Accelerating Soil Health and Farm Profitability using Biological Amendments

Progress report for FNC22-1354

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,864.00
Projected End Date: 12/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Jeff Steffen
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Jeff Steffen
Jeff Steffen
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Project Information

Description of operation:

This project is located on Matt Weinandt's farm, who is partner in this project. Matt and his son Dustin farm around 600 acres. Cropping consists of Corn, Soybeans and Alfalfa with occasional small grains. They also run a small Cow Calf herd.

Jeff Steffen, The coordinator of this project has a similar size farm. He has been No-Till for 30 years and the last 10 years has been going to a more diversified rotation with cover cropping. He is hoping to transfer the improvements in soil health that he has seen on his farm to Matt's farm and possibly accelerate the change with biologicals.
His crops consist of Corn, Soybeans,Oats,Cereal Rye, Peas and Buckwheat.


One barrier to overcoming adoption of soil health management systems (SHMS) is the amount of time (5-7 years in some cases) it takes to see improvements to soil and farm profit. In this case we have a poorly producing, degraded alluvial soil in the Missouri river bottom of northeast Nebraska. Historically the answer has been more and deeper tillage in the mostly corn and soybean rotation. This has degraded soils even more to the point that even irrigated yields are poor in relation to the high inputs used. Low profitability contributes to high farmer stress and less opportunity to bring the next generation into the operation.

We will evaluate the increase in environmental, economic and social benefits of four different management systems: the status quo, a SHMS with a more diverse rotation and the use of cover crops and livestock, and SHMS with the addition of biological amendments from Advancing Eco Agriculture and Elevate Ag.

We will evaluate soil health, profit, and social responses to system management to see if they can be attained quicker from the addition of biological amendments. Quick initial improvement would provide greater incentive to adopt and continue the SHMS for long term gains.

Project Objectives:

1-Evaluate biological amendments ability to accelerate soil health.

2-Evaluate the economic profitability of soil health management systems (SHMS) with and without biological amendments.

3-Assess the stress level and job satisfaction of farmers implementing SHMS.

4-Assess the likelihood of biological amendments increasing the adoption of SHMS and their ability to bring the next generation into the farming operation.

5-Create and share a fact sheet at in-person events, post to the Bow Creek website, and display at the local Fair.

6-Educate 80-120 producers, 5 crop consultants/agronomists, three ag lenders, and three media contacts about the project and findings.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Mitiku Mamo - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Adrea Basche (Educator)


Materials and methods:

In order to assess the efficacy of Biological amendments on increasing soil health in tight clay soils we mapped out a 48 acre rectangle on an irrigated quarter on flat bottom land along the Missouri river. We planned to separate the 48 acres into 4 , 12 acre plots with different treatments.

They were:

1. Control; current farming practice on the field. (Corn, Soybeans, no cover crops, no till with occasional tillage)

2. Soil Health Practices; Year 1, Cereal Rye cover crop terminated and planted to Corn. Year 2, Cereal Rye taken to harvest followed by muti species cover crop that will be fall grazed.

3. Soil Health Practices of #2 plus Elevate Ag's Biological amendment program.

4. Soil Health Practices of #2 plus Advancing Eco Ag's amendment program.

At the suggestion of Mitiku Mamo we put in replication strips to account for variability.

We are hoping to show that by following Soil Health principals we can improve the tight clay soils. Having something growing at all times and the introduction of a robust multi species cover crop mix will hopefully work its way into the lower soil profile which is currently not being used by the cash crops.

The fall/winter grazing of the multi species cover crop will provide income for Matt and Dustin's cattle operation and we plan to only graze half to leave a matte of healthy biomass on the soil surface.

The Biological amendments will be added on 2 plots to analyze if this speeds up the soil health process.

All plots will be analyzed for soil health and profitability.

Research results and discussion:

Yields were weighed with a grain cart scale at harvest. There was only subtle differences in yield which I (Jeff Steffen) expected as from experience it takes more than one year to start to see differences. Luckily we had replications in the plots as yields increased in general as we went from east to west. This probably results from a slight elevation change from east to west as Matt said with the poor infiltration rates water would migrate from the west and pond on the surface to the east. This resulted in historically poorer soil conditions on the east side. Yields were adjusted to an average of the replications,hopefully giving us better data.

                          Loading Planter product          Planting Test Plot        Harvesting Plot and seeding Cereal Rye  

                              Adding product to planter                 Planting test plot         Weighing plot and seeding next years cash crop


Plot Treatment

2022 Corn Yield     Net Return Above Economic Cost                                            @ 6.80 Corn

1. Control (west end) current farming practices (Starter fertilizer) 171.8                                                  $171
2. Cereal Rye cover terminated 10 days prior to planting Corn (No Starter) 164.2                                                 $153
3. Same as #2. but with Elevate Ag Biological program 166.7                                                 $143
4. Same as #2 but with Advancing Eco Ag amendments program

163.                                                    $116


Yields were fairly equal but still generally lower than what is expected from irrigated corn in northeast Nebraska. The control and  its replication were toward the west of the plot where yields were generally higher. There was also probably a response to the starter fertilizer. The Elevate Ag program#3 showed slightly more yield than #2 and #4.

A 4 foot soil pit was dug in December to analyze any change in the cover crop treated plots.

Soil Pit 1   Soil structure    Clay subsoil

Restrictive layer for roots       Next years crop already putting         Tight restrictive layers in the deeper

                                                     roots down                                               subsoil.


The soils are showing more aggregation in the top foot of the profile but below 2' root growth was non existent. Infiltration rates tested in the spring were very low (.03 Sorptivity or initial infiltration). It is hoped that allowing the Cereal Rye go to maturity and then planting a multispecies cover will be able to penetrate into this tight lower profile.


(Year Two Update) 

Due to flooding issues on the bottom land soils, we could not finish the project as we had hoped. Parts of the test plot were under water so the Summer Small Grain harvest was severely delayed.  This delayed the cover crop mix seeding. We had good stands but I felt with the late planting, we could not get enough growth to help deal with the deep compaction of the bottom land soils.

We have received an extension on this project so that we can move it into a third year. The project would be completed in December with a final report done at that time. Currently there is a growing cover crop on the test plot so we are hoping for better luck this year.


Continued improvement in surface aggregation                                                         

Spring 2023 East side of test plot         February 2024 There was infiltration                       February 2024 showing surface

under water                                                improvement. Background is an Alfalfa field          aggregation

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

75 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The SARE grant project to improve soils in the Missouri river bottom is a part of a larger project to improve the whole Bow Creek watershed in which the creek itself is subjected to excessive nutrient loading. (Bow Creek Watershed Project, BCWP). Our team member, Becky Ravenkamp, put together a great field day at Jeff Steffen's farm to educate on soil health and show field demonstrations.

Part of the day involved a soil pit dug on Jeff's farm where Paul Jasa, Agriculture Engineer from the University of Nebraska  explained what we should be seeing for structure and root growth in our bottom land soils. It was a good demonstration to show the 75 or so farmers how long term soil health practices on Jeff's farm had made for good soil function. It was also good chance to mention how we were working on a SARE grant project in Brookie bottom to improve that soil function also.

Bow creek 1         Bow creek2

Jeff Steffen presenting soil health findings                    Paul Jasa analyzing and explaining soil function

Going forward we hope to show these improvements with a demonstration in Brookie bottom also.


Learning Outcomes

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

We have identified some improvement with better surface soil structure but we need to see this go into the lower profile and also we need to prove that we can generate more profits. I'm hopeful for seeing more improvement next year.

As is often the case Net Profits can sometimes be lower when producers first start the soil health journey. It takes a commitment of the producer that he wants to make it work. Increased profits from reduced inputs and better yields usually takes a few years.

The disadvantage for this project is that it is only a two year grant. We will continue working for improvement after our two years is up. The SARE grant was a great way for us to get started.

Project Outcomes

Success stories:

Here's a text I received the June field day from a young farmer who lives about 30 miles away.

"Just want to say your field day was the best one I've ever been to! I would definitely consider that a highlight of your agriculture career!"

I responded " Wow, thanks for the compliment. I know you get it. I hope a few others did also."

He responded. "Oh I'm sure plenty of people got it. And I gaurantee the hamster is turning for the others as well! Ha Ha!


We are looking forward to seeing much greater success in this next year.

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.