Getting Back to Our Roots
by Kati O'Hare
Oct 17, 2012 | 1380 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTROSE COUNTY FARMER Randy Meeker explains how he strip tills his land to provide the least impact on the health of his soil. Behind him is the strip till machine he uses to plant and fertilize, and behind that, a pivot sprinkler readies his cover crop, which will soon be pastured by cows. (Photo by Kati O'Hare)
MONTROSE COUNTY FARMER Randy Meeker explains how he strip tills his land to provide the least impact on the health of his soil. Behind him is the strip till machine he uses to plant and fertilize, and behind that, a pivot sprinkler readies his cover crop, which will soon be pastured by cows. (Photo by Kati O'Hare)

Farmers Abandon Conventional Methods to Produce Healthier Soils and Crops

MONTROSE – More than 100 years ago, irrigation water was brought to the Uncompahgre Valley so its residents could produce corn and barley.

But successful crops take more than just water – they also need nutritious soil – and more recently, farmers have abandoned some methods now known to damage the soil, such as plowing, with favorable results.

"There is more research and acceptance that stewardship of our soil is a key component to agriculture and our way of life," said F. Isaac Munoz, small acreage management agent with Tri River Area Colorado State University Extension Office. "I see more of our innovative and well-known farmers who are more accepting [of soil health methods] and realizing that it makes good business sense."

Montrose County farmer Randy Meeker is one of those forward-thinkers.

Meeker's more than 300 acres of farmland, east of Colorado 50 between Montrose and Olathe, has been in his family since water came to the valley through the Gunnison Tunnel.

High selenium in the soil, which also is found in the irrigation water, makes attention to soil health even more important, Munoz said.

Another issue is the heavy clay-type soil that is common in the Uncompaghre Valley and prone to hardpans – dense layer of soil usually found below the uppermost topsoil layer – that can make it difficult for water and roots to percolate.

Plowing is a common practice used to break up the hardpans and prepare the land for seed and irrigation.

"But some studies have shown there may be alternative ways to prepare the soil," Munoz said.

Meeker hasn't used conventional plowing methods on his land since he sold his plow in 2000.

Instead, he uses cover crops and, in some plots, pivot sprinkler systems, to get the most from his land, and what he's found, is that this system is improving the health of his soil.

Cover crops are usually grown to prevent soil loss from wind and water erosion, but they also help to improve soil structure and increase organic matter, according to Colorado State University-Extension.

And that is exactly what Meeker found.

Meeker harvests winter wheat in August, and behind that, he'll plant triticale and tillage radishes. He puts water back onto the field – using the pivot sprinkler system that allows him to put a specific amount of water onto an area in a specific amount of time – and he gets a certain amount of germination from the winter wheat, so that he now has a combination of the wheat, triticale and tillage radishes growing in the field. He'll then pasture cattle in that field in the fall, and again in the spring.

The cattle fertilize the field, but more importantly, by having an active growing crop in the soil year-round, he is able to keep the good bugs alive that feed on that plant material of the previous crop and turn it into organic matter that helps the next crop, Meeker said.

After the field is pastured, he plants corn using a strip till – a farming technique that involves working only six-inch strips of the soil to plant the seed and fertilize it.

Meeker said he's been experimenting with cover crop for about three years, and it's still a changing process.

"We are still rethinking the way we are doing things, but we are thinking outside the box and seeing it work better," he said.

Prior to adopting his new system, Meeker was adding waste from his feedlots to his crop with the idea of fertilizing it. But plowing and mixing that matter into his soil was only destroying the health of the soil because it exposes and kills important and needed bacteria.

A test of Meeker's soil, prior to his new system of planting, showed his organic matter at less than 1 percent. But since he changed his methods, he's now at about two percent.  Two to three percent is a good level, according to CSU extension.

Meeker still is perfecting his methods, and said that he plans to expand to include such cover crops as winter peas.

"There is a whole cocktail mix you can plant out there," he said. "The idea is the more variety of crops you can grow…each different plant is feeding those different microorganisms."

"The end result has proven that what we are doing here is the right thing " Meeker said. "It is a different planting system than thirty years ago, and different farmers in the valley are doing similar things."

About two years ago, a group of like-minded farmers came together and formed the Uncompaghre Valley Soil Health Project. The project involves about thirty area farmers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, area extension agents, and both Montrose and Delta economic development organizations.

The goal of the project is to have demonstration and research plots on farms around the valley that follow sustainable agriculture practices that build soil health.

There are risks involved in these practices, as they are not the conventional ways of farming. To help with the costs associated with the risks, there is funding available for farmers through a three-year, $1.35 million Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative federal grant.

Nine farmers, mostly from the Delta County area, have applied and have been awarded funds through the program, said Sarah Carlquist, of Delta County Economic Development, the grant facilitator.

"Soil health goes back to our grandfathers' way of doing things," Carlquist said. "The changing practices were advancements [at the time], but in the end, it deteriorated the soil. We are getting back to our roots."

Kati O'Hare at or Tweet @katiohare

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