The Iowa Soybean Association is developing a user-friendly online tool to assess soil health tests. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)
Converting soil health test results into action
October 7, 2020
By Darcy Maulsby, ISA contributor
Healthy soil is essential to agriculture, but it can be tricky to adequately assess soil healthtest results, which are influenced by biology, chemistry, fertility, time of sampling, timing of farming and other variables. That’s why the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) is developing a user-friendly, online tool to help farmers and agronomists easily interpret their soil health testresults and convert them into an action plan.
“Imagine you go to the doctor for a wellness exam and find out your cholesterol andthyroid levels,” said Peter Kyveryga, PhD, director of analytics for ISA. “If you don’t know how to interpret those numbers, it will be difficult to assess your health and make the changes necessary to improve it.”
The same is true of soil health. ISA’s secure portal will allow farmers and agronomists to obtain new insights from their soil health test results. “This will be a powerful decision-aid toolthat’s free for farmers to use,” said Suzanne Fey, ISA data analyst.
How does your soil stack up?
In 2019, ISA hosted a series of meetings with farmers across Iowa and asked them how they use the data from their soil health tests.
“Many of them said they didn’t really know how to comprehend soil health test data and apply the data for decision making,” Fey said.
ISA’s portal, which is being developed with the support of an Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service Innovation Grant, will include soil health test result templates from Midwest Labs, Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories and other companies that frequently provide soil health test results to Iowa farmers. One of the portal’s key features is an easy-to-use upload interface for lab test results, so there’s no need to manually type in the data.
The portal will use this data to produce farmer-friendly visual summaries that are benchmarked by fields with the same soil types, field management and weather. Suggestions to improve areas of poor soil health will be created based on different soil health testing systems. These include soil “vital signs” such as texture, pH, bulk density, total and active soil carbon, soil respiration, aggregate stability, water infiltration rates and microbial indicators from enzymatic assays and more.
Portal users will have the option to establish a free, confidential account where their data can be stored for multi-year, multi-field or multi-treatment analyses.
“We’re including all these options to help farmers decide which information will benefit their operation most,” Fey said.
Farmers can choose not to have their data retained in the results database but can still use the portal to look at their own reports, demonstration reports, and use the economic simulator.
“Our hope is that farmers will want to share their data anonymously with researchers who will be able to provide more insights from the expanding database of statewide soil health test results,” Fey said.
Making the most of cover crops, learning groups
The portal is being designed for use on desktop computers and tablet computers. It will also be accessible through an app.
While the online portal is set up for individual use, it can also be used to help farmers see how their fields’ soil health compares to other fields with the same practices and same soils in their area. In addition, an agronomist can set up a single account for multiple fields farmed by his or her clients.
“Agronomists can use this tool to promote soil health tests to their clients and provide comparisons among the group, while further protecting each individual farmer’s identity,” Fey said.
One of the portal’s unique features is an economic simulator to help farmers examine the potential risks and benefits of using cover crops in their operation. The simulator is based on cover crop data the ISA has been collecting for more than 20 years.
“You can play around with the numbers to see what management strategies are least risky or make the most financial sense as you work to improve soil health on your farm,” Kyverygasaid. “You can look at the costs of planting cover crops on your acres while exploring different management options to test several ‘what-if’ scenarios. This can help narrow the decision window before you implement something new in real life.”
The benefits of improved soil health management through practices like cover crops aren’t just limited to crop yields.
“Soil is a living system,” Kyveryga said. “When you improve soil health, you help your soil become more resilient to a variety of stresses, from drought to erosion.”
ISA is seeking farmers and agronomists to participate in beta testing for the portal.
“As we design the system, we want farmers’ feedback on how easy it is to use the portal and how easy it is to understand the information it provides,” Fey said.
ISA also wants farmer input on the graphics and action steps generated through the portal. To get involved, contact Suzanne Fey at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Peter Kyveryga at email@example.com.
“Soil is a farmer’s biggest asset, not only for agricultural production, but for passing on the land to the next generation,” Kyveryga noted. “Turning your soil health test results into practical action steps can help you build this asset.”