A soil health program aimed at determining the economic, yield and environmental benefits of farm practices such as cover crops, nutrient management and reduced tillage has enrolled 111 farms across 12 states.
Founded in 2014, the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) is an initiative of the National Corn Growers Association that is testing conservation practices on farms using plots from 20 acres to 80 acres in size. The size of the test fields “allows us to have reduced variability on each farm to strengthen our data set,” Jack Cornell, operations manager for SHP.
Most are corn and soybean operations, though several also have wheat in rotation, grow seed crops or have livestock or dairies.
“We have around 30 testing locations in each of our key geographies of Iowa, Indiana and Illinois,” Cornell says. “There are roughly 1,000 acres in the surrounding states of Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan with one satellite location in Maryland. We do not collect information on total acres farmed, but our enrolled farms vary from 300 acres to 10,000-plus acres. They are almost all working, commercial-scale farms in mainstream agriculture. A couple are college or university farms.”
The research trials take place on just over 4,000 acres across the program, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect its magnitude, Cornell says.
“It’s important to understand that these acres are representative research acres, strategically placed geographically to represent different soil types, climates, and cropping systems,” he said. “This program is not necessarily about how many acres change practices within SHP. It’s about how the data those farms gather can demonstrate a positive economic impact from these practices, and that in turn can convince many more farmers to adopt the practices on a larger scale.”
A map of all SHP sites is available on the SHP website.
The program receives financial support from Monsanto, NCGA, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Walton Family Foundation, General Mills and the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative. It receives technical support from the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy.
Long-Term Goals. The program aims to provide long-term, farm-specific data insights including soil lab reports, mid-season aerial imagery and profitability and ROI analysis in partnership with startup AgSolver (now EFC Systems).
The project leaders shared interim data at farmer field days and research meetings this summer and fall throughout the Midwest, and researchers will prepare articles for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals, SHP director Nick Goeser says.
“There isn’t comprehensive knowledge or understanding of management by environmental and system-level components within individual geographies,” says Goeser, describing the data gap the partnership aims to fill to identify financial returns from enhanced agricultural practices. “We see very good recommendations at the regional level for tillage or cover crops specifically, very good recommendations at the state level. But when we move to the county level and even to a township or an individual field, which is where our farmers are acting, we don’t have great recommendations.”
The process will take time because participating farmers are in the early stages of getting year-to-year comparisons between the fields where enhanced agricultural practices are underway and the control fields, Cornell adds.
“This program signs up farmers who are new to enhanced system-level practices such as integrated tillage and cover crops. It allows them to have the support and expertise to understand how some of these practices might work on their farm,” he says. ““Our farmers share what they’ve learned about what worked and what didn’t work on their farm within their local communities through guest-speaker events at local Soil and Water Conservation meetings, media outreach or hosting field-day events on their farm.”
Expansion Continues. Growth in total enrolled farms has continued this year with the addition of six new participating farms each in Missouri and Wisconsin.
“The missing link has been data that show these practices can provide a significant economic benefit on real, working farms, in addition to positive environmental outcomes,” says Darrick Steen, director of environmental programs for the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, which helped bring SHP to the state. “SHP is answering key questions Missouri growers ask us, using sound scientific trials that growers can depend on, and right in their own fields.”
The ability to glean regionally specific data is attractive to producers in Wisconsin, adds Nicole Wagner, executive director of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
“Farm fields vary county by county, state by state, and the climate is different in Wisconsin than further south in the corn belt,” Wagner says. “That’s why we’re particularly excited SHP is now doing research here—so our farmers can see how these practices work in Wisconsin.”