Back to top

Healthy Soils


Healthy soils sustain productivity, maintain environmental quality, and enhance plant and animal health. Some characteristics of healthy soils include good soil tilth, good soil drainage, large population of microorganisms, sufficient (but not excessive) levels of essential nutrients, and low weed pressure. The key to soil health is organic matter. Soil Organic Matter (SOM) is the fraction of the soil consisting of plant and animal residues in various stages of decomposition. Organic matter contains organic carbon and nitrogen. Carbon is a source of energy and nitrogen is a source of protein for microorganisms in the soil. Some of the microorganisms are pathogens which cause plant disease but in a healthy soil the vast majorities of these organisms are beneficial and help prevent any one type of organism such as a plant pathogen from being dominant.

SOM Consists of Three Distinct Parts

Living organic matter (about 15%) consists mainly of bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, and algae, which are also called decomposers. Other living SOM include nematodes, insects, earthworms, plant roots and small animals.

Dead organic matter (about 15%) serve as food for living organisms and include dead microbes, old plant roots, crop residues and bodies of larger insects and animals.

Very dead organic matter (about 70%) are well decomposed, dark colored organic substances also called humus. Humus continues to decompose, but at a very slow rate.

Why is SOM important?

Organic matters improve many physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the soil, including water holding capacity, cation exchange capacity, pH buffering capacity, and chelating of micronutrients. Furthermore, well-decomposed SOM improves soil structure by increasing aggregation, enhancing biological activities in the soil, slowly releasing nutrients, and suppressing some diseases. A loss of SOM can lead to soil erosion, loss of fertility, compaction, and general land degradation.

What Factors Influence the Amount of SOM?

The average SOM in most Massachusetts soils ranges between 1-5 % where a minimum of 4% SOM is desirable. The maintenance and enhancement of soil organic matter is crucial to the soil health and sustainability of farming systems. The accumulation of SOM within soil is a balance between the return or addition of plant and animal residues and their subsequent loss due to the decay of these residues by microorganisms and mismanagement of soil. To keep the current level of SOM, about 4 tons of dry matter should be added annually to the fields. This could be problematic when silage corn is almost no plant residue is returned to the soil. Use of soil amendments such as manure, compost and/ or on-time establishment of cover crops is necessary.

Factors Affecting SOM In general, any factor that affects soil microbial activity also affects SOM breakdown

Temperature-Soil temperature has a marked influence on microbial activity. The optimum soil temperatures for bacterial activity are in the 70 to 100o F range, but some activity may occur in as low as 40o F, although at greatly reduced rates.

Oxygen-Soil microbes require oxygen and water for their respiration and when soil is compacted or saturated with water, respiration slows down which in turn reduces decomposition of SOM.

Soil pH-Under acid conditions, bacterial activity, which is responsible for most of the decomposition of organic matter, is greatly reduced. Soil fungi responsible for breakdown of SOM are generally less affected by low pH.

Best Management Practices to Increase SOM

Soil organic matter level depends on both uncontrollable factors i.e. weather conditions, and controllable factors i.e. soil management. Managing SOM is a balancing act of additions; crop residues, manure, and compost and losses; decomposition plus erosion.

Addition of organic materials including animal manure, compost, cover crops (green manure), and some off-farm materials such as municipal leaves and food residuals will increase SOM. Agricultural practices also have a significant effect on

improving SOM levels:

  • Cover crops: Increase SOM directly when residues are returned to the soil. This practice protects soil against erosion and helps to retain and cycle nutrients.
  • Crop rotations: Perennial forages (hay-type crops) develop extensive root systems which add new organic matter to the soil when they die. They also reduce the rate of decomposition of SOM because the soil is not continually being disturbed.
  • Tillage practices: Conventional plowing and disking breaks down natural soil aggregates which allow for wind and water erosion. They also expose the soil to direct sunlight which increases the rate of SOM decomposition.

Increasing the percent organic matter in the soil takes time and patience. It is unlikely that a single incorporation of manure or planting cover crop will noticeably increase the percentage of organic matter. Repeated application of an organic amendment in combination with reduced tillage will improve the organic matter level

Note A single manure application or planting cover crop will not increase the percent organic matter significantly. It takes time and patience to improve the soil organic matter level.


Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training Manual. 2009. 2nd Edition. Cornell University, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. 

Poole, T. 2001. Soil Organic Matter. University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service., Fact sheet # 783.

For more information visit the UMass Extension Crops, Dairy, Livestock & Equine Program

Factsheets in this series were prepared by, Masoud Hashemi, Stephen Herbert, Carrie Chickering-Sears, Sarah Weis, Carlos Gradil, Steve Purdy, Mark Huyler, and Randy Prostak, in collaboration with Jacqui Carlevale.

This publication has been funded in part by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, Inc.