Digging In

SHP Staff

Website: https://www.soilhealthpartnership.org/authors/shp-staff/

Total posts: 47
Last post: July 9, 2020 13:00

SHP Shares Cover Crop Planting Report

By SHP Staff on  July 9, 2020 13:00
SHP Shares Cover Crop Planting Report

The Soil Health Partnership conducted a detailed survey on cover crops with more than 80 farmers across 11 states in the SHP network about cover crop usage on their trial sites in the fall of 2019. The Cover Crop Planting Report is now available. The data will be used in future analyses for looking at how cover crops impact soil health, agronomic outcomes, and farmer profitability.

“We know the farmers in our network are innovators and that there is a huge range of cover crop management practices across our network--depending on the farmer’s management goals, where they are located, their soils, cropping system, etc.,” said Maria Bowman, Lead Scientist for the Soil Health Partnership. “My hope is to give SHP farmers along with farmers outside our network some context for the types of practices that are common and how much they cost, while building our dataset to answer other important questions about cover crops and what types of management practices lead to successful outcomes.”

Bowman says the most significant finding was that although more than half of farmers planted between the middle of September and the beginning of November, almost 40% planted before or after these dates, and 25% of farmers responding to the survey interseeded or overseeded the cover crop into a standing cash crop. This means that farmers are using a wide range of strategies to get cover crops out on their fields, especially in higher latitudes where there are timing and labor constraints to getting a cover crop in after harvest.

Cover Crop Mix

Fifty-three percent of the farmers surveyed reported planting a cover crop mix of two or more species. 

The breakdown included 47% planting a single-species, 31% planting a mix of two to three species, and 16% planting a mix of more than three species. 

For the 53% planting a mix, the most common species that farmers disclosed they used included: 

Planting Time

The planting time depended on the region, cash crop rotation, and species. 

In 2019, more than half of farmers planted their cover crops between September 15th and November 3rd. 

Seventy-four percent of farmers said in 2019 they planted cover crops after harvest, while 25% interseeded or overseeded them.

Planting Cost

The median cost of cover crop seed and applying that cover crop seed across the SHP network was $15/acre and $12/acre in 2019, respectively. However, this varied according to the mix and seeding method.

Of those planting a cover crop, 31% report contracting someone outside of their operation to plant it.

Popularity of Cereal Rye

Almost half of all farmers planted a single species cover crop. Of these, 80% of farmers planted cereal rye. 

“Cereal rye is popular because it produces a large amount of biomass, which can keep soil in place, scavenge residual nitrogen, or provide weed-suppressing residue depending on the cover crop goals,” said Jim Isermann, SHP Field Manager in Northern Illinois and Iowa. “It also is winter hardy, allowing for a wide planting window, relatively easy to chemically terminate, and seed is rather cheap.”   

Additional data is being collected this year to see how the cover crops developed and the  impact on agronomic outcomes for the 2020 cash crop.

Podcast: Elyssa McFarland – Soil Science is the New Frontier in Agriculture

By SHP Staff on  June 30, 2020 05:00
Podcast: Elyssa McFarland – Soil Science is the New Frontier in Agriculture

Elyssa McFarland is the Development Manager for the Soil Health Partnership, but she is also a farmer with her very own SHP research trial.  She is passionate about soil, and can’t remember a time when soil didn’t excite her.

“I think my interest in soil started pretty early, but I always thought our farm was really interesting.  We have super sandy soils that we have to irrigate, and we have some really rich deep prairie soil that tends to be a little too wet. It was a really interesting mix of things I saw growing up on the farm,” she said.

Later in her life, after being thrown onto the FFA soil judging team last minute, her dad told her that she’d never really know what it was to be a farmer until she jumped right in.  So she rented a farm and started making decisions.  She quickly got a true farmer experience and still loved studying soil.

As a farmer, she sees anecdotal changes on her farm due to the soil health management practices she’s incorporated.  As a researcher, she is really interested in being able to measure and track the changes and tie them to outcomes on the farm. 

In Elyssa’s mind, soil health is the new frontier in agriculture. 

“Soil is this medium that allows us to interact with all these other parts of our community and our industry.  Soil health is such a new area, even though we’ve learned a lot and we’re better at managing our soils than we used to be, there are still really complex things that happen over time, and those cycles and changes throughout the year are really variable.  There’s a lot for us to learn about how those changes interact with our environment and our crops,” she said.

New opportunities abound for people that are interested.  Elyssa looks forward to a future where scientists and farmers are interested in what is going on a bit deeper in the soil than where we focus now.  Understanding subsoils could offer big improvements in yield and water holding capacity, she says.  Also, infield soil testing could change the future.

Learn more about the technologies and improvements Elyssa McFarland looks forward to in the podcast below.


Host: John Mesko

Guest: Elyssa McFarland, Development Manager for the Soil Health Partnership

John Mesko (00:30):

Hi, I'm John Mesko, and welcome to another episode of The People of Soil Health. Today, my guest is Elyssa McFarland, who is the development manager for the Soil Health Partnership. It is a little bit unique to have Elyssa on as a guest, because not only is she working with me on a regular basis to help us advance the resource base for helping farmers to learn about and adopt soil health building farming practices, she's also a farmer and she also is one of SHP's farmers with a research plot on her farm. So she obviously has a passion for soil health. She's an avid podcast listener. So I'm excited to have her as a guest. Elyssa, thank you for joining me.

Elyssa McFarland (01:16):

Thanks for having me, John.

John Mesko (01:17):

You and I have had a lot of conversations about soil, obviously, and the business of soil health, and how as an organization and as an agricultural community we can advance soil health. Your life really is a lot about soil, and I know your passion for soil has been deep and long lasting. You even have a dual master's degree in agronomy and soil science. How did you become so interested in soil health?

Elyssa McFarland (01:47):

Well, I think my interest in soil started pretty early. I didn't probably recognize it as an interest in soil, but I always thought our farm was really interesting because we have these super sandy soils that we have to irrigate, and then we have some really rich, deep prairie soil that tends to be a little too wet, and it's just a really interesting mix of things I saw growing up on the farm. And then when I was in high school, I was in FFA, and I had the opportunity to be on the soil judging team for FFA. I got thrown in the mix at the last minute, and my advisor told me to get on the bus, we're going to go look at some soil. And I just thought it was really fascinating.

Elyssa McFarland (02:28):

And I guess I've never really changed courses. I've always really found soil fascinating and pursued degrees in it, and was very thankful when I was wrapping up my master's degree that this opportunity was available. I felt like Soil Health Partnership was this really unique combination of practical on farm, how you get things done to improve your soil, while also taking a really serious look and consideration about how our soils and what we do on farm interact with other things in our community, in our environment.

John Mesko (03:00):

That's fascinating. And there's a lot of people who work in agriculture who have grown up around agriculture or have worked around farms, but there are becoming obviously fewer and fewer people who are actively farming. As the number of farmers, as the percentage of the population, continues to drop in our country, there are very few people really who have firsthand experience on the farm. You are actively involved in your family's farm operation. Can you tell us a little bit about what your role is there?

Elyssa McFarland (03:32):

Yeah, so I started renting a farm that's separate from my family's farm, actually while I was still a student at Iowa State. I was expressing some interest in maybe coming back to the farm and helping out in some capacity. And basically, my dad said, "You're never going to get what this is really like unless it's your name on the loan and you have to decide when to pull the trigger and market grain and the complexities of trying to get everything in the field and managing all these different timelines." And so I jumped in and started renting this farm, and I've learned a lot along the way. And as we have worked through the estate plan and our family farm business plan and where we're headed in the future, I've been very fortunate to pick up responsibilities along the way with our primary family operation and learning more about how to do things at the next scale up. So it's been really exciting. I'm very fortunate to work with my family.

John Mesko (04:31):

Well, that's great. And I really think it lends a lot of credibility to your work, all of the work that you've done at Soil Health Partnership from being a field manager and now as development manager. I think people really want to know that the person they're talking to who is espousing certain values and certain beliefs and understandings about soil health really can have some firsthand experience. And you do, and I think it's a great asset for us as an organization. On your farm, you have an SHP research site. Tell me a little bit about what that trial is, and what you've learned about soil health from that trial so far.

Elyssa McFarland (05:12):

Well, as I mentioned, we have some really sandy soils on our farm. And so one of the things that I'm interested in exploring is if we can improve our water holding organic matter in those super sandy soils. And so our side-by-side trials looking at putting cover crops on one of these sandier fields, on half the field and then not on the other half. And we've been doing no till for a long time, largely because it was an economical issue. When you till sand that frequently, it becomes harder to manage. You get a lot of sand moving in the field in the early spring, and it almost sandblasts your crops when they're smaller.

Elyssa McFarland (05:53):

And then it's also just expensive to maintain tillage equipment when it's getting roughed up by the sand so much, tends to wear things down pretty quickly. So we've been doing no till for a while. I feel like we've plateaued with the improved water holding that we have from doing no till, and I think that there's an opportunity there where we can increase the organic matter a little bit, have a little bit more residue protecting the soil through the summer that might reduce some of the water loss, and be able to have a little bit more cushion through some of those dryer spells, which we've had recently in Iowa.

John Mesko (06:28):

And when you think about the long term evolution of not only this trial, but also the soil health building practices you're implementing there, what do you expect to learn in the future?

Elyssa McFarland (06:39):

So I think that in the future, one of the things that I'm interested in learning more about is the way that we can measure some of the anecdotal changes that we're seeing on farm. Obviously it takes a long time to change things in the soil. And I think that there's an opportunity there, as we have advanced techniques for both infield and lab measurements, to be able to track some of those changes and better tie them to outcomes on the farm. Obviously that's something Soil Health Partnership is engaged in, there's a lot of different research entities working on this. And I think it'll take some time, but that's one of the things I'm excited about for the future of soil science.

John Mesko (07:19):

One of the things we talk a lot about at Soil Health Partnership, and you and I have had a lot of conversations about this as well, is what does the adoption process look like for the typical farmer? So as we think about farmers who are watching you and what you're doing on your farm, or another farm in the community, and they're watching that and learning and trying to understand a little bit about what's going on, what do you think becomes the tipping point for farmers when they decide to implement a new practice, whether it's cover crops or reduced tillage, or maybe even livestock grazing? What are some of the things that, in your opinion, are important for farmers to think about as they begin to consider that transition?

Elyssa McFarland (08:06):

Well I think, John, you and I have talked about this a couple of times and we've learned about it across the entire geography of Soil Health Partnership. In different regions there are really different motivators from a sociological perspective in terms of decision making influencers in the community. And I think that's something that, it's really complex to pin down, but I think one of the universal things about small businesses is changes have to be well thought out. They have to have a purpose behind them. And for soil health management practices, they are so multifunctional that sometimes I think it's hard to define what the specific outcome you're looking for on a particular operation is. And I think that once you can pin down what the goal is, it becomes a lot easier to adopt practices.

Elyssa McFarland (08:54):

And so I think that I've seen it in our own community when farmers have really been able to hone in, especially on some of our more rolling ground, on spring erosion as being the primary thing that they're really seeing a difference in. With increased rainfall, higher biological activity, better turnover of residue is a good thing, but then it also leaves the soil more bare in the spring. And so I think that being able to pinpoint that, "Okay, spring erosion on hilly ground is the thing that we're most interested in addressing here", it becomes a lot more obvious which practice to select and how to manage it with your other time constraints you have on the farm.

John Mesko (09:34):

I think that's really important thing that you just said, is basically identifying what's the concern that you're trying to address with a change in practice. And as you're highlighting spring erosion, in other places of the country it might be winter erosion. It might be water holding capacity, or yield, or whatever the case may be. What is the resource concern, and start with that rather than this vague, still understanding of what is soil health. I just want better soil. So that's a good consideration, but to be more specific I think is more motivating, and maybe creates a better thought or pathway towards success. What do you think about that?

Elyssa McFarland (10:16):

Oh, I very much agree with that. I was thinking, as you were talking about that, how there is this general interest in soil health. And I think that there's some really interesting farmers who are engaged from that just exploratory level, which I think is good because it continues to advance and push the envelope on practices. But when we think about more of the broader farming community, there's so many different things going on. And maybe the person who is being out there on the edge exploring some really different soil health practices may be not as engaged in ethanol, or trade, or a more advanced marketing plan. There's different ways that people like to explore within their own businesses, and I think that's something that's really healthy about our industry and continues to move us forward because there's so many of these independent businesses out here on the landscape, each of us as farmers trying out new things and exploring stuff. And so I think that there's a role for everybody to play in understanding their soils better, because it's really the foundation of what we do, but I like learning from other folks.

John Mesko (11:23):

Well, I think you've really hit the nail on the head here in thinking about agriculture much more broadly than just yield, or marketing capacity, or the day to day logistics of operating a farm. You're really looking at agriculture as a big picture industry, and I think that's really essential as we talk about how we move, as a community, forward in this. I know you've said in the past that your belief is soil health is the new frontier in agriculture, and I would certainly agree with you. I'm curious from your perspective, why you think that and how that fits into what you're doing there on the farm and at Soil Health Partnership.

Elyssa McFarland (12:03):

I really think that soil health is the combination of a lot of different things within soil science and soil properties, and that's really the foundation of growing the crops, which is what we feed to livestock. It's how we interact with our local watersheds, with our local air quality. And so I think soil is this medium that allows us to interact with all the other parts of our community, of our industry. And I think that that's the reason why I think it's been the next frontier, I guess.

Elyssa McFarland (12:32):

The other thing that I think about when I think about soil health is that it's such a new area, even though we've learned a lot and are so much better at managing our soils than we used to be, there's still really complex things that happen, especially across timescales. So throughout the growing season, as our soils are warming up, as we're putting out all this biomass in a crop, and then as our soils are starting to cool down and shut down for the winter, especially up in the upper Midwest, those cycles and changes throughout the year are really variable. I think there's a lot of things we can learn about how those interact both with our environment, as well as with our crops.

John Mesko (13:11):

Well, I think that's great. And I agree with you, soil health is the unifying component in agriculture. We talk a lot about carbon sequestration, we talk a lot about water quality, we talk about resilience and the ability for farms and farmers to have resilient businesses. And really all of those things start with soil health. And it's something that every corner of agriculture can agree on, and consumers can relate to it as well. So I appreciate that perspective.

John Mesko (13:41):

I know that you are very active on Twitter, and I've observed a lot of interactions and a lot of involvement with the soil health community and with farmers on Twitter. And with that perspective, I'm curious, what kinds of things are you seeing and learning from a social media perspective on soil health?

Elyssa McFarland (14:01):

When it comes to soil health on Twitter, I feel like there's a pretty broad spectrum. And sometimes people don't always identify themselves as a quote unquote soil health farmer on Twitter. But I think that there's some interesting, really nitty gritty conversations happening on Twitter about practice management, that I occasionally get sucked into the deep dive on a Twitter thread about managing nutrients with strip till or some very specific topic like that. But I think that's one of the fun aspects of Twitter, one of the things I learn the most about is those deep dives on people's opinions on different types of practice management. And it gets a little technical, so I have to be careful when I am recommending Twitter followers to some of our partners with SHP because I don't want people to be overwhelmed by some the technical stuff. Because there's also just a lot of really good fun follows on Twitter too, just to keep up with what's going on in different parts of the country too. So there's a nice balance of seeing a beautiful cloud bank from Minnesota and also getting some great nitty gritty manure management tips from Indiana.

John Mesko (15:11):

Well, that's the beautiful thing about social media, you can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

Elyssa McFarland (15:16):


John Mesko (15:17):

To wrap up today's conversation, one of the things we've done in some of these interviews is to try a little lightning round of questions. All right? So these are fun, but hopefully interesting questions to help our audience get to know you a little bit better and put our conversation in some context. So are you ready?

Elyssa McFarland (15:40):

I think so.

John Mesko (15:40):

Okay. So what is the most interesting thing you have learned from a farmer?

Elyssa McFarland (15:47):

I'm going to go with what I've learned from farmers who are also hunters. So I like to do a little bit of hunting from time to time, especially upland bird hunting. And so I have learned a lot from talking to other farmers about wildlife and where they see it in times of year, especially in the spring related to pheasant nesting and quail nesting. And so that's been probably the most interesting tidbits I've picked up from farmers, have been about wildlife stuff. But it's not really ag related, but it's the stuff that I've found the most interesting and different.

John Mesko (16:18):

I don't know. I think it's spot on. We don't farm in a vacuum, no matter how uniform a farm community might be, or the geography might be, farm is part of an ecosystem for sure and improving soils is certainly going to change the dynamics of wildlife. I think that's fantastic.

John Mesko (16:43):

When you think about careers in soil health, or the advancement of soil health in the broader agricultural community, what do you think are some of the most, or one of the most, under appreciated opportunities that lie ahead?

Elyssa McFarland (16:57):

When it comes to under appreciated things about the soil, I feel like in ag, we spend a lot of time focusing on the top six, eight inches of soil, sometimes top foot of soil. And our row crops are accessing a much deeper profile of soil usually. And I think that there's some things that we're going to learn, hopefully, in the coming years about our sub subsoil and how we might be able to do some remote sensing around that, or something like that, to be able to learn more about what's happening in our subsoil. And I feel like a lot of people are talking about that right now, but the changes that we could see in those higher clay content subsoils, or maybe some of those more densely packed subsoils, could really have improvements both in yield, as well as water holding capacity and the soil being able to take more rainwater, store it better, which I think could have ripple effects throughout a watershed. I feel like there's some cool opportunities there that we don't always focus on because we're so obsessed with the top soil and the first foot or so of soil.

John Mesko (18:03):

Sure. Well, that makes sense, and I would agree with you. Here's an interesting question. I've pondered this a lot myself. If you won the lottery and had to buy a farm, where would you buy it and what would you raise?

Elyssa McFarland (18:20):

So I would definitely buy a farm in Louisa County, because I'm a bit of a home girl when it comes to the farm. But I think I would try raising small grains, probably barley for malting and then make some beer out of it.

John Mesko (18:36):

So a little value added is what you say.

Elyssa McFarland (18:39):

Yeah. I'd probably build a malt house.

John Mesko (18:43):

Yeah. And you'd probably have the spent distiller grains, you'd feed to the cattle.

Elyssa McFarland (18:47):

Exactly. Just get a whole nice tight little circle happening.

John Mesko (18:51):

Yeah. Okay. So thinking about wrapping this up and looking to the near future, what do you think will be the most surprising thing to happen in soil health in the next five years?

Elyssa McFarland (19:03):

I'm hopeful that it will be some sort of sensor or something in fields to help with measurements in field of soil. I feel like there's starting to be some more momentum in that space, and I think that I might be surprised by what can get done. I feel like I tend to go a little bit more old school when thinking about how to measure soil, and I want to take it out of the field and do lab analysis on it and do a little bit more of the traditional take. But I feel like I'm going to be surprised by what we can measure, either remotely or with an infield sensor in the next few years. I hope I'm surprised by that.

John Mesko (19:44):

I would love it too. I think that'd be a game changer in terms of helping people to understand and implement practices, especially if they could see results in real time.

John Mesko (19:53):

Thank you, Elyssa, not only for this visit for the last few minutes here, but also for your work with the Soil Health Partnership. It's great to work with you on a regular basis and understand a little bit more about what you're doing there on the farm and how that relates to our broader community. I appreciate the chance to visit with you. Thank you very much.

Elyssa McFarland (20:13):

Yeah. Thanks John.

Aerial Application of Cover Crops

By SHP Staff on  June 18, 2020 05:00
Aerial Application of Cover Crops

When planting cover crops, there are many options, such as drilling, broadcasting, interseeding, or overseeding seeding. The accessibility to equipment and labor available are often deciding factors. 

Aerial application of cover crops has become a method that farmers have started to utilize to give them the advantage of early application. By applying earlier in the year, farmers can see better growth out of winter kill species and better overwintering of winter hardy cover crops.

“Cash crop maturity and canopy cover, along with soil moisture all impact how successful your seeding application will be,” said Abigail Peterson, the Southern Illinois Field Manager. 

When applying cover crop seed into a standing soybean crop, farmers need to evaluate plant stages before flying on the seed. The main goal is to target when the leaves are turning yellow before leaf drop.  By spreading on the seed before leaf drop, farmers get better seed to soil contact and give the seed a better moisture bed when the leaves fall. There is some concern that the soybean leaves dropping will form a mat of material that will smother  the seeds. Adding something like oats to the mix will help aid in pusing up through that residue to help other smaller seeds, like rape, to emerge. Beans planted in 30 inch rows rather than 15 inch rows may show improved establishment due to more light getting to the soil surface.  

Another important aspect to a successful aerial application is (of course) the weather and soil conditions. Having moisture in the soil before application helps the seeds to start germinating rather than applying to a dry seed bed. A rain after application also helps to get those seeds germinating and improves contact with the soil. 

When thinking about what cover crop to use, start with addressing your cover crop goals. Peterson recommended an annual rye, oats, radish and clover mix. In most areas of Illinois, try getting this mix on before September 15th. The annual rye and clover are what we hope to overwinter, the oats will help the smaller seeds succeed while adding a “buffer” to help protect the less winter hardy seeds. Unfortunately, I haven’t observed much success with the radishes getting substantial growth with aerial seeding in 2018 or 2019. Trying something like a rape or clover mix with a grass instead of radishes if you cannot meet the September fly-on date. Make sure to consult your aerial applicator for seeding rate recommendations, aerial application will be different from drilling a cover crop.  

One of the biggest challenges of aerial application is getting a good stand. While most crops go directly into the soil, aerial applications are scattered on the soil surface which can lead to less consistency in the stand. A preventative measure that can create a big impact is enrolling the assistance of an experienced pilot. This can help to ensure that the seed is spread within the perimeter of the field at a consistent rate across the field.

One main issue in 2019 was the delayed harvest, which led to a continued shading of the cover crop trying to establish behind the cash crop. That delay can lead to lighter stands and less root penetration. 

The key takeaway according to Peterson is to “be mindful of the year you’re in and the best method to get something established.”

Aerial application of oats, rashish, annual ryegrass flown on September 26th in central Illinois (photo taken October 10). 

Cover crop flown on the second week of September in south central Illinois. Notice the substantial growth of radishes in the areas of the field where there was no corn growth. (photos taken November 7)



Podcast: Jay Watson - Why Soil Health is a Win-Win-Win Situation

By SHP Staff on  June 16, 2020 05:00
Podcast: Jay Watson - Why Soil Health is a Win-Win-Win Situation

General Mills is a consumer packaged goods company that puts their money where their mouth is, according to Soil Health Partnership Director John Mesko.  The company was an early funder of SHP and continues to work hand in hand with farmers to create economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

In this episode, Jay Watson, Sourcing Sustainability Engagement Manager for General Mills, chats with Mesko about why General Mills is so invested in this work.

“It’s the right thing to do,” states Watson. “We see the promise of soil health and what it can do for farmers and what it can do for our whole food system. We have a responsibility to be a catalyst for some of the change that we think is needed in society.”

General Mills also understands that investing in farmers is the right thing to do for their business. Their motto, “Food the World Loves,” includes helping the world love the way their food is grown. 

General Mills focuses on soil health because it is a great intersection of practices that contribute to significant environmental sustainability and practices that create substantial economic sustainability for farmers. Although SHP is heavily invested in corn and soybean farms and farmers, General Mills is helping with an expansion of considerable involvement with wheat as a cash crop as well.

“We are big buyers of wheat, so we wanted to take the SHP model to big wheat growing regions. It’s important to us because we want to advance soil health where our supply chain is,” Watson said. 

To Watson, the SHP model includes demonstrations and a lot of peer-to-peer learning.  Now, farmers in the program experimenting with wheat as a cash crop will be able to help their peers understand how a wheat system can work for them on their Kansas and Minnesota farms.  

“If you can change the way that you see things, there’s an opportunity to unlock new potential,” states Watson . 

Tune in to this full podcast with Jay Watson of General Mills below.

Episode Transcription:

Host: John Mesko

Guest: Jay  Watson

Speaker 1 (00:00):

Welcome to the People of Soil Health, a podcast that unearths the community, exploring the financial, economic, and environmental benefits of soil health. From farmers to researchers, meet the people committed to understanding soil health practices and improving the land. Here's your host, Senior Director of the Soil Health Partnership John Mesko.

John Mesko (00:31):

Hi, and welcome to another episode of the People of Soil Health. General Mills has been a part of the Soil Health Partnership from the beginning. And joining me today is Jay Watson, sourcing sustainability engagement manager at General Mills. Welcome Jay.

Jay Watson (00:48):

Hi, thanks for having me.

John Mesko (00:50):

You've been at General Mills for many years, and you have held several positions. How did your work at General Mills lead to this interest in soil health and regenerative agriculture?

Jay Watson (01:03):

Yeah, thanks for the question, John. So, my background at General Mills starts back in 2006, and I joined the organization in sourcing; So I was a buyer for 10 years before joining sustainability, and I had the opportunity to buy lots of different things for our facilities and for our products. (but, the two most closely related to soil health were corn and oats) and saw the opportunity to serve as the subject matter expert for all of those ingredients from a sourcing standpoint. And in my oats role, which was the last one before I joined sustainability full-time, I had the privilege and opportunity to launch our 2020 sustainability program for oats in Canada and a strong focus on working with producers, capturing field level data, translating those to environmental metrics, and trying to see continuous improvement over time.

Jay Watson (01:58):

So with that focus on continuous improvement, it quickly evolved into a conversation about what are the key levers to drive improvement in environmental metrics as it relates to agriculture? And soil health over time rose to the top of the list, and as we've pressed into soil health with investments and in our own company (but also investments in partners like SHP), we've now evolved to think about soil health principles as really the cornerstone for regenerative agriculture, which was one of our more recent public commitments back in 2019.

John Mesko (02:34):

Well, I think that you mentioned the support that General Mills has had for the Soil Health Partnership, and as you well know, General Mills has been a great supporter of our work, specifically our organization, but also soil health across the board, investing over $4 million to improve soil health in areas where commodities are grown General Mills uses. Why is it that General Mills is leading, really, many of the consumer packaged goods companies in this effort around soil health?

Jay Watson (03:10):

Yeah. Thanks. That's a great question, and I think a couple points I'd call out. So one, we think it's the right thing to do. We see the promise of soil health and what it can do for farmers, what it can do for the whole food system ( so connection to our values of doing the right thing). The right thing for us as a major food company: we have a responsibility to be a catalyst for some of the change that we think is needed in society. So, it's the right thing to do from a value standpoint, but it's the right thing to do for our business as well. Our business depends on the output of healthy ecosystems and really taking that output of farming, and we're converting it into products that many of us love and know, like Cheerios, Nature Valley, Pillsbury, among others. So if that agricultural system's not healthy or breaks down, it's really tough and puts a lot of strain on our business.

Jay Watson (04:00):

So with our purpose to make the food the world loves, it's partly we want the world to love how food is being produced. So food grown under conditions that help to improve natural resources while also making food, that's really why we've invested in soil health. We've identified partners that are really working on the ground with producers because we want that investment to be in producers--to be in organizations that help producers--and we're trying to figure out what the best role that we can play as a downstream food company in the overall movement. So, soil health and the investments in SHP but also Soil Health Institute and TNC are some of the earlier ones [contributions] we've made. And now, [we are] pressing into specific supply sheds with our focus on regenerative ag and how we can create enabling environments for producers to go down the path for those that are interested. So, it's the right thing to do for our business. It's also a responsibility we have as a major food company.

John Mesko (05:02):

Well, I think that's a great summary of what I think of in terms of sustainability. You're saying that General Mills wants to grow food that people love and wants to do that in a way that people love as well, and that that is at the root of what sustainability is, Don't you think?

Jay Watson (05:21):

That's right. That's kind of key to the double entendre of food the world loves. I mean, we need food that people enjoy. I mean, obviously, we wouldn't have a business if there weren't demand for our products, but we need to do it in a way that sustains and rebuilds and restores natural resources and farming communities, and that's why there's such a strong emphasis on soil health. If we can maintain yield or even increase yield, while at the same time reducing costs and improving natural resources like water, air, soil, increase the vitality of communities, that feels kind of like a win- win-win for the producers, for the environment, [and] for downstream food companies. So, that's why we've placed a lot of these early bets in soil health; [we] have had an opportunity to learn from a lot of partners and producers along the way. We like what we see, we see the promise, and that's why we're deepening our investment with programs and pilots of our own. And again, finding ways to support producers, given that they're the ones really doing the hard work and leaning into risk and innovating on farms like they've always done. So, what role can we play at General Mills to support and catalyze the movement and show producers that we want to support them and support the industry to advance progress?

John Mesko (06:40):

Well, it sounds like you've got the three legs of sustainability covered there (the economic sustainability, environmental, and social sustainability) when you talk about really impacting rural communities and the impact that a healthy supply chain can have on our society as a whole.

Jay Watson (07:00):

Yeah, that's right. We often speak about those three pillars of sustainability, and depending on the ingredient, there's maybe a stronger focus on one or a few versus the other. It really just depends on where we think the opportunity is. I have the privilege to work across not only North American row crops and the sustainability programs there but also specialty crops in global growing origins like cocoa and vanilla, where the sustainability agenda and priorities are a little bit different because it's a different climate; it's a different supply chain. So, we really tailor the focus in the design of our programs to address where we think we're going to have the greatest potential and ability to impact change as it relates to one or multiple of those sustainability pillars of social, environmental, and economic. And I think really what we hear from producers and which makes the most sense is we need a lot of those to work in concert. We need economic sustainability to be able to steward natural resources, and that's where soil health plays such a critical role (where we believe that there's benefit in both environmental and economic, if done the right way and done with support for it based on local context) to see how soil health can deliver both of those things.

John Mesko (08:32):

The thing, I guess, I appreciate about your work, as well as General Mills as a whole, is it's not just words. So, General Mills, as I said earlier, has been a heavy funder of Soil Health Partnership, and among other things, you folks are funding some new wheat sites in Kansas and Minnesota that we are putting out to help growers understand how a wheat cash crop can impact soil health and productivity. That's a pretty specific crop and a pretty specific geography. And why are these sites so important to General Mills?

Jay Watson (09:11):

Yeah, I think a couple of things. We really appreciated the approach of Soil Health Partnership being more focused on corn and bean rotations as part of the National Corn Growers. The demonstration approach, the peer-to-peer learning, so we really liked the model. And we buy corn that's both used for corn flour and cereal products and then corn syrup that's used across our portfolio. But, we're much bigger buyers of wheat, so we wanted to take a proven model and translate it where possible to key wheat growing regions and supply sheds. So, that's where the Northern Plains in Minnesota plays in, and that's also Kansas. Kansas is probably one of our biggest wheat sourcing regions.

Jay Watson (09:56):

So understanding how we could take the demonstration approach and that peer-to-peer learning and bring it to those regions with a different cropping system, that was important to us because we want to advance soil health where our supply chain touches agriculture. So with a big focus on wheat for brands like Pillsbury or Gold Medal Flour or Totino's, taking a proven model and bring[ing] it to a place where we can get some new insights was the focus of that expansion and partnership with Soil Health Partnership but also with the National Wheat Foundation. So those demonstration sites, I think, will be important to understand what we can learn and how that different rotation... what we can learn from the soil health parameters and measurements in those regions.

John Mesko (10:54):

Absolutely. And as I said, it's a great example of an organization, a funder of ours, really putting their money where their mouth is, and we love those kinds of partnerships. We feel like our organization really thrives on those types of deep connections, where it's not just in word only; but, we're really focused on making a difference, and it's a very rewarding thing to be a part of. But, you and General Mills have been deeply involved. I think you have the credibility to look at the soil health community and the work that's being done on farms and among organizations like General Mills to help advocate for and learn about and promote soil health farming practices. Based on your involvement and the things that you've been involved with previously, are there things that are missing in the discussion on soil health and sustainability? I mean, where are the gaps that are not yet filled? Certainly the work that we do with the funding from General Mills is substantial, and we think we're doing [a] great job; but, we're not doing everything and neither are all the other groups. So in your opinion, where are some of the shortcomings in the current discussions around soil health?

Jay Watson (12:14):

Yeah, it's a good question. I think some of the opportunities exist around one-on -one coaching, peer-to-peer learning, and I think that's where Soil Health Partnership does a good job. I think a lot of producers see the opportunity with soil health, but they're just not exactly sure how to start or how to take the next step on their unique operation. We hear often from producers; they attend a conference or a field day, and they're revved up and ready to go. And then, they get back to their operation or a specific field, and they're just not quite sure on what to do first or how to evolve from one of their first practices to incorporate another. So, we've really seen that as an opportunity to invest in programs and organizations that come alongside producers to provide ongoing support, in addition to maybe some of the conferences and a couple of day trainings that exist out there, so that producers are supported technically. That technical assistance piece is why we believe there's gaps and maybe bigger gaps in certain parts of the country than others.

Jay Watson (13:28):

So technical assistance, I think just the assistance in general. We think about technical, social, cultural support. This is a significant shift for a lot of producers, so how, as an industry and as a collaborative, do we make sure that we bring that holistic surrounds so that producers can be successful? So, I think technical support is one that we think needs to be part of all discussions around soil health and how we advance and drive adoption. I think we also have the opportunity to make sure that economics really is highlighted. I mean, that's where SHP is doing work. That's where Soil Health Institute is doing great work. Really makes sure that that pillar of sustainability is included. We need more economic case studies in more geographies, in more cropping systems, because that likely will be a key for some producers to start experimenting. They want to see the dollars and cents, and it takes time, like we know. So having funding and commitment from organizations to take the time to study these systems over time, when management has changed and there's a different approach, is what's needed, so we can highlight the economic advantages and focus on profit maybe versus yield...understand what resiliency and yield stability looks like. So that, I think, is key.

Jay Watson (14:58):

And the last thing I would maybe offer is just the opportunity to study grain quality or different attributes. What happens to protein (and that was part of the focus of the wheat Soil Health Partnership expansion)? What happens to protein for wheat that comes from a plant that was grown in a soil health management system versus one that's not. So, I think that's [an] untapped opportunity in a lot of places: to understand if there are certain parameters or characteristics or attributes in grain or oil or whatever it may be. How might we study those so that we can create even a stronger connection with agriculture and the output to what downstream food companies like us use? So, there's been some work there. I think there's an opportunity to do more.

John Mesko (15:54):

Well, I'm sure, from my days in the seed business, when our main selection was for yield and dry down was the two big concerns that we had, and it's still two of the biggest concerns that the development of new varieties is involved in. But, certainly food companies are looking for that nutritional quality measurement. There's a lot of other aspects that are important to you all, and I think this is a great way to get at that as well, by investing in soil health and flagging some of these gaps that we need. How do these changes impact the nutritional quality of that food coming off the farm?

Jay Watson (16:37):

Yeah, absolutely. Nutrient density is one of those other kind[s] of frontiers that we have an opportunity to explore. That's probably said better than grain quality or other attributes. But, how does the makeup of that commodity change when we're changing how that product is brought to market?

John Mesko (17:00):

Absolutely. And then talk about food that people love and talk about actual sustainability, like global sustainability and raising the quality of the diet of human people...human beings across the world. That's life changing, and that's got to be motivating to be doing that kind of work.

Jay Watson (17:17):

Yeah, absolutely. I think there's a lot of potential there, and I think the tough part is figuring out how to commercialize it because a lot of our products rely on large volumes and commodity infrastructure So, how do we support the overall effort and industry, raise all boats-- maybe in some cases build our unique or specific supply chains--but balancing some of that uniqueness with flexibility, given there's lots of uncertainty? I mean, I think this year is a great example of that, and then of course, we have weather and climate volatility. So, where can we drive improvements in the overall nutrition of what's being produced and find ways to deliver that to consumers who are looking for it, while at the same time not creating unneeded complexity and costs in the supply chain and commodity infrastructure? That's a challenge for all of us.

John Mesko (18:18):

Absolutely. Well, a great example of the kinds of work that General Mills does is taking a commodity and adding value and making it something that is in demand by consumers; and when you think about your work and engaging with farmers, the farmers are looking to add value to their commodities at the farm gate as well. So, do you have any advice for farmers who might be looking to add value to their commodities?

Jay Watson (18:45):

Yeah, one thing I appreciate about farmers and ranchers is: marketing is just one of the many hats that they wear. So, absolutely press into that and take advantage of marketing opportunities that you believe exist or that you believe could exist if you were to approach your operation differently or to bring different practices on the farm. I might suggest taking a little bit [of a] different approach and thinking about not only the commodities, but how would you add value to your overall operation. Like I mentioned, adding value to commodities is challenging because they're just that--a commodity So unless you can break out of that to a specialty market [for value]....and there might not be as great a return there for you at the end of the day. But, how can you embrace a learning mindset or picking small parcels of land for experimentation, finding ways to drive the overall operation forward with soil health to maintain or increase production, potentially reduce costs, restoring that ecosystem function and resilience, and building up the potential of those resources, soil being a key one? Doing that, I think, drives a lot of value that's maybe not easy to see initially or maybe not even easy to paint in the P&L over time because it's things like resiliency and yield stability with a better functioning ecosystem--that absolutely we've heard are valuable to farmers--that have gone down this path.

Jay Watson (20:22):

So if you're thinking about adding value, How can you look at the holistic farm system and value that you would feel very confident and comfortable passing along to a future generation? Some of that might be dollars and cents with some of the reduced costs that could come from improving soil health and nutrient cycling, but some of that's the longer term value proposition with a higher functioning ecosystem--a more resilient system. So, that's where I think we've seen this movement take off. It's farmers identifying that opportunity without necessarily the market demand coming yet because there's work that we have to do with consumers to help them understand agriculture as a whole but also what some of the potential is with a different approach to agriculture, with soil health being the cornerstone or foundation. So, focusing on something that the producer can control, and then some of those unique marketing opportunities, I think, become an add-on and advantage on top of some of the work that they're doing to drive greater value into their operation.

John Mesko (21:35):

Well, you're spot on with this last comment about farmers, and earlier, you were talking about the farmers as entrepreneurs and resilient business people that are looking for opportunities to meet the demand that people have. I know that you and your colleagues are out on farms. I've been with you on those farms at different times, talking with farmers and engaging with them around crops and soil health, and I'm just curious because I learned something from a farmer every time I go. My own experience growing up on a farm and being a farmer has taught me that I need to listen as much as or more than I need to be talking with farmers. So I'm curious, in your experience, what's the most interesting thing you've learned from a farmer in this work?

Jay Watson (22:27):

And you're right, John. I have the privilege of getting out to farm, and I have some close relationships with producers that I've known for several years as part of our work in sustainability and probably more so than most people at General Mills. And I, too, have learned quite a bit over three, four years now( if not longer). One thing that sticks out to me though-- that I think focuses in on this whole mindset and approach that some of these leading producers are taking--rather than thinking about what things they can do differently, they're going to soil health trainings, or they're learning from other producers to see their operation differently. So, looking at their operation as an ecosystem and thinking about how one decision can have cascading and compounding effects as part of the whole system. That's kind of the systems thinking mindset and a holistic approach that I've tried to take and apply to my life and how I see the world--how I see challenges and opportunities.

Jay Watson (23:38):

So maybe not [a] specific translation to an agriculture context because I don't farm, but just this idea of, if you have a different lens to look through, you see different opportunities, and you probably make different decisions. So some of the leading farmers that are further down this path, I think they're embracing that learning mindset. They're taking that ingenuity that's always been there on [the] farm and they're looking at their operation with a different mindset, and it's unlocking all this new potential and enjoyment. I think that's what I feel most encouraged by is seeing farmers who are seeing the fruits of their labor, not with just the production from their system, but from seeing their soil health improving, seeing how much fun they're having. Because we certainly hear the challenges with the mental health crisis, and if we had producers that were producing food the world loves but also really enjoy what they're doing and were happy and were content with their life and their financial situation and their balance...that's what I'm really encouraged by. So, I think the key learning of...just, if you can change the way that you see things, there's going to be opportunity to unlock new potential.

John Mesko (25:01):

Oh, that's great advice, and I see that as well, and I think that's something that we can apply in our community and in our work. And as you think about looking through that lens, you talked about seeing things differently and looking through a different lens; I like to think about the future and where could my efforts today lead things in the future. How can I contribute to things being different in the future? So when you think about that lens of regenerative ag and sustainability and the things that you personally are working on and things General Mills is investing in, where do you see this thing going? And when I say this thing, I mean, this focus on soil health and the opportunity to mitigate climate change and these sorts of things. Where do you see this thing going, and what kind of surprises might be in store for us as we think about business as usual, maybe not being business as usual?

Jay Watson (26:04):

I don't know. I mean, that's what's fun about it is that there's a lot of white space and unknown, and it requires a lot of innovation, not just on farm[s] but within the whole industry. I certainly feel the shift that soil health is not a niche term anymore. I mean, you hear about it in all the ag press; you hear about it in all the sustainability meetings focused on agriculture sourcing. Even regenerative agriculture, I think that's part of the intention and goal of General Mills. With our public commitment was that we wanted to come out and get it out there to say, "Hey, General Mills, a major food company, is committed to this." And we've certainly seen some ripple effects from that. So, I think the opportunity exists to drive more of that through our brands, try and have consumers be more aware of what soil health, and regenerative ag means and what it can do.

Jay Watson (27:04):

I wouldn't be surprised if three to five years down the road, we had more companies investing in Soil Health Partnership and other programs to advance the movement. More companies advance investing in specific farmers or specific supply sheds to build the capability and capacity to support farmers in their journey. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw specific brands coming out and saying we've decided that this is important to us, and for that reason, we want to support farmers, or we want to support farmers and educate consumers. I think it's not out of the question to think about these hubs that are developing organically across the country because producers are just going down this path on their own, working with other producers, where you would have these hubs expand, built out, so we'd have a lot more mentoring. Producers that are down the path, taking others under their wings...where you have that kind of good nature that's always been on the farmer to give back and be able to give back and take those learnings and invest in another producer where there's not maybe that competitive dynamic in place.

Jay Watson (28:25):

Yeah, I don't know. I would hope that it becomes more of the norm, like you mentioned, where it's not how can we do this, but how will we do this? Because this is where we really all need to go. I hope part of it is an understanding that there's lots of benefits that deliver off farm. If we think about communities, farming communities, and we think about community resources like water, like air quality, think about infrastructure, and if we don't have well-functioning ecosystems that infiltrate water, what kind of damage that can do in an extreme water events to bridges and roads. So, I think there's an opportunity, again, to think really holistically about the positive outcomes that can come from more soil health and regenerative ag practices on the landscape. It's maybe not all that surprising to think about how cities or stakeholders that aren't connected to agriculture come into the fold and decide that that's really an important investment for them to make: investing in producers or investing in programs that help producers to really get after the root cause of some of the challenges and opportunities that we have ahead of us, rather than addressing them after the fact.

John Mesko (29:46):

Absolutely. Well, that sounds great. That's a future that I certainly want to work in and like to see our organization be a part of, and I'd like to keep working with you and work on this together. It's something that I feel we have in common and shared interest, and I appreciate the work that you do at General Mills. But, I also appreciate your personal commitment to soil health, and the benefits that are available to us through improving the practices that farmers are using out there.

Jay Watson (30:18):

Yeah, absolutely. I thank Soil Health Partnership for their commitment investment and all the producers out there because that's the opportunity, and that's really part of the future that I'd love to see, is that producer innovation ingenuity, that producers commitment, sacrifice being lifted up and really the producers carrying that flag as being the real champions of the work. So, I see the industry really working to align on messaging and investment so that we can give back because we've been given so much from the farming community. I'm hopeful that others see that opportunity and that's a future that I think we should all feel really compelled to play a role in and feel really proud about sharing that story.

John Mesko (31:15):

That's great. And I really appreciate that perspective, and thank you, Jay, for joining us on the People of Soil Health today. And thank you for working, and we'll keep moving forward together.

Jay Watson (31:26):

Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

Speaker 1 (31:36):

Thank you for listening to the People of Soil Health. If you're looking for more soil health resources, visit our website, soilhealthpartnership.org.

Podcast: Mike Jordan - Growing Cover Crops In Difficult Places

By SHP Staff on  June 2, 2020 06:00
Podcast: Mike Jordan - Growing Cover Crops In Difficult Places

Mike Jordan, a wheat farmer in Kansas, joined the Soil Health Partnership to gain access to expertise and see if he could make cover crops work on his farm after a few years of trying it on his own with only minimal success.

Jordan has long been interested in conservation. During his interview with John Mesko in this podcast, he explains his dad’s interest in conservation that began when he gave up the plow in the early 1960s.  In later years, Jordan says that he was building terraces and waterways long before farm programs required him to. 

It stands to reason that he’d also be interested in increasing his soil health.

“I’d like to think that there’s more to improving yields than just waiting on a new variety or using more fertilizer and more inputs.  I’d like to find additional ways to improve things without just doing more and more of the same thing,” Jordan said.

On Jordan’s SHP wheat trial and all over his farm, moisture is the limiting factor.  He’s interested in planting cover crops to understand how they can impact moisture availability for his cash crops by shading the soil during the harsher parts of his growing year. 

Mesko is enthusiastic about the project. The two discuss that much of the published cover crop information for farmers to learn from are results from Ohio or Iowa where cover crops are working very well to capture nitrogen and reduce erosion.  Jordan’s looking to cover crops to solve different problems in different areas of the country and hopes to prove success over time.

Mesko shows his excitement when he says, “You definitely have some challenges and that’s what’s exciting about having a research site on your location. We have a lot of examples where farmers are saying, ‘Well it won’t work for me because of this or that,’ but if we can figure out how to make it work at your place, we will have a pretty compelling story to tell.”

Listen in to hear more from Mike Jordan and John Mesko below.

Episode Transcription:

Host: Senior director of the Soil Health Partnership, John Mesko

Guest: Mike Jordan

John: Welcome to the People of Soil Health podcast. I’m your host, John Mesko.  Today's guest manages one of the new wheat sites in the Soil Health Partnership network through a partnership with the National Wheat Foundation, made possible by the support of General Mills. These sites will evaluate the impact of diversified crop rotation and how wheat, specifically, can benefit the soil and other environmental indicators. Mike Jordan joins us today to talk about his soil health journey and the wheat trials he's participating in.

John: Mike, welcome to the podcast.

Mike: Glad to be here. 

John: Tell us a little bit about your farming operation, where you're located, your crops and how family members are involved. 

Mike: We farm near Beloit, Kansas, about 50 miles from Nebraska, roughly 200 miles from the Missouri border and 200 miles from the Colorado border. I farm with my son, Gregory, and my wife, Joyce. We grow wheat, milo, soybeans and a little bit of corn. It's all no till.  It's also dry land--no irrigation at all. We have no livestock. 

John: Well, with that farming setup, that’s pretty unique compared to a lot of the bulk of the growers that we work with at the Soil Health Partnership.  This is an interesting setup that you have there, and I’m curious with that kind of condition and those enterprises, how you got interested in building soil on your farm and how you got started down the road of soil health building and promotion.

Mike: I'd say this goes back to my dad. He was an early adopter of conservation practices. He gave up on plowing in the early 60s. I built waterways and terraces long before the farm program required me to, so I had a big background in looking at the soil and preserving the soil. I got my degree in agronomy, and a large part of the agronomy degree and studies was in the area of soil sciences, too. I've been interested in no-till since I first heard about it, and we are in an area with little or no rainfall for long periods of time--so rain (moisture) is typically the limiting factor in our yields. No-till shades the soil, keeps it cooler, and prevents evaporation and that's very important.There was a clear bump in my yield, in my crops, in the 90s when I switched to no-till, and I was able to abandon the practice of summer fallow at that time and grow more intensive crop rotations. In that period of time, I saw my soil organic matters increase from about 1.4% organic matter into the mid 2% range--a full percentage point and more like 70% increase in organic matter--but there's still some problems persist. When we do get rain, it's often in thunderstorms. They can wash away the residue; they can cause ditches. The cover rots away or blows away, and that's an issue too because we need the mulch and the improvements have plateaued. I'd like to get even more organic matter in my soil. I’d like to see more life in it. 

I know it was a very gratifying moment to me the first time I went out to dig up Trialin corn seeds to see if they were sprouting, and before I found my first corn seed, I found three earthworms. That was a very heartwarming event. That had to do with being in no-till, but I haven't seen improvements since then. And again, if it's a real hot summer and we're going 4 or 6 weeks without a rain, the covers on the ground tend to just blow away, disintegrate, and the soil still can bake down hard. I’d like to think there's more to improving yields than waiting for a new variety or using more fertilizer... more inputs. I’d like to find additional ways to improve things without just doing more and more of the same thing. 

John: Like I said, in such a unique situation you know you've really tested the bounds of what can be done to improve your soil and that kind of organic matter increases substantially, given what you had to start with. So, I’m curious what motivated you to get involved with the Soil Health Partnership.  I mean, I understand that we approached you, along with the National Wheat Foundation, to locate a plot there, but what was it about being involved with the Soil Health Partnership that interested you? 

Mike: I’ve done some research on my own, sporadically, with cover crops. I've grown some even back in the late 1990s. I can remember I grew a field in which I planted hairy vetch in hopes I'd have cover over the winter. This was to give me some fall and winter cover. We harvest our wheat in July and June, and there's a long period where nothing grows and where we're trying to fight weeds the whole time. Well, I thought, I'll try to get something that covers the ground and produces some kind of cover which produces some nitrogen, but what happened was, I planted in September, and we didn't get rain, and we didn't get rain and maybe 1 plant in 50 came up that fall, and it was still there in the spring. Well, I killed it, and I think each of the next 5 years only about 10 percent of what I planted came up and, what I’m saying is, it didn’t work very well.

Now, I've done cover crops on my own 5 times, counting that. Three of the times I either didn't get rain or other problems came along, like excessive heat or an early freeze, and there was little or no response and even the crops used moisture, and I didn't get a good effect from the crop because perhaps the cover crop only had 3 leaves on it or grew a foot tall, and the other two times that I did it, I had adequate rainfall and had excellent results. 

So what I want to do with the Soil Health Partnership is to enter into a long-term program and see if sliding in cover crops every chance I can will produce a long-term benefit--not just sporadically trying it on one field here or one field there. Will I get an improvement in the soil?  Will I get an improvement in the microbial activity? Will I get an improvement in the moisture retention, the animal life out there? Will that help improve my yields?  Will that make up for the cost of the crops that I've been planting for covers? Can I come out ahead even though once in a while the cover crop may be a dud?

I appreciate the expertise I've been receiving so far and hope to get a lot more of it because I'm only one full year into the program so far, and I can carry this a lot further than I might have done on my own. That’s why I appreciate the help.

John: That's good to hear, and I can certainly commend you for sticking with it, in the face of  many, many obstacles with your weather over the years.

Mike: Now, that’s something that is different from many of the examples we read in the farm publications and on the internet. It always seems like it's somebody in Ohio or Iowa that is growing these crops. I never hear them talking about losing a foot of soil moisture because they grew a cover crop. Now, I hope if I grow a cover crop, it will shade the soil and maybe save me a foot of moisture or add to it; but, I know from experience that doesn't always happen, and definitely, you have to pay for the cost of these crops which can be $20, $30 an acre plus the expense of planting them. And I'm in an area where the annual average moisture is 25 inches; but, I personally have experienced a 365-day period with 7 inches of rain, and I've seen 35 inches of rain and so if you have one of those dry years, you’re probably better off not even bothering because even the weeds won’t do too well in those years. But when you're on again and off again like that, it's hard to observe whether there's a long-term difference, or if I try it on one field this year and another field the next year, that's not the same thing as a concentrated effort to really pour time and money into one result. 

John: Yeah, I think it's great that we have some of these extreme examples out there. I agree with you there that there are a lot of examples of where everything works wonderfully, but we need more examples where it's not working so well so that we can learn how to apply changes and fixes along the way. With that in mind... I mean I'm curious... what your SHP wheat trial consists of. Tell us what you’re doing on your farm trial.

Mike: Okay, to make it clear, we grow winter wheat. We plant it in October, about a month usually before we have a hard freeze, and harvest in late June, possibly as late as the Fourth of July. Wheat is a great crop for us because the growing season is mostly in April, May, or early June and that coincides with our period of heaviest rainfall and usually somewhat milder temperatures. Also, the wheat provides a very good mulch on the soil over the summer, presuming that the wheat was good enough to produce a lot of straw which usually happens but not always. And also, because we harvest toward the end of June and don't plant the subsequent crops, which in my case, are usually the milo or corn, there is a 9 month period in there when there is nothing growing and that appears to me to be a prime period for growing cover crop... something to help smother out weeds, save chemicals and the like. So that's the easy spot to slide something like that in. Again, I just want to figure a better way of doing things than the way I am. 

So with the wheat harvest, there's typically an 8-9 month period before I would grow corn or the milo, which may even be planted as late as June... and so it's really important to get something in there if I can. The milo is harvested in November, and I follow it with soybeans and the soybeans are followed as soon as possible after harvest with wheat again. The soybean harvest is usually the last week of September or the first 2 or 3 weeks of October... and that's the basic rotation. I'm hoping to find a slot or time somewhere in there to grow something between the corn and soybeans. I'm not sure if I can slide something in after the milo in terms of cover crops because, for instance, this year we had single digit temperatures before we even harvested the milo crop and that's not conducive to getting much of a winter cover crop established. 

John: You definitely have some challenges and so that’s what is exciting about having a research site on your location there, and it's going to be really helpful as we get the results and share that with folks who are challenged by those kinds of issues... or other issues. We have a lot of things where... a lot of examples... where farmers are saying it won't work for me because of this or that. Well, if we can figure out a way to make it work at your place, I think we'll have a pretty compelling story to tell.

Mike: Well, I'm one of those farmers... I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, so I’m going to give it my best shot and see if I can make it work. 

John: I think that's a great attitude. I'm so glad to be working with you on this. I know that you have spent some time with Keith Bierley, who is the SHP field manager, there in Kansas. Tell me how Keith is assisting you with this trial. What’s the interaction been like with him?

Mike: It's been a little strange lately with this social distancing thing. Most of our association has been over the telephone, and in one case, he phoned me to tell me he was out looking at my field, and I could look down the road and see him out there but didn't get out there fast enough to actually visit him in person. So, it's been a little awkward lately; but, he’s coordinated a field day already, and he’s assisting me in getting some flags out for planting my next crop following the current cover crop which has been terminated. And he’s coordinating efforts with university personnel who are trying to provide me with some information too, and again, I’ve been a little short changed on them because they’ve been forbidden from having face-to-face meetings with people out here in the field like me. 

He’s been helpful; but, it would be even better if we could meet a little bit more often in person, and I'm sure that will happen more in the future. I know he’s going to be here to coordinate doing test strips in terms of checking yields... things like that...and he’s been working to help coordinate the soil testing work, which has already been done. It’s quite a show to see five graduate students out spending a whole day pulling soil samples, but when they come back again, I'm hoping to get some actual information from them that shows there are some changes in the soil. 

John: I know that we're all going through some changes with the restrictions from the pandemic that we're under right now, but I agree with you... once this is wrapped up and we’re able to start meeting face-to-face, I'm sure Keith is just as excited as you are to begin working more closely together and, likewise myself, hearing your story, I'd much prefer to be having this conversation face-to-face, and hopefully, we will be able to do that sometime soon. 

Mike: That would be nice.

John: One more question… about what you’re doing there on your farm. When you think about the objectives that you have, when you say I want to give it my best shot to see if I can make it work, what does that look like to you in terms of success. What, to you, would feel like a successful establishment of a cover crop or soil health management system? 

Mike: I would like to see an end to some of the erosion where the water runs down the field corners on the hillsides, in those areas that the current cover on the ground has not been adequate to control. I would like to see an improvement in the soil organic matter and enough of an improvement in yield or a decrease in cost of fertilizer or chemicals to show a net benefit. If that happens, that's very successful.  And in a perverse sort of way, if it doesn’t turn out that way, well, I’ve learned something, too.

John:  I would agree with you, and it does seem a little bit odd but sometimes a negative outcome actually teaches us some things as well...  I know I can speak for Keith as well as the rest of the SHP team that we’re grateful for having you on board, Mike, and really looking forward to continuing this work. Thank you so much, not only for joining me on the podcast today, but for the work that you're doing there in Kansas in a very, very difficult environment to help explore ways that you can improve the soil health there.

Mike:  You're very welcome, and thank you a lot for the assistance from your organization. 

New Faces, New Experiences, SHP welcomes new intern

By SHP Staff on  May 21, 2020 06:00
New Faces, New Experiences, SHP welcomes new intern

This summer, the Soil Health Partnership welcomes Krystin Oborny to the staff as an intern. Throughout the summer, Krystin will be assisting with various SHP projects. 

Krystin will be a senior this fall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she is studying Agriculture Education with a minor in Agricultural Economics. Next spring, Krystin will be a student teaching in Humphrey, Nebraska to pursue her end goal of becoming an FFA advisor. Originally from Garland, Nebraska, she grew up raising registered black angus cattle, corn and soybeans. 

Over the course of her internship, Krystin will be working on a variety of projects, including helping out in the Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota territories alongside Keith Byerly, Field Manager for Kansas and Nebraska. Additionally, she will be connecting with other National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) teams to learn about the many ways NCGA is helping and promoting the work that farmers are doing. 

“We are excited to be able to partner with Nebraska Corn to provide Krystin with a broad spectrum of experiences while she’s working with the SHP program that will hopefully benefit her for years to come,” said Anne Dietz, SHP Director of Operations.  

Over the past three summers, Krystin has worked with Pioneer managing a detasseling team as a field assistant. She is excited to join the SHP team in the St. Louis office to gain more experience with marketing and business. She is working this summer to develop her skills in communicating the right messages and help others to perceive agriculture in a positive light. 

“I am excited to learn more about soil health,” Krystin said. “I took a soils class in college and found it interesting, so I’m excited to learn more about how important soil is.”

The SHP team is excited to welcome Krystin to the staff for the summer!

Podcast: Kristin Poley - Translating data to real world answers

By SHP Staff on  May 19, 2020 06:30
Podcast: Kristin Poley - Translating data to real world answers

Kristin Poley, SHP Michigan Research Manager, visited with The People of Soil Health podcast host, John Mesko, on how she builds research partnerships that help answer key soil health and water quality questions.

Poley, who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Southwest Michigan, attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. While finishing her master’s degree there, a new program in Nematology and Soil Health began. She took a job as a research technician where she investigated the use of various cover crop species as a method of nematode pest control. She then went on to serve as a teaching assistant before joining SHP.

Poley shares how her current position is made possible through joint support of SHP, the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan and Michigan Nature Conservancy. Her responsibilities in each of the roles differ slightly, but also intersect. 

“Our network is so diverse. The agronomic systems themselves might be similar, but the challenges that are faced, and the motivations for change, can be so different from region to region.” Poley said. “The opportunity to study those differences is very exciting to me.”

She hears from farmers that they want local data and told Mesko that most of the trials she conducts with farmers are side-by-side trials, which offer flexibility. Currently, the Michigan sites are looking at two different cover crop mixes as a tool for building soil health, and also, as an additional source of forage for the dairy herds. 

Poley and Mesko spoke on the value of having multiple years worth of data to help to detect and explain patterns in the data that can be translated to real world answers that are ultimately better for the farm’s bottom line.

You can learn more Poley’s work at soilhealthpartnership.com.

The Dos and Don’ts of Soil Sampling

By SHP Staff on  May 14, 2020 10:37
The Dos and Don’ts of Soil Sampling

Soil sampling can be a great step in the pursuit of healthier soils, but it is not always easy to get soil sampling right. The correct procedures yield the best data, and the best data helps farmers achieve the healthiest soil.

But how do you get the best data?

Dr. Nick Ward of Ward Laboratories, Inc. helped farmers understand how to best sample soils on their farm in an April 28 Soil Health Partnership (SHP) Soil Sessions webinar, “Quality in, quality out: the Dos and Don’ts of Soil Sampling.”

Most importantly, Dr. Ward reminds farmers that data is knowledge. The data available from proper soil sampling can impact future fertilizer applications, environmental compliance, diagnosis of problems, and overall sustainability. The question is not should I sample my soils, but how can I best sample my soils.

“You can’t make good decisions without data,” he said.

Farmers have numerous opportunities to make specific choices about how they will collect the soil data from their farms. Soil sample depths vary. Some farmers work from a 0-6” depth and some from a 0-8” depth. Dr. Ward teaches that “constant depth is the most critical thing when we’re out soil sampling.” 

Whatever depth you choose, just be sure to be consistent throughout the field and year over year to provide the best data. And when you are thinking about testing before or after tillage, just remember that consistent depth is paramount, so sample the same every year in a way that you feel most confident you are achieving a consistent depth.

Soil sample locations can vary. Many farmers chose to sample in a grid pattern, taking the samples where the lines of the grid overlap. This allows for the sampling of the same exact location over time in order to pinpoint changes in the soil, but some farmers choose to sample more heavily in certain zones or problem areas. Still, other farmers composite sample their fields, meaning they select the areas of the field to sample at random.

“Composite sampling should be doable for just about everybody,” Ward said. “Grid sampling is the most intensive practice, but it's going to give us our most robust data set to make decisions from.”

Your soil health strategy should inform the decisions you make for how and where to sample. The most important reminder is to always be consistent. 

How often should you sample? It will depend on your sampling strategy, says Ward.

“If you do something more intense like multiple zones or a grid sample, maybe doing that every 3-4 years would be a good practice.  But if you are not going to build a dense data set spatially across your field, maybe it is more important to take a dense data set in time.  So, that’s sampling a composite every year in different spots.”

This one-hour webinar will answer many questions and help farmers really nail down the sampling strategies that could work for their farms and soil health goals, as well as guide them with the return on investment for the effort. 

Check out other SHP Soil Sessions here

Podcast: Taking a comprehensive approach to soil health

By SHP Staff on  May 5, 2020 09:25
Podcast: Taking a comprehensive approach to soil health

John Mesko, host of The People of Soil Health Podcast and Senior Director of SHP, spoke with Dr. LaKisha Odom who is the Scientific Program Director for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, known as FFAR, in this week's podcast.

Odom worked at the USDA and Tuskegee University before she found what she describes as the perfect job for her at FFAR: to chase complex problems but do it in an innovative way that involves partnerships. 

“It’s finding like-minded folks that want to run with you. A huge part of what I do as the scientific program director at FFAR is to identify research gaps and white spaces and identify areas of alignment,” Odom said. “For me, part of that chasing is thinking about those areas that are complementary to the work that our federal partners, such as USDA are doing, but also those spaces where no one is really funding a lot in that area. Or, what are those research needs from our industry partners and other stakeholders, like farmers and ranchers, that say they need this research, and no one is really funding it? Then, the chase begins.”

FFAR was created in 2014 through the Farm Bill to be complementary to USDA. For every dollar FFAR spends, they have to find a non-federal matching partner. They operate in six strategic research spaces: soil health, sustainable water management, next-generation crops, advanced animal systems, urban food systems and health ag nexus.

With partnerships at the core of her work, Dr. Odom shared the Soil Health Initiatives as an example of how the organizations she works with leverage their expertise and learning to accelerate the adoption of soil health practices.  

The Soil Health Initiative is a partnership between the Soil Health Institute (SHP) and The Nature Conservancy. She shared that the Soil Health Institute develops and tests soil health measurements; Soil Health Partnerships comes in to implement and evaluate those soil health practices on working farms. Then, the Nature Conservancy works with the non-operator landowners to try to encourage the use of science-based soil health practices. 

Dr. Odom told Mesko about a couple of her current projects. Open Team looks at decision support tools to improve soil health. A new project that is getting underway involves thinking about ways in which  we can impact the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. 

FARR is online at https://foundationfar.org/. You can follow them on Twitter at @FoundationFAR and Facebook at @FoundationFAR.


The Importance of Cover Crop Planting

By SHP Staff on  April 23, 2020 16:59
The Importance of Cover Crop Planting

Cover crops have  proven to show many benefits, but as farmers begin to implement them into their operations, it can be a big shift in methodology. When moving forward with this new experience, it’s becoming increasingly critical for farmers to give their cover crops as much attention as they would a cash crop. 

“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.