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

Progress 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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Materials and methods:

Demonstration Fields-  Two Fields will be used in this trial.  Field 1 will be corn 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.


Year 3 activities will include analyses of results and data review with high school students and the agronomist team.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

2 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

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.

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.