for land management as well as in educational contexts.
Using the LandInfo module, users can identify their site’s soil type (SoilID) and determine its Land Capability Class (LCC), essential information for sustainable land-use planning and management. To learn more about Soil Identification and Land Capability Classification, take a look at the SoilID and LCC articles.
Features of the LandInfo Module
In the app’s Data Input tab, the LandInfo module considers five defining aspects of soil:, Land Slope, , , and .
- Land Use asks the user two questions: 1) What is the on the site?, and 2) Is the site grazed? Under Land Cover, the user can select from 9 simple illustrations of possible land covers, from forest to village to water. Under Grazing, the user can select from 8 illustrations, ranging from not grazed, grazed by livestock, and grazed by wildlife.
- Land Slope is about the angle of the land and the way it directs water. Under Slope, the user can select from 7 illustrated slopes or use the slope meter. Under Slope Shape, a series of 6 illustrations depict the shape of the slope both in the down-slope direction (left column of illustrations) and the across-slope direction (right column of illustrations). The user can select one illustration from each column. For example, the slope might be linear in the down-slope direction but concave in the accross slope direction, resulting in a linear/concave slope shape.
- Under Soil Texture, users can begin to define what kind of soil they have at their sites, layer by layer. Is the surface texture a sand, silt, loam, or clay? Does it have rock fragments? By analyzing soil properties by depth, the LandInfo module predicts and plant . AWC estimates can be adjusted to account for variable levels of soil (SOM). The LandPKS Texture Guide provides easy, step-by-step instructions for soil texture identification. Users may also enter Volume data and the Bedrock Depth in this tab.
- Soil Limitations such as deep, vertical cracks in dry soil, salt found on the surface, high flooding risk, low PH, surface stoniness, water table depth and soil depth have major implications for land use. In most instances, these limitations can limit root growth and crop production; when not taken into account, they can lead to long-term degradation of the land.
- Finally, the LandInfo module in the LandPKS mobile app contains the Soil Color tool. With this tool, users can define soil color using a phone’s camera and a standardized reference card. For more information about soil color and using the LandPKS soil color tool, refer to our article about soil color.
The LandInfo Module has been designed to accommodate users with different levels of experience, from the backyard gardener to the natural resource professional. By utilizing the video and text tutorials, the texture guide, and the ‘help’ text accessible by clicking on the question mark icons, users of all skill levels will be able to characterize their soil and gain a better understanding of its potential.
The following training videos will show you how to use the LandPKS LandInfo Module to learn about your soil.
Note: these training videos are based on version 3.5.0 of the LandPKS mobile app.
Other Training Videos
Download a PDF of Intro to the LandPKS LandInfo Module
Soil Taxonomy: A Basic System of Soil Classification for Making and Interpreting Soil Surveys by the Soil Survey Staff at USDA-NRCS (PDF download): Soil Taxonomy | NRCS Soils
Educational (K-12) resources about soils from the USDA-NRCS: Soil Education | NRCS Soils
More information about soil limitations from the USDA-NRCS (PDF download): Understanding Soil Risks and Hazards | NRCS Soils
“When we think about land management and decision-making, it all starts with what’s below our feet. LandPKS really helps us determine what’s underneath our feet!” says Chad Ellis, CEO of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and Range and Pasture Consultant at the Noble Foundation. He continues, “LandPKS is definitely going to help empower producers to make them better tomorrow than they are today.”
David Kimiti uses LandPKS for conservation management at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, which manages the land for both wildlife conservation and livestock production. “We use LandPKS to understand the effects that soils, climate, and topography have on vegetation distribution,” he tells us in this video. Wildlife conservancies also use LandPKS to monitor vegetation changes in response to grazing, drought and restoration treatments.
The module provides access to current data for your specific site. This can help determine if you are providing the habitat needed for key species. Habitat information and data collected in the app can be used to develop goals, guide management actions, and develop monitoring plans.
The following videos will show you how to use the LandPKS Habitat Module to learn about wildlife habitats that might or could exist on your land.
Note: these training videos are based on version 3.6.6 of the LandPKS mobile app.
What is a Habitat?
The term “Habitat” refers to the natural home or environment of a plant, animal, or other organism. The existence of terrestrial plant and animal habitats depends on both the land’s potential and how it is managed. LandPKS provides information on potential habitats by integrating species distribution maps with soil information (based on the types of soil that have been mapped at your location). The app also allows you to then identify the soil. Links to “Ecological Site Descriptions” (ESDs) through EDIT provide information on the types of vegetation that could occur on that soil.
ESDs also provide information on the types of management and restoration actions that may result in transitions among different types of vegetation. A wide variety of management strategies can be used to promote these transitions.
A common misconception is that creating wildlife habitat just means grazing a pasture less than one otherwise would in order to leave more grass behind. Through planning and management to control grazing intensity across space and time, heterogeneity of vegetation can be created even within relatively homogenous landscapes. By creating a patchwork of habitat conditions, land can provide habitat for many different plant and animal species.
Who is the LandPKS Habitat Module for?
The LandPKS Habitat Module is for ranchers, farmers, wildlife conservationists, homeowners, educators, and park and other land managers who are interested in preserving and fostering wildlife habitats on their land. The Habitat Module can be used for both planning and educational purposes, on ranches and in schools, in suburban neighborhoods and on wildlife preserves.
What does the LandPKS Habitat Module do?
The LandPKS Habitat Module currently includes a selection of 22 plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that occur in North America, with an emphasis on those that occur in the Great Plains and Great Basin. The Habitat Module contains line drawings of habitats, written descriptions, and a table of habitat characteristics for each species. The habitat drawings are not intended to show all variability within a landscape that a species needs. Rather, the representations depict an “ideal” habitat or critical habitat type (e.g. nesting). See the species factsheets for more information about habitat characteristics. Following collection of soil or vegetation data at any location, the app will display a summary of data for the corresponding habitat characteristic needed by the species.
The information in the LandPKS Habitat Module is designed to be used, together with other information sources, to help define suitable habitat. It is not predictive and is not intended for regulatory purposes.
The LandPKS Habitat Module currently includes only a subset of species that occur in North America.
The habitat illustrations for each species in the app depict “ideal” habitats or limiting habitats (i.e. nesting), rather than depicting all the habitat needs. Above are some examples of illustrations within the app. Top image: Mid-grass prairie; Middle image: Sagebrush shrublands; Bottom image: Shortgrass prairie.
Our Factsheets provide information that can be used to help identify plant and animal species and manage land to improve habitat conditions. The LandPKS Habitat Factsheets are available for download from within the mobile app and from the LandPKS Knowledge Hub. Each species factsheet provides a photograph and description of the species, management information, and facts about habitat needs across the species range. The species description, habitat requirements, distribution and management information are written for land managers, and are of value to anyone in habitat conservation. The factsheets also provide ideas for how to contribute in meaningful ways to the quantity and quality of suitable habitat available for a species.