The dirt on Colorado soil health and cover crops

This article was originally featured in our 2016 Price List.

If we think of the Great Plains as our nation’s natural, lush carpet, then soils are the thread that weaves this patchwork masterpiece together. Soils provide the foundation for fuel, food and fiber. They also play a vital role in climate regulation, erosion control, nutrient cycling and creating habitat. Soils connect our entire natural system and lay the basis for building communities. When we talk soil health then, we refer to the health of agriculture, industry and society in general.

A sterile sorghum can serve as a beneficial cover crop to prepare dryland sites for grasses.

A sterile sorghum can serve as a beneficial cover crop to prepare dryland sites for grasses.

We now know from the lessons learned in the Dust Bowl days that farmed soils require management. Wind and water erosion can rapidly diminish soils that took thousands of years to establish. Loss of healthy topsoil due to mismanagement disadvantages farmers for generations to come.

While soils have inherent properties outside of our control (i.e. texture, type of clay, or depth of bedrock), soils also have many dynamic properties that land managers can work to improve. Factors such as soil compaction, pH and organic matter can all be influenced for the better – albeit with time and patience.

Crop rotations have long served as a natural method to build soils, by breaking up disease and pest patterns, and promoting nutrient cycling. As farming trends have increasingly turned toward mono-cropping, however, much of the discussion has shifted toward cover crops as a method to build soils. Unlike crops used in rotations, cover crops are not harvested. In order to provide their full benefit, these crops are left to the earth to decay and become integrated into the soil system.

While cover crops can provide great benefit, they should be evaluated like any other agricultural input. Will they provide economic benefit to the operation? Are they appropriate for the farm’s needs?

On dryland, where every drop of water counts, farmers may actually find cover crops disadvantageous. Although the planting will provide soil cover and protection, it may extract too much water and compromise the viability of the farm’s cash crops.

In semi-arid zones, farmers will need to turn to other methods to build their soils. When appropriate, grasses can serve as an outstanding soil builder. As a source of long-term cover, native grasses are capable of placing deep roots and falling dormant in times of scarcity. These qualities contribute to the resiliency of grasses in drought situations. For land that has been farmed in excess, grasses can begin the process of restoring the soils and building organic matter.

Another difficulty when working with cover crops is selecting seed fit for semi-arid environments. We cannot assume that successful crops from other production zones will perform just as well in the West. There has never been a one-size-fits-all approach to farming, and the same goes when planting cover crops.

Based on real-world farming experience, our team has developed cover crops mixes for spring, summer and fall planting. These mixes consist solely of seasonally and regionally appropriate species.

Regardless of the nature of the operation, farmers must know their land and its limitations. As the land so generously gives to us, it is our responsibility to give back.