Evalution of soil health measurement tools by current and future farmers to demonstrate the benefits of sustainable practices.

Final report for FNC21-1300

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $17,439.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Rossman Farms
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Michelle Rossman
Rossman Farms
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Project Information

Description of operation:

We farm 2000 acres and raise corn, soybeans, sweet corn and canning beans. Our cattle operation includes registered Angus cows and a small feedlot. We also operate a hog nursery. Rossman Farms was founded in 1946 and the fourth generation of the family is active in the daily operations of the business today.
We have been planting cover crops on our farm for 6 years and have also incorporated minimal and no-till practices. We are participants in the MN Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program and continually evaluate new conservation practices on our land.


With a focus on improving crop yields, reducing the use of chemicals, minimizing tillage and maximizing soil health, we have incorporated cover crops on our farm.  We’ve seen benefits in weed suppression, crop yields and enhanced crop health.  These benefits are impactful but we would like to gain a better understanding of how these practices are changing the health of our soils.  There are an overwhelming number of choices available to measure soil attributes and minimal guidance regarding how to use the information gathered to make management decisions.  The cost of soil analyses can be enormous and this investment should be made from an informed perspective but there is a lack of resources available to farmers when choosing soil tests as well as information on how those results align with visual and in-field observations.   This project will evaluate multiple on-farm and lab-based tests and technologies to measure soil attributes, comparing minimal till with cover crops to conventional tillage without cover crops with a focus on soil water dynamics.  High School students will work closely with the farmers, technology advisors and agronomists during the project to assist with conducting all aspects of the sample collections, field observations, data interpretation and dissemination. 

Project Objectives:
  1.  Compare data from multiple lab-based soil tests, on-farm tests and in-field observations to determine which tools work best to help make future management decisions.

      2  Engage High School students in all aspects of the project to incite curiosity, develop communication skills and build soil health knowledge. 

       3.  Disseminate information via videos and lectures to assist other farmers, agronomists and extension educators on tools available to measure soil health. 


Long-term Objectives-  Develop a relationship with high school faculty that supports engagement with agriculture community to catalyze interactions with students to build interest in agriculture sustainability initiatives and educational opportunities.


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  • Steve Nigon - Producer


Materials and methods:

Demonstration Fields-  Two Fields will be used in this trial.  Field 1 will be corn/soybeans/oats rotation planted into a rye cover crop with historically minimal tillage.  Field 2 will be planted in corn with no cover crop utilizing conventional tillage.  These fields were chosen due to their similarity of soil type.


Soil Analysis-

  • All soils samples will be collected by students and supervised by project manager and agronomists.  In addition, the in-field tests will be completed by a team of agronomists, farmers and students. Many tests will be taken once per year per testing zone, respiration and nitrate will be taken either alone or as part of the Haney test 4x per year per zone: Pre-plant, sidedress, R1 and R6 are targeted sampling times due to their agronomic significance or potential management opportunities.


Two Earth Scout monitors will be installed in each field for continuous monitoring of air temperature, relative humidity, soil temperature, bulk soil electrical conductivity, and soil moisture at 2 depths, calculated N mineralization and calculated moisture dynamics based on sensor data.

Student led sampling and tests including; Infiltration rate (soil moisture dynamic analysis), penetration or surface hardness, and microbial respiration.

Lab-based Soil Analysis

  • Haney test for soil health. University of Minnesota (UMN) recommends running this test 2-3 times each season to provide a “snapshot” of current conditions. UMN is making this recommendation based on the respiration and nitrate analyses provided as part of the panel, so we are instead choosing to run the Haney analysis once per season (during expected peak microbial activity) and follow up with lab-based respiration and nitrate analysis during other key plant growth periods.
  • Bulk density (allows for more in depth analysis of the differences between testing fields and each of the testing locations)
  • Standard soil nutrient testing
  • Aggregate stability
  • Mineralizable nitrogen
  • Available water capacity


Research results and discussion:

In Year 2, Earth Scout data was collected through the entire growing season.  Soil samples were analyzed from both fields.   All input and yield data was captured for both fields.

Earth Scout Data

The Soil and Air Temperature data was evaluated with the end of season yield data and compared to visual observations.  We had huge variation in rainfall across the years so it was interesting to compare what we were seeing above ground to the data captured below the surface.  With the cover crops on the Bakken field, a wet, cool Spring was validated by the Earth Scout data.  With the cover crop residue on top of the soil, that field took longer to warm up in the Spring and remained wet longer than field without cover crops.   Crop emergence was also slower but we didn't see a yield drop in that field.    It was very convenient to see real-time soil temperature data on my phone as planting decisions were made.

Soil Analyses

Samples from each field (Bakken and Nigon) were analyzed using the Haney soil test which included soil respiration, water extractable organic carbon, microbially active carbon, water extractable organic nitrogen, Organic C to organic N ratio, organic N to inorganic N ratio, organic N release, organic N reserve, soil health score and cover crop recommendation.  The soil health scores for the 2 fields in this study were a main data point for us to use in evaluating the differences in tillage practices and cover crop use.  The Bakken field was no-till and followed a corn, cover crop,  soybeans, cover crop, oats, cover crop rotation.  The Nigon field was continuous corn with conventional tillage.

The Soil Health Score for the Nigon field actually increased from 2021 to 2022.  That was unexpected and we haven't been able to pinpoint the reason for that change.  There was also a big variation in the soil respiration rate and changes that didn't make sense.  

The cover crop recommendation that accompanies the data from the Haney test is really beneficial for anyone just beginning to use cover crops. We have been using cover crops on our farm for several years and continue to learn more every year.  There are so many variables that can impact the success of a crop rotation that it's hard to not have confounding factors for each field.  We've seen big weather shifts over the last several years and that's a variable that we're unable to control.  The key with any data collection is to be consistent over several years so that trend lines can be established.  Those trends can then be compared to management practices to try and gauge impact.  Farmers must be constantly curious and eager to continue learning.  The technology for measuring impact of management changes continue to evolve and improve.  With consistency in measurement and controlled management changes, the soil health impacts are quantifiable.  The reference document linked below is a helpful guide for understanding Haney Soil Health test results.

https://www.wardlab.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Haney-Rev-1.0-Interpretation-Guide.pdf  This is a good reference guide for use in understanding the Haney Soil Health Test.

Working with high school students was enjoyable.  The hardest part was getting engagement and finding time in their busy schedules to work on this project and complete tasks.  After visiting with multiple high school classes, I would recommend that students are exposed to agriculture as a career choice in middle school.    Most students that I visited with already had a career path in mind and had been choosing classes that fit their goals.  I did present at a career day at a middle school and those students are much more curious about career opportunities than their high-school counterparts.


Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Tours
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

12 Farmers participated
32 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Rossman SARE Project Data Summary


2021-  Tony and I gave a presentation to the Environmental Science class at Byron High School.  The presentation focused on our agronomy plan and we discussed the many ways we collect data and how we use that data to manage our crops including cover crops.


We received special permission to give this presentation due to current COVID protocols.  The pandemic in 2021 made it impossible to get high school students to the farm to participate in field activities and filming videos.  Michelle, Garret, and James were able to capture video as family members.  In 2022 our focus will be to work with the high school environmental science teacher and try our best to get students to the farm in the Spring and Fall.

2023 Outreach Summary

Michelle gave presentations in 3 high schools in 2023.  Information presented included an overview of the farm's conservation plan as well as an overview of the soil health metrics project.  Students received information on the Earth Scout monitoring, soil sampling and analysis, satellite imagery and yield monitor data.  

The Byron High School Environmental Science class visited the farm on a field trip in the fall.  They were able to see the fields that were just harvested and learn about the cover crop seeding and benefits of the crop residue in the fields.

In August, a group of farmers gathered at the farm to review their individual soil test results as part of a local farmer soils health group.  Michelle and Tony participated in that discussion and reviewed the project data and various metrics with this group of farmers.

A June Field Day brought more than 30 NRCS employees to the farm for a 1/2 day of training.  Michelle's presentation focused on the SARE project and the goals of interacting with local high school students.   We had a wide ranging discussion about the many variables that impact the soil management decisions of farmers and the need for flexibility to meet the individual goals of farmers.  Participants also viewed tillage equipment and reviewed current conservation projects on our farm.  They were very interested in our efforts to engage with youth and asked a lot of questions

Two Videos were produced and posted to the Rossman Farms YouTube channel.



Learning Outcomes

15 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Through interactions with other farmers and multiple crop advisors it was obvious that there's tremendous variation in knowledge of soils sampling and analyses methods.  This variation also effects management decisions and these learnings supported the need for more discussion and opportunities for farmers to expand their knowledge of the available sampling protocols and lab analysis.    My husband and I have decided to continue to use the Haney test on an annual basis.  We will begin to expand this protocol to more fields, depending on the management system in place for each field.  In discussions within our local farmers soil health group, most participants are using traditional lab analysis and focusing on Nitrogen availability.  Most farmers rely on recommendations from crop advisors or agronomist that they work with for input decisions based on soil test results.  There's clearly opportunity for expanded knowledge of the emerging soil health tools and how the information can be applied to make management decisions.

Our local farmers group has been a great opportunity to discuss data and management choices within a small group setting.  That group will continue to learn together and bring advisors together.

We did not conduct a formal process for measuring knowledge or practice change.  However, it's apparent that each farm is unique and farmers need to build a system of support that should include other farmers and trusted advisors as they continue to learn and implement new management choices like cover crops, minimal tillage/no-till and use soil analyses as another data point in their decision trees. 

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.