Rachel Milliron

Rachel Milliron is a field and forage crops educator covering southwestern Pennsylvania.

A new visual soil health test is gaining traction among farmers and agricultural service providers.

The soil is home to many different organisms, including beneficial earth worms, arthropods, fungi and microbes.

These organisms can improve soil tilth and compaction, reduce pest populations and increase nutrient availability for plants. Biologically active soils can be an indicator of good soil health.

How’s the microbial life in your soil? There are various laboratory tests that have been developed to measure microbial respiration in the soil, or how much gas is produced from “microbial breathing.” These tests can range anywhere from $25 to $60, and that can be costly if you have multiple samples.

Alternatively, if you are interested in seeing microbial activity, and don’t need accurate numbers to work with, you can soil your undies. Microbes need carbon as a source of energy. To get that carbon, microbes decompose organic matter.

Burying a pair of 100 percent cotton undies in the soil adds an additional carbon source for microbes to feed on.

After five to eight weeks, dig up the underwear that you’ve buried and marked with a flag. If nothing is left but the elastic band, there is a large and active microbial population in your soil.

If your underwear is still intact and just dirty, the microbial population is not as active.

Which management strategies facilitate better soil microbe populations and activity? Soil that has vegetative cover or cover crops and minimal soil disturbance, tend to have more microbial activity than disturbed soils with no cover. In agronomic fields, two extension educators from the South Dakota State University conducted an experiment and found that a no-till field with cover crops was more biologically active than fields with either conventional tilled soybeans or mulched soybean fields.

Interested in learning more about soil health? Penn State Extension will host a soil health workshop in late March.

For more information, contact Rachel Milliron at rum223@psu.edu or (724) 548-3447.