There is increasing interest among farmers to manage for soil health because of its associated benefits to ecosystem services such as productivity, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, and water quality. Graziers in the North Central Region want to incorporate best management practices for soil health and monitor improvements in soil health on their farms. However, many questions remain unanswered: what soil health tests are most beneficial and accessible for farmers, what are the relative impacts of management and inherent soil properties on soil health indicators, and what can farmers expect from improved soil health regarding ecosystem services.
The research project “Evaluating the relationships between pasture management, soil health and ecosystem services through on-farm monitoring” will characterize biological and physical soil health indicators across Wisconsin pastures of various management. We have collaborated with graziers, local conservationists and educators, and other stakeholders to design the project to address the following objectives:
1) Determine the value of soil health testing of pastures and regionally benchmark soil health for Wisconsin pastures
2) Evaluate the importance of management factors and inherent soil properties on indicators of soil health and develop recommendations for best management practices in pastures.
3) Connect soil health indicators to ecosystem services, including productivity and greenhouse gas emissions.
Thirty graziers located in the Driftless and Central regions of Wisconsin will participate in this research. For each farm, we will evaluate three pastures of different management or productivity, for a total of 90 pastures, in order to assess how the variability of management practices may impact soil health. The information generated from on-farm research will increase farmers’ and other stakeholders’ understanding of soil health indicators and what management practices can improve soil health. Greater adoption of these best management practices by farmers in the North Central Region should lead to improved productivity, reduced economic risk, greater profitability, protection of soil and water quality resources, and improved livelihoods in their communities.
Project objectives from proposal:
The expected learning outcomes for this research are as follows: 1) participating graziers will learn how the soil health of their pastures vary within their own farms and how they compare to other pastures in their region and the state; 2) graziers, educators, conservationists, agency, and researchers will improve their understanding of soil health indicators and testing, how the management of pastures can influence soil health and how improved soil health might impact ecosystem services; 3) researchers will learn which fields and scenarios will be most insightful to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions in the next stage of the project.
The expected action outcomes for this research are as follows: 1) producers will use reliable and cost-effective soil health tests when appropriate for their management goals, 2) producers will incorporate identified best management practices associated with higher soil health, 3) agency, conservationists and educators will integrate this information into educational events, including field days, conferences, pasture walks, individual consulting, and others, and 4) the second year of research will be developed to measure greenhouse gas emissions on certain pastures based on results generated from the SARE grant.