4 Soil Health Lessons We Learned in 2020

There is no doubt about it: 2020 has been an interesting year.

While we don’t need to rehash everything that made the last 12 months unique and, in many ways, challenging, we can say with confidence that 2020 has been a year of learning, growth, and reminders about what is most important.

As we look forward to what 2021 has to offer, we asked our team to share their biggest soil health lessons from 2020. As usual, their insights are enlightening and give us hope for the future!

Lesson #1: Resilience is key

The biggest lesson I learned this year was that unexpected things will always pop up, but these are the things that you learn the most from. Even when trying to do things perfectly, there are too many variables in agriculture that we can not control. This means things change every year and we learn and refine our toolset so that we can be more successful each year. And sometimes we get lucky! – and we learn from that too.
Anna Teeter, Field Manager – MN/SD

What stands out to me this year is how different the conditions were from last year – extreme moisture in 2019 to anywhere from favorable to drought conditions in 2020. This variability makes it harder to farm in general, but even more difficult to implement conservation practices. We talk a lot about helping farmers frame their cover crop goals and moving toward a resilient system and, for me, these past two years have really elevated the importance of resiliency and ability to adapt.
Kristin Poley, Michigan Research Manager

Lesson #2: Mindset matters when building soils

For farmers, just getting started – even if it’s with something small – is what can create the cascade of changes toward soil health and implementing more conservation practices. Beyond economics, mindset can be one of the biggest barriers to trying new things and making changes on the farm.
Lisa Kubik, Field Manager – IA

I’ve really been reminded of the importance of knowing your goals, having patience, and active scouting.
Abigail Peterson, Field Manager – IL/MO

Lesson #3: Opportunities to build soil health are endless

Strip-till has great potential to support the soil microbiome and also address farmers’ concerns about weed control and seedbed preparation.
John Mesko, SHP Senior Director

Farmers are more willing to take on new management practices if they have a good relationship with individuals willing to go down that path with them, who are not just doing it to chase a couple of bucks.
Jack Cornell, Field Team Director – East | Field Manager – TN

Water infiltration rates change substantially throughout the course of the year. A comparison that shows a substantial difference as the cover crops are terminated may show no difference by the time the row crops mature.
Keith Byerly, Field Team Director – West | Field Manager – KS/NE

Farmers are starting to see a lot of value in cover crops and no-till systems to help control erosion, even on relatively flat ground as a result of heavy rains.
Jim Isermann, Field Manager – IL/WI

Lesson #4: Learning is a never-ending process

One of the biggest things I learned is that the system is an ever-changing practice. As farmers learn and educate themselves, they have become masters of their current practices and they have learned how to add soil health to their operation. They’ve also figured out how to make it work when weather patterns are variable and unpredictable, but yet they stay true to their soil health practices.
Alex Fiock, Field Manager – IN/OH

There is no ‘silver bullet’ to building soil health. Farming practices are unique to each person and, depending on a grower’s operation and goals, soil health outcomes will vastly differ across all geographies and farm scales.
Dustin Brucker, Field Manager – IA

A big lesson for me is the realization that I’ve got so much yet to learn about soil health in row crop agriculture. The successful adoption of conservation methods is still a big challenge for many on their individual farms. Research is still needed to dial in cover crop management and other conservation approaches so that farmers can be confident in adopting them. There is also a big need for the understanding of the soil microbiome and its abilities to aid in nutrient management. I’m looking forward to continuing work on these areas in the coming year.
John Stewart, Field Manager – IN/KY/OH

Digging In

As you celebrate the holidays and plan for the future, we hope you take a few moments to reflect on the soil health lessons you’ve learned on your farm. After all, there is no greater opportunity than to evaluate our experiences and seek improvement as we move forward!

14. Keith Byerly, Relationships and Soil Health

When Keith Byerly made the transition from Precision Ag Manager on the ag retail side of the industry to Soil Health Partnership (SHP) on the education and research side of the industry, he didn’t realize the two roles would feel so similar.

“Being a trusted advisor on the grower’s farm, you’re working on a relationship with those growers because that’s where it all starts and stops. Having a good relationship is paramount to success in that [sales] role. When we talk about soil health and helping our farmers through the process of adapting management practices on their farms, it’s all about the relationships there as well,” Byerly said.

Byerly is fortunate to be working for SHP with many of the same farmers he worked with in previous roles. He has already invested significant time in the relationships that make him a resource for all sorts of troubleshooting and idea implementation on the farm.

In this new role, he has been seeing that there’s so much more happening than he realized in previous experiences. Byerly says there’s opportunity to make farms better if every expert the farmer trusts is brought into all conversations.

“There’s the production side and then there’s the conservation side, and farmers don’t see them crossing. But the potential to maximize efforts all the way around the farm exists if the communication is there to loop everybody in. I think all of us kind of build our silos and we don’t think that anything needs to travel between the two,” Byerly said.

The relationships Byerly has built with his farmers help him understand their motivation to add a conservation practice and really develop that practice into something that will work for the long-term.

“I’ve never met a grower that didn’t have legacy on their mind when it came to their operations. They are always concerned about making the right choices…and that means that their children or grandchildren, or that the next person in line has the ability to take it over,” he said. 

Keith continued by explaining how impossible it is to incentivize or force a farmer’s conservation commitment. He views his job as helping farmers figure out what their legacy dictates for their farm and driving that with conservation practices.

Listen in to this broad ranging conversation – touching on Keith’s philosophies on engagement and relationships, to his experience with farm data and irrigation in the western Corn Belt – using the player above or in your favorite podcast app.

SHP Welcomes Dr. Lin Liu as UMN Postdoc

Dr. Lin Liu recently began working with the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) team through her role as a Postdoctoral Associate at the GEMS Informatics Center at the University of Minnesota (UMN). As part of this unique collaboration between SHP and UMN, she will be working with colleagues to analyze soil health data and disseminate knowledge gained.

“SHP is so excited to be working with Dr. Liu as she digs into the relationships between soil health management, changes in the soil, and agronomic outcomes like yield variability,” says Dr. Maria Bowman, Lead Scientist for SHP. “She is passionate about going after research topics that are relevant to farmers, and I’m looking forward to partnering with her as she brings her unique perspective and experience to the SHP dataset.”

Dr. Liu holds an M.S. and Ph.D in Environmental GeoSciences, as well as a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Policy, all from Michigan State University.

“I am excited about this opportunity to advance soil health conservation practices for the Midwest cropping landscape,” Dr. Liu says. “My work is driven by a mission to feed the world sustainably through agricultural technology advancement and innovation – and this role fits perfectly with that.”

Lin currently resides in the Twin Cities. When she is not working with data, she spends time swimming, hiking, and reading books. She also enjoys creative restaurants and good coffee.

Have A Soil Health Question? Start Here!

It’s only normal that questions about soil health will pop up from time-to-time. Questions like:

Well, lucky for you, we’re here to help you find answers!

The SHP website recently got a facelift, including a refreshed version of our Library of Resources. The updated library includes a searchable database, where you can search SHP’s soil health resources based on:

  • Key terms
  • A specific region of the country
  • Communication type (e.g., blog, podcast)
  • Topic area
  • Date the resource was published, or
  • Featured people

With this new and improved Library of Resources, we aim to make finding answers to your soil health questions even easier. Check it out here >>

Then, once you’re done exploring the Library of Resources, make sure to take a tour around the other areas of our website. We’ve made several updates, so don’t miss out on meeting the SHP team, learning about our SHP Partner Farmers, or exploring our wide variety of informational resources!  

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!

SHP Launches Podcast

The Soil Health Partnership is pleased to announce the launch of The People of Soil Health Podcast on April 7. The People of Soil Health Podcast will provide a direct connection into the network of soil health professionals who are focused on the on-farm economic and environmental benefits of soil health.

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

The podcast will discuss the following questions and many more:

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

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

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

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

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

SHP Adds Dr. Roever as Data Manager

The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) is pleased to introduce Dr. Carrie Roever as the new Data Manager.

Dr. Roever’s primary responsibility will be to assist in organizing and finding efficiencies in the SHP data. “I enjoy assembling the puzzle that is involved with figuring out data and looking for efficiencies. I’m eager to dig into SHP’s data and make sense of how it all fits together,” she commented.

Dr. Roever completed her bachelor’s degree at Indiana State University, her master’s degree at University of Alberta and her doctorate at University of Pretoria. Her degrees are in wildlife biology, looking at habitat selection.

After her doctorate, Dr. Roever went to Oregon State University where she studied cattle movement across the landscape during drought. Dr. Roever then accepted a Data Manager position at the University of Idaho through a grant with EPSCoR, where she helped to train and educate researchers on how to manage data and ensure compliance with state and federal laws.

“We are eager to have Dr. Roever join our staff and help us better organize our rich dataset. She will be working closely with our team as we work to improve how we collect, manage, and integrate data to serve SHP farmers and advance our research goals,” said SHP Lead Scientist Dr. Maria Bowman.