The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture will receive nearly $1 million in grant funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, according to a news release.

The grant will be used to study the efficacy of cover crops and no-tillage techniques and their effect on overall soil health.

Mike Daniels, extension water quality and nutrient management specialist for the Division of Agriculture, said he originally applied for the grant after discussions with the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance.

The alliance is a farmer-led coalition of Arkansas growers interested in increasing and maintaining soil health through techniques including cover crops and avoiding tillage during fallow periods.

Daniels said the grant will help fund a team of Division of Agriculture researchers, extension specialists and county agents to conduct research into the use of these techniques on Discovery Farms and other sites throughout the state, and provide education related to new and existing findings.

Partners in the grant include the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, the members of which will serve as the project’s advisory committee.

The Discovery Farms project, initiated in Arkansas in 2010, uses edge-of-field monitoring on about a dozen farms throughout the state to analyze water runoff and determine the amount of nutrients being lost in the process.

Arkansas’s Discovery Farms project was originally modeled after the original project developed in Wisconsin in 2008.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest from some farmers in our state in trying to improve their soil health, which could increase their productivity, natural resource protection, and reduce their irrigation needs,” Daniels said.

“Farmers who lead the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance believe that the more they mimic nature, by keeping the ground covered and undisturbed, the more they reduce their needs for inputs, thus increasing profitability,” he said.

“We were already set up on discovery farms to look at water runoff, but we haven’t tried to measure or define what we mean by soil health,” he said.

Research funded by the new grant will not only study the effects of cover crops and other techniques, but will also help to define standards for what healthy soil should actually look like, from the standpoints of nutrients, compaction and other soil and water benchmarks, officials said.

Daniels said providing education on soil health is also a cornerstone of the project. Over the next three years, Cooperative Extension agents will maintain demonstration plots in all 25 counties in the state’s Delta District, which includes the eastern third of Arkansas.

To learn about soil health, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit