Studying soil health pays off for Soroco High School student

Tim Bedell, 16, named Junior Conservationist of Year in Colorado

Soroco student Tim Bedell, 16, shares hands with Ben Berlinger with the National Resource Conservation Service after winning two awards at the Northwest Colorado Range Contest.
Reece Melton/Courtesy

Soroco High School student Tim Bedell is a decorated student, recently winning two first-place plaques at the Northwest Colorado Regional Range Contest — a competition that tasks high school students with identifying plants, assessing soil health and determining how it could be improved. Later this month, he will add Junior Conservationist of the Year to his trophy case.

Having grown up in Routt County near Steamboat Springs, Bedell is closely connected to his ranching roots.

Like many in the Yampa Valley, he has raised a steer to compete at the county fair, learned how to judge livestock competitions and traveled with his peers to national agriculture events. But the 16-year-old is also interested in managing the land on which his family’s cows feed, and he has taken a special interest to study soil and range health.

“That’s one of the main contributing factors to the Dustbowl, the range and soil health side of things was overlooked,” Bedell said. “But I think it definitely goes hand in hand with the animal production side of things. Make your ground good, make your crops good, make your animals good.”

Awarded each year by the Colorado Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society to a high school student who‘s interested in soil and water conservation practices, the Junior Conservationist of the Year award will be presented to Bedell during the Colorado Association of Conservation District’s meeting on Nov. 29 in Colorado Springs.

“It’s a really prevalent issue today, just with drought in the West in general and all the issues facing ranchers today,” Bedell said. “This is a career field that is definitely looking interesting to me — a really good way to keep connected to my agricultural roots, and Routt County and my family.”

Students from Soroco High School take part in the Northwest Colorado Range Contest.
Reece Melton/Courtesy photo

Reece Melton, Bedell’s agricultural education teacher at Soroco, said that while ranchers know how important soil health is, they are very busy people.

“They don’t have enough manpower, labor is tough,” Melton said. “You got to feed your cows, take care of them. How are you going to make time to analyze the soil and your ranch, especially when we’re talking hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres?”

Bedell chose to transfer to Soroco specifically because of its agricultural program, which is unlike others in the state due to funding from a Response, Innovation and Student Equity, or RISE, grant. He said he was first “pressured” to go to a range competition by friends around the same time he was learning about plant identification and natural resources in class.

“It went hand in hand (with that class) and really taught me a lot,” Bedell said.

This year, he was the only member of Soroco’s team at the range competition who had done it before. He helped them identify a couple dozen plants native to Northwest Colorado, what growing conditions those plants prefer and how palatable they are — meaning how likely livestock are to eat it.

To practice, Bedell said he enjoys working on identifying plants in his free time.

“There’s a lot of types of grasses,” Bedell said, adding that he memorized about 50 of them for the range competition. “It’s good to be able to identify plants, for example … cheatgrass. It’s an invasive species and it’s just overall not very fun.”

Cattle may eat cheatgrass when it is just starting to grow, but after it seeds, they won’t touch it, Bedell said. It doesn’t make for good hay, and it doesn’t have any other uses and will even crowd out native grasses.

Part of assessing the range is looking at nutrients in the soil and figuring out what can be done to improve soil health as well.

The RISE Grant allows students such as Bedell more access to technology in this field than most ranchers have to work with. Melton said he hopes they will eventually be able to use it to inform local ranchers about their own soil health.

“We’re the only program that’s going to have facilities and resources like this in the state,” Melton said. “It’s very expensive, so ranchers typically don’t have access to stuff like that. Hopefully one day ranchers will take advantage of some of this.”

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