Soil information

Soil is an indispensable and irreplaceable resource both as a production basis for food and animal feed and in its function as a storage and buffer medium for the environment.

Ensuring the health of the soil is one of our essential core tasks. As the office of the advisory board for soil fertility and soil protection of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Regions and Water Management (BML), we are significantly involved in the development of guidelines for the careful use of soil as a resource.

Through our diverse range of investigations , possible threats to the soil can be identified in good time. Based on the results of the investigations, a corresponding catalog of measures for soil management can be developed.

AgrarCommander helps you to determine the nutrient requirements of your soil based on the results of the soil analysis.

Partners and networks

Soil Fertility Advisory Council

The Advisory Board for Soil Fertility and Soil Protection is a commission to advise the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Regions and Water Management (BML) on issues related to soil. It is managed by our Institute for Sustainable Plant Production/Department of Soil Health and Plant Nutrition.

In the first years of activity of the advisory board, work was carried out in various working groups, primarily on questions of proper soil fertilization and the evaluation of organic fertilizers. In addition to the production function of the soil, the other soil functions such as filtering, storage and transformation functions increasingly came to the fore, which the advisory board now also deals with.

The advisory board develops proposals for soil management to maintain and improve all soil functions. In doing so, the current and future requirements of ecology and economy are taken into account.

Further information on the advisory board, the individual working groups and publications of the advisory board can be found here.

b5 - Corporate Soil Competence

Five institutions are linked in the b5 - Corporate Soil Competence network - AGES, the Institute for Cultural Engineering of the Federal Office for Water, the Federal Environment Agency, the Federal Research and Training Center for Forests, Natural Hazards and Landscape and the Institute for Soil Research of the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences. They all have a high level of competence, experience and know-how regarding soil as a protected resource.

The individual b5 partners have special expertise in specific areas of soil science and soil protection as well as in soil analysis. In addition, many years of experience in national and international working groups and projects bring together a wide range of knowledge about current concerns in soil protection.

The cooperation of the different institutions in the b5 - consortium and the networking with other environmentally relevant topics such as water, climate protection, health or nutrition make it possible to cover a broad spectrum of soil-relevant issues. This is also reflected in the products and services offered by the consortium.

Humus content of native arable soils

Humus content is a simple parameter for assessing the quality of the soil. An optimum humus content in the soil is an important prerequisite for sustainable agricultural production. Humus-conserving cultivation is therefore in the interest of every farmer.

On the one hand, humus in the soil has a "nutrient effect". This means that the vital nutrients contained in humus are gradually released and are available for plant growth in the long term. On the other hand, humus also has a soil-improving effect, because it has a favorable effect on soil life and the pore distribution of the soil, improves air circulation, heat balance and water storage capacity. In addition, humus stores carbon and thus acts as a sink for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Humus also contributes to a better bearing capacity and trafficability of the soil. It also plays a role in binding pollutants (e.g. heavy metals). This prevents them from being transferred to deeper soil layers or leaching into the groundwater.

Intensive tillage, erosion, humus-consuming crop rotations with sugar beet, potatoes and maize (especially silage maize), as well as the lack or low input of organic matter (crop residues, farmyard manure) contribute to humus depletion in the soil.

The aim is to build up an optimal humus content in the soil typical for the site by combining different management measures: organic/mineral fertilization including management of crop residues, tillage, crop rotation, establishment of green cover/intercrops. Minimum humus contents are 2.0% for light soils, 2.5% for medium soils and 3.0% for heavy soils.

Development of humus contents of native arable soils

The development of humus contents on arable soils in different regions over the past 15 to 25 years could be investigated on the basis of extensive humus data within the framework of the evaluation of ÖPUL (Austrian Program for Environmentally Sound Agriculture). Since effects on humus content due to management changes cannot be determined in the short term, but only in the medium to longer term, the period before the introduction of ÖPUL (1991 to 1995) was compared with the current data (2008 to 2012). For this purpose, a total of almost 38,000 humus data were available. Main or small production areas with available sample numbers from both periods were selected.

However, the data situation is quite different, since until the end of 2014 there was no funding obligation for the investigation of soil humus content within the framework of ÖPUL. The data presented here only came about because a sufficient number of farmers had the humus content of their soil samples examined. Within the framework of the ÖPUL evaluation, these results were summarized by region in cooperation with the Chambers of Agriculture.

Number of humus samples

Regions 1991 - 1995 2008 - 2012
Southeast. Plain and hill country (HPG 7) 296 2.868
Northeastern lowlands and hills (HPG 8) 14.621 4.521
St. Pölten-Wieselburg (KPG 611) 2.084 434
Central region of Upper Austria (KPG 609) 74 3.430
Forest and Mühlviertel (HPG 4) 2.629 6.798

HPG = Main production area KPG = Small production area

Positive trend in all regions

The graph compares and shows the humus contents in the soil determined in the individual regions and time periods. The median is shown (black line): i.e. half of the values are above, the other half below); in the dark gray area around the median are 50 % of the values (25 % above and 25 % below) and in the light gray area a further 15 % of the values in each case.

The 10% of highest and lowest humus contents are above and below the gray area, respectively, and are not shown. The results show the same positive trend in all regions. Accordingly, since the start of ÖPUL, the humus contents in the soil have increased by 0.10 to 0.35 %.

The significantly higher proportion of about a quarter of the humus values above 4.0 % in the northeast and in the Waldviertel and Mühlviertel regions can be attributed to different causes. In the Marchfeld, the Vienna Basin and the Seewinkel, soil formation at lower elevations was influenced by groundwater. Here, mainly moist black soils with significantly higher soil humus contents developed.

In the higher altitudes of the Wald- and Mühlviertel there is often field fodder use on alternating meadows, which are also classified as arable land. Due to the tillage, which takes place only every few years, significantly higher humus contents, similar to grassland, could be preserved there.

Incorporated straw promotes humus buildup

In the northeastern lowlands and hills, humus contents have increased by about 0.3 % over the past 20 years, and the median is now just under 3.0 % humus. Cropland sites with humus contents below 2.0% now account for only a small percentage of about 10%. This increase in humus content is also likely related to the 1993 ban on straw burning, which was the most common practice in the area.

Also in the other regions, soils with humus contents below 2.0 % are hardly found anymore. Most arable sites in the Alpine foothills and in the southeast currently have humus contents of between 2.3 and 3.5%.

The arable soils in the cooler regions (foothills of the Alps, eastern edge of the Alps) and in the Carinthian Basin show higher humus contents with medians between 3.2 and 3.5 %. This can also be attributed to a higher proportion of arable forage areas and temporary pastures.

The favorable development of humus contents is mainly due to ÖPUL measures (e.g. greening of arable land, mulch and direct seeding). It should also be noted that soils now tend to be cultivated less intensively. The large variability of humus contents of more than two percentage points in all regions clearly shows the influence of the location (soil type) and cultivation.

The advisory services and the environmental measures implemented to increase soil fertility (greening, mulch or no-till) are showing demonstrable success in the form of increased humus contents. In order to maintain what has been achieved so far and to achieve further improvements, the measures to protect the soil must therefore be continued in the future.

Humus development in organic farming

With regard to the influence of organic management of the soil, there are interesting results from Upper Austria. After at least ten years of organic management, the humus content is significantly higher - in the Alpine foothills by + 0.14 % and in the Mühlviertel by + 0.28 %.

These increases are mainly due to the 23 % higher proportion of field fodder crops and the 20 % lower proportion of maize in organic farming compared to conventional soil management.

A soil test "pays off

If the nutrient status and acidity of the soil are known, the cost of phosphorus, potassium and lime fertilization can be minimized or these fertilizers can be used profitably: On sites highly supplied with phosphorus and potassium or neutral and alkaline, fertilizer costs can be saved entirely because the soil's nutrient resources can be used.

On acidic soils, the optimum pH value can be stabilized by targeted improvement lime application and regular maintenance lime applications every four to six years. At low nutrient levels, targeted phosphorus and potassium fertilization is economically advantageous on most soils because it can achieve yield effects of 8% for cereals and 15% for root crops.

For more information on soil testing, please visit our service page.

Humus information material

In Austria, the use of humus-preserving and humus-increasing processes is being pushed in practice through public funding and private initiatives. But how is humus formed? How can humus be stored and what influences its content? In a new educational video and the brochure "Humus in discussion", produced by the advisory board on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (BML), experts from the federal government, the federal states, research institutions and practitioners from the agricultural sector have their say, present plant cultivation measures as a basis for organic and conventional land management and present the latest scientific findings. Numerous "best practice" examples from farms show successful measures in organic and conventional agriculture. The humus brochure and the humus video are intended to further promote the conservation and development of this finite resource.



Dr. Andreas Baumgarten

Last updated: 12.04.2024

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