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Iowa Soil Health Partnership Sees Interest Grow in On-Farm Research

By cptp | 7:35 PM, 12/18/2016

Now in its third year, the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), a project led by farmers to share information and test soil conservation practices on local farms, is seeing more farms enroll and a growing interest in soil-friendly farming practices.

Iowa Field Coordinator Elyssa McFarland said, “We’re in a really exciting stage in the partnership.”

Since the program started in 2014, 65 farms across nine Midwestern states have enrolled. McFarland said next year they hope to reach 100 participating farms. Originally, a five-year program, it has been extended another five years.

Farmers enrolled in the program test soil conservation practices, such as cover crops or strip tillage, on their own farms.

Steve Berger, an early adopter of cover crops who farms near Wellman in southeast Iowa, said the SHP allows him to see scientifically replicated plots on his own farm and gives him the chance to work with a team of leading scientists to find out what works and what doesn’t.

“On our farm, we’ve got strip trials,” Berger said.

His 80-foot-wide test plots are a study of nitrogen application amounts from 0 to 300 pounds, differences in application timing and various fertilizer sources, including ammonium sulfate and turkey manure.

He also likes that the project helps to challenge what farming practices he uses. For example, Berger explained, as corn yields go up, there may be a need to fertilize more, but with more cover crops, there may be more nutrient cycling — “we’re really not quite sure,” he said. “We can sure get strips of 300 bushel corn now,” Berger said. “When you’re seeing that on your monitor, you’re thinking that’s what we want to aim for. How much do you need to fertilize for that?”

Cover crops also provide competition pressure for weeds, something all farmers can appreciate, and it brings together a lot of people, from commodity and environmental groups, he said.

The initial funding for the on-farm research project, a National Corn Growers Association initiative, was provided by Monsanto, NRCS and the Walton Family Foundation, as well as technical support from The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund.

This summer, the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, including Cargill, General Mills, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund, added another $4 million in funding support for the SHP.

Northeast Iowa farmer Mark Mueller, who grows corn and soybeans as well as produces hay for a nearby dairy, is testing cover crop strips of rye to see how soil health is improved over many years. “I think it’s absolutely vital for farmers in the Midwest to jump on board this type of activity — to show the public we’re involved in protecting our water and soil and to protect our topsoil,” Mueller said.

After silage was harvested for the dairy, there was little residue left on his soils, so he wanted to do something. He thinks cover crops will help his soil structure and improve nutrient availability and water penetration.

Mueller said the SHP’s project includes a focus on economics that’s helpful because conservation practices need to make good business sense.

“It’s a hard thing to pin down. How much more productive is my soil?” he said. “I’d like to think the pay back for these sort of practices is in the long run. I hope to see it in my lifetime. I hope to see it in the next five years. But frankly, if nothing else, my children will inherit a better farm than if I had never adopted these practices.”

In Illinois, Tom Kentner who farms in Vermillion County, is using oats and radish as a cover crop and also uses no-till planting for his soybeans and strip-till for corn.

For Kentner, the biggest value of participating in the SHP is the education component. “The education that’s available, you just can’t put value on,” he said.

He appreciates SHP’s hands-on, practical approach. “You’re going to get to look and observe from a local source,” he said. “Growers are going to be able to see (soil conservation practices) in that specific area, with their type of soils, their type of environment and weather patterns. They are going to be able to see that and relate to that.”

Each participating farm also hosts a field day, so neighboring farmers can get a chance to see what’s going on. McFarland recently helped to host a field day near Lake Mills, Iowa, that was focused on different types of tillage and management considerations for each approach. The event was sponsored by Environmental Tillage Systems and producers got a chance to inspect strip-till equipment.

These events help farmers understand important management considerations like fertilizer placement and how to get started, McFarland said. Often farmers can see how they could adjust someone else’s system or equipment to fit their own operation, she said. During the event, McFarland also encouraged farmers to stick with their new tillage systems to see what the difference can be over time.

SHP held 40 events last year with approximately 2,000 people participating, she said. On Dec. 5, McFarland took to social media as a part of World Soil Day to discuss what soil issues farmers see as priorities, “thinking about soils as more than just nutrients.”

For McFarland, soil science is both a professional interest and a practical business consideration. She farms with her dad near Plymouth Junction, Iowa. Soil conservation has always been a priority for the family operation, she said. This year, she had cereal rye flown on acres she rents herself for the first time.

“If we had issues, I knew I was going to get static from my dad,” McFarland said. But the aerial seeding was successful, and she is looking forward to trying it again next year. “We chop silage for cattle, so it’s absolutely a no-brainer getting roots growing to protect soils and organic matter,” she said.

This article was originally published by Iowa Farmer Today.