Soil Health Nexus field day helps educators to feel confident teaching soil health

Last month, the Soil Health Nexus team hosted a two-day field day focusing on “How to Teach Soil Heath,” at the University of Missouri Soil Health Assessment Center. Fifty professionals from Extension, state and federal agencies, and agribusinesses from across the region participated. Attendees heard from Francisco Arriaga from the University of Wisconsin Division of Extension on the latest research exploring soil health and water quality, discussed how the Soil Health Nexus defines soil health, and got an inside look at the MU Soil Health Assessment Center and the testing procedures conducted on-site in Columbia, Missouri.

Attendees were also able to get out in the field and learn how to conduct a variety of soil health demonstrations and assessments ranging from relatively simple tests such as the slump test to more complex procedures such as an active carbon soil test.

Kari Weiss, of Edelweiss Productions LLC, filming Gary Lesoing of Nebraska Extension performing a rainfall infiltration soil assessment.

A videography team was also on-site while each demonstration and assessment took place to film the tests. The team will be creating a series of how-to videos from this footage to help educators who weren’t able to attend the field day learn how to conduct soil health demonstrations and assessments on their own. Some of these assessments included bulk density, rainfall infiltration, residue cover and how to host a soil pit.

In addition to hands-on learning, the Nexus also presented their latest research examining different audiences’ – producers, agronomists, extension agricultural educators, state and federal agency staff, consultants, and soil and water conservation district staff – perceptions of soil health.

Overall, the survey showed a nuanced view of how soil health is perceived throughout the region. Survey respondents were asked to define soil health and their answers varied from biology and water functionality to sustainability and productivity. Answers were coded thematically and broken down into two categories – characteristics of healthy soil such as physical, biological and chemical properties of soil health; and effects of healthy soil, or the outputs of soil health such as productivity, stability and sustainability. When broken down by audience, extension educators and state and federal agency staff were more likely to mention the effects or impacts of healthy soil than farmers. Extension educators, and to a lesser extent state and federal agency staff, were also more likely than farmers to associate soil health with productivity.

Russ Dresbach, Lab Supervisor at the MU Soil Health Assessment Center, explaining the PLFA test to attendees

The survey also examined barriers to adopting soil health practices, which was also discussed at the field day. Many survey respondents noted that the lack of evidence on the economic benefits of soil health was a barrier and many wanted more education on the economic benefits of specific practices. Producers in particular were interested in soil health practices that benefit the productivity of their crops, but concerned with the economic challenges these practices pose. To help address this need, field day participants practiced making research-based economical soil health recommendations based on a series of current management and field assessment scenarios.

The team is still in the process of analyzing the results of the post-field day survey, however, preliminary results indicate that 72% of respondents feel ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ comfortable conducting one or more soil health demonstrations and 76% were ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ likely to change how they present soil health topics or demonstrations as a result of attending.

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