Project to yield data on cover crops, soil health

By Justin Hanson

Mower Soil and Water Conservation Dist.

Information is power. Knowledge and experience are the factors that influence change and determine whether those changes will stand up over time.

Farmers all over the country are feverishly building their information bank these days, trying to figure out how to make money in a market offering sparse revenue opportunities. With margins tight, there is little room for risk or error in farm management techniques.

At the same time, we have an initiative in the ag community starting to catch momentum and provide an opportunity to decrease expensive inputs – such as fertilizer and pesticides – while maintaining equitable yields. Soil health has been the moniker tagged to an initiative that aims to use a variety of farming methods, with the common goal of making the existing soil as productive as possible.

What’s exciting about soil health is that it also comes with a wide range of benefits for soil and water conservation along with flood flow reduction and wildlife habitat.

On the surface, soil health seems like a no-brainer. Farmers can improve their bottom line while also enhancing the environmental footprint. Yet, there are many factors that go into growing a crop. Soil health practices implemented under certain conditions are not beneficial.

I think about it in similar terms to the “Theory of Relativity.” It was believed to be true years before it was proven but someone needed to write the formula proving it. Mower County has a handful of farmers on a similar path with soil-health practices. They are writing the formula that will prove value and limit the economic risk of soil-health practices, including cover crops. Mower SWCD is excited about the opportunity to partner with our ag folks on this initiative.

This week, Mower SWCD launched a three-year soil study on soil health to take aim at helping local farmers write that formula. The project will establish potentially 45 plots on local fields and representative soil types throughout Mower County. Our staff will use sites that are transitioning to soil health practices, such as cover crops, strip tillage and no tillage. Under the study, the sites will be compared against conventional plots with similar soil and field positions.

The plots will investigate a matrix of related parameters tied to healthy soil and ag productivity. Some of this will include soil temperature, infiltration, changes to soil structure and other related soil property developments. Along with ag information, the study will monitor conservation benefits and potential water resource changes on the field.

This project is funded through a partnership between Mower SWCD and The Hormel Foundation. Work will be in cooperation with Mower County landowners, Riverland Community College, University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. For the Hormel Foundation – which committed about $98,000 to the study – this project hits on multiple priorities of working with local ag, Riverland and water quality initiatives in the area.

In addition to the study, Mower County has plenty of other related activity. Several local farmers have been leaders in the implementation of cover crops, reduced tillage and other soil-health activities.

These farmers already have taken risks and learned from mistakes along the way. They’ve gone ahead, enabling others to learn and have success from their experiences.

Mower SWCD also is fortunate to have a soil scientist on staff. Steve Lawler has more than 30 years of experience as a certified soil scientist. His experience puts us in a unique position to move forward with this soil health study, and he also has a driving interest in working with ag partners to find equitable solutions on their farm.

We’re excited to accelerate the information-building phase of our soil health initiative, supporting local farmers and empowering them with knowledge needed to consider changes on their farm.

We still are looking for farming cooperators in Mower County. If interested, please contact Steve Lawler at Mower SWCD – or 507-434-2603 – for more information or to inquire about starting a study plot on your field. Plot owners will have a firsthand experience with how cover crops or reduced tillage will work on their farm.

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