Test Your Dirt

Project boosts drought tolerance through soil health

24245585[1]You can look at soil, listen to it and even taste it, but you won’t be able to tell much about its productivity until you test it.

Farmers and homeowners wanting to know more about their dirt will get a chance for free testing at the Organic Field Day, to be held Aug. 1, at the Bradford Research Center, east of Columbia. The testing will also be available at Bradford on Aug. 9-10 during the Soil Health Expo Field Day.

At these field days, soil experts at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources will provide on-the-spot testing results. Some of the samples will also go back to the college’s facilities in Columbia for a more detailed analysis. A more complete analysis of each sample, and an overall analysis about the area’s soil as discovered through the testing, will be made online later.

The project is called Building Drought Resiliency Through Improved Soil Health.  The project aims to increase farmers’ understanding of the effects of management practices on soil health, available soil water capacity and water infiltration. It is funded through a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

24723924[1]“We have wanted to do this project for awhile, but we didn’t have the capacity,” said Tim Reinbott, lead researcher and superintendent of CAFNR’s Bradford Research Center. “By receiving the grant, we have the opportunity to reach a wider range of people and help them make their lands more resilient to drought.”

A Tool to Improve Soil Health

Reinbott said this testing will allow landowners the ability to select the most effective conservation practices that improve soil health, increase organic matter, reduce soil compaction, boost nutrient storage, and increase water infiltration and water availability to plants. These benefits can lead to a reduction in inputs and higher yields, Reinbott said.

Reinbott recommends that farmers bring in soil from one of working fields and one fence row, which typically hasn’t been plowed or disturbed in several years. A test for active carbon will be performed on the spot to give farmers a general idea of their soil health.

“We call it our wow factor, because the response is usually ‘WOW’ when farmers physically see the difference in soil health between till and no-till soil,” said Reinbott.

Soon, Dirt Goes on the Road

In addition to the field day testing and to reach as many people as possible, mobile demonstrations will be used throughout the winter. A soil health trailer, equipped with real-life plant displays, will travel to different sites in Missouri to test soils and show how different coverage impacts infiltration and run-off.

“The interest for soil health is there, and we want to make sure we keep that fire going at all times of the year,” Reinbott said.

The more education and outreach that is provided directly to farmers and ranchers, the better the chance at helping them mitigate the effects of drought, he added.

Another component of the project is a web-based, interactive soil health database, which should be online next fall after more data is collected.

“You will be able to click on your soil type and see how different management practices increase or decrease soil health and soil water,” said Reinbott.

This can help farmers and ranchers make management decisions that have been shown to work best on their soil types, he added.

“The concept of soil health and quality and how it relates to tolerance for drought is new to a lot of our landowners. Thanks to NRCS and the grant, we can make sure farmers and ranchers are better equipped to handle drought,” said Reinbott.