Indicators and Soil Conservation Practices for Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $312,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2020
Grant Recipient: Tarleton State University
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Barbara Bellows
Tarleton State University/ TIAER

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage, continuous cropping, cover crops, crop rotation, nutrient cycling, nutrient management, ridge tillage, strip tillage
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, focus group, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: Environmental Marketing Systems
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, indicators, strip cropping
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil analysis, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Government agencies, environmental organizations, and natural resource users are addressing the increasingly obvious impacts of global climate change by setting targets for carbon dioxide mitigation and seeking effective methods for carbon sequestration. Numerous researchers (Six et al., 2000; Lal, 2004) have shown that soil conservation practices can enhance soil carbon sequestration (SCS). The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified existing conservation practices with the potential for enhancing SCS. While the Economic Research Service (ERS) determined that agriculture can provide low-cost opportunities for sequestering carbon, it also noted that carbon payments will only be cost-effective if carbon is sequestered over the long term (Lewandrawski et al., 2004).

    This proposal seeks to identify and promote soil health indicators that assess, and associated conservation practices that enhance, long-term SCS on small, family-owned farms and ranches in the southern Great Plains. A collaborative team of soil health experts and from land grant (Texas A&M AgriLife) and non-land grant (Tarleton State University – TSU) universities, NRCS, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and the National Center for Alternative Technology (NCAT) will work together with farmers and ranchers to simultaneously identify and test farm-based and highly replicable technical assessments of SCS. The farm-based SCS indicators will provide critical tools to promote on-farm and on-ranch (hereafter referred to collectively as farms) adoption of conservation practices that enhance SCS. The technical SCS assessments will provide prerequisite monitoring tools for the adoption of policies that could provide producers with economic incentives for carbon sequestering farming practices, such as carbon trading or NRCS cost-share payments. 

    Designed as a participatory and multidisciplinary project, this project will involve ranchers, farmers, NRCS and NCAT specialists, and a TSU sociologist, to identify farm-relevant soil health indicators while Texas A&M AgriLife, ARS, and TSU soil and plant scientists will analyze the correlation between these soil health indicators and long-term SCS. Farmer and ranchers (hereafter referred to collectively as farmers) involvement will be critical in the conceptualization and coordination of project outreach, policy development, and research activities. Multiple communication systems, including one-on-one interactions, in-person coordination meetings, and electronic media, will be used throughout the project to ensure that all participants are informed of project activities and have the ability to provide their input into project development and implementation.

    We will use a chronosequence to analyze the impact of land management practices on SCS. By involving farmers engaged in conventional no-cover row cropping, no-till row cropping, and no-till row cropping with cover crops, we will be able to assess soil characteristics associated with different land uses. Also, by including farmers involved in a broad range of production practices, this project will facilitate dialogues that may help identify outreach methods that are most effective in encouraging implementation of SCS-enhancing practices.

    This project builds on existing activities of partner agencies and organizations while creating new venues for dialogues and research interactions among these partners. Project interactions will only allow for the identification of indicators of SCS, while facilitate the on-going study and promotion of soil health across Texas.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The following objectives will be addressed and fulfilled throughout the project in a process that is integrated, iterative, critically reflective, and allows for flexibility as participants use information to transition toward improvement.

    1. Build interdisciplinary and intersectoral partnerships among farmers, land managers, researchers, technical support specialists, and agricultural input providers with the objective of identifying indicators of SCS and promoting the use of agricultural management practices to enhance soil health and SCS.
      1. Engage all participants in project development and implementation through the formation of on-line and face-to-face communication networks.
      2. Through collaborative interactions between researchers and land managers, identify and describe in detail, current and historical farming practices of land to be used in soil research studies and the current and historical conservation practice decision making processes of the manager and / or prior managers of the land.
    2. Assess relationships between land management practices and technical assessments of SCS, including rate of water infiltration, a variety of SOC assessments method of bulk soils, SOC in microaggegates, microbial respiration, phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) assessments of bacterial:fungal community ratios, and mycorrhizal fungi abundance in the soil based on genomic analyses.
      1. Assess and identify differences in priority SCS assessments among the various cropping and grazing systems analyzed.
      2. Through collaborative interactions between researchers and farmers, conduct soil health assessments on fields that were sampled for technical analyses of SCS.
      3. Assess relationships between priority technical SCS analyses and land manager-relevant soil heath indicators.
      4. Assess relationships between priority technical SCS analyses and conservation practices that enhance SCS as defined by NRCS conservation practice standards.
      5. Assess relationships between priority technical SCS assessments and agricultural and SCS criteria identified by carbon credit aggregators.
    3. Use, during integrated meetings of researchers, technical support personnel, and land managers, information obtained through Objectives 1 and 2 to identify critical conservation practices, indicators of soil quality, indicators of SCS, and benefits of these practices. Based on these discussions:
      1.  And initial research results, revise research assessments to focus on priority indicators of SCS and soil quality.
      2.  Create and present outreach information on conservation-based land management practices and benefits.
      3. Develop strategies for engaging in policy and potential farm payment discussions with personnel with the Texas State Office of NRCS and with carbon credit aggregators.
    4. Engage all project participants, including farmers and ranchers, in the development of peer-to-peer interactions and outreach meetings designed to encourage additional farmers to implement enhanced soil conservation practices.
      1. Develop and implement farmer group meetings and peer-to-peer interactions through interactions involving project researchers, technical support personnel, and farmers.
      2. Develop and maintain project websites to enhance outreach to and communication among project participants, including farmers and technical support personnel.
      3. Develop and implement outreach to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension personnel and other farm technical support personnel to enhance discussions regarding soil conservation practices and the potential for enhancing farmer access to support payments for SCS.
      4. Develop and implement on-farm and in-person, as well as web-based trainings and interactions to provide information about research objectives and results and to use this information to further promote the implementation of soil conservation practices.
    5. Enhance implementation of soil conservation practices by encouraging NRCS and policy personnel to integrate project research results into NRCS conservation standards or other farm-based economic incentives to promote SCS and the implementation of soil conservation practices.
      1. Use project research results to identify the purpose, criteria, considerations, plans and specifications, and operations and maintenance of SCS practices to be integrated into NRCS conservation practice standards.
      2. Use project research results to identify combinations of existing NRCS conservation practices that may be combined to effectively enhance SCS.
      3. Use information from farmer/rancher/dairymen interactions to help set practice payment rates and processes for prioritizing SCS-enhancing practices in the development of NRCS contracts.
      4. Work with carbon credit aggregators to develop accreditation methods and carbon payment processes for farmers implementing SCS-enhancing practices.
      5. Encourage implementation of SCS-enhancing practices in other locations through participation of project participants in professional meetings and conferences.
    6. Ensure effective project implementation, data collection and analysis, and outreach interactions through evaluation processes involving on-going participatory project documentation, critical interactions among internal participants, and feedback from participants involved in meetings or other program interactions.
      1. Coordinate, at the minimum, quarterly meetings among all project participants to discuss and evaluate project implementation, integration of project implementation, and effectiveness of internal and external communication processes.
      2. Monitor adherence of project research, interaction, and outreach processes to stated project timelines.
      3. Coordinate regular meetings among researchers to compare, evaluate, and integrate research data.
      4. Develop evaluation tools to assess effectiveness of outreach processes to farmers, technical support professionals, extension personnel, and researchers.
      5. Implement on-going processes for modifying project implementation processes to address issues and concerns identified through evaluation processes.
    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.