DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Chase Brown was interested to see what cover crops can and can't do. "We hear about all the benefits; however, there was little research to prove or disprove," said the Warrensburg, Illinois, farmer, who farms with his father, David, and uncle, Joe.
The chance to join the Soil Health Partnership, an initiative of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), offered the Brown family a unique opportunity to do these studies on their own farm. "By doing side-by-side strips across the field using cover crops and conventional tillage methods, we can get an idea of the long-term effects over the next five years," Chase said.
In its third year, the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) is working together with farmers to establish explore practices that can improve soil health. Over a five-year period, the SHP helps farmer participants identify, test and measure farm management practices that improve soil health. Farmers in the program map out trials and collect data with the help of staff field managers and agronomists.
Nick Goeser, SHP director, said farmers active in the effort find themselves becoming part detective, part economist, part environmentalist and part publicist as they share what they've learned. "We're trying to set up a demonstration network so that farmers can learn from other farmers what's working and what's not working in their individual efforts to adopt economically sound conservation practices," he said. So far the top three practices being examined are cover crops, conservation tillage and prescription nutrient management.
Goeser said the beauty of the project is that it is farmer-led and results in sharing of information among peers. DTN saw that in action last week in Indianapolis when more than 140 farmers, industry leaders, environmental groups, government officials and scientists met to share what they are learning.
NCGA Chief Executive Office Chris Novak noted that the Soil Health Partnership is bringing a unique set of people and organizations together on common ground to benefit soil, the lifeblood of agriculture. He also stressed the need to quantify results. "As we talk to the regulators and lawmakers in Washington, we have to be able to prove that the practices we are using on the farm today are going to make a difference tomorrow in terms of environmental quality," Novak told the group.
"We have to be able to demonstrate better nutrient utilization and we have to find ways in terms of carbon sequestration. We also have to document and demonstrate that same progress the food companies that are establishing sustainability standards -- that are being done for consumers, but are trickling down to farmers."
Novak added that market forces are mandating many of the soil health aspects farmers will face in the future. Novak acknowledged that asking farmers to spend money on practices for conservation that don't necessarily generate a monetary return becomes an additional challenge in the face of commodity prices that are at or below the cost of production.
"I know the ethic is there. I know the commitment is there for conservation and protection of the environment," Novak said. "But if at the same time the economics aren't there, we can't ask you to do more to go further to meet these long-term ideals."
That's where SHP comes in -- the program is being looked at as a tool to prove the economic benefit of cover crops and improving soil health. "If we can capture the data, it helps us tell that story," Novak said.
Goeser told DTN the door remains open for farmers interested in participating in this group. The group hopes to have 60 farms enrolled in 2016. Interested growers can learn more about the effort at http://soilhealthpartnership.org/… or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.email@example.com
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