New program supports soil health experimentation

Anne Pfeiffer
Group of farms across Wisconsin were all part of the inaugural year of a new effort supporting Wisconsin farmers in conducting their own on-farm soil health research.

During the 2021 growing season, a network of farmers across Wisconsin took a step further to improve soil health on their farms. Interested in not only trying new practices but objectively assessing their impacts, these farms worked together to create a coordinated multi-site field trial. This approach allowed them to observe how a practice performs, not just on their own farm but among others in their community and across WI.

These farms were all part of the inaugural year of a new effort supporting Wisconsin farmers in conducting their own on-farm soil health research. The program recognizes that farmers are constantly experimenting on their own farms, and that many want to see how new practices work on their own land and on nearby farms, to better assess how an approach can be adapted to their specific climate and soil conditions.

By structuring their trials to ensure the collection of objective, non-biased data, farmers gain better quality information about the impacts of soil health practices on their farms. This information gives them the power to make more informed decisions about implementing new tools and strategies that will work for their farming operation.

Ideas for experimentation are proposed and led by farmers with support from university staff. Staff can help fine-tune farm-appropriate data collection methods and assist with results analysis. A central role of the program includes sharing information and connecting farms across the state who are interested in similar ideas. The network is open to all WI farmers interested in practices that support regenerative agriculture and soil health.

Soil health principles

Conversations during the winter and early spring of 2020-2021 led the group to choose a focus on interseeding as their first project. Soil health is often described by five soil health principles: armoring the soil, minimizing soil disturbance, enhancing plant diversity, maintaining continuous living roots, and integrating livestock.

In pursuit of implementing practical production approaches that support these principles, farmers were seeking strategies to broaden the windows for planting a cover crop during or after the corn phase of the crop rotation. Farmers are often limited to seeding cereal rye after corn harvest, as many other cover crop species will not germinate and establish in cooler conditions of September through November.

However, collaborators hypothesized that interseeding a diverse cover crop mix into standing corn early in the season, at or before the V3 corn growth stage, might allow the cover crop mix to more strongly establish before corn canopy closure and put on adequate growth to allow persistence following corn harvest.

If successful, this practice could move the needle toward many of the five soil health principles: increasing diversity by opening up a much wider range of species available for practical cover crop use on WI farms, providing soil coverage and living roots through a greater proportion of the year, and, on some farms, providing forage to allow for the integration of livestock via grazing.

Data analysis underway

Collaborating farmers agreed on a general approach, aligning their practices as much as possible while using typical equipment and methods representative of their farming operation. Data was collected through the 2021 growing season, in collaboration with farmers, NRCS, County Land and Water offices, and UW staff. Data analysis is underway and will be ready to share in the coming weeks.

Going forward, specific research topics will be up to the collaborating farmers to determine, with a continued focus on soil health. In 2022, the network plans to continue interseeding research and will add additional projects based on farmer interest.

Any individuals interested in learning more about the project are invited to attend the winter meeting on Jan. 31, 2022 at the UW Arlington Research Station. For more information, email Anne Pfeiffer, On-farm Research Network Program Manager, or 608-263-4153.

Anne Pfeiffe

Pfeiffer is the on-farm research network program manager