13. Darrick Steen – SHP Helps Farmers Dig Into Soil Science

Darrick Steen, Director of Environmental Programs for Missouri Soybean and Missouri Corn, says his pathway to an interest in soil health starts with a turkey farm and a father involved in state politics. He grew up watching heated political and regulatory debates around animal agriculture and the environment. Eventually, he found his way to soil health and, as he describes it, “improving and maintaining our soil resources.”

Steen says that Missouri Corn and Soybean primarily work to make farmers aware of the issues and challenges in front of them. In the environmental area, this means helping farmers understand the threats, but also the opportunities to take advantage of. 

One of those opportunities is the Missouri Strip Trial Program, born in the Missouri nutrient reduction strategy, which focuses on the application of cover crops and how to manage cover crops in corn and soybean rotations.

Another is working with the Soil Health Partnership.

“The Strip Trial Program is looking at the application of cover crops, the impact on yield and how to fine tune the use of cover crops. The Soil Health Partnership is diving into the science of what is going on in the soil. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered about soil,” Steen said.

The important questions include: 

  • What are the things in the soil and in the fields that need to be monitored? 
  • What should farmers be paying attention to? 
  • There are too many variables to be focused on everything, so what recommendations will make the biggest impact?

Steen said there is always a little overlap on the programs, but SHP has a unique perspective on the soil science side that is needed to accomplish farmers’ overall sustainability goals.

Some of the farmers Steen works with get concerned that they cannot make changes quickly enough to meet their soil health goals. But Steen’s advice rings true: sometimes the most important things take time.

“I’m confident that the next generation will make some dramatic improvements on the farm and will ensure that we feed our country and feed the world, as well as make our environment a better place,” he said.

Listen in to the rest of this interview above or in your favorite podcast player.

SHP Explores Wheat’s Role in Soil Health

SHP’s Wheat Week – held September 8-10 – consisted of three consecutive days of virtual events exploring wheat’s role in soil health.

Day 1: The Wheat Industry’s Perspective on Soil Health

 


In this panel discussion, SHP Senior Director John Mesko spoke with representatives from across the wheat industry about why and how their organizations are investing in soil health initiatives.

Jay Watson of General Mills shared the food company’s goals for sustainability and how they are aligning with farmers to improve soil health through education, coaching, creating community and working to determine sustainability measurements. 

Keira Franz of the National Wheat Foundation (NWF) explained how wheat profitability is tied to areas where water is a constrained resource and how this creates a need for growers to utilize natural resources in an efficient manner. The NWF involvement in creating wheat specific trials with SHP stemmed from their National Wheat Action Plan

Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat, discussed wheat’s benefit to soil through wheat straw, yield gains in row crops and weed control. He also touched on their involvement in the Rainfed Agriculture Innovation Network (RAIN).

And Charlie Vogel, Executive Director at the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association, talked about Minnesota’s unique wheat growing environment and how that brings challenges and opportunity for growers. 

Day 2: SHP Kansas Field Day 

Featuring SHP farmers Justin Knopf and Mike Jordan

 

Day two of Wheat Week focused on Kansas growers. Knopf Farms showed how their SHP wheat trial will focus on building soil health qualities, like biological activity and nutrient cycling, to “jump start” the ground (which they just recently began farming) and change its productivity and sustainability. They also took attendees to a field where they incorporated a multi-species cover crop mix this year and are utilizing grazing by partnering with his neighbor’s cattle herd. 

Kansas SHP farmer, Mike Jordan, explained his interest in cover crops and his historically limited success with them. He’s working to figure out if and how cover crops work over a five year period in semi-arid conditions. 

Central Kansas District Crop Production Agent, Jay Wisbey, talked to growers on the challenges of the 2020 wheat growing season along with what they should consider for the 2021 season.

SHP Kansas Field Manager Keith Byerly then demonstrated an aggregate stability test, along with a soil biological test that growers can do on their own farm.

Day 3: SHP Minnesota Field Day

Featuring SHP farmers Glenn Hjelle and Trinity Creek Ranch

 

The last day of Wheat Week focused on Minnesota. SHP farmer Glen Hjelle provided an overview of his wheat trial and took attendees on a tour of the equipment he utilizes and how it has changed to meet his soil health goals.

Missy Geiszler, Vice President of Research at Minnesota Wheat, shared current trends for wheat growing conditions along with challenges growers face in that region.

Trinity Creek Ranch took attendees inside how they partner their soil health goals from their grain operation with their livestock. They gave background on their wheat trial, along with their journey to interseeding. Attendees got to go behind-the-scenes in a sunflower field to get an honest look at the progress they are making in adding diversity and keeping the ground covered with a flowering plant throughout the entire year. And, finally, Trinity Creek took the group on a tour of their  machinery building to see how they custom-built an interseeder to meet their needs. 

SHP Field Manager Anna Teeter compared the aggregate stability between a long term no-till field and Trinity Creek Ranch’s SHP field trial site, which they recently acquired and where they are working to improve its soil health. 

The week finished off with an  SHP growers’ panel, where farmers answered questions from attendees.

12. Kent Solberg – Diversity in Crops, Farm Operations Empowers Soil Health

Kent Solberg is a livestock and grazing specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association, as well as a field consultant for Understanding Ag, and a farmer. He is interested in the ability of well-managed soil to transform farms, families, and even communities. He believes diversity is key.

“We’re focusing on these key principles of soil health: keeping the soil covered, minimizing disturbance, increasing plant diversity, keeping a living root in the soil, and integrating livestock,” said Solberg.

Many farmers interested in building better soil health on their farms are investing in keeping the soil covered and minimizing disturbance, but fewer are thinking critically about plant diversity and integrating livestock.

According to Solberg, including at least one of each of the three plant functional groups – grass, legume, and broadleaf – in a crop rotation can increase the health of the farm’s soil exponentially. In a typical corn/soybean rotation, farmers have a grass present in the corn crop and a legume present in the soybean crop, but adding a broadleaf can make a world of difference.

“Even if it’s not a crop we can harvest, we’re harvesting solar energy, we’re putting carbohydrates through photosynthesis into the ground, we’re freeing that microbial community, we’re keeping the soil covered – all of that building soil biology,” he said. 

Better soil biology builds soil aggregation, which increases the ability of the field to handle and hold water and impacts trafficability. Solberg admits that it is difficult to put a value on trafficability and being able to get into the field at the proper time, but that we all know intuitively how critical timing can be to farm productivity. With that in mind, trafficability is a tremendous factor worth considering. 

A lot of this is about being creative, says Solberg, and setting aside a few acres of your farm to try something new. Adding livestock could be a great way to bring a younger family member back to the farm, but if a livestock herd is not in the cards for you, he encourages thinking about custom grazing. A farmer can have the soil health benefit of adding livestock without the labor if he or she is creative about it.

“All the things we can control in the production and potential profitability of our farm fall under the ability to help that soil capture and store water and build that nutrient cycling,” said Solberg.

Learn how to implement additional crop and animal diversity to benefit your soil’s health in this podcast.

11. Randy Dell – Equipping Farmers to Talk About Conservation on Rented Ground

Did you know about 50% of U.S. farm ground is rented from non-operating landowners? And that, in the Midwest, that percentage can be as high as 80-90%? As we continue to see more and more farm ground operated by someone other than the person who owns the land, it becomes critical for farmers to have the tools to talk about conservation practices and approaches with their land owners – who may or may not understand the role those practices play in sustainability and profitability.

That’s where Randy Dell and his work with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) comes in.

In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, John Mesko sits down with Randy to talk about how TNC (along with other industry partners) is equipping farmers with the resources they need to work proactively with their landlords on conservation strategies – including soil health management practices, like cover crops and reduced tillage.

“They don’t want to hear from The Nature Conservancy. They don’t want to hear from other groups. They want to hear from their farmer,” says Randy, when asked about which messages and resources resonate with landowners. “So, the better we can equip farmers to have that conversation – to demonstrate the good things they’re doing on the ground and to motivate landowners to join them on that journey – that’s where we think we can help landowners the most.”

Over the course of their conversation, John and Randy discuss:

  • Barriers to implementing conservation practices on rented ground – what gets in the way?
  • Who are landowners, demographically speaking? What do they care about?
  • What tools are available for farmers who want to talk to their landowner about conservation approaches? What are best practices for that discussion?

“These landowners are, generally, committed to their farmer. They want to see their farmer succeed. Often it’s a relative or a close family friend,” Randy says. “They maybe don’t know what conservation practices might be implemented on their land, but they trust their farmer to be making those decisions – making good and the right decisions.”

To hear the full episode, click the link above or subscribe to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.

Episode Resource: A Healthy, Profitable Future Starts with a Conversation

SHP to Host “Wheat Week” Series of Virtual Field Days

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

Register button

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.
  • Q&A Session

Register button

 

If you cannot attend the live event, still register for access to the recording of the field day.

10. Wayne Honeycutt – Farmer Adoption of Best Soil Health Practices is Key

Wayne Honeycutt is the CEO of the Soil Health Institute – not to be confused with the Soil Health Partnership. The Soil Health Institute is focused on the science of soil health and how different practices impact different elements of the soil.

Honeycutt’s interest in the soil stems from a big “A-ha!” moment as he conducted research on the soil in Maine. In one study, he was able to double the yield of potatoes in one cropping system by either irrigating or by improving soil health. After soil health improved, he discovered irrigating no longer boosted yield. Soil health was the answer on that Maine farm – and Honeycutt remains convinced the same can be said for many farmers in many regions of the country.

“The whole concept of soil health is holistic. There are chemical, physical and biological properties. It’s like human health. For human health, we don’t just go in and ask for our blood pressure to be checked and feel like we have a complete picture. We have many other things that we want to be analyzed, including what’s in our blood. It’s a similar way with soil health. There are not just one or two things. There’s a whole suite of things that need to be analyzed,” Honeycutt said.

For now, the Soil Health Institute is focused on analyzing each aspect of soil health and figuring out how to increase farmer adoption. They are working on programs to quantify the business case for farmers and identify the best measurements and tools for farmers to select management practices that improve soil health.

Farmer adoption is key.

According to Honeycutt, the models indicate that if farmers will adopt soil health practices on at least three-fourths of land, then all greenhouse gas emissions for the entire U.S. agriculture sector are reduced. Also significantly reduced, by millions of pounds, would be the amount of nutrients that are lost to U.S. waterways.

“And, of course, these losses are not just environmental issues and impact. They also directly impact the pocketbook of farmers, too,” said Honeycutt.

Listen in below to learn more about this innovative and exciting new area where scientific discovery will eventually make prescriptive soil health a reality.

06. 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.

03. Dr. LaKisha Odom – 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.

Quality In, Quality Out – Dos and Don’ts of Soil Sampling, Hosted by Dr. Nick Ward

Join Dr. Nick Ward, President of Ward Laboratories, Inc. for a Soil Session discussing soil sampling. During this webinar we will discuss the need for soil sampling and various soil sampling practices, including:
  • Sample and sub sample numbers, sample depth and sample location
  • Tools for successful soil sampling
  • Costs to soil sample
  • Plant sampling

Soil Sessions is a webinar series by the Soil Health Partnership that provides monthly, in-depth updates on various SHP programs and research findings. Soil Sessions covers a range of topics such as our evolving data insights, how SHP manages and integrates data, our connection to and work with our partners, as well as providing technical information on topics like cover crops, scouting and grazing. To view all SHP webinars, visit our website here.

02. Pipa Eilas – Allies in Conservation

The People of Soil Health Podcast host John Mesko spoke with Pipa Elias, the Director of Agriculture in North America for The Nature Conservancy.

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

TNC believes farmers are among their greatest allies in conservation.

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

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

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

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

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