Soil Health

Land Management

Cropland, forestland, pastureland, and rangeland comprise the major land uses in the Central Platte NRD. The land uses receiving the majority of the conservation treatment address our soil, water, agricultural resources.

The Central Platte NRD, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Farm Service Agency provide cost-share funding and/or technical assistance for land management practices.  Major land use natural resource concerns include:
(1) erosion by wind and water
(2) maintaining and enhancing soil quality
(3) water quality and quantity
(4) plant condition and health
(5) wildlife habitat

Learn more about Cost-Share Programs 

The Nebraska Soil Carbon Project

Producers in the Central Platte and Upper Big Blue Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) are encouraged to enroll their acres in the new Nebraska Soil Carbon Project.

This project provides greater financial incentives to producers who utilize key conservation practices in central Nebraska. Farmers can adopt soil health practices--including cover crops, no-till, and diverse crop rotations that store carbon in the soil. The stored carbon is utilized by private companies to help reach their goals around sustainability. Depending on the practices implemented, producers earn up to $45 per acre each year.

The goal is to have about 100 producers install these soil health practices on 100,000 acres of farmland over the next five years. The expectation to enroll 20,000 acres in the first year across the two NRDs was successfully met, reaching over 23,000 acres with a new conservation practice in place.  With the intention of matching this same number of acres during our second round of enrollment, we encourage farmers to apply at their local NRCS office for implementing practices during the Fall of 2022. Applications must be submitted by Friday, December 17, 2021.

The Nebraska Soil Carbon Project is a collaboration between the two NRDs, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), The Nature Conservancy, Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, Cargill, Target, and McDonald’s. The Nature Conservancy manages the new program and is investing $8 million for farmers to implement these practices over the next few years.

Increasing cropland soil carbon has multiple benefits for the producer and the environment including more stable yields, improved nutrient availability and water holding capacity, and climate stabilization. Private companies are looking for ways to decrease their carbon footprint and Nebraska’s growers can provide these benefits by improving their farming operations as they implement soil health practices. Markets to link these soil carbon buyers and suppliers gives companies a way to meet part of their greenhouse gas reduction goals while supporting farmers who are implementing conservation practices.

The payments producers will receive through our carbon market pilot project are tied to the practices implemented on the acres, not the carbon outcomes, to reduce the amount of risk involved for producers. Colorado State University is providing scientific support through this project.

The project is estimated to store the equivalent of 150,000 metric tons of CO2 while enhancing Nebraska’s soil and linking producers to new carbon payment opportunities.

Beyond the financial incentives and soil health improvements, involved producers will have the opportunity to:

  • Share conservation stories with a larger audience via field days, media spots, and short videos relating to the project.
  • Attend training events with local and national leaders in soil health, agronomy, and related topics.
  • Receive a report on the new practice’s soil carbon and water quality outcomes. Those that are interested in going deeper may also opt-in for a detailed report on the practice’s financial return on investment.

Producers will receive year-round assistance from the NRDs, NRCS, and The Nature Conservancy staff, who will provide support for paperwork/application processes and soil health practice management.

There is no gross income or acre enrollment cap for NRCS payments, but producers are encouraged to enroll a reasonable number of acres given their operation size and soil health experience. More acres can be submitted for enrollment in subsequent years of the program.

Payments are for new soil health acres only, however a measurable improvement of an existing practice could count (such as moving from strip till to no till) if it aligns with the NRCS’s standards.

Interested in adding conservation practices to your acres?
Central Platte NRD: Visit https://www.cpnrd.org/land management/soil health to get started today or contact Courtney Widup at (308) 385-6282 or widup@cpnrd.org.

Upper Big Blue NRD: Visit www.upperbigblue.org/soilcarbonproject to get started today or contact John Bush at (402) 362-6601 jbush@upperbigblue.org.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.

Why, What, When & How

Why
Farmers can adopt soil health practices like cover crops, no till, and diverse crop rotations that store carbon in the soil. That carbon can then be used to offset a private company's emissions.

What
Farmers will implement one of three practices and receive financial assistance: cover crops, no-till, and diverse rotations. Soils will be sampled at the outset of enrollment and both carbon and water quality benefits will be quantified.

When
Year one sign ups will be May 1 - June 15, 2021 and continue for up to five years or until funds run out. To learn more and enroll, please reach out to your preferred project representative at the Upper Big Blue or Central Platte NRDs, The Nature Conservancy, or Cargill.

How
Farmers can sign up for a joint NRCS and private payment of $9.50 - 45.00 per acre per year, depending on practice. Payments are not linked to carbon stored. Ecosystem Services Market Consortium will quantify outcomes. Non-NRCS contracts are non binding.

Payments | Value to Farmers

PAYMENTS
$9.50 - 45.00/acre annually of financial assistance. Payment depends on type of soil health practice and enrollment in the ESMC pilot. Practices can include reduced tillage, diverse rotations, and cover crops, according to NRCS practice codes.

Payments to producers will be paid by acres of practice adopted, instead of being linked to carbon storage. Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) will quantify carbon and water quality outcomes.

There is no gross income or acre enrollment cap for NRCS payments, but producers are encouraged to enroll a reasonable number of acres given their operation size and soil health experience. More acres can always be submitted for enrollment in following years

A producer can choose to enroll in just the NRCS component or just the ESMC component if they choose. However, to receive the full payments and benefits of the project, we encourage them to enroll in both aspects of the project if they are able.

REPORTS
Each producer will receive a report on the new practice's soil carbon and water quality outcomes. If they opt in to providing additional economic data, producers can also receive a detailed report on the practice's financial return on investment (ROI).

TRAINING
Year round assistance from NRD, NRCS, and TNC staff to support paperwork/application process and soil health practice management. Opportunity to attend training events, post-COVID, with local and national leaders in soil health, agronomy, and other relevant topics. Meals will be included.

SHARING
Share conservation stories with a larger audience. Producers can take part in or lead field days, media spots, short project videos, etc.

Ecosystem Services Market Consortium

All farmers and landowners are encouraged to seek out the ecosystem and carbon payments platform that works best for their situation. ESMC is a collaborator on this project because they offer a low-risk way for farmers to explore carbon market payments for new soil health practices. Specifically:

Contract is Non-Binding
Farmers will sign annual contracts. If they choose to not renew their contracts, they can leave the program without penalty from ESMC to enable farmers to try it without a binding, multi-year contract.

Payments are Non-Variable
Many other carbon payments are variable year to year and based on actual carbon storage rates. This pilot will pay farmers a flat rate of $3/acre per year regardless of current market payment rates or the amount of carbon stored per year to give farmers certainty around the level of revenue they'll generate through this project.

Simplified Data Collection
ESMC is piloting multiple data collection methods, including remote imaging, to reduce the data burden placed on farmers. All farms enrolled in the ESMC Pilot will be sampled at the outset of the project and again in year 5, should the producer remain enrolled for the entire 5 years of the project.

ESMC is Non-Profit
ESMC's non-profit structure minimizes transaction costs and maximizes value for farmers. They are a private-public partnership,
with backing from Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

Project Data Collection

Our project is committed to ensuring that farmers are the primary beneficiaries of any value derived from their data.

Privacy

Farmers own their raw data and control the fate of their data including who sees it, how it's used, and where and how long it's stored. Rights to their carbon are only transferred when they sign up with ESMC and complete data entry. Data will be stored by ESMC on a secure server for the duration of the producer's enrollment plus three additional years. The only entities automatically able to view farmer names, locations, and project data are TNC and ESMC. Other project coordinators will not have access to raw farmer data without the express consent from the farmer.  The only publicly shared data will be around whole-project outcomes, i.e., no publicly available information can be linked to any one farmer or location.

Transparency

Farmers can choose to share their data with other project partners. Additional project partners could include The Central Platte and Upper Big Blue NRDs, The Nature Conservancy, and/or Colorado State University. Farmers will not be penalized in any way by not opting in to sharing their data with additional project partners.

Simplicity

We are committed to collecting only the data needed to meet project outcomes - no more, and no less.

Producer Rights to Carbon

A producer retains their rights to project carbon until they sign the Producer Agreement with ESMC and receive the $3/acre payment, at which point ESMC will transfer rights to the producer's carbon to project buyers (McDonalds, Target, and Cargill).  We estimate that the project will generate 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (C02-e), but the final tally will depend on calculations done by ESMC based on soil sampling and model estimates.

In this project, any resulting carbon was "prepaid" for by the funding companies. Farmers will be paid for acres of practices adopted and not based on rate of carbon storage. This means that the companies have already taken a risk that the project's enrolled acres may not generate the entire 150,000 metric tons of C02-e they paid for. This was done to shift the risk of under-storing carbon to the companies and not to the farmers.

Different from other Carbon Projects

One major difference between this project and others is that payments will be tied to the total acres of soil health practices and not soil carbon sequestered. We did this because we want farmers to know the costs and benefits of the project at the outset. Carbon storage, and the associated payments, could be highly variable.

While this pilot will pay farmers $3/acre up front for their potential carbon, the eventual ESMC marketplace will compensate farmers for the actual quantity of carbon stored, one year post-quantification.

As the science improves, it will be less risky to link payments to carbon. But for now, we did not want producers to take on the risk of unknown payments by signing up for this project. Another difference between this project and others is that we have no acreage minimums for enrollment.

Finally, farmers will retain ownership over their raw data.

Risk If Practices Are Not Implemented

If a producer falls behind on the contract schedule and the reason is not within their control (beyond normal farming risks), NRCS will do a rescheduling modification, i.e., extend out the contract a year or two. If the reason is within their control, NRCS will allow one rescheduling modification with a notice of contract violation using form CPA-153, giving the producer up to 12 months to correct the violation. If the producer has not completed a practice within the specified time frame on the CPA-153, NRCS would reassess the situation. Continued violation may result in contract termination.

If a farmer exits their NRCS contract before the expiration date with incomplete items and the reason is in good faith or for circumstances that occurred not within the producer's control (death, repeated weather events, etc) and NRCS/Partners are in agreement, we can cancel the contract and with no penalty.

Similarly, a producer will not be eligible for the $3/acre annual payment in years they are unable to implement the practice, but they will have the option of extending their enrollment to make up for that payment at the end of the project. Producers are, however, still encouraged to access other project features during years that they are unable to implement the practice(s). Those benefits include lunch events, opportunities to speak with the press, and technical assistance.

Soil Quality

Soil health also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing soils so they are sustainable for future generations. To do this, we need to remember that soil contains living organisms that when provided the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, and water – perform functions required to produce food and fiber.

Soil is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during drier periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving our fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide habitat for soil microbes to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem running smoothly.  Learn more about how Soil Biology plays a major role in soil health.

Soil Health Resources Guide

Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing lands, diverse wildlife, and beautiful landscapes. Soil does all this by performing five essential functions:

  • Regulating Water
    • Soil helps control where rain, snowmelt, and irrigation water goes. Water and dissolved solutes flow over the land or into and through the soil.
  • Sustaining Plant and Animal Life
    • The diversity and productivity of living things depend on soil.
  • Filtering/Buffering Potential Pollutants
    • The minerals and microbes in the soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal by-products and atmospheric deposits.
  • Cycling Nutrients
    • Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients are stored, transformed, and cycled in the soil.
  • Physical Stability & Support
    • Soil structure provides a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide support for human structures and protection for archeological treasures.

Rolling hills and shallow drainages are common in central Nebraska. Along with the beautiful rolling hills of Nebraska farmland, come some not so beautiful problems: runoff and soil erosion. The runoff water that goes through gullies and into streams or ditches can carry excess pollutants and sediment into streams and rivers. This impacts the quality and quantity of water in our area. Buffer strips are a valuable tool to reduce runoff and erosion. A Buffer strip is a strip of native vegetation that has been planted and established along drainages.

These strips offer many real advantages including:

  • Increased water quality through filtration.
  • Increased water quantity through slowed and captured runoff, and snowmelt.
  • Enhanced wildlife habitat.
  • Decreased erosion, and fieldwork.

By planting native tall grasses in low areas next to streams and drainages, runoff is slowed and water is captured and cleaned. And since these areas are often challenging to farm, and lower in productivity, farmers can save time and expense with buffer strips as well.

CPNRD BUFFER STRIP PROGRAM
Funding for the Buffer Strip Program is from a fee assessed on pesticides registered for sale in Nebraska and is administered by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska’s natural resources districts, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Contracts are 5 to 10 years in length.

Dryland Payment Rates

  • Dryland cropland enrolled in CRP, CREP, or other governmentally-funded programs, payment rate per acre is 20% of the weighted average soil rental rate.
  • Dryland cropland not enrolled in CRP, CREP, or other governmentally-funded programs, payment rate per acre is equal 120% of the CRP weighted average soil rental rate plus $5, minus payments from any other source. (CRP weighted average soil rental rate is the amount calculated before the incentive and maintenance rate are added.) In no case may the payment from all sources exceed $250 per acre.

Irrigated Cropland Payment Rates

  • For irrigated cropland enrolled in CRP, CREP, and/or any other governmentally-funded program, the payment rate per acre is $250, minus payments received from all other sources.
  • For irrigated cropland not enrolled in CRP, CREP, and/or any other governmentally-funded program, the payment per acre is $225, minus any other program payments.

Kelly Cole
cole@cpnrd.org
308-385-6282

From a soil perspective, the benefits of no-till farming far outnumber those of tillage-based systems. No-till practices allow the soil structure to stay intact and also protect the soil by leaving crop residue on the soil surface. Improved soil structure and soil cover increase the soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and runoff and prevents pollution from entering nearby water sources.

No-till practices also slow evaporation, which not only means better absorption of rainwater, but it also increases irrigation efficiency, ultimately leading to higher yields, especially during hot and dry weather.

Soil microorganisms, fungi and bacteria, critical to soil health, also benefit from no-till practices. When soil is left undisturbed, beneficial soil organisms can establish their communities and feed off of the soil’s organic matter. A healthy soil biome is important for nutrient cycling and suppressing plant diseases. As soil organic matter improves, so does the soil’s internal structure—increasing the soil’s capacity to grow more nutrient-dense crops.

Tilling became popular because it meant farmers could plant more seeds; however, modern no-till tractor implements allow farmers to sow seeds faster and cheaper than if they tilled their fields. Conventional tillage practices require the farmer to make several passes over the field, first tilling the soil and then returning to plant seeds. No-till removes the step of tilling the soil and therefore saves the farmer time and money. According to a report published in Scientific America, this decreases the fuel expense by 50-80% and the labor by 30-50%.