College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Environmental Science & Technology

Soil Science

Soils are the most complex and ecologically significant biogeochemical systems on Earth. Soil processes and the soil resource are critical to all terrestrial ecosystems from prairies to the Alaskan tundra, to wetlands, to our cities, to forests to biofuel farms. Soil Science is at the center of the study of what the National Science Foundation terms the Critical Zone - the confluence of atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere near the surface ofthe Earth.



Frank Coale


Gary Felton
Associate Professor 


Bob Hill

Dr. Brian NeedelmanBrian Needelman
Assistant Professor
Dr. Martin Rabenhorst

Martin Rabenhorst

Gurpal Toor
Associate Professor
& Extension Specialist


Ray Weil


Stephanie Yarwood
Assistant Professor



Maximizing Yield and Quality of Mid-Atlantic Soybean Production with Soil Sulfur Management

Sulfur fertilization may provide important benefits to farmers and consumers in terms of both yield and nutritional quality of the protein in the soybean crop. If the quality aspects can be documented, S management may open opportunities for premium priced soybeans. We therefore are conducting exploratory studies to evaluate the S status of soybean crops and soils of the Mid-Atlantic. A reconnaissance survey of soybean fields in Maryland and neighboring states focus on growing areas most likely to be low in S. The total N and S contents of the plant leaves and seeds will be compared to the extractable sulfate in the topsoil and subsoil. Also of interest is the amino acid profile of the seeds –including the amount of the S-containing essential amino acids methionine and cysteine which contain sulfur and largely control the nutritional quality of proteins for humans and non-ruminant livestock.

Team: Dr. Ray Weil

Funded by: Maryland Soybean Board ($7,625)

Rapid Soil Information for Ethiopian Smallholder Farmers

Soil nutrient replenishment is widely recognized as a critical biophysical entry point to agricultural transformation in sub-Saharan Africa. However, poor infrastructure of Africa and budget limitations of national institutions result in delays and unreliability in obtaining the information from soils that are sampled from farmer’s fields and sent to a conventional laboratory. To alleviate this bottleneck, we are developing a lab-in-a box technology for on-the-spot soil analysis connected by mobile phone data transfer to a central computer and expert system for interpretations and recommendations.

This approach – combining new hardware with new software -- offers a quantum jump in providing important soil information to farmers in near real time. We plan to empower extension services in the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture. Ethiopia is at the forefront of the African Green Revolution, as is committed to increase food productivity by using targeted soil fertility recommendations. Columbia University in collaboration with the University of Maryland is developing this new tool, new soil test methods and evaluation of the technology in the field to estimate soil N, S, P, K organic matter, physical and pH limitations in a manner immediately useful to resource-poor, smallholder farmers in remote locations.

Team: Dr. Ray Weil (in collaboration with Ag Center at Earth Institute, Columbia University

Funded by: E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Inc via Columbia University

Creating Renewable Energy Through Sustainable Nutrient Management - Digestion of Manure and Cover Crops to Reduce Fossil Fuel use in the Northeast

The project is using an innovative lower-cost anaerobic digestion design for handling dairy manure from mid-size farms and coupling this digestion technology with a new cover cropping system.  Mixtures of dairy manure and harvested forage radish cover crops will be tested in laboratory and field-scale digesters in order to further develop new technologies that will enable corn silage-based dairy farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient runoff, and environmental impacts while producing a renewable biofuel that can displace petroleum and natural gas products. We hypothesize that the integration of the harvested forage radish cover crop into the manure digestion system will significantly increase the output of methane for bioenergy during the fall and early winter when the system needs the most energy, and at the same time improve the soil quality and remediate excessive soil phosphorus in the farm fields.

Team: Dr. Stephanie Lansing, Dr. Ray Weil

Sponsored by: Northeast Sun Grant Institute via Cornell University

No-Till No-Herbicide Planting of Spring Vegetables Using Low Residue Winterkilled Cover Crops

This project aims to enable earlier vegetable planting in spring without the use of herbicides or tillage though the use of alternative cover crops. It is designed to see if it is practical to plant early crops directly into this seedbed without tilling it first – and without spraying a burn-down herbicide, either. A few of the questions the project will be asking are:

  • Will this work with conventional planters commonly used by small and medium-scale growers?
  • Will early crops be able to use the nitrogen released by the radish?
  • Will weeds be controllable once the crop is up?

Team: Dr. Ray Weil, Natalie Lounsbury

Sponsored by: USDA SARE Program via University of Vermont

The Influence of Cover Crops and Tillage on Soil Quality, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Pest Community Dynamics and Economics of Fields Transitioning to Organic Farming

The overall goal for this long-term project is to evaluate the viability of reduced- and no-till organic vegetable production systems. This multi-state, trans-disciplinary, integrated project will address critical stakeholder needs while narrowing knowledge gaps regarding the use of minimal- and low- tillage systems in organic transitioning vegetable production and the effects on greenhouse gas emissions, soil physical, chemical, and biological properties, crop profitability and pest dynamics.

Team: Ray Weil and Guihua Chen (in collaboration with Cerrutti Hooks in Entomology Dept.)

Funded by: National Institute of Food and Agriculture ($332,716)

MOU Between MDA and UMD for Ditch Management Project

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Team: Dr. Joshua McGrath

Funded by: Maryland Department of Agriculture ($281,000)

Agricultural Greenhouse Warming Potential and Soil Carbon Sequestration in Organic and Long Term Rotational Systems

In August 2012, Dr. Yarwood received $700,000 in funding from the USDA NIFA Organic Transitions Program. The project is in collaboration with ARS scientists from the Beltsville Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab and investigates the role of mid-Atlantic grain production practices in mediating greenhouse gases and increasing soil carbon sequestration. The project utilizes the ARS Farming Systems Project, a set of long-term experimental plots, the ARS Manure Injection Trial experiment, and organic farms across Maryland. In August 2013, the PIs removed soil cores to a depth of one meter in the Farming Systems Project to examine carbon accumulation at the plow layer and the role of microorganisms in carbon decomposition. Glade Dlott, a UMD master’s student on the project will be analyzing these samples using some of the latest microbial ecology techniques, including next-generation sequencing, as well as more traditional enzyme assays and particle size analysis. In July 2013, a second effort involved sampling surface soils from the Manure Injection Trial before, during, and after a rain event. Another UMD master’s student, Holly Bowen, is examining these samples to understand what members of the complex soil microbial community responded to increased moisture and produced nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. The goal of these experiments and other related efforts is to refine our current knowledge of how organic production practices differ in their contributions to greenhouse gas production and carbon sequestration so that these practices are accurately reflected in regional climate modeling.

Team: Dr. Stephanie Yarwood

Funded by: USDA NIFA Organic Transitions Program ($716,773)

Plant/Soil Microbes Interactions and Plant Health in Modern Cropping Systems

Dr. Stephanie Yarwood has entered into a collaborative agreement with Dr. Jude Maul of the ARS-Beltsville. The scientists are part of a multi-location effort to uncover the role of plant/microbe interactions on plant health in grain production. The project entails a series of field trials comparing Roundup-resistant soybeans and corn to the plant isolines that do not contain glyphosate resistant genes. The trials are being conducted at ARS facilities in Maryland, Iowa, and Mississippi. Drs. Yarwood and Maul are applying their microbial and plant physiology expertise to examine the metagenome and metatranscriptome of the rhizosphere microbial community. They are testing for differences in the structure of the microbial community and evidence for differences in pathogen incidence in the rhizosphere of the different plant varieties, in the presence or absence of glyphosate, and in fields with different management legacies. The result of this work will be one of the most detailed views to date of the rhizosphere microbial communities associated with two important agricultural crops. 

Team: Dr. Stephanie Yarwood

Funded by: USDA Agricultural Research Service ($297,492)

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