The Soil Organic Carbon network (SOCnet): Farmers building soil assets to help mitigate and adapt to climate change in the North Central US

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $249,738.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2025
Grant Recipient: UW-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:


  • Agronomic: annual ryegrass, clovers, corn, hay, medics/alfalfa, oats, peas (field, cowpeas), radish (oilseed, daikon, forage), sorghum sudangrass, soybeans, triticale, wheat, Various cover crop mixtures
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage, cover crops, cropping systems, crop rotation, double cropping, intercropping, no-till, relay cropping, strip tillage, zone till
  • Education and Training: decision support system, farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Climate change is an existential threat to humanity. Unpredictable and extreme weather puts significant pressure on farmers to produce food and feed for a growing population while simultaneously dealing with fluctuating yields, erratic markets, and unreliable income. Building soil organic carbon (SOC) provides a means of increasing on-farm climate resilience. As SOC accumulates, soil structure and water holding capacity improve, nutrient retention and mineralization increase, and soils are protected from the devastating effects of erosion1. What’s more, the world’s agricultural soils, depleted by centuries of extractive management, have a large capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and mitigate climate change2. Public and private efforts are constructing markets to compensate farmers for soil carbon sequestration, but accurate assessment is critical to de-risking these efforts. Short-term assessments of surface soils and the use of space as a surrogate for time dominate most efforts to track soil carbon, but these approaches lack the scientific rigor required to assess SOC accrual or loss. Carbon sequestration is a slow and variable process that requires long-term monitoring of entire soil profiles while accounting for potential alterations to bulk density to accurately track change. The Soil Organic Carbon network (SOCnet), a farmer-scientist collaboration, will help to build on-farm resilience to climate change and prepare farmers to engage in emerging carbon markets by evaluating farming practices designed to build SOC and accurately tracking their effectiveness. SOCnet puts control in the hands of famers rather than the private sector and will set the standard for accurate accounting of soil carbon credits. SOCnet will link producer-driven on-farm research throughout the North Central US with long-term cropping systems experiments in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These long-term experiments play a critical role in our understanding of SOC sequestration in the prairie-derived soils of the US Corn Belt. However, because SOC dynamics are strongly influenced by soil and climate factors, multi-location assessment is needed, and on-farm collaborative experimentation is ideal for addressing this limitation. SOCnet will focus on farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer through state and regional field days and regular network meetings, fostering growth over time. SOCnet will empower farmers by creating tools to track, interpret, and document on-farm carbon stocks to meet their soil health goals, build resilience, and prepare for carbon market opportunities. The knowledge generated though SOCnet will further serve to inform state and local government planning and policy development throughout the North Central US.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Evaluate the carbon sequestration potential of alternative farming through long-term monitoring of SOC stocks on-farm and Long-term experiments throughout the North Central Region.
    2. Address major discrepancies in SOC projections from surface-soil estimates, and space-for-time experiments, with longitudinal deep carbon data collected by SOCnet.
    3. Position farmers to reach their soil health objectives, participate in market opportunities, and maintain ownership of the C sequestration narrative, by developing the tools needed to track, interpret, and document on-farm carbon stocks.

    This work will help farmers realize new income opportunities and verify the climate mitigation potential of working lands.  

    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.