“Behold, our living soil,” were the words displayed in front of a room full of farmers and ranchers who are regenerating healthier soil and new farmland management systems because of a program that is inspiring collaboration, communication and a genuine connection between people to improve one of earth’s most vital resources — soil.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Nebraska Soil Health Initiative is a partnership between NRCS and participating farmers across Nebraska, “to demonstrate soil health management systems applicable to various regions of Nebraska, allowing other farmers across the state to have a local opportunity to experience the results of soil health focused management first-hand.”

The NRCS Soil Health Demonstration Initiative works with farmers across Nebraska to try different soil health practices on their farms and ranches. That information is then shared with their neighbors locally and across the state to provide real-time, on-the-ground results.

“Knowing your neighbor has had success trying a new soil health practice makes it more likely you’ll give it a try rather than reading about a farmer in a neighboring county or state,” said Aaron Hird, state soil health specialist. “One of the main objectives for implementing local demonstration projects with farmers across Nebraska is to develop partnerships. NRCS is partnering with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Extension and the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network. Utilizing these partnerships allows for much bigger success on these projects and builds synergistic opportunities. This has resulted in UNL hosting the research initiative and the collaborative work building upon the collective database of soil health information in all of the partnering programs.”

Involved with this first-ever endeavor are farmer collaborators from 17 counties — Chase, Cheyenne, Colfax, Custer, Dodge, Franklin, Greeley, Howard, Keith, Knox, Lincoln, Merrick, Nemaha, Otoe, Seward, Sherman and Stanton. The farmers involved were invited to attend the event held at Holthus Convention Center in York, Neb., along with supporting Nebraska Extension Educators and NRCS field staff.

“We have had a great time investigating the diversity of projects implemented on these 17 demonstration fields around the state at the meeting,” Hird pointed out. “I cannot stress enough this meeting was all about partnerships — farmers and the NRCS partnering with UNL Extension educators on the ground, the UNL Agronomy Department analyzing data and the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network publishing the studies, has really propelled these projects to greater success.”

Hird explained the Nebraska NRCS Soil Health Demonstration Farm concept is targeting adaptive cover crop management. Those involved in the effort are looking at the use of cover crops on the same acres after each cash crop for five or six years. They are also expanding from a standard rotation to a more diverse rotation to promote soil health, and they are randomly replicating a treatment four or more times to quantify measurable results. The economic impact of each new treatment is being evaluated, as well.

In addition, Hird went on, each of the demonstration partner farmers are conducting field days for outreach and training. Those involved have collected field data, field condition notes/pictures, economic inputs and agronomic information. Each project must utilize continuous no-till with no row disturbance, conduct annual soils testing providing a soil health score, and compare or utilize a short-season variety vs. a long-season variety.

Many of the locations involved in this five-year on-farm project are currently three years underway.

“The comparison treatments were developed with the farmers to answer questions they had about soil health management,” Hird said.

The topics being studied at the 17 locations statewide include monoculture cover crops vs. high-diversity cover crop mixes, grazed vs. ungrazed cover crops, cover crop vs. no cover crop, nitrogen management of corn following cover crops, and early termination of cover crops vs. later termination.

Hird said the goal is to get every farmer and rancher to see the benefits of unlocking the potential of the soil beneath their feet.

“Living soil can be built and answers can be attained locally,” he said. “Each of these projects has a unique set of circumstances applicable to the area. Anyone interested can contact their local NRCS office, find information online or contact any of the UNL partners.”

“I just want to leave the farm better off for my kids than it is right now,” said Joe Sack, a Howard County farmer who is involved with the project, during group discussion. Hird said this is a common objective near to the heart of the farmers participating.

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Kerry Hoffschneider can be reached at kerry.hoffschneider@midwestmessenger.com.