In August, Illinois agriculture professionals came together for the first session of the 2022-23 Advanced Soil Health Training hosted by the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP). ISAP developed the Advanced Soil Health Training (ASHT) to support Illinois farmers, retailers, crop advisors, and conservation professionals as they improve their understanding of soil health science and the production management changes needed to maximize on-farm benefits of soil health systems. The intensive classroom and in-field training model spans 18 months, and graduates are encouraged to share what they learn through presentations and field days.
ISAP kicked off this year’s ASHT with a two-day session held on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, providing classroom and in-field education from soil scientists and Midwest farmers about the foundations of soil health. The training cohort also had an opportunity to see healthy soils on an actively managed farm in Champaign County.
To start off the event, an introduction on soil health principles was presented by Barry Fisher, Retired Central Team Leader and Soil Health Specialist with NRCS. Barry provided the key highlights on the foundation of soil health and demonstrated visual tests, such as the slake test, to show soil health and stability comparisons between tilled and no-till soils. Additionally, he provided the valuable tools needed to support attendees in recreating these demonstrations on their own. Barry emphasized the importance of sharing this information to promote soil conservation practices in all the work the participants are involved in.
The next day of this two-day session started off with an in-depth presentation by NRCS’s Illinois Soil Health Specialist, Stacy Zuber, on soil biology. Participants learned about key components of soil biology in agriculture systems, including the ecosystem functions and beneficial interactions of organisms in the soil. Barry Fisher then presented an additional in-depth presentation about soil health principles in agronomy. Farm management practices were discussed along with the correlation between nutrient programs and tillage practices with the health of soils. These two presentations provided scientific background to soil conservation practices and ways to present this information to farmers and others working in agriculture.
Following the classroom sessions, the training cohort headed to the farm! Participants shared a meal with the father-son farming duo practicing no-till and healthy soil management at Coulter Farm. Attendees heard Clayton Coulter describe his operation’s soil management practices and how they affect the productivity of his fields. To get a better idea of the underground impact of the Coulter’s soil health practices, participants went out to one of the farm’s soybean fields to see a freshly dug soil pit.
Barry showed various indicators of soil health and structure characteristics, including root depth, soil density, and moisture levels. Everyone had a chance to explore the pit on their own, with pitchfork in hand, to identify the subtle tunneling from burrowing insects and roots. This gave everyone the opportunity to connect the principles discussed in the classroom with what was actually going on in the field.
Up next, the ASHT cohort will travel to Piatt County for a day-long training centered on nutrient management needs in soil health systems and the effect soil health practices have on soil fertility, nutrient loss, and water quality. Researchers and experts will share their findings, and trainees will visit Eric Miller’s farm to see how he incorporates this nutrient management strategy on his farm.