Soil health management outreach using mechanical aeration

Final report for ONE16-267

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $11,200.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2018
Grant Recipient: Merrimack County Conservation District
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Stacy Luke
Merrimack County Conservation District
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Project Information

Summary:

Starting in 2011, the Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) has worked with state-wide entities and Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune in developing innovative conservation plans for soil health.  Many of these plans suggested the use of mechanical aeration to reduce soil compaction and producers were interested in the idea of using a mechanical aerator while spreading liquid or semi-solid manure. As part of a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant,  MCCD purchased a mechanical aerator in 2016, engaged with equipment dealer/ independent contractor L.A. Glines to teach farmers how to use the equipment on-the-field, conducted numerous soil tests on test fields, and conducted three trainings for people interested in using the equipment.  The four partner farms were aerated in 2016 along with four additional farms.  Results of this project were inconclusive. Unfortunately, MCCD did not find any change in soil compaction and most nutrients following the use of the aerator as seen in the attached soil penetrometer results. In some cases, compaction seems to have worsened in the year following aeration. The drought in 2016 and the observations that the aerator did not appear to work on dry soils or not work well complicated any results that may have been received. 

However, in terms of nutrients, we did see a consistent and significant increase in soil Phosphorus levels in all locations (On average, from 9.78 ppm Ph/farm in 2016 to 115 ppm Ph/farm in 2018). We now recommend to refrain from mechanical aeration during dry periods and advise adding weight, like a water tank, on the machine to allow better soil penetration.  However, we feel that we had a success in educational outcome in that MCCD now has a waiting list for the use of this equipment.

An image of the aerator as displayed at the Hopkinton State Fair

Project Objectives:

The work plan was to achieve these objectives:

i. Purchase of mechanical aerator with the ability for manure injection. This mechanical aerator may have an additional attachment for no till seeding, but its primary purpose will be for soil compaction alleviation.

ii. In order to get farmers interested in the project, outreach in the form of letters, press releases, and newsletter articles to NH agricultural producers with hay and pasture land.

iii. Identification of four agricultural producers to demonstrate manure injection using the mechanical aerator along with an assessment of their soil health pre- and post- treatment. This assessment will involve: 1. Cornell Soil Health Assessments and Penetrometer readings each year of the project that will assess the soil health conditions in pre and post treatment for each plot at each demonstration farm. 2. Assessments of the quantity and quality of forage from each plot for each year of the project.

iv. New Technology & Innovative Approach Fact Sheet with applicable NRCS practice standards that will be used for outreach events and available on the MCCD website.

v. Continued outreach including a workshop on the use of the equipment, press releases, newsletter articles, and one-on-one technical assistance using a team approach to assist farmers in successful use of the equipment and successful injection of the liquid or semi-solid manure.

vi. Program evaluation through surveys, interviews, and a review of the results with the team: initial farmers, NRCS, UNH Cooperative Extension, and MCCD.

vii. Final report.

Introduction:

This project builds on MCCD and Greenstart’s project to created Soil Health Conservation Activity Plans to assist producers in achieving better soil health. A common feature in most of the reports was alleviating soil compaction using mechanical aeration. Those who want to improve soil health but cannot afford to buy equipment would benefit from this project and fully achieve the purported results from their soil health conservation activity plans. MCCD will work with Strafford County Conservation District and GreenStart to learn from their successes and challenges in using their Aerways on farms. MCCD will also utilize the research already conducted by local entities on this subject that will help create a program that will be used by farmers for continued conservation value. This research includes Northeast SARE research such as “Evaluating the on-farm environmental and economic impacts of the use of aerators with liquid and semi-solid manure under various management conditions” as researched by the Poultney Mettowee Conservation District in Vermont. MCCD will continue to work with mechanical aerator manufacturers to assist with educational programming.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Martin Bender
  • Adam Crete
  • Jeff Moore
  • Carole Soule
  • Steve Cochrane
  • Peter Glines

Research

Materials and methods:

Below is a summary of our progress towards meeting our Objectives/ Performance Targets:

i. Purchase of mechanical aerator with the ability for manure injection. 

  • This objective has been completed.  The aerator was purchased and L.A. Glines (consultant) was engaged by MCCD to work with farmers on soil aeration.
  • Along with the mechanical aerator, the aerator includes a seeder, chain harrow, and water tanks added to the aerator for additional weight and the ability to add water to the soil while aerating; it was found that the aerator did not work well in our dry, droughty soils.

ii. In order to get farmers interested in the project, outreach in the form of letters, press releases, and newsletter articles to NH agricultural producers with hay and pasture land.

  • MCCD sent letters to farmers all throughout Merrimack County to introduce the aerator.  MCCD also advertised the equipment and soil health through MailChimp e-blasts, such as this one for our November 2nd workshop: November 2nd_ Come Learn about Cover Crops at Bohanan Farm- 1.  MCCD also displayed the equipment at the Hopkinton State Fair to generate more outreach and interest in soil health.  MCCD is including the aerator and its other rentable equipment in their upcoming newsletter.  

iii. Identification of four agricultural producers to demonstrate manure injection using the mechanical aerator along with an assessment of their soil health pre- and post- treatment. This assessment will involve: 1. Cornell Soil Health Assessments and Penetrometer readings each year of the project that will assess the soil health conditions in pre and post treatment for each plot at each demonstration farm. 2. Assessments of the quantity and quality of forage from each plot for each year of the project.

  • MCCD engaged six farmers to work on the manure injection in conjunction with aeration: Adam Crete, Marty Bender, Carole Soule, Jeff Moore, Steve Cochrane, and Peter Glines.  Soil health assessments were taken, interviews were conducted related to quantity and quality of forage, instruction on how to use the aerator was provided, and Building Soils books were provided. Only five of those underwent aeration in 2016 due to timing issues and a suspension of aeration during the worst of the drought.
  • Each of the farms received a Cornell Soil Health test as well as in-depth penetrometer readings.  Two of those farms received follow-up penetrometer readings before the snow arrived. Soil penetrometer readings and nutrient analysis ontinued in 2017.
  • Most farms aerated approximately 10 acres with one farm aerating approximately 40.  This equipment is more popular than expected and MCCD has a waiting list for 2017 and 2018.
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iv. New Technology & Innovative Approach Fact Sheet with applicable NRCS practice standards that will be used for outreach events and available on the MCCD website.

  • Finished in 2017. MCCD created educational materials to assist farmers in making best management decisions with aeration and other soil health techniques.

v. Continued outreach including a workshop on the use of the equipment, press releases, newsletter articles, and one-on-one technical assistance using a team approach to assist farmers in successful use of the equipment and successful injection of the liquid or semi-solid manure.

  • MCCD conducted three outreach events in which soil health, soil aeration, and the use of the equipment for manure injection occurred in April, September, and November.  This equipment and project was also discussed at other USDA NRCS Soil Health events throughout New Hampshire.
  • MCCD sent out over 40 letters to farmers in October 2017 and sent e-blasts about the program in January, April, September, and October- approximately 97 farmers on our e-blast list.  MCCD also promoted this program on Twitter and Facebook and will publish an article in our newsletter in January 2017 (publication = 1200 individuals).
  • MCCD learned that soil aeration does not work during drought.  The soils were too dry to penetrate the soil.  Because of this, MCCD discontinued aeration during the height of the drought.  In order to increase weight for greater soil penetration and add water to soils while aeration, MCCD added water tanks onto the aerator.  The results of this are still to be determined.

vi. Program evaluation through surveys, interviews, and a review of the results with the team: initial farmers, NRCS, UNH Cooperative Extension, and MCCD. 

  • Completed but is on-going as farmers continue to use aerator and as soil test results are received.
Research results and discussion:

Results of this project were inconclusive.  Unfortunately, MCCD did not find any change in soil compaction following the use of the aerator as seen in the attached soil penetrometer results.  In some cases, compaction seems to have worsened in the year following aeration.  The drought in 2016 and the observations that the aerator did not appear to work on dry soils or not work well complicated any results that may have been received.

In terms of soil results, Cornell and UNH Cooperative Extension Comprehensive Assessments of Soil Health were performed on several farms across central New Hampshire in 2016 and 2018 to note the differences before and after soil aeration. The parameters that were analyzed include soil pH, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. The farms compared in this study were Windswept Maples and Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, and Sloping Acres in Canterbury. Each farm had 2 (Miles Smith) or 3 (Windswept Maples and Sloping Acres) fields in which data was collected. The nutrient levels on each of these fields were given a health score of “Excellent” or “Medium.”

The pH across all fields and farms experienced little difference from 2016 to 2018.  There were few outliers that had a more significant decrease or increase in pH.

The magnesium levels at Windswept Farm saw significant increase in field 3 with a slight decrease in field 1 and 2. Sloping Acres had an increase in Mg in field 2, decrease in field 3, and no change in field 1. The Mg at Miles Smith Farm saw slight increases and decreases in the different fields as well but no significant readings or trends.

The levels of potassium were significantly greater in 2018 than in 2016 for Windswept Maples and Miles Smith Farm. For Sloping Acres, the levels either saw a significant decrease in K or a very slight increase depending on the field.

Phosphorus levels significantly increased in all locations.

The nutrient levels, apart from phosphorus, were inconclusive as to whether soil aeration is beneficial in nutrient retention.

MCCD conducted a qualitative survey to each farmer plus interviews with farmers.  Of the eight surveys distributed, only five were returned.  Each of the farmers who returned the survey stated that the aerated areas had better yields, but they were unable to quantify those increases. Each farmer reported that their aerated fields did just as well or, in the case of four of the farms, aerated fields with manure injection performed better and produced more grass and hay than fields that were not aerated with manure injection.  Each farm intends to continue to aerate their fields as they believed it did improve their soils.

Due to the popularity of the equipment and the difficulty in getting the equipment returned on time, MCCD was not able to return to any of the initial six participating farms in 2017.  The intent is to return to each of the farms, complete a new round of soil samples, and aerate again.  MCCD is interested in seeing significant reduction in soil compaction if aeration was done in normal precipitation/ soil moisture years.    

Here are the data collected during the grant period: Pre-Post-Soil-Test-Results and Penetrometer-Readings-Updated-with-graphs-CMC.

Research conclusions:

What MCCD Sought To Do

MCCD sought to have available a shared-use aerator for use by central NH farmers that could be, in part, used to inject manure for better manure management, soil health, and overall farm productivity. 

What MCCD Accomplished

MCCD was able to accomplish the goals of the project in collaboration with this SARE grant, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, UNH Cooperative Extension, and partnering farms.  MCCD purchased an aerator, worked with farms using manure for soil amending, and took penetrometer readings and soil samples throughout the period of the grant. 

Throughout the grant, MCCD also learned some Best Management Practices in terms of using the aerator.  Most importantly, the aerator had little to no effect on farms that aerated during the drought.  The tines were unable to penetrate the soil or no effect was seen on those farms in post soil penetrometer readings.  MCCD retrofitted a water tank onto the aerator to provide some water to the soil while adding more weight onto the tines.  This appeared to help to some extent, but not enough to overcome the adverse effects of the drought. 

In addition to the above accomplishments or findings, MCCD also was able to introduce new soil health initiatives, NRCS programs, soil testing information, and newly available equipment to a new set of farmers further engaging farmers in conservation techniques that improve their land and hopefully their profitability.

Were the Objectives Met?

Most objectives were met with the unfortunate penetrometer results.  Each farm stated that they saw improved productivity in their aerated fields versus the non-aerated fields, especially the farm with the most compacted soils.  But, the soil penetrometer readings did not match the qualitative results stated by the agricultural producers. 

The mission of the Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) is to conserve the natural resources and cultural heritage of Merrimack County.  This project began from another project MCCD participated in soil health conservation activity planning program.  Many of the results of farmers' soil health plans was the use of aeration.  This combined with NRCS's interest in finding better ways of manure injection on NH farms led to this SARE project.  I think current research shows that aeration is beneficial but more research on the effects of aeration on dry soils and in drought conditions would have assisted us as we found little benefit in the drought year MCCD did most of the aeration.

MCCD would like to thank Northeast SARE, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, UNH Cooperative Extension, and its participating farmers in making this project possible.  

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

12 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Exhibit at the Hopkinton Fair

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers
9 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Merrimack County Conservation District has completed several education and outreach events related to our mechanical aeration project.  This has included eight consultations between our equipment consultant Roy Glines and eight separate farms; three fact sheets; two on-farm demonstrations each at Carter Hill Orchards in Concord, NH, and Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton, NH with corresponding workshops; an exhibit at the Hopkinton Fair in September 2016; a newsletter article; and one presentation at the MCCD Annual Meeting.

Soil-Aeration-Fact-Sheet Aeration-Fact-Sheets Soil-Penetrometer-Sheet

Learning Outcomes

12 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Soil Compaction

Soil Health

Manure Injection

Nutrient Management

Conservation

Conservation Planning

Project Outcomes

12 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$30,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
7 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Impacts

The first impact that has been seen is an unexpected interest in the equipment.  MCCD has a waiting list of four farmers for the spring of 2017 that goes into 2018. These farmers wanted to aerate in 2016, but MCCD chose to discontinue aeration during the drought as aeration did not appear to be effective during the height of the drought.  This continued into 2017 where some people on the waiting list will have to wait until 2018 for access to the Merrimack County Conservation District aerator. 

One of the farms that was aerated during the drought (Steve Cochrane) will be re-worked in 2018 as Mr. Glines stated the tines did not penetrate. The four farms on our waiting list were priorities until 2017 and the Cochrane farm will be the priority of 2018 post-SARE grant. 

The other impact of the SARE aeration grant was outreach related to Soil Health initiatives.  As MCCD, USDA NRCS, SARE, and other partners work with farmers to improve soil health, soil biodiversity, and productivity, interest in this shared equipment allowed MCCD and NRCS to reach more farmers and discuss aeration, manure injection using the aerator, and other soil health techniques, such as cover cropping, to a new audience of farmers. 

Another impact of the grant is the new idea of adding water tanks to the aerator for the dual purpose of additional weight in order to penetrate the soil more while offering dry soils more water for better aeration.  This modification was made as a result of the drought in 2016.

The final impact of the grant is the idea of using this equipment as a means of manure injection, which was an interest of the project participants.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

This project excelled in the outreach component of the project.  The availability of a shared aerator, the technical assistance provided by the consultant L.A. Glines, the outreach events, and published materials helped in getting important information to the public about Soil Health Initiatives, soil health compaction, aeration, and manure injection in conjunction with aeration.  Numerous farmers were interested in this project and other soil health projects and a long aerator wait list remains in 2018.  

In retrospect, MCCD should have not allowed other farms to use the aerator in Year 2 of this project as Year 1 was a drought year and it appeared to MCCD and consultant L.A. Glines that the dry soils impeded any benefits the aerator would provide for alleviating soil compaction.  In Year 2, larger farms rented the aerator and kept the aerator much longer than originally anticipated, meaning Year 1 farms were not re-aerated.  Since no significant reduction of soil compaction was found, another round of aeration would have provided more positive results.  

Areas of Further Study Needed

This project was initiated in a drought year.  As we worked with the aerator, it was determined that the aerator was ineffective and did not penetrate the soil in dry soils.  For this reason, the aerator was pulled out of service until it began to rain again.  We also added water tanks to the aerator so that it would add weight to the tines and drop water while aerating.  This delay caused both a backlog in the farms interested in using the aerator and minimal results in reduction of compaction in farms that used it in Year 1.  MCCD intends to re-do the soil tests in 2018 and re-do the aeration in Year 1 farms, which did not occur in Year 2 due to a long list of farmers wishing to use the equipment.  This further aeration and soil tests will help better understand the benefits of aeration.  

Information Products

  • Aeration Fact Sheet (Fact Sheet)
  • Soil Penetrometer Fact Sheet (Fact Sheet)
  • Soils & Aeration (Fact Sheet)
  • 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.