Nebraska Soil Health School: A Success Story of Collaboration and Learning

Aaron Hird gestures to soil and water samples
Aaron Hird, USDA NRCS state soil health specialist, demonstrates the outcome of different soil health practices with a rainfall simulation to Nebraska Soil Health School attendees at UNL’s Haskell Ag Lab on Aug. 2.

Nebraska Soil Health School: A Success Story of Collaboration and Learning

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) team led by Dr. Bijesh Maharjan, associate professor and extension specialist at Panhandle Research, Extension and Education Center (PREEC) in Scottsbluff, launched Nebraska Soil Health School in 2023. The school was envisioned, developed and organized in collaboration with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). UNL hosted the school at three locations from west to east in Nebraska in 2023. The school was designed to build upon the UNL repository of soil health-related knowledge and share it with stakeholders to develop an understanding of healthy soil for sustainable and productive agriculture. The schools were attended by over 200 producers, agriculture professionals, conservationists, researchers, educators and students from Nebraska, as well as neighboring states.

Jerry Hatfield speaks with seated attendees
Jerry Hatfield (standing), retired director at USDA ARS National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, in discussion with attendees during the first Nebraska Soil Health School in Bridgeport on March 2. Hatfield was the event’s keynote speaker and opened the school by elaborating on soil health practices as a pathway to resilient soils to achieve optimum productivity and environmental quality.
Leslie Johnson presents program on manure
As an integral contributor of the soil health practices program at all three schools, Leslie Johnson, UNL extension educator, addresses the specifics of manure application as a means to improve soil stability and productivity. Her presentation included a hands-on activity that prompted the attendees to rate one of several hypothetical fields based off soil health characteristics to estimate potential benefits of adding an organic, manure fertilizer.

“Without over 20 presenters from the UNL, USDA NRCS, and outside the state, the 2023 Soil Health School could not have been possible,” Maharjan said.

This school was conceptualized to travel to places: agencies, institutes and everywhere there is a need for soil health education. It took place in Bridgeport, North Platte and Concord in 2023. Dr. Jerry Hatfield, retired USDA ARS scientist, kicked off the 2023 Nebraska Soil Health School with his keynote presentation in Bridgeport on March 2.

“Soil health is a hot topic with producers but more importantly, it is with society as well,” Paul Jasa, UNL extension engineer and presenter at the schools, said. “There are a lot of people thinking about healthy soil, which gives you healthier crops, healthier food, healthier communities.”

Caro Córdova speaks to older man
Caro Córdova, UNL statewide soil health specialist, speaks to an attendee at the second Nebraska Soil Health School held at West Central Research, Extension and Education Center (WCREEC) in North Platte on June 27-28. Cordova presented biological nitrogen fixation at all three of the events and could often be found in conversation with farmers or agriculture professionals. “The school was very informative and interactive, I enjoyed the interaction between producer, educator and USDA,” an attendee at the second event said.
Elizabeth Gray holds soil color chart
Elizabeth Gray, USDA NRCS assistant state soil scientist, demonstrates how to use a Munsell Soil Color Chart during the “Understanding Soil Health and Rapid Assessments” presentation at the second Nebraska Soil Health School in North Platte on June 27. Gray was instrumental in the NRCS contribution to the school’s program. “I thought overall, this was a great program, especially the rainfall simulator and soil health rapid assessment,” an attendee at the second event said.
Riley Hackbart holding container of soil
Riley Hackbart, USDA NRCS soil scientist, shows a tray of saturated soil to a crowd gathered on the lawn at WCREEC on June 28. Hackbart actively participated in the NRCS portion of the program at the second and third Nebraska Soil Health Schools, as well as interacted with farmers, ag professionals, and educators at the two events. Attendees from other north-central states marveled at the close collaboration between the UNL and NRCS at the extension events.

The events included talks and demonstrations covering fundamental soil health principles — physics, carbon cycle, and biology; soil health practices — no-till, manure, cover crops, economics, livestock integration; and Nebraska research, as well as NRCS’s rapid tests and rainfall simulation. The school evolved as it progressed east to expand an agenda that included a panel discussion at UNL’s West Central Research, Extension and Education Center, research plot tours at UNL’s Haskell Ag Lab, and student poster competitions.

“Great information, speakers were all great and I look forward to coming again next year,” an attendee at the final school said.

Nicolas Cafaro La Menza points to projector images during presentation
Nicolas Cafaro La Menza, UNL WCREEC assistant professor, speaks to an audience at the second Nebraska Soil Health School in North Platte on June 27. In addition to presenting at the school, Cafaro La Menza was a critical team member that facilitated the organization and advertising of the event. The school program included a panel discussion with educators, a farmer and Carlos Villarreal, USDA NRCS state soil scientist, as well as a student poster contest. “Very good presentations with knowledgeable people. A little above my level of knowledge, but this is how I can learn,” an attendee at the second event said. “I really enjoyed the panel discussion, learned a lot.”
Marty Marx examines soil exhibit with phone attachment
Marty Marx, USDA NRCS soil conservation technician, uses a mobile phone microscope with his cell phone to get a closer look at soil life supported by cover crop roots at the third Nebraska Soil Health School at UNL’s Haskell Ag Lab on Aug. 2. Marx scanned the root box and was able to view roots and even biological soil life. Johnson, Marx and others built the three root boxes to display various cover crop roots, giving attendees at the event an opportunity to view what is below the surface.
Andrea Basche speaking with seated attendees
Andrea Basche (standing), UNL associate professor, interacts with the audience during her keynote speech at the third Nebraska Soil Health School at UNL’s Haskell Ag Lab on Aug. 1. During her talk titled, ‘Experimentation on Nebraska Farms for Sustaining Soil Health Management’, Basche asked the audience what motivates them, and to share personal achievements and accomplishments to establish a connection between motivation and the future of soil, farms and young farmers in years to come.

“Nicole and I are grateful for all the support we received from our colleagues to organize the school this year. Nicolas Cafaro La Menza, WCREEC assistant professor, and Leslie Johnson, UNL Haskell Ag Lab extension educator, were simply wonderful in organizing the event at their respective locations,” Bijesh said.

The other organizing contributors from UNL were Mitch Stephenson, Saurav Das, Gary Stone, Katja Koehler-Cole, Caro Córdova, Paul Jasa, and USDA NRCS’s Aaron Hird.

Bijesh Maharjan and Jim Jansen chat in doorway
Bijesh Maharjan, UNL PREEC associate professor, and Jim Jansen, UNL extension economist, share a few words before presenting at the close of the third Nebraska Soil Health School at UNL’s Haskell Ag Lab on Aug. 2. Jansen and Shannon Sand, UNL WCREEC extension educator, presented on navigating carbon markets at the second and third schools. “I thought this was a great school,” an attendee at the third event said. “There was real life examples, testing, and conversations.”
Paul Jasa talks to attendees in corn field
Paul Jasa speaks to an NRCS technician and a farmer during a plot tour at UNL’s Haskell Ag Lab during the Nebraska Soil Health School on Aug. 1. Jasa engaged attendees and presented at all three schools, as well as delivered the keynote speech to start the second event. Jasa’s topic, systems approach to no-till, stressed the significance of practicing a systems approach to improving soil health by considering that each step affects the next, leading to the final outcome. “The presentations were great, loved seeing the new research that is being done, hands-on activities and demonstrations,” an attendee at the third event said. “I particularly enjoyed Paul Jasa, Aaron Hird, and Leslie Johnson as speakers.”

After a successful trio of events, Nebraska Soil Health School will be advancing educational material as well as incorporating more demonstrations and hands-on activities in 2024.

Online Master of Science in Agronomy

With a focus on industry applications and research, the online program is designed with maximum flexibility for today's working professionals.

A field of corn.