Soil Health

Current Soil Health Research

Assessing the Effectiveness of Soil Health Practices in Enhancing Soil Organic Carbon in Maryland

PI: Gurpal Toor (University of Maryalnd College of Agriculture and Natural Resources)

Co-PIs: Keith Paustian (Colorado State University)

Duration: January 2019 to June 2024

Grant: $400,252

Description: This study, Assessing the Effectiveness of Soil Health Practices in Enhancing Soil Organic Carbon in Maryland, will be conducted by University of Maryland Associate Professor Dr. Gurpal Toor, Colorado State University Professor and Nobel Laureate Dr. Keith Paustian, and UMD Post Doctorate Yun-Ya Yang. It is being funded by the Hughes Center for three years at $400,252.

An ultimate goal of this study is to strengthen the science of measuring and tracking soil carbon. This has been a noted need in soil science recently in order to maintain and optimize soil health to sustain farm productivity and protect the environment.

In Maryland, policy in a 2017 bill defined a need in Maryland to develop local capacity to measure and track organic carbon in soil, as part of a larger promotion of soil health programs and practices.

Investigators of the Hughes Center-funded study will:

  1. collect, collate and analyze existing (but disparate) data on impacts of agricultural management practices on organic carbon storage and soil health;
  2. collect new on-farm measurements and lay the foundation for a long-term soil monitoring/measuring network in Maryland;
  3. test and refine state-of-the-art decision support systems to aid farmers and land management agencies evaluate their best options for increasing organic carbon in soil and soil health; and
  4. provide training and outreach on using these tools to the full range of stakeholders.

Optimizing cover cropping for carbon sequestration under future climate change scenarios

PI: Jared Wilmoth and Stephanie Yarwood (University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Duration: June 2023 to June 2025

Grant: $99,914

Description: A major concern for Maryland agriculture is the impact of more frequent and extreme weather patterns on crop productivity and land management. Changes in the intensity and duration of wet conditions are already affecting the operations of farms in Maryland, as well as the strategies of farmers as they grapple with uncertainty in future climate-change scenarios and make important decisions about soil carbon sequestration and carbon markets. 

A study being performed by Drs. Jared Wilmoth and Stephanie Yarwood of the UMD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources theorizes that optimized cover cropping is a potential solution to sequestering more carbon in agricultural soils, which could help to mitigate climate change and make farmlands more resilient to its impact. 

Rye and vetch are frequently used as cover crops in Maryland, and when grown together, they likely have greater potential to increase the amount of carbon fixed in soil. Optimization of winter cover cropping with rye and vetch will be crucial for building resilience to climate change given that Maryland is projected to experience the most extreme changes in temperature and precipitation during the winter months over the next 80 years. However, it remains unclear how the management of these cover crops affects the flow of newly fixed carbon between particulate and mineral-associated forms of soil organic matter, which determines the stability of carbon in agricultural lands under future climate scenarios.

The study’s investigators expect that with the most optimal winter cover-cropping practices, more carbon can be sequestered in Maryland agricultural soils. The overarching goal is to provide new data on the role of cover cropping in sequestering carbon and help producers to predict how much carbon they may be storing under different weather conditions. By closely investigating how newly fixed carbon is incorporated into soil organic matter by cover crops, our work will help establish more optimized cover cropping strategies for farmers to build larger and longer-lasting soil carbon stocks.

Prior Soil Health Research

The Benefits of Multi-Species Cover Crops

The benefits of single-species cover crops to water quality have been proven and promoted for many years. But are there economic, environmental and soil health benefits to planting multiple species of cover crops in the same field?

Cover crops are a leading best management practice for farmers. Farmers have been employing cover crops for several decades to recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil from a preceding crop and help prevent erosion during the winter.

Maryland has long had a cost-share cover crop program to help incentivize farmers to use this practice. However, farmers mostly plant single species of cover crops, such as cereal grain like barley or winter wheat, meant to sequester nitrogen.

A Hughes Center-funded study performed by Lindsay Thompson, formerly of the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts, finds that there are soil health, environmental, and economic benefits to planting multiple species of cover crops in the same field.

For instance, one farmer participating in the study, John Bruning of Snow Hill, found that his sandy soil had marked improvements in soil organic matter after mixed cover crop plantings.

“When you plant multi-species compared to your monoculture cover corps, what I thought instantly is it’s like your dinner plate — If you’re having a steak, potato and salad, you don’t want all steak or all potato or all salad, you kind of want to mix it up,” Bruning said. “So when you do a multi-species blend, having a Brassica, a legume and say a cereal grain, you’re really maximizing the benefit of all three of those instead of planting just one.”

This project aimed to demonstrate the benefits of multi-species cover crop plantings to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. As a result of this project, farmers may now plant multi-species cover crops as part of Maryland’s cover crop cost-share program. For more information on that, visit

For more information on this Hughes Center-funded research project, please watch the video posted above.