Soil Health Nexus – New Resource

There is a new resource with information about soil health which may be of interest to the public as well as farmers. The Soil Health Nexus was started with a grant from the North Central Region Water Network. It pools the knowledge of 12 land grant universities. Its initial focus is on manure and manure management but it appears they will expand beyond this at some point.

The website states that the goals of the Soil Health Nexus are:

  • Maintain and grow our inventory of soil health research, training, and educational resources.
  • Produce regional publications, videos, webinars, and blogs relevant to soil health and manure research and management practices.
  • Develop regional research projects to promote conservation systems and practices such as cover crops, and no-till technologies that will lead to the improvement of soil and water quality in the region.
  • Form a research and education technical committee that will serve as a regional infrastructure for future development of new science in the area of soil health and manure management.
  • Continuing to grow participation among land—grant researchers, Extension staff and educators, and other partners to ensure access to locally relevant soil health and manure information across the North Central Region.
  • Build capacity in each state’s Land Grant system to deliver soil health training, research, and resources.

The Nexus has various informational articles and a blog. So far blog posts have been focused on the role of manure and manure management in soil health but should have additional content in the near future.


Report – March 30 Cover Crops Workshop and Field Day

We had a great day March 30 for our Cover Crops Workshop and Field Day. We had 32 in attendance, 24 farmers and while we had to work around thunderstorms we did find a window where we could go out and look over the plots – unfortunately the soil pits had filled up with water from the rains.

Field Day Attendees

The morning program included a presentation from Corey Lacey. Corey is a Purdue University graduate student working with Dr, Shalamar Armstrong on whether nitrogen taken up and stored in cover crops is available the following crop year. Research is ongoing with this but the ultimate answer is, “some is available but it will take more research to determine exactly how much.” Hopefully at some point there will be enough research where this impact can be determined more precisely. We also discussed termination, herbicide carryover, and how this can impact cover crop selection.

As there was a morning window when it wasn’t raining, we took advantage of the situation to head out to the plots. NRCS Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton discussed what he found at the plots and in the soil pits with attendees.

NRSC Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton discussing the plots.

The pits had filled up with water from a combination of water infiltration (it’s been a wet spring here) and rain the night before so these pictures are from the day before when we dug the pits. I’m focusing on root depth because while top growth is nice to look at and offers some benefits, beneath the soil surface is where things are really happening. It may be difficult to see the roots themselves in the pictures so look for the golf tees. Keep in mind that cover crop roots:

  • Increase water holding capacity and infiltration by forming channels
  • Provide a pathway for crop roots to travel, allowing more access to water during dry periods
  • Provide habitat for soil microbes
  • Through decomposition improve soil organic matter and increase nutrient availability
  • Help break up soil compaction layers
  • In the case of legumes provide nitrogen fixation

The cereal rye plot had some good spring growth going on and there were very few weeds present. Mike found roots to 32 inches deep, down to the glacial till layer. As you can see from the picture, the pit started to fill with water running right above that dense till layer as soon as it was dug.

Roots in the Cereal Rye strip.

The second strip was planted to barley, rape and hairy vetch. The growth wasn’t quite as lush as the cereal rye strip but it was coming. Mike found living roots in the soil pit down to 26 inches, right above the glacial till layer.

Roots at 26″ in the barley/rape/vetch strip.

The final strip with spring growth was planted to annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, crimson clover and rape. The rape and vetch were just getting going, the clover was coming in well but was still fairly small and the annual ryegrass had a lot of growth. Mike found a lot of roots in this pit, down to 36″.

Quite a few roots here, down to 36″.

One of the interesting “finds” was that even though short, crimson clover had already started nodulation meaning it was starting to add nitrogen to the soil. I have no idea if this will be a significant amount for the corn we’ll be planting but it will be something to look for this fall during harvest (as I type this we are planning to terminate on April 17 if the weather holds).

If you look closely you can see the nodules forming in the roots of this crimson clover plant.

We always plant one strip to oats and tillage radish because this is a great mix for farmers just getting started with cover crops. Oats and radish both winter kill so it takes away any termination concerns. While you lose some benefit because of no spring growth, it still provides quite a bit. We did not dig deep pits for this or our “check” strip with no cover crops as we would not have found living roots. Keep in mind that last fall we planted the strips on October 18, well past the recommended September 15 date for both of these, based on the Midwest Cover Crops Council Selector Tool. The oats and radish did come up last fall but were pretty small. However even with this situation, the weed population was significantly less than in the straight no-till plots. The main weeds we found were dandelion, chickweed and purple deadnettle. Evidently, even though we planted later than recommended, the cover crops inhibited the germination of the winter annual weeds.

The left side is our strip without cover crops, on the right the oats/radish strip.

While we are not arguing that planting cover crops means you can do without weed control the next year (is anyone arguing this?) since purple deadnettle is a host for soybean cyst nematode (SCN), this mix, even planted late, may provide an advantage when planted ahead of soybeans.

While our plots are for demonstration and education, not research, I did find myself thinking it may be worth doing some weed counts in the future.

Following the plot tour we had a farmer panel featuring Zach Cain, a Montgomery County farmer, Clint Orr, a Clinton County farmers and Justin Mohler, who farms in Boone and Clinton counties. We had a good discussion. Much of it was on specifics such as planting equipment and setup, mixes that did and didn’t work, termination issues – really the nitty-gritty of cover crops.

For the final presentation of the day Brian Daggy shared information from Rulon Farms discussing the 321% return on investment they believe they have received through the use of cover crops.

This was a good day. I hope everyone learned a lot. On the evaluations several farmers said they intended to start planting cover crops and others mentioned new mixes they would try. Thank you to Boone County Farm Bureau for sponsoring lunch and, as always, to the many farmers, agribusinesses, lenders, etc., who have assisted with this project. I look forward to our next field day, sometime this fall.

Field Day – Cover Crops 101

We had a very nice turnout for our March 24 Field Day. We had a total of 24 at the program, 19 farmers, which we were very happy with.

March 24 Attendees
March 24 Attendees

Unfortunately the weather didn’t allow us to be outside that day but we anticipated this might happen and had taken quite a few pictures the day before when we were digging pits and we also had a couple of soil cores taken from fields which had long-term cover crops plantings. As a fringe benefit, we may have gotten a few additional attendees as nobody could do field work.

Boone County SWCD Technician Brian Daggy discussing soil cores with farmers.
Boone County SWCD Conservation Technician Brian Daggy discussing soil cores with farmers.

Our main speaker for the day was NRCS Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton. Mike went through what he found at the pits and discussed the impact cover crops have on soil fertility and health. A substantial part of the morning involved group discussion, almost a round table where farmers shared their experiences and knowledge.

NRCS Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton in one of the pits.
NRCS Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton in one of the pits.

The Plots

We dug six soil pits and here’s a short summary of what was found. Keep in mind that last fall was the first time cover crops have been planted in this area.

Cereal Rye:
We had two different cereal rye plantings. One strip was planted on September 29 and the other was planted November 4. One of the farmers on our advisory committee suggested the late planting of rye to demonstrate how, even if conditions keep you out of the field until late, you can still get a good cover crop stand. The plots demonstrated this nicely. In the earlier planted cereal rye Mike found roots to 32″ deep in a pit with a dense till (glacial till) layer at 36″. He found roots to 33″ deep in the late-planted cereal rye strip.

Cereal Rye. The tee shows where Mike found roots. The water is from lateral movement above the dense till.
Cereal Rye. The tee shows where Mike found roots. The water is from lateral movement above the dense till.
Late-Planted cereal rye showing good early spring growth and root development.
Late-Planted cereal rye showing good early spring growth and root development.

Annual Ryegrass:
Mike found roots 36″ deep in the Annual Ryegrass strip. As expected, there was also a large amount of roots in the top few inches of the soil profile.

Annual Ryegrass.
Annual Ryegrass.

Oats-Annual Ryegrass-Crimson Clover:
This plot was one of our mixes. The oats winter-killed and the clover was just barely starting to come back so most of what was present was annual ryegrass. This was one of the shallower soils with a dense tillage layer at 27″. Mike found roots to 22″. This strip is one where it would be interesting to come back in a few weeks to see how things progress.

Oats-Oilseed Radish:
The oats and oilseed radish both winterkilled. We had a very dry month or so after planting last fall and didn’t have a lot of top growth though our germination was good. This was another shallow soil with glacial till starting at about 25″ deep. One of the interesting things Mike showed us was a permeable area indicated by soil color. This is a point where a cover crop root could penetrate and, over time (a long time) could begin to change the soil structure.

The grey color indicates a permeable area which will allow root penetration.
The grey color indicates a permeable area which will allow root penetration.

We dug a pit at our no-till “check” just to provide a visual contrast to the other plots. As you can see from the picture, there are no roots anywhere, not even in the top few inches. Even though weeds (and there were some) have root systems, they were very shallow and don’t provide much of a benefit.

No-till. You can see chickweed in the upper left of the photo but there are no visible roots, even near the surface.
No-till. You can see chickweed in the upper left of the photo but there are no visible roots, even near the surface.

The soil cores were very interesting as you could see roots 5 feet below the surface (which was the depth of the core).

You can't see the tape measure in this picture but the route identified by the golf tee is at about 60" depth.
You can’t see the tape measure in this picture but the root identified by the golf tee is at about 60″ depth.

This was a productive day with a lot of information shared. It will be interesting to compare these pictures with ones from future years to see if we can find any changes in soil structure, texture, color, etc., over time. It is unrealistic to expect significant changes in just a few months – the color and texture in the no-till strip did not vary significantly from the others – but in a few years we may see quite a bit.

Field Day – Thursday, March 24

We will be having a Field Day at our Education and Demonstration Area on Thursday, March 24. All of the details have not been set but we expect it to run from 9 a.m. to Noon. We will dig soil pits and a soil scientist will walk us through what’s been taking place beneath the surface since we planted cover crops last fall.

We will post additional information once we have all of the details set. For those who are interested, here’s a map of the strip treatments in the area.

Plot Map
Fall, 2015 Strip plantings (not to scale).