Soil Mechanics and Soil Management

Last changed: 20 June 2024
A woman is sitting on a field with a measuring instrument, photo.

Our research aims to understand how soil management and natural processes impact soil properties, processes, and functions. Our focus is on soil structure and associated soil mechanical and hydraulic properties, but our research covers all aspects of soil quality/soil health. Particularly in light of climate change, it is crucial to understand how we can make our soils and cropping systems more resilient to weather extremes.

With our research, we aim to contribute to a sustainable use of soil. Understanding of how soil management impacts soil, and how biotic processes can support maintenance and improvement of soil structure and soil quality, is important knowledge on which we can base strategies and recommendations for use and management of soils that produce food, feed and fibre while minimizing negative impacts on the environment.

Why do we focus on soil structure? Soil structure impacts root growth, water regulation, carbon cycling, and more, and good soil structure is therefore key for climate adaptation and mitigation of crop production.

Research Themes

Our research fields include soil management and agronomy, soil physics and agricultural soil mechanics (compaction, tillage, soil structure dynamics), soil ecology (earthworm burrowing, plant-soil interactions), plant physiology (root-soil interactions and crop development).

With regard to soil management, we primarily focus on impacts of soil tillage, crops (crop rotation, cultivars, cover crops), and the unintended effects of soil compaction. We also consider other aspects (e.g. organic amendments, fertilization, crop protection). Concerning natural processes, we have a particular interest in feedbacks between biotic processes (root growth, earthworm burrowing) and soil structure dynamics.

We work mainly on arable soils, but we also have on-going research on the trafficability and compaction of forest soils.

You can read more about our research themes here below.

Soil Compaction

Soil compaction: towards reduced risks of soil compaction in agriculture, forestry and construction work

The use of agricultural, forestry, construction and other off-road vehicles can cause soil compaction when the induced mechanical stresses exceed the internal strength of soil. Consequences of compaction include decreased plant productivity, reduced carbon inputs to soil, reduced water infiltration and storage, and potentially increased greenhouse gas emissions. While compaction can occur within seconds, compaction recovery may take decades. Hence, prevention of compaction is of high priority.

Our research aims at improved description of soil mechanical behaviour as a basis to propose sustainable soil management that minimises compaction risks. In-situ soil stress measurements for different combinations of machinery and soil conditions help us to better understand how stress propagates in soil. In the laboratory, we quantify soil stress-strain behaviour to evaluate how soil characteristics and moisture conditions affect soil deformation and soil strength, and to describe relationships between soil deformation and changes in functional soil properties. Long-term field experiments are used to monitor how soil structure recovers following compaction. We combine experimental work with simulation studies to generalise our findings and to predict compaction risks for different soil management scenarios and for future climatic conditions.

On-going research projects involve collaboration with farmers and advisers. For example, we characterise soil mechanical properties and continuously measure soil moisture in several farmer fields in major Swedish cropping areas to quantify the spatial and temporal dynamics of compaction risks in Sweden. We discuss our findings with farmers and advisers, and together develop sustainable soil management strategies.

Selected publications: Chagas Torres et al., 2022, EGU22-2573; Keller et al., 2019, Soil & Tillage Research 194, 104293; Keller & Or, 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, e2117699119; Parvin et al., 2022, Soil Security 6, 100044.


Funding: Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Formas), Swedish farmers’ foundation for agricultural research (SLF), European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme through ICT-AGRI-FOOD and through EJP Soil; Conference of European Directors of Roads (CEDR), Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

Team: Lorena Chagas Torres; Maria Sandin; Daniel Iseskog, and Thomas Keller

Contact person: Lorena Chagas Torres,

Earthworm burrowing

Earthworms are recognized “soil ecosystem engineers”. Through their burrowing activity, they create pore space and mix soil, which is of key importance for many soil processes and functions. Earthworm burrowing supports soil structure maintenance and facilitates water regulation, root proliferation, carbon cycling and nutrient availability.

Our research aims at quantifying earthworm burrowing rates, i.e. how fast earthworms burrow, at how burrowing rates are affected by soil conditions and vary between earthworm species, and at how much energy earthworms need to burrow. We focus primarily on soil physical constraints for burrowing, such as temperature, soil moisture and bulk density – the latter two governing soil mechanical resistance.

We use experimental approaches in the laboratory to study earthworm behaviour and to quantify earthworm burrowing and associated energy costs at time scales of days, and perform experiments under field conditions to monitor burrowing over several months. Our research contributes to improved quantitative understanding of how earthworm burrowing is affected by changes in land use, soil management and climate, which is fundamental knowledge needed to estimate consequences on earthworm-mediated soil processes and functions.

Selected publications: Arrázola-Vásquez et al., 2022, Applied Soil Ecology 178, 104568; Arrázola-Vásquez, 2023, Doctoral Thesis No 2023:34.

Projects: Bioturbation by earthworms in Sweden: impacts of climate and land use; Quantifying the energy costs of earthworms burrowing activity under a climate change scenario

Funding: Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Formas), Swedish Royal Academy of Forest and Agricultural Sciences (KSLA)

Team: Elsa Arrázola Vásquez, Rebecca Naomi ter Borg, Mats Larsbo, Daniel Iseskog, and Thomas Keller

Contact person: Elsa Arrázola Vásquez,

Plant-soil interactions

Crop production is driven by interactions between plant physiology, soil physical, chemical and biological processes, climatic conditions, and agricultural management. The goal of our research is to uncover mechanisms at the root-soil interface underpinning long-term crop productivity and carbon sequestration.

We are committed to an interdisciplinary approach that integrates plant and soil science with agronomy and ecology. We combine experimental work at scales from the single root to the field with theoretical approaches.

On-going projects focus on the potential of mixed cultivar systems consisting of shallow and deep rooting cereals to increase resource use efficiency and climate resilience of Nordic cropping systems, and on the potential of cover crops, mixed cultivar systems, and specific root ideotypes to enhance carbon inputs into soil. Moreover, current research aims at identifying root traits that can improve crop growth on dry and/or compacted soil by elucidating links between root-soil biophysics and whole plant physiology.

Our research contributes to fundamental new knowledge as a basis for enhancing overall functioning of arable soils and for securing crop productivity.

Selected publications: Colombi et al, 2022, New Phytologist 233, 1542-1547; Liu et al., 2022, Science of the Total Environment 807, 150763; Colombi et al. 2019, Plant Physiology 180, 2049-2060.

On-going projects: Mixed cultivar systems to mitigate drought effects on Nordic crop production (“Rootmix”); The capacity of crops for enhanced carbon allocation to soil in a changing climate – synergies and trade-offs (“C4C”); Crop production in a changing climate: The role of soil management and crop selection in mitigating extreme weather impacts under Swedish conditions.

Funding: Novo Nordisk Foundation, Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Formas), Lantmännen Research Foundation, Swedish Royal Academy of Forest and Agricultural Sciences (KSLA); Stiftelsen JTI, Swedish farmers’ foundation for agricultural research (SLF) . 

Team: Mitsuaki Ota, Daniel Iseskog, and Thomas Keller

Contact person: Thomas Keller, 

Experimental set-ups

Addressing research questions often requires specific, customized experimental set-ups. We have our own laboratory where we can design and create completely new experimental set-ups. We use computer-aided design (CAD) to sketch components or entire experimental set-ups, which are then produced by in-house 3-D printing or using contract manufacturing. We combine the manufactured parts with optical sensors for imaging, and loggers for data acquisition into experimental set-ups. We use open source solutions (e.g. Arduino, Raspberry pie) to combine and control various parts of set-ups. Some of our customized set-ups are installed inside our own climate chambers, which allows us to do experiments with plants or earthworms under controlled environmental conditions. We have also designed and produced specific measurement equipment, for example for measurement of soil mechanical properties.

We are happy to assist scientists from other research groups – if you are interested, get in contact with us.

Selected publications: Sjulgård et al., 2021, Environmental and Experimental Botany 188, 104494; Colombi et al., 2021, Soil & Tillage Research 205, 104769; Arrazola et al., 2022, Applied Soil Ecology 178, 104568.

On-going projects: The lab facilities and resources are important for several of our on-going research projects.

Contact person: Daniel Iseskog,

Expertise in the group

Our group combines different expertise that allows us to work at interfaces between soil biology and soil mechanics, and consider aspects of soil management and agronomy (see more under “Research Themes”). Within the department, we have a unique “disciplinary” expertise in soil mechanics.

Research Methods

Our research covers spatial scales from the soil pore to the field, and temporal scales from seconds to decades. We do small-scale experimental work using customized set-ups to study interactions between roots and soil and earthworms and soil, perform field measurements (e.g. soil mechanical stress induced by agricultural and forest vehicles), set up experiments to study earthworm burrowing under field conditions, use lysimeters to study carbon inputs from crops and potential synergies and trade-offs, run (long-term) field experiments to study impacts of tillage and crops on soil quality and function, and carry out on-farm studies to explore relationships between soil management, soil quality and crop production. We use and refine models to simulate soil compaction, contribute to models for soil structure dynamics, and develop decision support tools for farmers for prevention of soil compaction.

Previous projects

Read about our previous research projects here.



We collaborate with different research groups at SLU and have several international collaborations, for example within EJP Soil. This also gives us the opportunity to study relationships between soil management, soil properties and climate across larger geographical gradients.

In some research projects we collaborate with farmers and advisors, e.g. “on-farm studies”. With our research, we contribute directly to Greppa näringens soil compaction module.

All our PhD students have an assistant supervisor in another country.


Amongst others; Formas, SLF, KSLA, Novo Nordisk Fonden, Lantmännen, EU (EJP Soil, ICT Agri-Food), Jordbruksverket, Naturvårdsverket (environmental monitoring).

Environmental monitoring: soil compaction

The environmental monitoring programme “soil compaction” was started in 2003, aiming at assessing the temporal evolution of the physical quality Swedish arable soils.

More information is available here (in Swedish).

Long-term field experiments

We currently manage 12 long-term field experiments where we investigate effects of different soil management systems on soil quality and crop productivity.

Read more about our long-term experiments here.


The Research Group in Soil Mechanics and Soil Management

See a list of former group members here