Community Agriculture Alliance: Improving soil health and drought resiliency in Routt County
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
You may have heard by now that the Routt County Conservation District kicked off a new soil health initiative in 2019. Recognizing that our landowners and agriculture producers face significant challenges of drought and unpredictable water supply, the district is uniquely positioned to assist through on-the-ground conservation support.
In 2019, RCCD began offering free comprehensive soil testing and analysis to area landowners, which continues today with funding assistance from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the city of Steamboat Springs Environmental Grant program.
This has allowed the district to begin to develop a soil health-related database that provides a baseline for future decision making specific to our region. As we begin to better understand which conservation practices are successful, we are better equipped to help landowners implement these practices.
In 2020, RCCD became involved in the development of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s soil health program called STAR — Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources. STAR has dovetailed perfectly with the district’s program.
RCCD was chosen to be one of four districts in the state to participate in a pre-pilot program, testing both their newly developed field assessment process as well how to best use comprehensive soil testing to determine ways to improve soil health. A year later, RCCD was selected to be part of the STAR Plus program, which is fully underway with five local ranchers enrolled.
How it works
In both programs, composite soil samples are taken at the selected fields and sent to a specialized lab to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the health of the soil. This includes measuring soil composition and porosity, ability to hold moisture, organic carbon content, minerals, soil respiration, nutrient fertility, pH and biological activity (such as microbial and other organisms), which together, provide a more comprehensive snapshot of overall soil health.
The results are then discussed with the rancher and together an implementation plan is developed. STAR Plus has also provided financial assistance to help with implementation. Monitoring what works (and what doesn’t) takes place over a period of years. The results are just starting to take shape.
All in all, RCCD has worked with 25 ranches over the past few years. What we learned has helped others by developing and sharing management practices that are specific to our area. These practices also have a positive impact on water quality and watershed health, and go hand in hand with what the Upper Yampa River Watershed Group has been working on for the past 10 years. Our STAR research field at Legacy Ranch will also provide meaningful information on edge of field water quality sampling and low cost soil moisture probes.
RCCD is also working on preparation of a toolkit that will help landowners and agriculture producers create effective, practical and affordable climate smart solutions to help build a resilient future. We are currently traveling around the county to solicit input and feedback. Please visit our website at RouttCountyCD.com for more information.
Anyone can participate in STAR by going to the website AG.Colorado.gov/Soil-Health. Look for the STAR Field Assessment Form(s) and Scoring Sheets that fit your operation and begin.
Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District.
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