On Wednesday, November 16th a group of professionals from various retailer and ag education backgrounds gathered for the second session of ISAP’s Advanced Soil Health Training at the Piatt County Extension Office in Monticello, IL. As a pre work assignment to the in-person training, the trainees joined a virtual discussion focused on the basics of the Nitrogen Cycle, from the biological processes to the chemistry that follows. It never hurts to refresh your knowledge on these processes as a crop advisor. This pre work teed up perfectly with the speakers we heard during the morning classroom session of the day-long training.
Our first speaker was Jennifer Jones from the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA). Jennifer talked about the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy which was developed in 2015 to reduce Illinois’ contribution to the Hypoxia Zone found in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Hypoxia Zone is fed by the Mississippi River watershed which channels water from 31 states, approximately 40% of the total United States. The Gulf Hypoxia Taskforce was established in 2015 and has set a goal to reduce the size of the Hypoxia Zone from approximately 3,200 square miles to 1,930 square miles by 2035. In order to support these goals and reduce Illinois’ contribution of nutrients, the Illinois NLRS establishes a strategy to reduce the Nitrogen and Phosphorus levels in the state’s waterways by 25% and 15% respectively by 2025.
Next, Tim Smith of Crop Smith Inc. discussed the history of fertilizers and the advancements that have been made over time. It was interesting to learn that many systems and practices developed years ago are still in use today. Lowell Gentry, retired researcher from University of Illinois, followed Tim with a talk about Cover Crops and Bioreactors. Lowell shared his findings through the research he has done on Eric Miller’s Farm near Hammond, Il.
Miller’s farm presents a unique water drainage structure as well as lineup of crop rotations and tillage practices that are not standard to the typical farm in Illinois. As for the drainage and field layout design, Miller’s farm is very advanced in this space. The farm has 7 plots which all drain into their own bioreactor. The woodchip bioreactors help to filter/treat agricultural drainage water from tile lines underground. These bioreactors are found at the edge of the field before the water flows into the nearest drainage system. Miller’s unique rotations included Corn- Soy- Wheat/Soy (Double Crop) and cover crops such as Cereal Rye. For tillage practices, Miller utilizes conventional till, strip-till, and no-till in order to compare the impacts of each. Miller, Gentry, and other researchers are using these trials to better understand Nitrate. This form of nitrogen is one of the nutrients that is causing the Gulf Hypoxia Zone.
To wrap up the morning session, we heard from Jim Hoorman, NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist from The Ohio State University and Hoorman Soil Health Services. Jim shared an array of topics involving cover crops, soil nutrition, and microbial activity. Jim’s wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm of soil health made it extremely easy to stay engaged with his lectures. If you ever get a chance to listen to his lectures, I would take the opportunity to do so, he has some very interesting concepts and findings.
For the afternoon session, the group traveled to Eric Miller’s Farm near Hammond, IL. Upon arrival, Dan Schaefer, Soil Health Specialist with the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association (IFCA) and Eric Miller led us through a machinery tour inside Eric’s shop. The most interesting piece of equipment for me was the cover crop seeder that was mounted to the corn head.
Then we headed out to do a tour of field visits including a strip-till demo, cover crop plots, and soil probe OM demo. For a soils guy like myself, it’s always neat to pull cores, but my favorite stop on the tour was the cover crop plot showing a good variety of covers that are gaining traction in the state. The afternoon session was cut short due to the weather, but the information was worth the frozen fingers. I would encourage anyone interested in covers, drainage, or nitrogen management systems to get ahold of Eric Miller or Dan Schaefer to take a tour. I hope to get the Black Hawk College East Campus crops and soils class to Hammond to see this cutting-edge operation this spring.
The Advanced Soil Health Training will continue in February, when the cohort will gather in Bloomington, IL for two days of presentations by leading experts in cover crops, covering topics including seeding techniques, management, termination, and forage considerations. Stay tuned for more information on ISAP’s ASHT in February!