U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



Published in Environmental Geochemistry and Health (2004) 26: 89–95.


An increasing human population is placing greater demand on soil resources, and as a result degradation is taking place in many regions of the world. This is critical because soils perform a number of essential processes including supporting food and fiber production, influencing air quality through interaction with the atmosphere, and serving as a medium for storage and purification of water. The soil quality concept was introduced to complement soil science research by making our understanding of soils more complete and helping guide the use and allocation of labor, energy, fiscal, and other inputs as agriculture intensifies and expands to meet increasing world demands. Soil quality thus provides a unifying concept for educating professionals, producers, and the public about the important processes that soils perform. It also provides an assessment tool for evaluating current management practices and comparing alternative management practices. Soil attributes comprising a minimum data set have been identified, and both laboratory and field methods have been developed for measuring them. A soil quality index is being developed to normalize measured soil quality indicator data and generate a numeric value that can be used to compare various management practices or to assess management-induced changes over time. Using previously published data, we evaluated the soil quality index as a tool to assess a wide range of management practices in the Northern Great Plains. The index ranked the treatments: grazed fertilized tame pasture > moderately grazed > ungrazed > heavily grazed > annual cropping with no-tillage > conventionally tilled cropfallow which agrees with the way they were subjectively ranked in the publications. The soil quality index shows potential for use as a management assessment tool.