Building soil health important for drought, wildfire resiliency, experts say

Landowners learn steps to long-term soil improvements

Agricultural consultant Eric Fuchs, standing in a navy T-shirt in the background, grabbed the attention of seasoned Routt County ranchers and new landowners during the Soil Health Field Day on Aug. 15, 2023.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

On a hot afternoon in August standing in a dry, crunchy hayfield in Routt County, agricultural consultant Eric Fuchs grabbed the full attention of a circle of seasoned ranchers and new landowners.

The smooth bromegrass hayfield scattered with nubs of stubble, grasshoppers, tarweed and prickly lettuce weed was baking in the sun. Unfortunately, the hayfield had been cut too short by an inexperienced contractor. The field seemed in desperate need of a good rainstorm, but Fuchs said even two inches of rain would not help much.

“He’ll lose an inch or more of it right off, and the next day when the sun comes out, he’ll lose the rest,” Fuchs said. “It is not about how much rain you get; keeping that rain is what’s important. The healthiest soil can hold more water.”

The consultant with UnderstandAG — which uses the tagline restoring soil, profits, farms and futures — conducted a water infiltration test in the field that after 10 minutes showed very little water soaking into the hard soil.

That is because, for one reason, the field had no armor, or a soil cover of plant residue on the surface. Soil cover is one of the six key elements for building healthy soil that the landowners and ranchers learned about during the all-day Soil Health Field Day on Aug. 15.

“Hay producers might be better off in the long term if they left a 3 or 4-inch stubble of hay, which would help generate a more healthy soil system and by maintaining a continuous living root or ground cover,” said Lyn Halliday, board president of the Routt County Conservation District, which organized the free workshop.

Halliday explained that healthy soils act like a sponge helping to absorb and contain moisture. Low soil moisture can cause plants to stop growing or dry out and may provide fuels for wildfires. On the other hand, when soil moisture content is high, fires have more difficulty in igniting, burning and spreading rapidly.

In the next demonstration area on the property, Fuchs showed with an infrared thermometer the 30-40 degree difference in temperatures of healthy soil versus compacted, poor soil. When Fuchs took a reading of 143 degrees on bare soil, he stopped to take a photo of the startling results because, he said, at 140 degrees, good soil bacteria die.

He pointed out a soil temperature study that showed at 130 degrees, 100% of moisture is lost through evaporation and transpiration. At 100 degrees, 15% of moisture is used for plant growth and 85% is lost.

Agricultural consultant Eric Fuchs with UnderstandingAG shows the major difference in temperatures between healthy and poor soils.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The conservation district recently released a “Routt County Landowner Toolkit for Building Drought, Wildfire and Soil Health Resiliency,” that is online at The toolkit includes links to helpful resources with the goal of inspiring county landowners and ranchers to adapt to changing conditions that affect the land and daily practices of farming and ranching.

The toolkit points out the best management practices for agriculture include reducing or eliminating tillage, nurturing the living organic components of soils, promoting diversification of soil flora and fauna below ground and plants above ground, creating pollinator habitat, diversifying rotations including grazing, and reducing wind erosion by establishing wind breaks.

“Whether the drought is here to stay or not, implementing best management practices that improve soil health is a win-win, decreasing risks from extreme weather fluctuations and improving long-term field and watershed health,” according to the toolkit.

Conservation practices that improve soil health can help increase organic matter, reduce soil compaction, improve nutrient storage and cycling, and increase water infiltration and water availability to plants.

Colorado Department of Agriculture employees attended the educational workshop that also was meant to promote participation in the department’s STAR program, or Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources. STAR is a farmer and rancher led initiative that connects producers expanding or implementing new soil health practices with local conservation experts.

Clinton Whitten, then-employee with the Steamboat Springs office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, shows the difference between healthy, rich and poor soil samples in a field in Routt County.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Five Routt County landowners are currently participating in the free STAR Plus program, Halliday said. In addition, the Routt County Conservation District has assisted 10 landowners each year since 2019 through coaching and reimbursements in their implementation of best soil health practices.

The overarching goals are to improve soil health for future profitable agricultural productivity and to build drought and wildfire resiliency.

Workshop hosting landowners Laurie and Cam Kuelthau, whose acreage includes dryland hay meadows and leasing for cattle grazing, were among multiple workshop attendees who said they learned a lot and are now rethinking or changing some of their agricultural practices.

“The drought killed the hay meadow. It’s in really bad shape,” Kuelthau said. “Instead of reseeding the hayfield, we will be changing the way that we graze it to improve and stop haying it.”

“If we could leave it better than we found it, it would be a good thing,” Kuelthau said.

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