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 is Launched, Receives USDA Grant
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.
The Minnesota Office for Soil Health was recently awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The $885,000 grant will support several activities, including monitoring of soil health properties on sites across the state to see how the properties relate to management practices and farming goals. An online portal and field events will help farmers and agricultural advisors meet and learn from other farmers who have experience with soil health practices.
Partners on the project include 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.
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.