06. Jay Watson, Soil Health is Win-Win-Win

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.

01. Dr. Maria Bowman, Wheat Cover Crops

In the first episode of The People of Soil Health podcast, we sat down with Dr. Maria Bowman, the Lead Scientist at the Soil Health Partnership, to discuss her findings as she analyzes the data gathered on cover crops.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Maria learned about farming, the contributions that farmers give to the rural economy, and the passion they had for their land. Her soil health passion stemmed from the connection of water quality and the soil. As she learned more about the roles farmers and land stewardship played in improving water quality, she became more interested in soil health.

In this episode, John Mesko and Maria discuss how SHP is measuring the economic benefits of cover crops to identify immediate changes and long term improvements.

“In order to make cover crops a more widespread practice to adopt, they need to be economically feasible for the farmer. By measuring these other impacts, whether they be economic or environmental outcomes, we are working to make sure we are capturing the whole picture,” said Maria.

John and Maria discuss an SHP business case involving Indiana farmer Mike Buis, an SHP farmer, who adopted cover crops on several fields, including his SHP research field. With the added weed control seen in the SHP plot, Mike started expanding his cover crop usage. Due to his location in highly erodible land, it was a priority to have a cost-effective product while also retaining his topsoil. In terms of his trial, Mike saw a higher organic matter in his cover crop strips than on his control strips. Profitability came in the form of weed control as a result of the added residue giving him added ground cover. This saved on average about ten dollars an acre in reduced herbicide use.

The pair also talks about the new SHP field check protocol, where SHP Field Managers try to quantify the weed and pest pressure advantages seen when using cover crops. Field Managers will measure points throughout the year to help brainstorm new ways to improve sustainability techniques, making them more feasible for farmers. This will help quantify the results we have been seeing with these practices.

SHP publishes business cases to help convey that soil health practices are feasible and showcase measurable benefits. Visit our collection of business cases.

National Wheat Yield Contest

Did you know Roughly 75% of U.S. wheat acres are grown in dry regions, and the crop has proven to be adaptable to minimum till or no-till. Check out our latest blog to learn why wheat is an attractive crop for farmers looking to improve soil health.

The National Wheat Foundation’s National Wheat Yield Contest just completed its fourth year, receiving nearly 400 entries. NWF’s Yield Contest is focused on the productivity and profitability of wheat for U.S. wheat growers. Its primary goal is to improve the overall quality and marketability of the U.S. crop.

The Contest is gathering management data points and working with wheat extension agronomists at several public ag universities. Eventually, there will be enough data points and knowledge gained to help agronomists develop an improved best management practice for wheat production specific to region and class of wheat.

Wheat is an attractive crop for growers to consider and understand because of its potential from a soil health perspective. How does wheat improve soil health that will benefit other crops in the growers’ crop rotation? Some of wheat’s uniqueness includes the following:

  1. Roughly 75% of U.S. wheat acres are grown in dry regions. The crop has proven to be adaptable to minimum till or no-till.
  2. Wheat responds well to “just-in-time” crop inputs, allowing “in-crop” fertility which reduces runoff, maximizes uptake and allows better efficiency of inputs and management of costs.
  3. Winter wheat serves as a great cover crop to keep nutrients in the field and may improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter.
  4. Spring wheat is a good rotation crop, allowing farmers to break up disease cycles and control weeds by rotating chemistries.

Wheat is a food crop, which makes grain quality of utmost importance. With half of all wheat grown in the U.S. serving the export market, wheat farmers must make quality a top priority to maintain demand and compete with other low-cost, wheat producing countries. The impact of soil health on wheat quality needs to be understood to help growers preserve its demand both in the U.S. and abroad.

Wheat Trials Evaluate Soil Health

Knopf Farms is one of three new sites in the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) network, through a partnership with the National Wheat Foundation, that is evaluating the impacts of diversified crop rotation and how wheat can benefit the soil and other environmental indicators.

“We see soil health as a foundational part of the equation that we need to build resilience,” Justin Knopf said.

Justin farms in Gypsum, Kansas alongside his dad and brother. They grow wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, alfalfa and triticale. They utilize multi-species cover crops between the grain crops.

Wheat is an important part of the Knopf’s crop rotation.

“It removes a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it first in the residue and then in the soil. Also, as a high carbon residue, it gives us good protection on top of our soil,” Knopf said. “It’s important to us to be growing a mix of crops that are both summer annuals and winter annuals, to have increased diversity in our cropping system.”

Growing wheat also helps spread their risk.

“Our weather is really unpredictable. We know here in Kansas we’re going to be limited by water at some point through the year, although 2019 was an exception with the extreme amount of rainfall we received. Growing a winter annual within our crop mix helps spread our weather risk, making our cropping system more diverse and therefore more resilient,” Knopf said.

Knopf will be conducting an enhanced practice trial on their SHP plot over the next five years where a cover crop trial that will consist of adding a cover crop to any open window between grain crops is compared with the same system with no cover crops.

“The enhanced practice will have continuous living roots in the cropping sequence. So, any time we harvest a grain crop, we will shortly thereafter be going back through and seeding either a cover crop or the next grain crop,” Knopf said.

This research will allow Knopf to compare how extending the growing season with cover crops, and how maintaining living roots in their soils for a longer period of time each year affects their unique crop rotation.

In the fall of 2019, soil tests that will serve as baseline measurements were taken and the entire field was seeded in wheat. After wheat harvest, the control strips will remain as residue while the trial strips will have a multi-species cover crop seeded into it. The intended crop rotation will then be wheat, sorghum and then soybeans.

SHP Field Manager for Kansas and Nebraska, Keith Byerly will be measuring soil characteristics including soil carbon, physical characteristics and biological characteristics to measure the impact of how having a living root in the soil throughout the year impacts soil health. The yield impact between the two practices will be tracked as well.

At the end of the trial, what does success look like? Knopf has three factors he would like to see.

“I would want to see that we’ve increased our soil carbon across those five years, which means we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I consider it to be the energy currency of the biological system. So the more carbon we have in our soils, the better they will be functioning in general,” Knopf said.

Knopf would also find the practice successful if a more robust and diverse biological population was present through increased earthworm counts and higher fungi to bacterial ratio recorded.

He hopes to see physical soil characteristics improved as well through increased soil aggregation and greater aggregate stability. “That would give us better water infiltration and storage ability in our soil.”

He noted, “The outcomes from yield, increased resilience, improved soils and the costs that we incur from the enhanced practice of utilizing cover crops need to balance to be economically feasible,” Knopf said.

Knopf hopes to utilize what he learns from his SHP plot to scale the practice to more acres in their operation.

“I’m looking forward to better quantifying the value and soil health improvement that comes through incorporating cover crops into my rotation,” Knopf said.

Wheat Sites Expand, Diversifying SHP Program

As the third largest cash crop in the US, wheat farmers have a major influence on our farm economy and our environment. That’s why the Soil Health Partnership partnered with the National Wheat Foundation, made possible by the generous support of General Mills, to establish three additional wheat-focused sites across Kansas and Minnesota for the 2020 growing season giving SHP a total of six wheat-focused sites in our network. This represents growers who have spring wheat or winter wheat as part of their farms’ crop rotation. These operations often have an extended cropping rotation, meaning it is typical for a crop to be planted every three to five years.

SHP is dedicated to understanding how grower’s with a wheat cash crop can impact their soil health and productivity. Areas with a significant amount of wheat grown as a cash crop often have a different growing season length or annual rainfall when compared to the heart of the corn belt, which is where a bulk of the soil health research has been traditionally conducted.

Establishing wheat sites allows SHP to start evaluating the impacts of diversified crop rotations and how wheat can benefit the soil and other environmental indicators. Often the wheat growers we work with have wheat in their rotation but also other crops such as sorghum, sunflowers, and peas. We will start collecting data to evaluate the impact on soil health as a result of these very diverse crop rotations.

There are many management benefits to having wheat as a part of the crop rotation. One benefit is having an early season window to plant cover crops after wheat harvest. For example, in a standard corn and soybean rotation, harvest is in early to late fall, making fall cover crop establishment a challenge. If a late harvest occurs, the cover crop planting window is even smaller. Harvesting wheat in mid to late summer opens up new opportunities for cover crop establishment.

Three SHP wheat sites were established in 2019; two in Kansas and one in Minnesota. In 2020, SHP Field Managers will work together to use learnings from these initial research sites to create a wheat specific SHP strategy. This will include expert advice from a working group made up of leaders in wheat science to help our program to evolve to provide the most valuable data back to our wheat growers.

Wheat Cover Crop Benefits SHP Farmer

In a recent SHP business case emphasizing the weed control benefit of planting a wheat cover crop, SHP farmer Mike Buis shared his soil health journey.

Mike, with his brother Jeff, farms 3,100 acres of rolling farmland west of Indianapolis, Indiana; together, they own 1,400 acres and rent 1,700 acres. Most of the cropland is in a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation. Mike has about 1/3 of his acres in no-till, 1/3 in minimal tillage, and 1/3 in conventional tillage. He began working with the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to experiment with cover crops, and has expanded the acres he cover crops beyond his SHP research field.

Mike now plants a wheat cover crop each year on approximately 300 acres of highly erodible land (HEL).

Mike broadcasts wheat cover crop seed at approximately 60 pounds per acre with a fall fertilizer application (immediately after harvest) and incorporates both with a vertical tillage tool. Wheat is not harvested, so he terminates the wheat cover crop in the spring when it is approximately 12-14″ tall by burning it down with an herbicide application. Because there is no spring tillage, he plants directly into the cover crop residue with a no-till planter.

The biggest benefit of the wheat cover crop, in Mike’s experience, is that he uses fewer herbicides during the growing season. He estimates the value of this weed control benefit to be worth at least $10/acre. Also, although he is not required to add cover crops to his HEL, doing so ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion–and significant increases in soil organic matter on Mike’s research field between 2016 and 2018 suggest that Mike might see long-term benefits in soil water holding capacity and nutrient cycling and availability as a result of using cover crops.

Implementing cover crops on his HEL was a natural fit for Mike after he started experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field. Because he had already adopted minimum-till on his HEL in order to meet conservation compliance requirements, there was no additional cost, other than the seed itself, to seed or terminate the cover crop. Putting a dollar value on weed control has encouraged Mike to increase the use of cover crops.

Read the entire business case to read more about Mike’s story and see how cover crops impacted his bottom line.