Soil Microbiology

The educational materials listed on this page are about Soil Microbiology.

What is Soil Microbiology?

Soil microbiology is the study of organisms in soil, their functions and how they affect properties of soil or environmental microbiology. Soil structure and interactions among microorganisms (including soil fungi, soil bacteria and species like nematodes) can impact soil biology and biochemistry and other properties of soil. The microbial structure of soil is proportional to the organic matter content, giving soil microbes, soil bacteria and soil organisms a key role in soil health. Soils that have large amounts of regularly added organic residues tend to support more soil microorganisms, which contribute to overall soil health. Soil microbiology governs nutrient processing and recycling in soil, and also affects the decomposition of organic matter in soil, soil salinity and soil acidity, thereby impacting soil fertility and crop health. Key practices include compostingearthwormssoil analysisnutrient cyclingcrop rotationno-till systemscover cropsagroecosystemsgreen manuresorganic agriculture

Common Soil Microorganisms

There are millions of microorganisms in one gram of soil, including soil fungi, soil bacteria, actinomycetes, algae, single-celled organisms like protozoa, and animalia species such as nematodes. The biomass and activity of each microbial species varies and evolves throughout the soil’s lifecycle: fungi typically dominate the biomass of a healthy sample, despite their fragility and sensitivity, while bacteria remain the most resistant to changing conditions. Soil microbial biomass can range from several hundred to thousands of pounds per acre. Variations in microbial levels and activity are directly correlated with soil management.

Impact of Soil Management on Soil Biology

Soil management practices can impact soil microbiology by either contributing to or detracting from soil’s nutrient population – the main source of food for soil microbes. For example, the use of organic fertilization methods like compostinggreen manures, and cover crops can optimize microbial activity by increasing the amount of microbe-feeding nutrients in the soil. A similar correlation is seen with no-till systems, which reduce the disruption of microbes and their food sources. Consequently, modern soil microbiology has been on the forefront of refining soil fertility management for sustainable agriculture and helping contaminated and/or chemically fertilized land return to healthy and productive conditions.

The Cover Crop Topic Room is a good starting point to learn more about soil microbiology and the impacts that cover crops can have on soil fertility and soil management. Building Soils for Better Crops is a key resource to understanding soil microbiology and provides a basic understanding of soil structure, fertility, microbiology and management. Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual is a resource for farmers looking to integrate crop rotation into their operation to enhance organic matter and soil microbiology.

Measuring Soil Microbial Activity

soil analysis using soil microbiology breaks down and determines all microorganisms present within soil organic matter, while also assessing microbial activity or how the microorganisms interact in the soil. Various testing methods are used, and include the measurement of soil respiration and nutrient consumption rates. Results are used to examine overall soil structure, soil quality and soil health, to ensure soil conditions are appropriate for cultivation, and to promote soil sustainability and soil conservation across various climates and land uses. Soil microbiology is most effective when combined with analysis of soil chemistry and physics.

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image for video series on soil health principals and practices

Soil Health Principles and Practices Videos

Experienced farmers and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) provide information on managing and improving soil health. Farmers discuss practices such as cover cropping, and using mulch and compost to improve soil health.

Building Soils for Better Crops Cover

Building Soils for Better Crops

The fourth edition of Building Soils for Better Crops—enhanced and expanded—explains how to use ecological principles to build soil health and boost fertility, yields and overall sustainability.

Screenshot of an animated farm landscape

What is Soil Health?

Soil health plays an essential role in raising healthy, productive crops and livestock. With this interactive infographic, learn how practices such as cover crops, no-till, crop rotation and the integration of livestock work in concert to improve soil health.

Donn Branton

Innovative Assessment Helps Farmers in the Northeast Improve Soil Health

  Improving soil health without understanding the soil's condition is not easy and traditional soil tests, though important management tools, don't provide information on the physical structure or microbial life living in the soil. That is why a multidisciplinary team at Cornell University created a soil health assessment, which measures physical, chemical and biological indicators […]

Cover Crops for Soil Health Workshop Video

Cover Crops for Soil Health Workshop

All session recordings and slide presentations from this three-day professional development workshop are available online. Hosted by Northeast SARE and Delaware State University in March 2016, this event addressed the latest research on the benefits and successful management of cover crops in grain, vegetable and animal production systems.

Managing Soil Health With Cover Crops: Beyond the Basics

In this session, leading experts dive deep into the soil-related benefits of cover crops. Ray Weil (University of Maryland) discusses the physical benefits; Michel Cavigelli (USDA-ARS) explains how cover crop management affects soil health; and Stuart Grandy (University of New Hampshire) discusses emerging concepts for harnessing microbes to build organic matter.