Probing Into Soil Health Tests: Soil Health Test Parameters to Guide Management Decisions

In the most recent session of the Illinois Cover Crop On-Farm Network (ICCON) presentation, ICCON had the pleasure of hosting Robert (Bob) Schindelbeck, Director of the Cornell Soil Health Laboratory at Cornell University. Bob shared insights into his groundbreaking work with the Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health (CASH) test, a sophisticated tool designed for a wide range of users, including farmers, gardeners, agricultural service providers, landscape managers, and researchers. This test goes beyond traditional soil testing by delving into the physical, chemical, and biological components of soil health. 

The CASH assessment considers factors such as soil texture, aggregate stability, bulk density, nutrient content, heavy metal presence, SOM (Soil Organic Matter), active carbon, and soil respiration. It assigns lab values to each parameter and evaluates them on a performance rating scale. While an overall score is provided, delving into individual parameter performance is key to grasping the complete soil health picture. 

Understanding the interplay between the different parameters can unveil underlying issues, such as poor drainage linked to low aggregate stability.

Illustrating this with soil samples from different management systems taken from the same area, Bob demonstrated how the ratings column highlights disparities. The amount of visual differences underscores the assessment’s precision in diagnosing soil health nuances. However, it’s essential to note that while the CASH test is comprehensive, it doesn’t prescribe specific corrective actions. Instead, it offers guidance on short-term and long-term management strategies tailored to enhance soil physical and biological parameters. 

Farmers and advisors have the flexibility to determine the best course of action based on their unique farming context and improvement goals.

Protocols for sample collection mirror standard soil testing. Bob recommends sampling to a depth of 6 inches in most scenarios. Joining together samples from representative areas of the field provides a comprehensive snapshot of soil health. Alternatively, analyzing samples from different performing areas on a given field shed light on parameter disparities that are likely to contribute to a “problem area.”

In essence, the CASH assessment serves as a valuable tool for farmers seeking insights into their management’s impact on soil health and performance. During the Q&A session, a question surfaced regarding the standardization of soil health testing. Bob advocated for industry-wide standards to alleviate customer confusion when seeking such tests. Bob also acknowledged the differing farming systems and geographies across the country and how this has added to the complexity to standardize testing. 

In conclusion, the CASH test overview presented by Robert Schindelbeck provides farmers with valuable insights into soil health, covering key aspects like physical, chemical, and biological parameters. By understanding these factors, farmers can make informed decisions and adopt suitable management practices to enhance soil health. As sustainability gains importance in agriculture, tools like the CASH test play a crucial role in supporting resilient and productive soils. 


Director Schindelbeck’s  full presentation can be viewed on ISAP’s YouTube channel. During the April call, ICCON will wrap up the three-part series, “Probing Into Soil Health Tests: Which Test is Best?” by discussing practical applications of soil health test results with David Kleinschmidt. Register for upcoming ICCON call here.  If you are interested in joining the  Illinois Cover Crop On-Farm Network to learn about new research and hear from cover crop specialists across the Midwest, please join our google group by sending an email to 

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Torey Colburn

Torey Colburn is a Conservation Agronomist with American Farmland Trust. Torey is a Certified Crop Advisor who provides conservation and agronomy technical assistance to farmers and landowners. The technical assistance will result in increased farmer participation and engagement in programs and projects that improve productivity, profitability, and sustainability.