Soil Health Partnership digs deeper into long-term benefits of cover crops, nutrient management practices
On the surface, Neal Bredehoeft has seen positive results after seven years of planting cover crops on his farm in Alma, Mo. There are fewer ditches running across his fields. He’s eliminated at least one sprayer pass in the spring to control weeds. He’s even seen a slight bump in yield of corn and soybeans that follow the cover crop.
Deep down, he’s confident the practice is benefiting soil health, too. He just doesn’t have the data to prove it—yet.
The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) hopes to change that.
“When we originally started using cover crops, the big reason was to prevent soil erosion,” Bredehoeft said. “That’s definitely one of the advantages we’ve seen. But we need a better idea of the long-term advantages of using cover crops. I believe the data coming out of the Soil Health Partnership will help solidify what we thought.”
Bredehoeft is one of five Missouri farmers participating in the SHP’s producer-led research to measure the impacts of implementing soil-health practices on working farms. The program, established in 2014, is administered by the National Corn Growers Association and now reaches 16 states and more than 200 farms. Soil-health measurements, yield data, farm management and financial reports are collected from all of these partner sites.
“There’s a lot of focus on soil health these days, both within and outside of agriculture, and this puts farmers at the forefront of that discussion,” said Abigail Peterson, SHP field manager for Missouri and Illinois. “That’s what the Soil Health Partnership is all about. Farmers should be the ones leading the way in this realm, instead of having someone else make decisions about their practices, which we know doesn’t make sense.”
There’s plenty of information and research about soil-health benefits, which include improved crop yield, enhanced water quality, increased drought resilience, better flood resistance and lower greenhouse gas emissions. SHP’s goal is to quantify these benefits in a way that’s relevant to farmers—putting data behind the decisions in real-world situations.
“There are a lot of claims made about soil health, but this program is trying to identify what is really happening,” said Adam Jones, MFA conservation specialist. “There’s some good university data out there, but this approach is field-scale type of research. It models the practices farmers actually use and the challenges they face. Ultimately, what I hope comes out of this is a practical, long-term dataset, which for soil-health management doesn’t really exist right now.”
Through its on-farm trials, the SHP works with growers to explore both economic and environmental benefits and risks of soil-health practices such as no-till or reduced tillage, cover crops and advanced nutrient management. Putting a system in place for improved soil health shouldn’t be intimidating, Peterson said.
“A lot of the first steps are very simple,” she explained. “Transitioning to no-till is great way to start, then incorporating a cover crop, then implementing more advanced nutrient management. It’s a gradual progression, and it’s all adaptive to each farmer’s land, management style and goals.”
In Missouri, SHP data is coming from strip trials that use a control of bare ground versus a treatment of cover crops, randomized across eight strips. Each strip is laid out to be a few combine widths wide.
Regular soil samples are taken each spring to measure chemical properties, such as pH and nutrient levels. Every two years, an additional sample is taken for biological indicators such as organic matter, active carbon, soil respiration and soil protein.
The data collection process was developed with input from SHP’s Scientific Advisory Council and is executed by its team of field managers and agronomists. Ever since the partnership expanded to Missouri in 2017, MFA Incorporated agronomy staff members have been providing the soil-sampling services for the state’s participating farms.
“With MFA’s focus on enhanced relationships and customer partnering, it made sense for us to get involved and help where we can,” said Thad Becker, MFA precision data manager. “After all, we’ve got the manpower in Missouri to do the sampling that’s needed. Understanding more about the benefits of soil health and the impact of these practices will also help us be better consultants with our growers.”
The data collected from Missouri is integrated with SHP’s multi-state database. Test results and reports from the individual farms are delivered to the producers to help them make decisions and manage for improved soil health.
“The trial doesn’t have any value unless you can take a look at the data, and they do get that back to you,” Bredehoeft said. “I’ve seen the results from some of these trials across Missouri and Illinois, and it’s pretty valuable, in my opinion.”
His cover crop of choice is cereal rye, which he plants behind corn, terminates in the spring and then follows with soybeans. He’s also tried planting triticale after soybeans to ground that’s going into corn.
“Putting cover crops ahead of corn seems to be a little trickier, but we’re just getting started on it,” said Bredehoeft, who farms with his brothers and nephew in Lafayette and Saline counties. “Our intent as we go forward is to try to get something on every acre in the winter.”
The SHP doesn’t dictate the cropping plans or management practices for its partnering farmers, Peterson pointed out.
“That’s one of the things that I love about this program,” she said. “We want to adapt to the farmer’s experience level and what they have available. It’s a very practical approach.”
Along with strip trials, the partnership has added side-by-side trials this year to bring a broader group of farmers into the SHP network, she said. These new research models are a little more flexible and less intensive, so the SHP can include more cropping systems and geographies and broaden the depth of the data.
The program was initially set up with five-year agreements but may be extended if growers choose to continue with the partnership, Peterson said. Because of the added responsibilities the trials bring, some growers choose to graduate from the program after that initial term, but long-range research is the ultimate goal, she added.
“Five years is a drop in the bucket for anything in agriculture, so being able to look at those fields that have had a consistent, successful approach and then continuing on for six, seven years or more is key to this project,” Peterson said. “The idea is to have uniform measurement over time so we can create a comparison model that makes these soil-health indicators a little bit more useful. But, right now, it’s important to realize that this is still a science that’s not quite exact.”
Even without empirical evidence in hand, Bredehoeft said he knows the benefits of better soil health are being realized on his farm, and he encourages his fellow growers to consider some of these conservation-minded practices.
“It’s one of those things you just don’t know until you do it,” he said. “Now, don’t plant rye on the whole farm, but try a few acres of some type of cover crop. We’ve seen some benefits already in the short time that we’ve done it, and I do believe it’s got long-term benefits. Time will tell.”
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