Soil health is the foundation for everything we do
At SFA, we believe that the soil is fundamental to our existence. Our health, wealth, and future depends on the ecosystem beneath our feet known as soil. The foundation of our work is promoting agricultural community and prosperity through soil health.
We build on the foundation of soil health by providing consulting and technical assistance as well as educational and networking opportunities to farmers and landowners in the areas of cropping, dairy, grazing, silvopasture, and fruit and vegetable production.
Principles of Soil Health
Covered soil significantly reduces wind and water erosion and loss of topsoil. It reduces the evaporation of our soil moisture and protects the underground biology from extreme temperature fluctuations. After all, ecosystems arc toward covering bare soils. Planting cover crops and perennial grains are two tools for building soil health.
Disturbing soil interrupts natural systems and processes. Disturbance can be mechanical, inverting and destroying the soil structure by tilling, or chemical, which compromises soil biology. Limiting disturbance is another tool for building healthier soil.
There's power and resilience in diversity. Adding more crops to a rotation, planting cover crops during or after the cash crop growing season, or using full-season annual or perennial plant mixtures are all means of diversifying your operation.
Solar energy is captured and cycled into the soil by living plants, which feeds underground biological communities. In turn, these biological communities extract nutrients from the soil for the plants. This symbiotic partnership also creates soil aggregation and pore space for water infiltration and storage. Living roots are crucial to this cycle.
Integrating livestock rapidly accelerates the building of healthy soil. Grazing animals are incredibly efficient at creating valuable products like meat, milk or fiber while cycling essential nutrients through the land. In most cases, integrating livestock is the special sauce in optimal soil health.
Every farm is a unique entity. Soil type, historic management, weather and climate, as well as social, spiritual, and economic values, are factors that alter decisions when applying soil health principles. Without considering context, challenges and failures can be expected.
Soil Health Events
Check back for upcoming soil health events!
Soil Health Links
April 24, 2017 - Dr. Allen Williams: Cattle, Cover Crops & Hope
September 17, 2015 - "The Impacts of Extreme Weather Events on Food Systems"
March 6, 2015 - 'Strategies for Implementing Cover Crops'
- Cover Cropping: A Great Tool for Building Soils That Work - Lehman will consider the invisible world of soil microorganisms, what they do that is helpful to producers, and how cover cropping is one management tool that promotes soil microorganisms and their beneficial activities.
- Understanding the Importance of Diversity in Cropping Systems - Taheri's presentation will help farmers understand the importance of diversity in their cropping systems and the role cover crops play in creating and maintaining diversity.
Progressive Farmer Magazine wrote this Dec. 2018 article, "The Perfect Pairing: Grazing Cover Crops Gives Immediate Payback," and quotes our partners in soil health work at Practical Farmers of Iowa. Download it here
The Rock County Herald's special publication, Ag Mag, highlighted a SFA Soil Health Network field day hosted by Rock County SWCD technician Michael Walgrave. It also interviewed an area farmer who described his cover crop experience as, "I wish I had done it a lot sooner." Read it here
From No-Till Farmer: "No-Till, Cover Crops and Wheat Pull Farm Out of a Yield Rut"
No-Till Farmer: "Getting Postive Results From a Cover Crop Addiction"
Drovers Magazine: "Treating Cover Crops Like Cash Crops"
No-Till Farmer: "Extra Cover Crop Growth Prior to Soybeans Provides Benefits"
What is ROI on cover crops? Agriculture.com says "Investing in Soil Health Pays"
Can you market cover crops as mulch for vegetable operations? Potentially. "Harnessing the Power of Cover Crops"
A study found that organic milk has about 62 percent more omega-3s, compared to milk produced by cows on conventional dairy farms. Read the story here
Soil Health Tests
See four soil health tests demonstrated by Sarah in this video created by Mitch Kezar of Kezar Media.
May 2021 Soil Health Series with the Lake Agassiz Chapter
Rock County Cover Crop Farmer Interviews
Rock County SWCD Engineering Technician Mike Walgrave and his colleagues have created a series of interview videos with Rock County Cover Crop farmers. Here are the official links of the farmer interviews on the Rock County Land Management YouTube page:
'Bud Box' Instructional Video
'Bud Boxes,' developed by low-stress livestock handling educator Bud Williams, have been encouraged for years by SFA Senior Techical Advisor Kent Solberg. They are portable (e.g. used on rented acres and for grazing distant cover crop fields), relatively low-cost, multipurpose (loading, weighing, squeeze chute, panels can be temporarily used for other things such as a maternity or calf pen), hold their resale value (vs. permanent corrals which quickly depreciate), simple, safe, adjustable, scalable, BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) and animal welfare approved, and encourage basic stockmanship. The Curt Pate stockmanship workshops in September 2020 recommend the Bud Box as a handling facility.
SFA Soil Health Lead Jared Luhman is featured in this Land Stewardship Project video discussing regenerative agriculture on their farm: Graze On, #3: Jon & Jared Luhman Talk Regenerative Grazing
From the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition kickoff event at Stoney Creek Ranch, Aug. 16, 2019: Gabe Brown & Ray Archuleta share their journey into regenerative agriculture
Minnesota NRCS has created its own YouTube channel with multiple locally focused videos. Visit it here. Kent Solberg recommends this one featuring Thor Didrikson from Roseau County speaking with NRCS Grazing Specialist Jeff Duchene: Cattle Grazing on Cover Crops in Northern Minnesota
SFA Livestock & Grazing Specialist Kent Solberg interviewed at Farmfest, Aug. 2019: Kent Solberg of Sustainable Farmers Association
An excellent visual on the impact of continuous vs. managed grazing: 2018 Clark, SD Rotational Grazing Time Lapse
- Rock County SWCD YouTube Channel
- Dr. David Montgomery, "Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life."
- Kent Solberg - The Benefits of Outwintering Livestock
- Dr. Michael Lehman, "The Power of Diversity: Tighty Whities Experiment" Parts One, Two and Three
- Erin Silva - Using the roller crimping system with early planted emerged soybean
- Gabe Brown - Regeneration of our Lands: A Producer's Perspective
- "Carbonomics:" From SARE video, this unique presentation by Keith Berns discusses the big picture of soil health by comparing the economy of a country to the underground economy of the soil. Watch it here.
- From NRCS, this video, "The Science of Soil Health: Without Carrot or Stick" details how Pennsylvania dairy farmers are using cover crops to improve their business - without regulations or subsidies. Watch it here.
For a bevy of soil health videos, including demonstrations of their various projects that are building soil health, visit the Rock County (MN) Conservation YouTube channel.
Soil Carbon Cowboys Videos:
View Allen Williams, Gabe Brown and other farmers in this great video series showcasing soil health and grazing innovators: Soil Carbon Cowboys.
Soil Health Case Studies, by Kathy Dooley, Research Assistant, CURA. The Sustainable Agriculture Case Studies project features profiles of nine Minnesota farms using various soil health practices and reflects the understanding that strong connections across the landscape will result in wider adoption of effective practices.
Introduction to Soil Health and Restoration, presentation by Kent Solberg
Dr. Allen Williams & Kent Solberg 'Dirt Rich' presentations:
Dr. Allen Williams and Kent Solberg gave the following presentation at our 2017 "Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts" events. Click the links to download PDF versions of the slides.
- Allen Williams: "Cattle, Cover Crops & Hope"
- Allen Williams: "Adaptive Grazing and Relationship to Soil Health"
- Kent Solberg: "The Power of Soil Health"
Soil Health & Nutrient Management for Immigrant Farmers: Train the Trainer Workshop - September 2016, University of Minnesota
Building Soil Heath Experts: Advanced Training for Professionals curriculum - Feb. 17, 2016, Midwest Soil Health Summit, Alexandria, Minn.:
- Integrating Cover Crops & Livestock into Cropping Systems - Dr. Allen Williams (PDF)
- Measuring Soil Microbial Activity - Dr. Richard Haney (PDF)
- Introduction to Cover Crop Selection - Kent Solberg, MS (PDF)
The Pasture Project works to expand grass-based systems of livestock production and introducing cover-crops and periodic livestock grazing into row crop farming, all of which both increase profits and rebuild soils and water cycles. SFA is proud to have support from The Pasture Project for our soil health initiatives.
Green Lands Blue Waters Midwest Perennial Forage Group works to facilitate an increase in land used for pasture and perennial forage production in the Upper Midwest, and to improve the environmental performance of farming systems, while maintaining agricultural production and profitability.
SFA's Kent Solberg was a guest on an episode of Soil Health Partnership's "The People of Soil Health" podcast with our friend John Mesko. Listen to "Diversity in Crops, Farm Operations Empowers Soil Health" here.
Portable Windbreak Fences and their use for pasture grazing are detailed here.
The National Center for Appropriate Technology's document, "Managing Internal Parasites: Success Stories"
In 2017-18, the Green Lands Blue Waters Perennial Forage Working Group (part of the Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture), Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship and SFA launched a project titled "Testing Reduction of Dairy Financial Risk Through Grazing and Insurance" to determine input categories that grazing dairies use to reduce overall costs and improve net profit. As part of this project, soil health and grazing fact sheets and other resources are now available on MISA's Green Lands Blue Waters homepage.
The Chippewa 10% Project and Land Stewardship Project have developed a Cropping Systems Calculator to help farmers ascertain financial benefits by plugging in various planting and grazing scenarios.
Hayland and Pasture Soil Health Fact Sheet from USDA in St. Louis County
"Soil Physical Responses to Cattle Grazing Cover Crops" from the USDA in Georgia
"Reduced Tillage and Cover Cropping Systems for Organic Vegetable Production" from the Virginia Association for Biological Farming
North Central Region (NCR) Cooperative Extension Services guide, "Pasture Rental Agreements for Your Farm"
North Central Region (NCR) Cooperative Extension Services guide, "Crop Share Rental Agreements for Your Farm"
"Optimizing Managed Grazing for Soil Health and Sustainable Production Systems," Steven R. Shafer, Dennis Chessman, Johnny R. Rogers, Kenneth W. Tate and Kristie A. Maczko
Iowa State Extension Cover Crop Resources homepage
Iowa State University report: "Herbicide Use May Restrict Grazing Options for Cover Crops"
"Integrated Crop Livestock Systems in the U.S. Corn Belt" by R. Marc Sulk & Benjamin F. Tracy of Ohio State University
Purdue University and the Midwest Cover Crops Council have released the second edition of the Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide
University of Wisconsin Extension Integrated Pest Management homepage
From the American Society for Agronomy, "More for Less in Pastures"
American Grassfed's A Meat Terminology Primer for Consumers
Practical Farmers of Iowa's Grazing Cover Crops Fact Sheet (2013)
Soil Health Test Kit
If you would like to get better acquainted with your soil you can do some simple tests at home to gain insight into soil structure and biological properties. See the Soil Health Toolkit for directions on how to do 4 soil health tests and then use the Soil Health Report Card to record the data and see your progress over time. Thank you to Sarah Lindblom of the Crow River Chapter for creating these useful tools!
Soil Health Tests on our Dirt Rich podcast series - Episode 47: Four DIY Soil Health Tests with guest Sarah Lindblom. Listen to Dirt Rich at the link or wherever you get your podcasts!
See each of these soil health tests demonstrated by Sarah in this video created by Mitch Kezar of Kezar Media.
Soil Health Resources
- Case Studies
- Fact Sheets & Reports