Investigating whether soil health systems improve field workability and quality of life

Soil health management systems (SHMS), including reduced tillage and cover crops, are a key component of Minnesota’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, expected to reduce both N and P loadings by taking up excess nutrients,slowing and reducing surface runoff. In addition to these public benefits, experienced SHMS farmers claim that improved water infiltration and soil structure allow them more rapid field access after precipitation events, adding critical days of field work during busy spring and fall periods. These extra days not only provide agronomic benefits including timely planting and weed control, but relieve some of the intense stress of managing a complex operation on a tight timeline with unpredictable weather. This farmer claim has not been scientifically evaluated, despite its social and economic significance and potential to serve as a valuable outreach message to increase adoption of SHMS and manage water quality and quantity. 

Our objectives are to:

  1. Assess the soil response to rainfall under different management systems (e.g., soil moisture and soil structure, such that soil may bear equipment despite high moisture levels).
  2. Estimate field working days and their economic impacts with SHMS and conventional systems.
  3. Explore the importance of field working days for farmer quality of life and stress levels.

These objectives require a multi-disciplinary approach. To address Objective 1, the mechanism by which SHMS may improve field workability, we will continue a study piloted in 2019 by Cates, Vetsch, Johnson and Lazarus at the Southern Research and Outreach Center, evaluating penetration resistance, soil moisture, and soil aggregate stability before and after rainfall events in different tillage and cover crop regimes. We will expand measurements to six on-farm sites in south-central MN, pairing three long-term SHMS systems with three conventional, full-width tillage sites, to evaluate maximum potential benefit. Dr. Lazarus will use the soil measurements to model field working days with and without SHMS, estimating economic benefit in Objective 2. Krekelberg will lead a survey of farmers in Objective 3, targeting some experienced SHMS farmers via membership in the MN Soil Health Coalition and the Sustainable Farming Association, and a more conventional population via statewide commodity group communication channels. These assessments will be integrated into outreach materials for the MN Office for Soil Health, SFA and MNSHC, with messaging designed to reach middle adopters who are not motivated by conservation alone.

The proposed work represents a unique attempt to connect soil structural, hydrologic, logistical, and social considerations of a SHMS. A robust scientific design will provide graduate training and at least one academic publication. Working with local and statewide stakeholders and farmers will bring the data beyond the university with the goal and potential for supporting agroecological transformation for water quality in Minnesota.