Conservation district offers assistance with soil health tests, resources
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When the Routt County Conservation District, with organizational roots that extend to 1942, reconstituted in spring 2019, the top priority was soil health.
“In low precipitation years, healthy soils are even more important to increase the ability of plants to use the water,” said Clinton Whitten, soil conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Steamboat Springs.
Similar to 75 other conservation districts across Colorado, the RCCD partners with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide education and assistance for land-conservation activities related to land stewardship, soil health and water. Statewide, the Colorado Soil Health Initiative that kicked off in 2018 assists agricultural producers in improving the productivity and resilience of their land.
“A soil health initiative in Routt County is consistent with the Colorado Department of Agriculture statewide initiative to help gardeners, farmers and ranchers build drought resiliency, improve water quality, sequester carbon and reduce soil erosion through cost effective and sensible soil management practices,” the RCCD three-year plan explains.
Kent Sandstedt, RCCD board secretary and a rancher in South Routt, said current drought conditions make soil health and sustainable farming and ranching practices even more important to maintain the health of soils and pastureland. Sandstedt said his and local operations spent more time last year moving livestock, monitoring for overgrazing and increasing diligence of weed control. He expects this predicted drought-plagued summer to be even more trying for farmers and ranchers, as low water years decrease growth of grass in pastureland and cuttings in fields of grass hay — a significant crop in the Yampa Valley.
“We need to move animals sooner than normally and more frequently so as to not overgraze pasture or rangeland,” Sandstedt said. “The growth of grass will only be a fraction of what it would be normally, and grass regeneration will be far less than what it normally would be.”
Sandstedt estimated grazing periods could be reduced to half the time, and hay production may be reduced by 40% to 60% of traditional wetter years.
More information and resources are available at RouttCountyCD.com, including a video of the virtual RCCD annual landowners meeting from February. Other recommended resources include Farmers.gov/conserve/soil-health and NRCS.USDA.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health.
As part of current assistance, the RCCD has funding for a limited amount of free soil testing for agricultural producers for cropland, grazing land or hay fields. Interested land owners are asked to contact the local soil conservation office to sign up now for soil testing the first week in May.
RCCD grant-funded soil testing in 2020 showed portions of some local lands across Routt County were underproducing pasture grasses, and soil health was a contributing factor. One way to improve soil health in pasture lands is increasing plant diversity, Whitten said.
Although each agricultural operation requires customized evaluations and recommendations, one approach Whitten advises is to use a no-till drill to plant legumes interspersed in livestock grazing pastures to improve soil fertility and fix more natural nitrogen in the soil. The plants interspersed for improved grazing quality and soil fertility could be legumes, such as Austrian winter peas or clovers, or annual plants, such as radishes or turnips, for improved livestock foraging, Whitten said.
A no-till drill is not a staple found in local barns due to additional cost and special times for use, said Cam Kuelthau, RCCD treasurer and a rancher in North Routt. So the RCCD is pursuing grant funding for a $35,000 no-till drill planter that can be loaned at a nominal cost to local landowners.
The drill is pulled behind tractors to plant seeds in small holes in the ground without having to drastically disturb the topsoil and existing vegetation.
“I get requests for it all the time,” Whitten said.
A no-till drill that preserves current plant or grass growth, unlike traditional tilling, is also helpful to reseed in sparse patches.
“This type of drill is great for reseeding pasture land to improve grass quality and coverage without damaging existing vegetation,” Kuelthau said.
No-till drill planting along with rotational grazing are some of the basic tenets of regenerative agricultural, a trending word that equates to sustainable and healthy agricultural practices that help improve soil health and reduce the use of chemical applications.
“Routt County is really at the initial stages of starting some broadscale regenerative agricultural practices, and we are trying to see which practices work and can be adopted for our area,” said Whitten, who earned a master’s degree in natural resources management from Colorado State University.
In addition to soil health, the top priorities of the RCCD are rangeland health and forestry along with water quantity and quality.
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