Mower SWCD launches 3-year soil study; Hormel Foundation awards $98K grant

Extensive research on Mower County farms, involving several dozen plots over the next three years, will provide farmers with better soil-health data to support their operations and practices that benefit the environment.

The Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, which started a soil health initiative in 2015, will receive a $98,000 grant from The Hormel Foundation to conduct research analyzing soil health at potentially 45 plots in Mower County – about half in the Cedar River Watershed.

The study also will look at the benefits of incorporating cover crops and other soil-health practices into farm operations.

The nearly $200,000 project will match the foundation’s grant with state “capacity” funds given annually by the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) and with in-kind services from partner agencies.

Steve Lawler

Mower SWCD’s Steve Lawler, a certified soil scientist, will lead the research.

“Mower County has high-quality, unique soils that have not been studied to this degree,” Lawler said. “We are very grateful for The Hormel Foundation’s support as this project has the potential for its findings to be applied on a broad scale by ag producers in our county, southern Minnesota and beyond.”

Lawler will work in fields and soil labs with paid staff and college interns from University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Riverland Community College’s new ag center in Austin.

This fall, Mower SWCD will continue planning for the project’s launch of fieldwork in spring 2018, when soil-temperature gauges will be placed in the ground before planting. Mower SWCD is seeking more farmer participants, who can remain anonymous in project outreach and reporting.

Interest in soil health is increasing in Mower County and southern Minnesota but funding for its research is minimal, Lawler said.

Farmers are interested in soil health, Lawler said, but many want more data and scientific evidence about practices such as cover cropping, minimum tillage and no-till before making changes in their fields.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program recently funded a nationwide survey on cover crops with farmers, who reported increased crop yields and improved control of herbicide-resistant weeds. Acreage planted in cover crops also now has nearly doubled in the past five years nationwide.

This year, Mower SWCD has worked on extensive soil-health outreach with two Austin-area farmers, Tom Cotter and Tom Finnegan, under a nearly $9,000 Cover Crop Champion grant from the National Wildlife Federation. The grant helped fund a soil health tour Mower SWCD offered in May at three Mower County farms, which will be part of a follow-up free tour set for Oct. 31.

Mower SWCD made its research grant request through the Austin Vision 2020 initiative’s Waterways Committee that has water quality as one of its priorities.

For more information on Mower SWCD’s research project to contact Steve Lawler at 507-434-2603 or by email at  steve.lawler@mowerswcd.org.

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