Promoting Soil Health in Nebraska

by Nicole Heldt, Research Project Coordinator, UNL Panhandle Research, Extension, and Education Center

Leslie Johnson
Leslie Johnson (standing, right), Extension Educator, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), addresses a group on the role of manure in soil health at the Nebraska Soil Health School on March 2. Johnson with the help of Paul Jasa (standing, left), Extension Engineer, UNL, demonstrates different soil structures as they break apart in jars of water.
March 15, 2023

Lincoln, Neb. —Well over 60 area farmers, ranchers, agronomists, and agency representatives filled Bridgeport’s Prairie Winds Community Center to learn about soil health at the first installment of three Nebraska Soil Health School events taking place this year.  

“Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans,” Aaron Hird, USDA-NRCS State Soil Health Specialist, said.

On March 2, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) hosted the Nebraska Soil Health School, sponsored by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Nebraska Soil Health School lead coordinator, Bijesh Maharjan, associate professor and extension specialist, UNL, welcomed the audience and introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Jerry Hatfield, retired director of the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment. Hatfield began the program by addressing soil health impacts on water, nutrients, and farm profitability.

“We should continue to evaluate and implement practices that increase the value of our soils and create resilience in our cropping systems,” he said. “Opportunity exists for agriculture to meet the demands of the future through our ability to be innovators and revolutionaries.”

The focus of the Soil Health Schools is to offer soil health education while connecting farmers, consultants, educators, researchers, and NRCS employees. The attendees heard from Aaron Daigh, associate professor UNL, Michael Kaiser, assistant professor UNL, and Carolina Córdova, assistant professor and extension specialist UNL on fundamental soil health physics, chemistry, and biology.

After a brisket lunch, Hird addressed the group by focusing on regenerating soil structure and the soil ecosystem.

“It’s simple — supporting biological activity to build soil structure expands soil function and boosts soil productivity,” he said. “Ninety percent of soil functions are influenced by the organisms living there, which are impacted by management.”

Hird and colleague, Elizabeth Gray, Assistant Soil Health Specialist, USDA-NRCS, gave demonstrations using monoliths and soils to compare aggregate stability and much more between no-till and conventional management practices. Gray also lead the group through hands-on activities to identify soil color with the Munsell color chart.

In the afternoon, the group heard from UNL extension educators, researchers, and specialists on soil health management practices — no-till, manure, cover crops, and livestock integration. 

Presenters and industry representatives interacted throughout the day to answer questions and spark discussion around soil health in the Panhandle.

“The (school was) very informative and exceeded my expectations,” a farmer said. “It helped to create a story for tangible benefits. The water evaporation and soil holding examples were some of the best I’ve seen.”

The second Nebraska Soil Health School will be a two-day event at the West Central Research, Extension, and Education Center in North Platte on June 27-28. An agenda and registration announcement will be coming soon. 

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