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Soil health training finds common ground

Haley Haverback-Gruber
Haley Haverback-Gruber

Over the last few years, the term “soil health” has become a buzz word among many Illinois farmers. But what is soil health? The Natural Resource Conservation Service defines soil health as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.

Cornell University adds that a healthy soil can be used productively without adversely affecting its future productivity, the ecosystem, or the environment.

Viewing soils as a living ecosystem reflects a shift in the way that we manage our agricultural systems.

Agricultural management practices change the physical (percent sand, silt and clay; bulk density; percent organic matter), chemical (pH, N, P, K, micronutrients, cation exchange capacity) and biological properties that affect soil function.

The use of cover crops, reduced tillage and improved nutrient management can improve soil functionality. However, the transition into this complex system is accompanied by a set of production management changes, which can be difficult to navigate. Fortunately, new a training program was developed to guide in this process.

The American Farmland Trust initiated the first Advanced Soil Health Training in 2015 to increase the number of farmers, retailers, advisers and conservation practitioners who understand the science of soil health and the management changes required to transition into this system.

This intensive training model provides six two-day sessions over 18 months to a group of a new cohort of conservation practitioners and farmer advisers.

The overarching goal of the program is to form a new network of local and regional “soil health specialists,” with a common grounding in knowledge and experience that can demonstrate and promote a systems approach to soil health among Illinois farmers and landowners.

The third round of Advanced Soil Health Training is currently in progress in southern Illinois, western Indiana and northern Kentucky. The next round of training will be offered in northwestern Illinois and eastern Iowa, beginning in March 2020.

The current trainings are organized and funded by University of Illinois Extension, The Nature Conservancy, Zea Mays Foundation, Illinois Corn Growers and the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Partnership.

In the next training, topics will include soil structure, chemistry and biology; cover crop selection, management and termination; planting and tillage equipment; field day demonstrations training, along with communication and outreach strategies. Certified Crop Advisors will receive continuing education units throughout the training.

For more information on the training or any questions, contact me at hmh2@illinois.edu, or Chelsea Harbach at harbach2@illinois.edu.

Haley Haverback-Gruber is a University of Illinois Extension watershed outreach associate.

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