Amid farmers’ ever-increasing enthusiasm for soil health there remains considerable uncertainty about how best to measure it, to interpret the results, and to adapt agricultural land management accordingly. To address this, research on over 250 farm fields across Wisconsin is being conducted to document how the adoption of cover crops, more diverse cash crop rotations, and no-till influences soil health. Due to the participating farms’ disparate field histories, annual weather, and soils, preliminary results show inconclusive results. The demand for information connecting farm management and soil health remains, however, as does the potential to capitalize on the multiple agronomic and environmental benefits that enhanced soil health brings.
This SARE-funded project will result in complementary research that leverages five existing, long-term research station trials in Wisconsin, collectively representing variations in crop rotations and management that represent the majority of cropland in the region. In addition to routine soil analyses, soils will be tested for potentially mineralizable carbon (PMC), potentially mineralizable nitrogen (PMN), and permanganate oxidizeable carbon (POxC). These are three leading soil health measurements that are quick and affordable for farmers, have been adopted by several soil testing laboratories, and focus on biological nutrient cycling. Biological nutrient cycling is essential to soil fertility and its significance is reinforced by numerous studies that have found that crops take up more nitrogen from soils (due to mineralization of soil organic matter by soil microbes) than from applied fertilizers.
By identifying which management practices have the greatest effect on biological nutrient cycling, farmers will be able to make more informed decisions about how to build the natural fertility of their soil and reduce their dependency on synthetic inputs. Adoption of such practices (e.g. cover crops, or no-till) will have the added benefit of reducing nutrient and sediment loading in waterways, thus conserving vital topsoil and protecting surface and groundwater water quality.
Results from this research will be communicated to farmers, crop consultants and other agricultural stakeholders through on-farm and research station field days, conferences, Discovery Farms newsletters, and a peer-reviewed publication. Evaluation of farmer knowledge will be conducted at the start and finish of field day and Extension events, and through the monitoring of changes in behavior of Discovery Farms participants.
Project objectives from proposal:
This research will identify the degree that long-term implementation of best management practices (BMPs) influences soil health in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, with a focus on biological nutrient cycling. Results will be shared with farmers, crop consultants, fertilizer and seed dealers, and conservation professionals via the UW- Discovery Farms newsletter, presentations at a minimum of three field days and three conferences, and a peer-reviewed journal publication. Added clarity about the connection of farm management to biological nutrient cycling will increase the agricultural community’s familiarity with soil health tests and their value.
The results from this research will offer additional justification for farmer adoption of BMPs that reduce (1) soil erosion, (2) nutrient runoff from fields, and (3) farmers’ dependency on off-farm inputs. Such adoption will be monitored through direct farmer contact via the Discovery Farms program. Heightened awareness and action will lead to greater availability and use of soil health tests at soil testing laboratories.