Guest Post: Digging in to Soil Research on Working Farms in Iowa and Beyond

By Renee Hulshof, The Soil Health Partnership

 A Soil Health Partnership field manager examines roots from cover crops.

A Soil Health Partnership field manager examines roots from cover crops.

Karen Seipold, who farms alongside her husband Bret near Hastings, Iowa, likes to know how everything works on the farm, so she can be a part of the decisions that make the family’s farming business more successful. And that starts with the ground itself.

“The very basic level of agriculture is the soil,” Seipold said.

It was her natural curiosity about improving their land that led the couple to enroll in the Soil Health Partnership. It’s a project to measure on working farms how practices like cover crops, strip till, no-till, and nutrient management can improve soil, increase yields, and protect the environment—all while improving the ever-shrinking bottom line.  

Karen & Bret Seipold on their Hastings farm

The SHP has started its fourth year and has high hopes for transformative soil data results that will contribute to positive changes in the way America farms.

A farmer-led initiative of the National Corn Growers Association, the SHP vision is driven by initial and continuing funding and guidance from NCGA, Monsanto, the Walton Family Foundation and USDA, with technical support from The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. The SHP also received $4 million pledge in 2016 from the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, backed by Cargill, the Environmental Defense Fund, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Unilever, Land O’ Lakes, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund.

The Seipolds are experimenting with cover crops, and working with an agronomist and SHP field manager Elyssa McFarland to collect data on results. They grew cereal rye in test strips on a portion of their farm this year. 

“The nice thing about cover crops is they help hold the soil in place after harvest and before we plant the new crop,” Karen Seipold said. “Those are some fragile times, where you can get some heavy rains, where it can wash away your hard work, even with no-till. We’re hoping that with the cover crop in place, it will hold the soil in place and also take up excess nitrogen that we’d like to have used at that time, rather than have it washed away.”

 Iowa Field Manager Elyssa McFarland

Iowa Field Manager Elyssa McFarland

Currently, there are more than 65 farms enrolled in the program across nine Midwestern states. In Iowa alone, there are 20 existing farms with several more coming on board in 2017.  The program recently announced it will expand to 100 farms this year, making it the largest network of its kind.

Seipold is excited for the possibilities with the use of cover crops and the family’s participation in the research. She notes that she wants practices that both improve and enhance their business profitability and protect the environment.

"On-farm studies like this one are the best,” she said. “A field test done in north central Iowa might not be as beneficial to us down here in southwest Iowa where our soils and terrain are different. It’s just better to have research nearby than try to use something from two states away.”

Another Iowa farmer looking for those research results is Steve Berger.  Steve and his family have a corn and soybean farm in Wellman, Iowa, alongside a pig finish operation. Steve’s father had a strong conservation ethic, and began implementing no-till on the land in the 1970s. It was a natural progression to begin putting in cereal rye.

 Steve Berger checking out the soil on his Wellman, Iowa farm

Steve Berger checking out the soil on his Wellman, Iowa farm

He believes data gathered by SHP could be helpful in showing others what’s possible with cover crops and no-till.  As an early adopter, he has seen strong improvements in his soil – and his yields, which track above-average – from years of cover crops and no-till.

“I think it’s possible to marry the two ideas of soil conservation and crop production, and the Soil Health Partnership is the perfect group to do this,” he said.

Nick Goeser, director of the Soil Health Partnership says he believes farmers like the Seipolds, Bergers and others will see success with new practices, and lead other farmers in Iowa and elsewhere to embrace those practices.

“Each day, farmers like the Seipolds and Steve Berger work towards improving their soil and the environment while also meeting their bottom line,” said Goeser. “With the research of the Soil Health Partnership, I am confident that we will continue building momentum, and farmers will accelerate the pace of adopting additional sustainable practices— confident that they are preserving the environment for future generations, while still providing food, fuel and fiber for the current one.”

To learn more about the Soil Health Partnership, visit Soilhealthpartnership.org. Follow on Facebook at SoilHealthPartners and on Twitter @soilpartners.