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Mid-February: Viewing a Real World Soil Lab

Mid-February: Viewing a Real World Soil Lab

A two-thousand-acre farm test plot serves to determine the best practices for commercial-scale grain operations.

Mike Plumer, a conservation consultant and former University of Illinois agronomist, is six feet under as he explains what's happening to the soil at Howard Buffett's Foundation farm near Decatur, Ill. Plumer reappears at ground level moments later to guide his audience to another field where he teams with Southern Illinois University agronomist Bryan Young to discuss wheel tracks, compaction and vertical tillage.

This most unusual field day, attended last fall by dozens of conservation-minded farmers, was intended to show off some unique research. Here at the HGB Foundation farm, scientists are determining which eco-friendly practices can eventually help commercial-scale farmers grow more organic matter, save nutrients and soil, and keep more money in their pockets.

Young and 20 other colleagues have just begun a multi-year, multi-practice research program on the 2,355-acre farm. To be sure, this is no ordinary test plot. The strip-till vs. conventional till 'plot' alone is 120 acres. The fungicide test in corn after corn, comparing costs, application rates and yields to corn after soy rotation, is 320 acres.

All research is performed with commercial field equipment typical of a corn/soybean farm in central Illinois. 

"We don't want to test a practice on a half acre, because that's not how it is in the real world," says Buffett, the son of famed investor Warren Buffett and a devoted no-tiller who also farms in nearby Pana, Ill. "We want to learn the economics of all these practices for a commercial scale farm operation."

Plumer agrees. "Farmers often doubt University research because it is done on small plots," he says.  "That's why multiple replications and locations are important. With the use of large scale plots using full sized machinery, farmers can see that it is very feasible to do this on their own farm with their large machinery."

To learn more, read the article in our mid-February issue. Here are a few scenes from the field day.

Photos provided by Mike Wilson and Harlan Persinger

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