Measuring Soil Health in the Upper Midwest to Improve Water Quality

Project: Research project

Project Details


The overarching goal of this project is to improve water quality and agricultural productivity by improving the quality of soils in the upper Midwest. To achieve this, adoption of SHMS must substantially increase. This project will support innovation and adoption by completing the following project objectives:
OBJECTIVE 1: Standardize soil health measures.
Sub-objective 1.a: Review and standardize a minimum soil health dataset for the upper Midwest. Engage farmers, researchers, and decision-makers to review existing soil health indicators and identify those that best support management decision-making and water quality assessments in the upper Midwest.
Sub-objective 1.b: Develop an effective and practical infiltration-runoff indicator. Some of the most important benefits of SHMS are improving infiltration, water holding capacity, and water quality as a result of increased organic matter and soil structural changes, which increase porosity. Yet, existing indicators of changes in the soil surface structure lack the repeatability and correct spatial scale for documenting the connection between soil profile changes and small watershed hydrology. This project will build off of existing infiltrometer and rain simulator equipment to design an affordable and meaningful technique for measuring impacts of management practices on infiltration and runoff in small (field-scale) catchments.
Sub-objective 1.c: Assess changes in infiltration resiliency. Runoff and infiltration measurements will also include the perspective of changing weather patterns. The climate in Minnesota has become warmer and more wet over time, and the growing season has increased by 1-2 weeks (National Climate Assessment 2017). Soils of high quality such as those found in Minnesota, have more crop yield resiliency in a changing climate because of higher water holding capacity (Williams et al. 2016), but this resiliency will only continue to be possible if soil health becomes the main management tool. Better buffering for both crops and nearby waterways will be needed for the now more common occurrence of 50 up to 200-year storms.
OBJECTIVE 2: Establish a soil health indicator database.
Sub-objective 2.a: Develop a data management system for soil health metrics.
Establish a web-accessible data management system of soil health indicators and associated farm operation data for the Upper Midwest. This will be built on an existing data management project housed at the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute (MSI) designed to manage and synthesize diverse sources of agricultural data (
Sub-objective 2.b: Populate database with both legacy and novel soil health data.
Extensive data already exists from monitoring efforts through the Minnesota NRCS Soil Health Initiative, and numerous efforts of other project partners (see map in the “Geographic Location” section). The database will be populated with these data and new data collected during this project (Objective 3, below), and will serve as a repository for future projects. Data categories will be developed with involvement from a range of potential users.
Sub-objective 2.c: Develop user interface for database interaction.
Ultimately, the database will be designed with a publicly-accessible user interface (a) to assist farmers in setting reasonable soil health goals for their particular soils and landscapes, to track changes in their soil health metrics relative to expected values in the database; and (b) to give researchers access to data that can be used to evaluate practices and develop management guidance.
OBJECTIVE 3: Collect soil health data to expand understanding of SHMS in cool climates and heavy soils.
Much of the existing soil health information is based on studies in southern and central states of the Midwest. Northern parts of the region (e.g. Minnesota and North Dakota) face constraints of a shorter growing season, colder soils, and heavier, wetter soils. Additionally, studies of soil carbon (SOC) changes have been biased towards coarse soils, because SOC changes more quickly. This project will expand the data available that will facilitate development of SHMS strategies in these northern regions.
Understanding the impact of SHMS requires a more holistic examination of a farm operation than simply crop yield changes. Anecdotally, many farmers relate how soil health changes resulting from cover crop and tillage changes had impacted their crop and seed choices, nutrient and pest management, fuel costs, labor cycles, and more. This project will document these changes through extensive interviews and case studies examining multi-year management and financial information.(See Objective 5)
OBJECTIVE 4: Synthesize soil health data from multiple sources
Sub-objective 4.a: Analyze values and rates of change of soil health indicators. The data system developed in Objective 2 will allow for synthesizing data sets into a coherent analysis to define expected values of soil health indicators and how they vary geographically. The database will provide us baseline data on selected farms and fields and will be monitored over time to document soil health changes using our standardized indicators.
Sub-objective 4.b: Begin to explore eco-economic impacts of SHMS. Build and run an exploratory optimization programming model. Use collected and amassed data to develop a model to determine eco-economic impacts of practices intended to increase soil health. Results of this exploratory model could be used to inform work on societal benefits and costs of soil health measures.
OBJECTIVE 5: Increase capacity for knowledge sharing and social networks.
Adoption of SHMS depends on sharing farmer experience and research data, and on supporting farmers’ process of learning and adapting a system to suit their operation. Effective information sharing is locally based and facilitated by local government agencies, agricultural organizations, and private agricultural advisors. Farmer to farmer (peer to peer) sharing coupled with dialogue with researchers and technicians has been shown to be an effective way to promote greater adoption of improved practices. This project will increase local capacity for documenting and sharing costs and benefits of soil health enhancing practices as follows:
Sub-objective 5.a: Support local partners who are building local farmer networks by working through these partners to gather soil health data (Objective 3) and to share information (Objective 5). An important part of this work will be a farmer/stakeholder advisory group to help identify information and formats that are most relevant to farmers.
Sub-objective 5.b: Share farm case studies showing how SHMS impacts the finances and the overall management approach of farm operations in the upper Midwest. These case studies will be shared on an existing map-based service ( giving producers access to other producers in their region who are experienced with cover crops and other SHMS components. This will also function as a tool ag professionals, extension and agencies to identify locations for field days and outreach activities.
Sub-objective 5.c: Develop and promote publications and presentations designed to share project data and analysis results with local conservationists, ag professionals, and farmers. The purpose of the soil health database and project analyses is to give farmers and their advisors guidance for using and interpreting soil health data. Output products from the project will provide guidance on which soil measures are most useful to track, and what measurement values can be expected in a given soil, climate, and land use.
Sub-objective 5.d: Present results at field days and other events. Working through local partners, present results in person to producers across Minnesota.
Effective start/end date9/28/183/31/23




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