USDA introducing pilot project to help farmers boost soil health

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Damon and Brian Stauffer look at their pasture at Stauffer Farms in Arlington.

ARLINGTON — Like their father before them, Brian and Damon Stauffer want to do what is best for their animals and the health of their land.

They understand the key to healthy animals and healthy land. The issue is having more money coming in than going out. So to implement new practices, they need a good return on investment.

With pastures and cattle in several counties in both Kansas and Oklahoma, the brothers, who are fifth-generation farmers in Arlington, are using some regenerative practices to invigorate their soil's health. But some of these practices cost more money than conventional farming.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is introducing a pilot project for farmers like the Stauffers in the Cheney Lake Watershed district — the Environmental Quality Incentive Program Special Soil Health Initiative.

By offering funds for farmers to invest in multispecies cover crops (including rye and radishes), introduce crop rotation, use no-till practices and utilize prescribed grazing, NRCS hopes to strengthen soil, lessen runoff and utilize stronger environmental stewardship methods. 

"NRCS said they want to move the needle to improve soil health," said Howard Miller, outreach coordinator for the Cheney Lake Watershed. 

Brian Stauffer and Howard Miller examine the soil on the pasture at Stauffer Farms in Arlington.

Seeing benefits with baby steps

By using fewer pesticides and rotating crops, along with always keeping the soil covered, the Stauffers are already helping the soil become healthier and hold in more water on many of their pastures. 

"We are trying to be better stewards of the land," said Damon Stauffer. "We're more intense now."

In addition to raising Angus, the Stauffers grow corn, sorghum and soy. They are also allowing their cattle to graze on their cover crops. This too, helps the soil.

"The cow processes that fiber, which then becomes more readily available to your microbial community," Miller said. 

Cows and their offspring roam on the winter pasture at Stauffer Farms in Arlington.

In addition to the benefits from the cattle's grazing and manure, farmers learn best practices for their fields.

"Even with the baby steps we are taking, we're seeing benefits," said Brian Stauffer.

Brian Stauffer on his pasture at Stauffer Farms in Arlington.

The EQIP may also fund a watering system — a well, a pump, a tank or a pipeline — on cropland or pasture. Farmers are also encouraged to add nutrient management practices.

"It's a very careful process," Damon Stauffer said. "The target goal is to lower your inputs, pesticides, herbicides and synthetics."

By using these practices, farmers grow nutritious and more resilient crops, have healthy livestock and often increase their profits. In addition, their soil can absorb more water and increase in nutrients, while ultimately utilizing less groundwater and increasing water quality resources and conservation practices. This lowers runoff as well.

Although this initiative is available only in the Cheney Lake Watershed, in the future, there is a chance that similar projects might be initiated in other regions in the state. 

"The goal is to capture more rain and hold it in place," Damon Stauffer said. "It (EQIP) gives us the opportunity to do some things faster. This allows us to right more wrongs quicker."

Find out more 

Funding for this project ranges from three to five years. The deadline to apply is April 16. Contact the Cheney Lake Watershed or your local NRCS office for more information.  

Local NRCS offices:

Hutchinson Area Office(620) 663-3501

St John Service Center(620) 549-3321

Kingman Service Center(620) 532-3116