Production agriculture in Canada and the U.S. has traditionally viewed soil as a growing medium that declines in function after it is converted from “natural” land cover to agricultural production. Soil health practices have demonstrated that agricultural soil function can be (and should be) enhanced through a number of different soil management strategies. Such strategies can help to reduce soil erosion, improve nutrient cycling, increase organic matter, and improve water infiltration/retention.
Soil health practices as promoted by the USDA NRCS and other agencies/organizations provide broad guidelines for improving agricultural soil function that must be adapted to local climate and soil conditions and ag. production requirements. If a soil health practitioner is interested in tracking changes to soil function systematically over time, a grounding in soil science fundamentals can be helpful. Basic measures of soil characteristics such as texture, organic matter, bulk density, and pH can be undertaken by any commercial soils lab or they can even be done on farm using relatively inexpensive equipment.
Like most countries in the world that have invested in comprehensive soil surveys, the Canadian and U.S. soil classification systems are significantly different. Despite such differences, scientific approaches to measuring soil characteristics are largely the same for both countries and there is significant overlap between Canadian and U.S. soil science resources.
Open access soil science resources are now available. The following resources are developed by soil scientists and are used as textbooks in university courses. They are written in an accessible style and represent state-of-the-art approaches.
Digging into Canadian Soils is an introductory textbook divided into three parts which cover fundamental soil characteristics and classification, soil genesis and distribution across different provinces and regions of Canada, and advanced soil management methods. The first section on soil characteristics and classification is suited for new practitioners of soil science and can serve as a good review for those with knowledge of discipline. The final section of the book has chapters on management practices for soil health and digital soil mapping which are extremely relevant to anyone working in production agriculture.
The Soils Laboratory Manual: K-State Edition is an excellent resource for those interested in understanding how basic soil test are conducting in a lab setting or those who intend set up a soils lab and do their own basic testing.
Soil and Water Conservation: An Annotated Bibliography reviews extension bulletins, USDA NRCS practices, and state and federal reports and resources. These publications and resources are a good starting point for anyone seeking to implement soil health practices and tracking soil health indicators in production agriculture systems.