BWSR works with partner agencies to increase the usefulness of current soils data, promote practices that improve soil health, update soil surveys in the state, and provide technical support and training to local governments.
Minnesota Office for Soil Health: Research and Outreach Activities
BWSR is partnering with the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center (WRC) to establish the Minnesota Office for Soil Health, with the mission of building local expertise to promote soil health and soil and water conservation. Research and outreach will expand the tools and skills of Minnesota’s local conservation delivery community, and promote understanding of the economic impacts of soil and water management practices.
The mission of the initiative is to protect and improve soil resources and water quality by developing the knowledge, skills and abilities of local experts to more effectively promote sustainable soil and land management. In particular, the initiative will emphasize the importance of soil health and the water quality and economic impacts of applied land and water management practices.
Farmers and other land managers are becoming more and more interested in practices that improve soil health. Soil health practices, such as reduced tillage and cover crops, have the potential to improve agricultural profitability by reducing input costs and increasing productivity. At the same time, they may help protect water resources by increasing the water holding capacity of soil and reducing the transport of pollutants to streams and lakes.
Since establishment in 2018, MOSH has contributed to NRCS Basics of Soil Health training, partnered with University of Minnesota Extension to present the annual Soil Management Summit, and delivered numerous educational talks to local farmers, conservation staff, and farm advisors around Minnesota. MOSH invited stakeholders to 2019 and 2020 Soil Health Forums, and regularly convenes stakeholders from UMN Extension and local government units to coordinate and increase soil health adoption.
MOSH brings in external funding to support research and development of resources for field staff. MOSH is currently leading development of the Minnesota Cover Crop Guide, highlighting state-specific research, and leads the Minnesota update of the Midwest Cover Crop Council cover crop selection tool. Dr. Anna Cates, State Soil Health Specialist is collaborating with several University researchers to incorporate soil health into studies on water management, drainage, manure, grassland-based agriculture, and more.
The centerpiece of MOSH research is a three-year soil health NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant project aimed at developing a better understanding of how our cold climate soils respond to soil health management systems. Two years of on-farm data have been collected to inform baseline expectations of soil health indicators across the state. Rainfall simulations and infiltration measurements will help to connect these indicators with climate change and water quality outcomes. An online database is under development to share this, and other regional data, with farm managers and decision-makers to inform soil health management.
Though Covid-19 slowed outreach efforts, case studies and 2021 field events will help farmers and agricultural advisors meet and learn from other farmers who have experience with soil health practices. This project has relied upon and built a strong network of community partners, including the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources; University of Minnesota Departments of Soil, Water, and Climate, Forest Resources, and Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering; Minnesota Supercomputing Institute; Sustainable Farming Association; Stearns Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Mower SWCD, Sauk Watershed District; and the University of Wisconsin - River Falls.
See the Soil Health Project Update, February 1, 2021 (pdf) for further details.
Find out more about MOSH at mosh.umn.edu, and follow on Twitter @MNsoil.
Soil Health: A New Paradigm
Soil health initiatives are gaining ground across Minnesota. Soil health is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans." Traditional theories of soil management focused on physical and chemical features of soil and emphasized addition of nutrients to sustain crop yields. There is now a growing awareness of the role that soil biology plays in sustaining crop productivity and supporting healthy ecosystems. "Soil livestock" - the soil bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, and other animals the live in or move through the soil -- are critical to soil health. They can support decomposition and nutrient cycling, leading to healthy plant growth, control soil erosion, improve water availability, and protect crops from pests and diseases.
The basic principles of soil health, as detailed in the linked resources below, are:
- Minimize soil disturbance. Tillage, overgrazing, or misapplication of farm inputs can result in bare or compacted soil, disrupted soil habitat, increased soil temperature, and increased runoff and erosion.
- Keep the soil covered as much as possible. Living plants and mulch buffer the soil from weather extremes.
- Maximize plant diversity. Crop rotations and cover crops support diverse soil microorganisms and the soil food web.
- Keep living roots in the soil throughout the year. The soil/root interface, or rhizosphere, is where the most intense microbial activity takes place, feeding soil microbes and the soil food web.
- Integrate livestock where possible. Controlled grazing can improve soil health through hoof action, insect consumption, gleaning following harvest, and direct application of manure where feasible.