Soil Health

On this Page: Buffer Strips, No-Till, Manure/Mulch

$4.4 Million in New Funding Available for Soil Health

Are you interested in adding conservation practices, but have been deterred by the costs involved in changing your operation? Good news! $4.4 million will soon be available for technical and financial assistance to producers for soil health improvement practices.

The Central Platte and Upper Big Blue NRDs are partnering with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and The Nature Conservancy on Resilient Futures for Nebraska soil health initiative through the Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Healthy cropland soils boost fertility and reduce water pollution; and provide stable yields, reduce erosion, improve nutrient availability and moisture holding capacity.

The goal of the initiative is to improve soil health on 100,000 acres of cropland over the next five years by implementing three soil health practices: cover crops, reduced tillage and diversified crop rotations. Payments will vary from $15 to $40 per acre depending on the practice implemented.

Uncapped Funding
The NRDs are looking to enroll a spectrum of producers – from those with no soil health experience to those who have already implemented practices. Producers with an existing practice, such as reduced tillage, may add a second or third practice for payment or could increase the practice such as moving from strip till to no-till. There is no income cap for the payments and no maximum amount that one farm operation can receive.

Carbon Marketplace
An exciting component for producers is access to the new Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. This carbon marketplace will connect companies looking to offset their carbon footprint with producers who implement soil health practices that capture carbon. Payments are guaranteed by acre and not tied to carbon storage. Carbon markets are an emerging field with many risks and unknowns, so this managed marketplace gives producers a low-risk way to approach this new opportunity to improve their operations. Participating companies include Cargill, Target, McDonald’s and others.

It’s important to note that producers also control the fate of their own data including who sees it, how it’s used, where and how long the data is stored. With producer permission and anonymity controls in place, project data will be shared where possible to achieve the greatest public benefit.

Partners plan to register 20,000 acres in the first year with enrollment from December 2020 to March 2021. To learn more about or to enroll in this RCPP program contact:  Courtney Widup   widup@cpnrd.org  (308) 385-6282 

WHAT SOIL DOES

Soil health also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing soils so they are sustainable for future generations. To do this, we need to remember that soil contains living organisms that when provided the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, and water – perform functions required to produce food and fiber. Soil is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during drier periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving our fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide habitat for soil microbes to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem running smoothly.  Learn more about how Soil Biology plays a major role in soil health.    Soil Health Resources Guide

Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing lands, diverse wildlife, and beautiful landscapes. Soil does all this by performing five essential functions:

  • Regulating water – Soil helps control where rain, snowmelt, and irrigation water goes. Water and dissolved solutes flow over the land or into and through the soil.
  • Sustaining plant and animal life – The diversity and productivity of living things depend on soil.
  • Filtering/buffering potential pollutants – The minerals and microbes in the soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal by-products and atmospheric deposits.
  • Cycling nutrients – Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients are stored, transformed, and cycled in the soil.
  • Physical stability & support – Soil structure provides a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide support for human structures and protection for archeological treasures.

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Buffer Strips: Helping the Land and Water

Rolling hills and shallow drainages are common in central Nebraska. Along with the beautiful rolling hills of Nebraska farmland, come some not so beautiful problems: runoff and soil erosion. The runoff water that goes through gullies and into streams or ditches can carry excess pollutants and sediment into streams and rivers. This impacts the quality and quantity of water in our area. Buffer strips are a valuable tool to reduce runoff and erosion. A Buffer strip is a strip of native vegetation that has been planted and established along drainages.
These strips offer many real advantages including:
• Increased water quality through filtration.
• Increased water quantity through slowed and captured runoff, and snowmelt.
• Enhanced wildlife habitat.
• Decreased erosion, and fieldwork.
By planting native tall grasses in low areas next to streams and drainages, runoff is slowed and water is captured and cleaned. And since these areas are often challenging to farm, and lower in productivity, farmers can save time and expense with buffer strips as well.
CPNRD BUFFER STRIP PROGRAM
Funding for the Buffer Strip Program is from a fee assessed on pesticides registered for sale in Nebraska and is administered by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska’s natural resources districts, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Contracts are 5 to 10 years in length.
Dryland Payment Rates
• Dryland cropland enrolled in CRP, CREP, or other governmentally-funded programs, payment rate per acre is 20% of the weighted average soil rental rate.
• Dryland cropland not enrolled in CRP, CREP, or other governmentally-funded programs, payment rate per acre is equal 120% of the CRP weighted average soil rental rate plus $5, minus payments from any other source. (CRP weighted average soil rental rate is the amount calculated before the incentive and maintenance rate are added.) In no case may the payment from all sources exceed $250 per acre.
Irrigated Cropland Payment Rates
• For irrigated cropland enrolled in CRP, CREP, and/or any other governmentally-funded program, the payment rate per acre is $250, minus payments received from all other sources.
• For irrigated cropland not enrolled in CRP, CREP, and/or any other governmentally-funded program, the payment per acre is $225, minus any other program payments.

Your CPNRD Contact: Kelly Cole (308) 385-6282 or cole@cpnrd.org    Contact your local NRCS office to sign up and for technical questions.

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No-Till

From a soil perspective, the benefits of no-till farming far outnumber those of tillage-based systems. No-till practices allow the soil structure to stay intact and also protect the soil by leaving crop residue on the soil surface. Improved soil structure and soil cover increase the soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and runoff and prevents pollution from entering nearby water sources.

No-till practices also slow evaporation, which not only means better absorption of rainwater, but it also increases irrigation efficiency, ultimately leading to higher yields, especially during hot and dry weather.

Soil microorganisms, fungi and bacteria, critical to soil health, also benefit from no-till practices. When soil is left undisturbed, beneficial soil organisms can establish their communities and feed off of the soil’s organic matter. A healthy soil biome is important for nutrient cycling and suppressing plant diseases. As soil organic matter improves, so does the soil’s internal structure—increasing the soil’s capacity to grow more nutrient-dense crops.

Tilling became popular because it meant farmers could plant more seeds; however, modern no-till tractor implements allow farmers to sow seeds faster and cheaper than if they tilled their fields. Conventional tillage practices require the farmer to make several passes over the field, first tilling the soil and then returning to plant seeds. No-till removes the step of tilling the soil and therefore saves the farmer time and money. According to a report published in Scientific America, this decreases the fuel expense by 50-80% and the labor by 30-50%.

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How to Properly Apply Nitrogen FertilizerManaging Subsurface Drip IrrigationDrip Irrigation Use to Protect Soil & Water

Manure/Mulch Project 

In 2017, the Nebraska Environmental Trust-funded research to examine the efficacy of injecting sawdust slurry to the soil below the root zone of corn to capture leached nitrogen; utilize eastern redcedar mulch on cropland to reduce erosion potential, improve soil structure, and to improve soil moisture retention. In September 2019, the project team identified study sites, school engagement activities, and outlined fall plans, etc. A second funding proposal was sent to NET for another cropping season on the four farms that participated. The CPNRD site did not participate in the field study this cropping season due to unforeseen circumstances, however; the landowner is considering rejoining the project for the 2020 growing season. Another site may be identified within the CPNRD as well. The NRD submitted a letter of participation in the proposal to NET for the continuation of this project for two additional years.  The research is being conducted by the UNL, Nebraska Extension, and USDA.