If you could choose only three words to describe Trinity Creek Ranch in Red Lake Falls, Minn., you would probably land somewhere in the realm of diversification, innovation and family.
That combination of values is why we’re so glad to have Mikayla Tabert from Trinity Creek join us on The People of Soil Health Podcast. The farm – which was started by Mikayla’s grandfather in the 1950s and now includes her husband and parents – raises everything from 150 cow-calf pairs to a diverse crop rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, peaola, alfalfa, cereal rye and sunflowers.
“We’ve got a lot going on but, with the four of us working, it does help to manage that,” Mikayla says. “[Diversification] helps us be a lot more resilient. You know what crop commodity prices can be like, or you get a wet year, dry year, certain crops do better than others. We like having that diverse mix so that we can have a fail-safe. And if all else fails, we always have the cattle.”
Trinity Creek Ranch enrolled in their SHP trial in 2019 with goals to build soil organic matter and decrease the amount of synthetic inputs applied. In their first two seasons, Mikayla says, they’ve already started learning a lot, including the impact of cover crops on weed control and how a wider variety of soil tests can be used to measure success and change over time.
“Our goal is to have that healthy functioning soil that doesn’t need a bunch of inputs to have a productive crop.”
Learn more about Trinity Creek Ranch’s approach to soil health by clicking the player above or listening to this episode in your favorite podcast player.
Iowa Corn has several major goals that drive programs and projects for their sustainability platform:
Protect and improve the land, water, and natural resources
Minimize regulations on farmers that could potentially reduce profitability
Maintain farmers’ social license to operate
Be a leader in sustainability, making sure that sustainability is a part of all programming
Ben Gleason, Sustainable Program Manager for Iowa Corn, gets the opportunity to work for Iowa farmers on all of these goals, leveraging partnerships with different stakeholders to move the needle on sustainability in the agriculture industry.
One area he is focusing on is reduced tillage. Tillage changes are one opportunity for farmers to impact on-farm sustainability and have become more prominent as awareness increases. Gleason says the state isn’t all no-till by any means, but is seeing strip-till gain in popularity as it is often “the best of both worlds” – tillage where you need it and residue everywhere you don’t.
Regarding cover crops, Gleason said, “We have seen a big, big jump in cover crops, which is fantastic. We went from virtually zero acres to about two million acres. I think we’ll be well over that this year with an early harvest that will allow more cover crop acres to get seeded.”
Iowa farmers are also experimenting with other practices, like nutrient reduction wetlands, which Gleason says are effective to manage nitrogen loss.
“We’re making progress. We have got a long way to go. Obviously, our water quality issues didn’t pop up overnight, so we’re not planning to solve them overnight either. But we have got a lot of momentum going, and we would like to keep it that way,” he said.
Iowa Corn also has a history of connecting Iowa farmers with the Soil Health Partnership, with both organizations really stressing farmer-to-farmer, peer-to-peer learning. They believe that works best.
“Soil health awareness is huge now. I think that mission is accomplished. [Soil health is] part of the decision-making process now, I believe,” he said.
Learn more about Iowa Corn’s specific water quality and sustainability programming, as well as how they are facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning during a global pandemic, by clicking on the player above or listening to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.
For Lisa Kubik, SHP Field Manager in eastern Iowa, learning about soil health is a two-way street.
“Honestly,” she says, “Working with SHP, I learn as much from my farmers…as they probably learn from me, which is really unique and really neat.”
One of those farmers is Roger Zylstra from central Iowa, who has been conducting an on-farm research trial for the past five years, and is featured in a new SHP business case. In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, Lisa sits down with Senior Director John Mesko to talk about what the Zylstras have been learning and how that information can be used by other farmers.
“There are so many ways to do soil health and improve your conservation on your farm. And there’s really no [one] right way to do it,” Lisa says. “It all depends on your current…operations, how you manage your system. Being open-minded and being flexible is really part of the most important thing when increasing conservation and increasing the soil health on your farm.”
In their discussion, John and Lisa also dive into how her family is implementing soil health practices on their own farm, including reduced tillage, cover crops, and rotational cattle grazing.
Listen to the entire conversation at the link above or subscribe to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.
The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) recently released a business case featuring SHP farmers Roger and Wesley Zylstra, whose on-farm research is evaluating incorporation of cover crops into their nutrient management strategy. The business case details how they adapted their management system to meet soil health, yield and economic goals.
“We are working to continue to be competitive with our yields, while striving to improve the health of our soil,” Roger Zylstra said.
The Zylstras, who raise row crops and hogs in central Iowa, joined SHP in 2015. With the help of their SHP field manager, they began an SHP research project with a strip trial evaluating the impact of cover crops in a system that relies on manure as a main nutrient source. They have been collecting data from the field the past 5 years.
“Because we have swine and fall-apply the manure, we think cover crops really help sequester the nitrogen to the soil,” Zylstra said.
By adjusting nitrogen sources and timing, the farm is now using the same amount of nitrogen per acre, but their average corn yields grew from 140-170 bu/acre to 170-200 bu/acre on average.
Additionally, results from soil health testing on the Zylstra’s SHP field trial show that respiration – which is an indicator of microbial activity – has increased significantly on the cover cropped portion of the field. One benefit of that microbial activity has been an increased rate of residue turnover on those acres.
In recent wet years, Roger credits the cover crops with improving soil structure and reducing soil surface compaction. Although difficult to quantify the value of changes in soil structure, it allows them to get into the field sooner, making a difference in getting the crop planted, sprayed and harvested in a timely manner.
The Zylstras have made incremental changes and experimented in order to dial in a system that works for them. To read the entire business case visit www.soilhealthpartnership.org/zylstra.
About the Soil Health Partnership The Soil Health Partnership 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 (NCGA), the partnership 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. For more information, visit https://soilhealthpartnership.org.
Media Contact: Stacie McCracken, SHP Communications Lead,
Ken, Sue and Mike Rosenow are the sixth generation in their family to farm in Oconomowoc, WI on land settled before the Civil War. They grow corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and hay as their cash crops, but have tested a variety of cover crops on the farm as well.
Peas, radish, berseem clover, sunflower, and cereal rye have all been assessed for their viability as a cover crop on the Rosenow’s Wisconsin farm. Ken Rosenow also favors a mostly no-till management approach on their acres, which he says saves on machinery investment, fuel, and labor.
“I hope that, by planting cover crops, it helps to protect the soil from erosion and to hold the nutrients for the next crop,” Ken said.
The family also believes in science-based nutrient management on their farm. Soil testing and estimating fertility needs of the crops they grow is a key component of their farm management.
Ken joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to learn more about improving water infiltration and cost savings through better soil health.
“We have learned how others are using cover crops and the benefits that can be achieved,” said Ken. “Plus, the opportunities to meet with other participants is very valuable.”
Join us virtually for SHP’s Wheat Week, September 8th-10th, 2020. On day one, we’ll get perspectives on soil health from our wheat industry partners. Then, on days two and three, hear from SHP farmer partners to see the wheat trials they are implementing. They will share their challenges and goals for soil health on their operation.
Attend one or all days to gain insights on:
The unique benefits of wheat. Why and how wheat industry groups are investing in soil health and striving for sustainability.
Why diversifying crop rotations with a small grain like wheat can provide opportunities to expand conservation practices.
Discover how to assess where your operation’s soil health is with tests you can do yourself.
Hear from growers who have experienced challenges in their operations and are incorporating effective soil health practices to mitigate them.
How growers persevere with conservation practices in diverse growing conditions.
Tuesday, September 8th | 9:00 am CST The Wheat Industry’s Perspective on Soil Health
Jay Watson, General Mills
Representative from National Wheat Foundation
Justin Gilpin, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers
Charlie Vogel, Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers
Panel Discussion moderated by SHP Senior Director, John Mesko
Wednesday, September 9th | 9:00 am CST Featuring the farms of SHP partner farmers Justin Knopf and Mike Jordan
Overview of Knopf Farms Justin’s SHP field is a piece of ground that they haven’t had very long, and it is not as productive as other areas of the farm. Justin’s research with SHP will focus on how to build the soil health qualities like biological activity and nutrient cycling to “jump start” the ground and change its productivity and sustainability.
Overview of Mike Jordan’s farm Michael has been interested in and tried cover crops on his farm in North Central Kansas a handful of times in the past 20 years with limited success. Mike’s research question was simply how will cover crops work over a 5 year period in semi-arid conditions?
How to assess soil health in your own field SHP Field Manager Keith Byerly will compare two soils to see how soil holds up to weathering factors.
Challenges of the 2020 wheat growing season and 2021 considerations Jay Wisbey, Central Kansas District Crop Production Agent.
Mike Jordan on the challenges he has had in the past with cover crops
Establishing a baseline for where your soil biological activity is at and how do it yourself Find out if we see differences in the trials being done between the application of cover crops and control in just a few months.
Knopf Cover Crop Field Justin planted a field to a multi species cover crop mix this year to use for grazing. He will talk about the thought process of committing this ground to that, and what will define success for this endeavor.
Wheat Quality Testing Results Does soil quality affect wheat grain quality? What we are testing and why.
Thursday, September 10th | 9:00 am CST Featuring the farm of SHP partner farmers Glenn Hjelle and Trinity Creek Ranch
Glenn Hjelle’s Farm A look at Glenn’s typical management practices and how he has had to adapt his practices. Get a look at the SHP trial on his farm and what inspired him to seek out the research. Glenn will show the equipment he utilized to apply cover crops along with cover crop mix.
Trinity Creek Ranch They will share why they are so passionate about sustainability and what it’s done for their farm. See how they have diversified cropping systems, found success with cover crops and the equipment they use to interseed. They will also explain how having cattle has impacted their soil health.
If you cannot attend the live event, still register for access to the recording of the field day.
When it comes to making a management change in the operation, growers can become very hesitant. The way they have been accustomed to farming has become routine and comfortable. It’s also been sustainable, generating income for themselves and their families. Growers fear that sometimes making drastic changes in ways they farm can affect their bottom line and their families’ livelihood.
That’s where the Soil Health Partnership steps in and tries to help. With our boots on the ground approach, we are constantly working with growers throughout the corn belt to help them implement new management changes on their operation. One of our main focuses is cover crops. The push for implementing cover crops has grown substantially over the last five years, and SHP has been there along the way. We have nine field managers currently working with our 200+ farms.
The role of field managers is to help mitigate risk with growers who are implementing cover crops or conservation practices. We work with you individually: sitting down, selecting the field, and the trial type for your operation.
Want to try a strip trial? Want to do a split field application?
We will make it happen, setting your trial up in the best way possible for your operation. Since the field team is working with a group of farmers, they know some of the issues to expect while applying cover crops. We will be there every step of the way, helping you succeed. As a grower within our program, you will not only receive advice but also hard data in return.
This data starts with soil testing. Field managers help SHP farmers pull both soil health tests and nutrient analysis tests of both the cover crop and non cover crop parts of your trial. As the growing season progresses, we do field checks, keeping track of any visual differences for your year-end report.
After harvest, field managers gather, clean, and analyze your yield data. We compare it back to management changes, tying it to the soil health data. This highlights whether the application of cover crops is profitable both by soil health factors and yield. This helps you decide if applying cover crops should be done on more of your acres for the next growing season.
As you can see, learning to apply cover crops on your farm in an SHP trial has its perks. We work with every grower individually, helping create a plan of attack and mitigating risk. We pull samples and highlight the year over year differences between the treatments. We report back to you the changes and what is making the most money for you on your operation.
SHP holds regional meetings with SHP growers in the region annually to discuss discoveries along the growing season, allowing networking opportunities at no cost to the farmer. We try to reduce the risk, the stress, and the pain of choosing to add cover crops to your operation.
SHP has various online resources available including a Resource Library with various management practices, weekly blog, bi-weekly podcast, monthly newsletter and bi-monthly webinars.
Through a collaborative effort to bring the SHP network to Tennessee, 16 farmers will be signed up to participate in one of two trial setups. The Strip Trials use a control and treatment randomized across eight strips. Each strip is designed to be a few combine widths wide so that it will reduce implementation errors and allow farmers to have more flexibility and have the trial design to best fit their equipment. The Side-by-side Trials bring a broader group of farmers into the SHP network. Side-by-side Trials support SHP’s mission by including more cropping systems and geographies, as well as strengthening the breadth and depth of the data.
“We are excited about the interest we have received from Tennessee growers. This expansion would not have been possible without the collaboration across numerous organizations. Our first priority is enrolling growers, and SHP is eager to address soil health concerns specific to Tennessee,” said Jack Cornell, SHP Field Team Director.
“One of our key priorities at TDA is stewardship of natural resources,” Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. said. “The improvement of our soil health is vital to crop and forage productivity. We are pleased to work alongside the Soil Health Partnership to lessen erosion and improve water quality.”
SHP will collect soil health data, yield data, farm management, and economic data for all sites. The data collected from the Tennessee partner and associate sites will be integrated with SHP’s multi-state database to contribute to aggregated data insights. All data collected from Tennessee farmers will be delivered back to participating farmers via soil test reports, yield reports, and other outputs in order to provide actionable information to aid farmers as they make decisions and manage for improving soil health.
“By 2050, we’re on track to increase to a world population of nearly 10 billion. To feed that many people, global food production will have to increase by 60 percent. We will have to rely on our Tennessee farmers as never before and cutting-edge science and conservation will play a key role,” said Alex Wyss, Director of Conservation, The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.
“Tennessee Natural Resources Conservation Services is excited about this opportunity to collaborate with the SHP in this farmer-led initiative to help producers understand the benefits of improving soil health on their farm,” said Sheldon Hightower, Tennessee NRCS State Conservationist. “We currently have three producers in Robertson and Dyer counties enrolled in the SHP and we are looking to expand our participation to increase soil health production and land stewardship across Tennessee.”
If you are a Tennessee farmer interested in learning more about SHP, check out our online resources and sign up for our newsletter. We have on-farm research trial site openings, we will reach out to Tennessee farmers who have signed up for our newsletter if they select that they are interested in having a research site. You can also send an email to Jack Cornell, the SHP Field Team Director at if you are interested in learning more.
About the Soil Health Partnership
The Soil Health Partnership 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 (NCGA), the partnership 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. For more information, visit soilhealthpartnership.org.