Community Agriculture Alliance: Five principles to boost soil health in Routt County
Community Agriculture Alliance
In our beloved Yampa River Basin, we talk a lot about water. There are many passionate people across many agencies and organizations that are doing awesome things to protect and preserve our water.
Often it is difficult to look much beyond the banks of the river when water is discussed. In reality, the entire watershed and how that land is used and managed affects the Yampa River.
The Routt County Conservation District (RCCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are looking at the basin from a watershed health perspective and developing programs to improve and protect the private lands that catch the precipitation in much of the basin.
The foundation of a healthy watershed is healthy soils. Not only do soils allow vegetation to grow, but they can act as a sponge that absorbs and stores precipitation. They provide the nutrients that allow life to flourish.
At its base, soil is a combination of sand, silt and clay, but it’s much more than that. A single teaspoon of soil can contain billions of living organisms that make up an entire ecosystem.
When this ecosystem is thriving, it provides the glues that hold the soil particles in place as water rushes through them, it cycles nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable for plant growth and it helps to build organic matter in the soil. Keeping a healthy soil ecosystem can help increase plant productivity, increase drought resilience and decrease the need for additional inputs.
NRCS has developed five principles that can be followed to maintain and develop healthy soils.
The first is to minimize soil disturbance. Plowing the soil not only destroys the habitat that these microorganisms have created, but it negates all of the benefits that they provide.
The second is to keep the soil covered with plant residue. Residue increases infiltration and decreases erosion.
The third is to maximize plant diversity. Just like any ecosystem, soil ecosystems benefit from diversity, and diversity above ground means diversity below ground.
The fourth principle is to maintain a continuous growing root in the soil. We are limited by a short growing season, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep a live root in the soil year-round.
The fifth and final principle is to integrate livestock into the growing system. Livestock play a critical role in nutrient distribution and residue cycling.
A good first step to improving soil health on your property is to get a soil test that will give you a baseline to better understand where nutrients are limited or in abundance.
The Routt County Conservation District has a grant program available that can pay for a soil test on fields that have the ability and intention of implementing management changes that could improve soil health.
Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District, and the Upper Yampa River Watershed coordinator. Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service. For more about the Community Agriculture Alliance, go to CommunityAgAlliance.org.
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