Digging In

SHP Staff


Total posts: 37
Last post: April 23, 2020 07:10

The Importance of Cover Crop Planning

By SHP Staff on  April 23, 2020 07:10
The Importance of Cover Crop Planning

“When planning soil health systems, we start with all the care that would go into planning a conventional cash crop system. Taking everything into consideration including the type of cover crop, soil type, field history, chemical planning, IPM concerns and crop rotation.” said Southern Illinois Field Manager, Abigail Peterson

When selecting a cover crop, farmers should think about what goals they want to achieve and work back from there. It can be overwhelming when trying to widdel down a list of every cover crop available. Starting with a goal like erosion or weed control, figuring out how it works in your current cash crop rotation, understanding the management steps for success, and being flexible can help make this decision easier. According to Peterson, this takes a good planning session to understand what farmers want to accomplish and what’s going to work for the year. 

An advantage to using a cover crop is the ability to experiment with different cover crop species. Farmers can start with something simple, like cereal rye, and build up to incorporating mixes. Bringing diversity into the rotation is one of the first soil health goals that can be accomplished. When selecting a cover crop, farmers do have to be mindful of many variables. Weather, planting window, and seed costs can all determine what will be cost effective while trying to maximize soil health benefits. Cover crops are a tool that address a different goal than a cash crop, but the same amount of care should be taken to reap the rewards. Using the Midwest Cover Crop Council online decision tool is a good place to start: http://mccc.msu.edu/covercroptool/covercroptool.php

When applying cover crops in your first year start small. “Test it out on small acres, see what works from there, and then go forward adapting what you have learned. Planting date, application method, and seed choice are influential factors in the fall that determine what will work best,” said Peterson. Some farmers have adapted cover crop management decisions within the harvest season. If you know you will have a late harvest for example, aerial application early in the season might work the best.  

“One of the greatest advantages to cover crops is the ability to have a crop growing during a fallow period. Breaking up disease cycles and creating variability can make a big impact for an operation,” said Peterson. “In creating a soil health system one of my favorite things to work on is reducing overall risk and maximizing the soils potential to work for you.”

Cover crop benefits can help farmers achieve their management goals by saving soil, building organic matter, sequestering nutrients, suppressing weeds, stimulating biological activity, breaking pest cycles and suppressing disease. As with most cover crops, one goal can often transcend into improving other aspects of soil health. All of these combinations can help narrow down cover crop choices on each field individually.

Podcast: Pipa Elias and allies in conservation

By SHP Staff on  April 21, 2020 07:36
Podcast: Pipa Elias and allies in conservation

Elias received her master’s degree in soil science, but started her career in policy, which led to her explaining the science of soil at the U.N. climate negotiations. She was working in a coalition with TNC which is how she ended up moving over to work with them. 

TNC believes farmers are among their greatest allies in conservation. 

“Our vision is a future in which both people and nature thrive. To me there is not a better connection between people and nature than agriculture,” Elias said. “We all need to eat and we can do so in a way when we’re promoting soil health that really benefits people and nature.”

Mesko and Ellias discuss the opportunity for agriculture to create solutions and one tool TNC has to measure that is the Optimal Tillage Information System, known as OTIS. The automated system shows the progress of soil health practices like cover crops and reduced tillage through remote sensing. OTIS imagery data can then be put into models to show what it means for water quality and carbon sequestration across a watershed, county, state or the country. The watershed scale data is available publicly at https://ctic.org/optis.

Mesko shares that SHP is working to quantify the benefits of soil health practices. Both SHP and TNC are both members of Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. While Elias admits it’s been tried before, she is excited about the potential to incentivize farmers for their work in improving soil health systems that benefits society. She believes we are in a place now to move forward because of new technology and more ambition to create a market along with paying farmers for improving water quality and addressing climate change. TNC is interested in developing capacity so when the market comes online farmers can participate. They are working on technical pieces and public investment.

Elias introduced Mesko to the book the Wizard and the Profit by Charles Mann. It follows the paths of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt who took two different approaches to challenges humanity faces. Borlaug took the path of technology and Vogt took the path of preservation, but their paths cross in the end. 

Elias’s work can be found at nature.org/workinglands. TNC is on Twitter at @natureag and Elias is at @pipaElias.   

Continue listening to The People of Soil Health podcast on iTunes.

Photo credit: Katie Schuler

Carbon Insetting Framework: a tool for economic incentives

By SHP Staff on  April 16, 2020 13:13
Carbon Insetting Framework: a tool for economic incentives

“SHP has test plots on over 200 farms throughout 16 different states where we help farmers evaluate changes in farming practices and how those changes impact the health of their soils and impact the future of their farms,” said Mesko, in regards the new Carbon Insetting Framework. 

The main focus of the program is to provide a framework for quantifying ecosystem services such as carbon storage and sequestration within the scope of a company’s supply chain that could be used to demonstrate greenhouse gas impacts. Conservation practices have become a key aspect of how farmers can help protect soil and water resources while improving a farms’ resilience against climate change.

By supporting farmers who are  working with practices that hold the potential to  remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, SHP is showing the value of farmers and their practices to the environment.  

The Carbon Insetting Framework brings in regulations and facilitation for farmers to start benefiting from their ability to positively impact the environment . With the help of on-farm testing SHP provides through on-farm research, this program is  practical for farmers. The goal is to make the framework public and pave the way for farmers to capitalize on that market as it develops in the future.

By working with growers to implement agronomic practices, Bayer has played a key role in facilitating the reduction of over 200,000 tons of carbon emissions on seed production farms. This will help growers harness the economic benefits of climate smart practices.

Soil health is not formulaic: Soil Health Indicators webinar explains more

By SHP Staff on  April 9, 2020 06:00
Soil health is not formulaic: Soil Health Indicators webinar explains more

Teeter reminds viewers that soil is dynamic and biologically active and different across regions and changing the health of your soil will take time.

The soil on each of your farms – and on the farms in Minnesota versus the farms in Illinois or Kentucky – will respond differently to different management techniques.  Teeter recommends patience.

“Changing management on your farm to include soil health means you must be patient as these changes can happen very slowly over many years. Soil needs to transform to its new normal before it can perform for you,” she said.

As farmers begin to investigate the health of their soil, they can focus on key elements, some of which must be reviewed in a lab, but many of which can be observed.  Keep an eye out for how quickly standing water absorbs into your fields after a rain.  Standing water can indicate an infiltration issue. Watch for erosion problems or plant indicators that you might have root issues that show soil compaction.

Some farmers who have already invested in soil health for a few years indicate better trafficability, or that they can get into the field to harvest or plant sooner than their neighbors, which is another farmer-level indication of improving soil health.

In the lab, soil is evaluated on texture, available water capacity, wet aggregate stability, soil organic matter, soil protein and other properties to indicate improving soil health.

Teeter advises farmers to make small improvements over multiple areas and to document their journey.  

“Observe, but don’t worry too much.  Progress isn’t linear,” she says.

Documenting changes on your farm can help you gain perspective when things become challenging and it might help someone else to be more successful.  Talking to others in your area who have implemented soil health practices can also be a wealth of knowledge.  

Always remember, when evaluating soil health on your farm that changes will happen slowly, and that improving soil health isn’t just about one input change.  It’s many changes over time.

Watch this recorded webinar, previously recorded webinars and register for future webinars by visiting SHP’s Soil Sessions webpage.



SHP and TFI publish Nutrient Management profiles

By SHP Staff on  April 2, 2020 06:18
SHP and TFI publish Nutrient Management profiles

Properly managed nutrients and soil health can provide economic and environmental benefits; however, cropping systems are complex. Nutrient management decisions must align with soil health management decisions for optimal results. 4R Nutrient Stewardship provides a framework to achieve cropping system goals, such as increased production, increased farmer profitability, enhanced environmental protection, and improved sustainability. 

The two profiles discuss mobile macronutrients and immobile macronutrients. 

Profile: Immobile Macronutrients – Phosphorus and Potassium

Potassium helps strengthen the plant’s ability to resist disease and plays an important role in increasing crop yields and overall quality, including strengthening the plant’s root system. Phosphorus is linked to a plant’s ability to use and store energy, being necessary for overall growth and normal development. Phosphorus and potassium nutrients are typically lost through surface water, washing away the fertilizer source or erosion.

This profile highlights two U.S. farmers who incorporate 4R practices into their soil health management system to keep the phosphorus and potassium they apply in the soil.

Profile: Mobile Macronutrients – Nitrogen

Nitrogen fertilizer is commonly applied to row crops, such as corn, to improve yield and quality of the harvested crop. However, nitrogen that is not used by a crop or leaves the field can be released into the air(ammonia and nitrous oxide), surface, and groundwater (nitrate).

This profile highlights two U.S. farmers who incorporate 4R practices into their soil health management system to optimize nitrogen use.

Check out other SHP business cases and profiles here

5 ways to evaluate the health of your soil

By SHP Staff on  March 26, 2020 06:04
5 ways to evaluate the health of your soil

Here are five ways you can evaluate your fields to determine if your soil is healthy. 

  1. Water infiltration
    Use a water infiltration kit if you have one. Otherwise, you can observe how much standing water there is after a rainstorm. While infiltration rates can vary based on soil texture, it can also vary because of issues like compaction, low soil aggregate stability, or low organic matter.
  2. Soil aggregate stability, slump test or slake test
    Perform a slump test or a slake test to evaluate the soil aggregate stability. Soil that falls apart in water or completely loses shape has poor aggregate stability which indicates lower organic matter and less “biological glue.” 
  3. Smell
    Soils should have a pleasant earthy odor. Soils that have a strong, off-putting or sulfur-like smell can indicate poor drainage or lack of oxygen in the soil
  4. Erodibility
    Observe the amount of residue on soils. More residue should protect soil from wind or rain. Rills and channels on soils, as well as soil color, can indicate erosion occurring in your field.
  5. Root health-checking at multiply stages
    Sickly plants can occur when there is compaction in the soil because root development is slowed. Digging up plants to observe the size, shape, direction, and color of roots can show issues with compaction. Root health may also indicate water infiltration, as slow growth can occur when soils are too wet.

Evaluate these indicators multiple times throughout the growing season. Take photos and document changes over time. 

The earlier you assess your soil, the earlier you can develop strategies to improve it. These indicators are just part of a systematic approach to improving soil quality.

Today is National Ag Day, share your #soilselfie

By SHP Staff on  March 24, 2020 05:14
Today is National Ag Day, share your #soilselfie

Soil is our business. SHP collects on-farm data to evaluate the impacts of soil health practices on the soil, the environment, and the farmer’s bottom line. We encourage you to join in the celebration by sharing a #soilselfie on social media, tag SHP, and share why soil health and agriculture are important to you!

This marks the 47th anniversary of National Ag Day. The National Ag Day program encourages every American to:  

  • Understand how food and fiber products are produced  
  • Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products  
  • Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy  
  • Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food, and fiber industry. We are celebrating American farmers all week. 

Share your #soilselfie with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

3 Types of soil health indicators

By SHP Staff on  March 19, 2020 08:26
3 Types of soil health indicators

The idea of a healthy soil must be conveyed through useful measurements known as soil health indicators that are sensitive to changes in soil processes and represent connections between soil biological, chemical, and physical properties. 

There are three types of soil health indicators:

  1. Chemical Indicators
    • pH: pH is an important indicator of soil health because if there is inadequate soil pH, crop growth can be impacted and key nutrients may become less available. Additionally, soil pH can vary soil microbial communities.
    • Macronutrients: N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S are all macronutrients that are vital to plant growth. If these nutrients are not available in plant usable quantities, crop growth will likely suffer.
    • Micronutrients: Although necessary in smaller quantities than macronutrients, micronutrients are just as critical to plant growth. Typically, soils provide plants with enough necessary micronutrients.  
  2. Physical Indicators
    • Aggregate Stability: Soil aggregates that are held together tightly via root exudates, soil fungi, and inherent soil properties. They can be improved upon by creating environments for “biological glues” to be produced by plants and microbes by reducing tillage that physically breaks soil aggregates.
    • Available Water Capacity: Much of this depends on innate soil texture but can be impacted by the amount of soil organic matter and soil aggregation, both of which can increase water holding capacity.
    • Soil Compaction: High amounts of soil compaction mean less room for air or water in the soil, impacting water infiltration and drainage, plant root growth, as well as soil microbial communities. Being timely when driving large equipment on soils, as well as implementing deep rooting plants on the soil, can help alleviate this.
  3. Biological Indicators
    • Soil Microbial Protein: Measures nitrogen from proteins being broken down in the soil which would then be available for plant uptake.
    • Active Carbon: Measures the carbon-containing compounds which are readily broken down by microbes as food. Active carbon is essentially a measure of the food stock available for microbes, which promotes nutrient availability and cycling.
    • OM: Organic matter influences water holding capacity, contains nutrients that can be broken down and made available, and provides food for microbes. Improving organic matter in the soil can be challenging but made easier by introducing conservation tactics like reducing tillage, adding other crops to a rotation, and using cover crops. 
    • Respiration: Measures the amount of CO2 produced by microbes which can help indicate soil microbial activity.

How are you measuring the health of your soil? Register for our upcoming Soil Sessions to learn more about soil health indicators. 

SHP Launches The People of Soil Health Podcast

By SHP Staff on  March 12, 2020 08:00
SHP Launches The People of Soil Health Podcast

SHP Senior Director John Mesko will serve as the host and will interview the best in the agricultural and environmental industries to discuss soil health practices and management systems, issues facing farmers, and insights from soil data sets. 

The podcast will discuss the following questions and many more:

  • What is soil health? 
  • What are the benefits of cover crops and conservation tillage? 
  • How can my farm be more sustainable? 
  • Why is healthy soil important?
  • What’s the best way to increase organic matter in a corn field? 

Tune in to listen to experts answer these questions, share their experiences, and more!

During the first episode of The People of Soil Health, Senior Director John Mesko will be visiting with SHP Lead Scientist Dr. Maria Bowman to review SHP’s first business case about an Indiana farmer and the economic benefits of his wheat cover crop management practices. As the science of soil health continues to evolve, Maria has become a recognized leader in collecting and analyzing on-farm data to help farmers improve their decision making.

“At our core, SHP believes in the power of partnerships. The people collaborating to advance the complex issues of soil health are remarkable, and I can’t wait to bring you into these conversations,” commented John.

A new episode will drop every other Tuesday. Subscribe to our podcast to be the first to know about new episodes!

SHP recognizes farmers with Seeds of Change awards

By SHP Staff on  March 5, 2020 08:00
SHP recognizes farmers with Seeds of Change awards

“The Soil Health Partnership’s farmers are at the core of our work. Without their commitment and support, the work of SHP does not exist. I feel honored to partner with this strong group of farmers and recognize five farmers that go above and beyond in their work with SHP,” said John Mesko, SHP senior director. 

SHP is a farmer-led initiative that promotes the adoption of soil health practices for economic and environmental benefit. A program of the National Corn Growers Association, SHP extends to more than 200 working farms in 16 states.  While building a peer-to-peer network, SHP collects on-farm data to evaluate the impacts of soil health practices on the soil, the environment, and the farmer’s bottom line.

The five award recipients are: 

Super Sprout: Trinity Creek Ranch

The father-daughter duo, Mikayla Tabert and David Miller of Trinity Creek Ranch, in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, received the Super Sprout award for their continuous experiments with management practices to improve soil health, despite the challenges of a shorter growing season and extremely cold winters. 

Champion Communicator: Mark Heckman with Heckman Farms

Mark Heckman of Heckman Farms, in West Liberty, Iowa, received the Champion Communicator award for his work helping other farmers understand his farm’s soil health journey. 

Data Dominator: Daryl and Jason Maple with Maple Farms

Receiving the Data Dominator award is Daryl and Jason Maple of Maple Farms in Kokomo, Indiana for promoting optimum soil health by timely sharing data with many precision ag programs. They are confident that their data will tell the story of what changes are taking place in their field and they genuinely enjoy the learning opportunities of their Soil Health Partnership trial.

Exceptional Educator: Doug Palen with Palen Family Farms

The Exceptional Educator award goes to Doug Palen of Palen Family Farms in Glen Elder, Kansas. Doug and his family enjoy talking about their soil health management experiences, and they jump into many experiences with both feet, giving them even more to teach.  

Ace Agronomist: Darin Kennelly with Precise Crop

Darin Kennelly of Precise Crop received the Ace Agronomist award for his leadership with his test plots. He works diligently to ensure soil tests are pulled correctly, is actively engaged in all soil testing, and is well respected with his farmer. Darin asks thought provoking questions and engages with SHP to ensure his test plots are done with great integrity. Darin is an independent ag consultant based in central Illinois.

Read the complete press release celebrating these award-winners here