On Wednesday, April 26th, agriculture professionals met in Bloomington, IL for the fourth Advanced Soil Health Training (ASHT) hosted by the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP). Amidst planting season, this group of conservation specialists, agronomists, and retailers, found time to further their education with a full morning of in-field cover crop training.
Just outside of McLean, Illinois, our group visited a field farmed by a Precision Conservation Management (PCM) cooperator. This grower has a unique field to study, as it is in its third year of a specific cover crop trial called the 5-Year Transition Program. For five consecutive years, this grower has been comparing side-by-side: 40 acres of no-till and cover crops and 40 acres of conventional tillage. After talking with the farmer on his goals and desires for the trial, our group, led by Jim Isermann, ISAP’s Soil Health Specialist and facilitator of the Advanced Soil Health Training program, headed to the no-till/cover crop side of the field.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) often uses a “Cropland In-Field Soil Health Assessment Worksheet” to determine any potential soil health resource concerns on an area of tillable ground. The ASHT cohort examined field conditions using this worksheet, analyzing the field’s residue cover, compaction layers, soil structure, and biological diversity. The field had a cover crop of cereal rye, applied in fall of 2022, which had been recently chemically terminated.
A key takeaway from the field assessment was the exceptional rhizosheaths, or soil particles, clinging to the cereal rye’s roots. After only being cover cropped for three years, this was an excellent sign of biological and microbial activity in the soil. Walking over to the conventional side of the field, which had received one pass of fall tillage in 2022, the ASHT cohort performed the same soil health assessment. To no surprise, there were observations of less residue, weaker soil structure, and fewer biopores on this side of the field.
Before jumping to conclusions, the ASHT cohort headed back toward the shop to perform a slump test and calculate NRCS potential soil health resource concerns. We calculated that there are up to four resource concerns on the conventional acres and next to none on the cover cropped side of the field. Concerns of organic matter depletion and aggregate instability were visually confirmed by the slump test.
The second stop of the day was to a field just west of Bloomington. This field also had a cover crop of cereal rye that was recently terminated and planted to soybeans. Here, Jim Isermann discussed concerns of seeding depth in no-till planting scenarios. The takeaway? Get out behind the planter and dig! This grower had an appropriate and consistent seeding depth, but that is not always the case for growers new to no-till and cover crops.
Isermann emphasized that no matter how much technology you may have in the planter, nothing can compete with physically and visually checking seed depth. Other planter considerations were discussed by Frank Rademacher, Conservation Agronomist with The Nature Conservancy, who is also a long-time cover cropper. He educated the group on various options for row cleaners, closing wheels, and concerns of “wrapping” that can be caused by high biomass cover crop stands.
After a successful and educational morning, our group had to disperse, but this hands-on training will help us to better assist the farmers we work with. This series of advanced soil health trainings is just one way that ag professionals are furthering their education. To find individuals and businesses to help with your soil health questions and concerns, and past graduates of ISAP’s Advanced Soil Health Trainings, visit ISAP’s Conservation Story Map!