Investigating the Double-Impact of Soil Health Promoting Practices on Water Quality

Aug 2019


This project seeks to answer the question: Does soil health relate to the amount of nitrogen (N) a farmer needs to add to a field?  Recent studies offer some evidence that the answer to the question is a tentative yes, showing that with greater CO2 Burst, a measure of soil microbial activity that approximates the N-supplying power of a soil, less N needs to be applied for optimal corn growth (Fig. 1). These findings imply that soil health promoting practices (SHPPs) have potential for a “double-impact” on improving water quality. This double impact would be: 1) reduction in nitrate N loss from SHPP implementation, and 2) reduction in N fertilization over time, due to an increase in soil N-supplying power.


The goal of this project is to derive a better prediction of the economically optimum nitrogen rate, or EONR, using a ‘combination’ soil health test that uses CO2 Burst plus additional soil measurements. These data are critical to better understand the role of soil health in improving Iowa’s water quality.

To achieve this understanding, the project will:

  • determine relationships between soil health promoting practices and nitrogen-supplying power of soils; and
  • elucidate factors causing variation in CO2 Burst in Iowa soils.


Researchers will take a three-pronged approach to compare the N-supplying power of conventional practices and SHPPs in three ISU long-term experiments (Table 1). This three-pronged approach is needed due to dynamic nature of N mineralization/immobilization, high variation in the field and inconsistencies among methodologies. Using three methods of measuring N-supplying power across three SHPPs (Table 1) can take into account a variety of ways to assess the N-supplying power of a soil.

Table 1. Long-term Experiments we will be testing the Double-Impact of Soil Health Promoting Practices


Years in Place

Conventional Practices

Soil Health Promoting Practices

Marsden Farm


2-Year Rotation –
(all synthetic fertilizer N)

4-Year Rotation –
(mostly manure N)

Comparison of Biofuel Systems (COBS)


Continuous Corn

Continuous Corn
w/ Winter Rye Cover Crop

Gilmore City Drainage Research Facility


Chisel plow tillage


Researchers will measure actual net nitrogen mineralization (N supplying power of the soil) by using in situ soil core method and comparing this field-based method to a more common laboratory-based method. 

Researchers will also collect other data like plant-extractable nutrients and iron, which have been shown to affect decomposition of soil organic matter, and thus likely could control the COBurst vs. EONR relationship.  We will use Machine Learning to determine which variables might be interacting to explain these residuals (or deviation from the predicted trend). 

Information and findings from this project will be incorporated into outreach and extension activities and developed for peer-reviewed presentations and publications. Researchers also aim to develop:

  • a new “combination” soil health test that better predicts EONR compared to CO2 Burst alone
  • an economic tool that reflects the Double-Impact of soil health on water quality and farm profits

Project Updates

Note: Project reports published on the INRC website are often revised from researchers' original reports to increase consistency.

December 2023


Key Research Questions:

Research Question 1: What is the relationship between soil health promoting practices and nitrogen-supplying power of soils. Research Question 2: Elucidate factors causing variation in CO2 Burst in Iowa soils.

Research Findings:

See attached images.

There is a relationship, albeit “noisy”, between soil biological activity (measured as CO2 Burst) and the amount of N a corn crop needs in any given year or location.  The more biologlical activity your soil shows, the less N fertilizer needed for optimal corn growth.  However, further research is needed to understand what causes the enormous “noise” or variability.  For example, even at sites where corn needed no N, probably coming out of alfalfa or history of animal manure, there is a large range of values for the soil CO2 Burst (from about 0.4 to 1.0, see bottom of left panel).


Related activities and accomplishments:

- 2 workshop

- 4 presentations

Publications / Journal Articles:

Franzluebbers, A. J. (2018). Soil‐test biological activity with the flush of CO2: III. Corn yield responses to applied nitrogen. Soil Science Society of America Journal82(3), 708-721.

Yost, M. A., Veum, K. S., Kitchen, N. R., Sawyer, J. E., Camberato, J. J., Carter, P. R., ... & Nafziger, E. D. (2018). Evaluation of the Haney Soil Health Tool for corn nitrogen recommendations across eight Midwest states. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 73(5), 587-592.

Bean, G. M., Kitchen, N. R., Veum, K. S., Camberato, J. J., Ferguson, R. B., Fernandez, F. G., ... & Yost, M. (2020). Relating four‐day soil respiration to corn nitrogen fertilizer needs across 49 US Midwest fields. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 84(4), 1195-1208.

Leveraged Dollars:



December 2022

Continuing to work on publications and soil analyses all complete.

Other Activities

- 3 presentations.

Proposals submitted

1 proposal submitted to INRC

Stacking conservation practices and potential trade-offs from a 21-year, diversified agriculture experiment - $249,849.

Other Accomplishments

Findings continue added and used for teaching.

June 2022

Continuing to work on publication with CO2 Burst vs. Yield response. Soil analyses for long-term experiments still under way.

Other Activities

- 2 presentations.

Proposals submitted

1 proposals submitted related to ongoing INRC funded study .

Spatial Models for Scaling Optimal Nutrient Management Research from Plot to Field and Watershed Scales - $127, 060 - submitted to INRC.

December 2021

Potentially mineralizable N data now collected from historical N-rate trials done by Dr. Sawyer and team.

Other Activiies

- 1 presentation.

Proposals submitted

2 proposals submitted related to ongoing INRC funded study  - $300,000.

Other Accomplishments

Using data for teaching materials.

June 2021

Have students and staff filling in for postdoc on soil incubation. Making do best we can considering COVID-19 pandemic.

Other Activities

- 1 presentation.

Other Accomplishments

Using previouslyCO2 Burst vs. Yield data for teaching materials.

December 2020

Looking for staff or student to replace Morgan's post doc research duties.

July 2020

Continuing data gathering for CO2 Burst from multiple studies. Sample collection is postponed. Postdoc, Morgan Davis, moved to faculty position at University of Missouri on 5/31/2020.

Other Activities

- 1 presentation.

Other Accomplishments

Using previously published CO2 data for teaching materials.

December 2019

Project just getting started. Postdoc is coordinating data from CO2 Burst studies.

Other Activities

-  2 Field days.