Soil Health was the biggest topic of discussion at the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Mike and Amber Weber were on hand to give presentations to the board and attendees about water quality and soil health in Colorado. Mike Weber was the first to present and spoke about all of the research he’s done on water quality and soil health, which he started in 2017 after seeing how South Dakota approached the subject.
After visiting South Dakota he said he began to read many different articles about soil health.
“It took me about three or four months to go through all this and figure out what do we need to do. I then realized there's a connection between water quality and soil health,” he said.
What he found is that if you have healthy soil it will maintain the integrity of the soil which will make sure sediment run off no longer occurs.
“Essentially sediment is going to stay in the soil instead of draining off and feeding back into your waterways,” he said.
While researching he found that the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water increased as it went downstream, west to east on the Arkansas River Basin. After seeing this he spoke about how it could be due to runoff furthering the connection he found between water quality and soil health.
Doing more research, he said he set out to create sites where they could test out using different cover crops and grazing techniques to improve the health of the soil. Which in the future could improve the quality of the water.
To do this he applied for a couple of 319 grants, which are grants that provides funding for various types of projects that work to reduce nonpoint source water pollution. Through the grant, he said he was able to get funding for seven sites to test the correlation between water quality and soil health.
With these sites he said they are trying different things including using different cover crops, grazing techniques and tilling techniques.
“My idea is lets cover the whole basin. So with these seven sites were covering Bent, Otero and Pueblo county,” he said.
They are also working on getting sites in both Crowley and Prowers county. That way they are covering places with different watering systems including places with a lot of water, short water and no water.
At each of the sites they have shallow monitoring wells from the top and bottom of the fields and soil moisture probes to continually measure the soil moisture. They also take water quality samples every month in season and every other month in the off-season, along with other tests like Haney tests on the soil.
Since April 1, Amber Weber has been researching soil health and created a soil health advisory council which includes farmers and people from state agencies to make sure she’s heading in the right direction.
To better understand soil health she said she’s attended different conferences, talked with different farmers and has gotten feedback after giving soil health tours.
“We need to be able to apply the key principles that NRCS has and make sure that in a dry year we are still okay, we may not be great. But we might be better than we were before and that's important because we are super variable down here,” she said.
She went on to say that she can't do a year by year analysis because the runs of water are very variable. The research has to be in that year because she said things are tricky, which means they have to increase their resilience and sustainability any chance they can.
“I like to make sure that our farmers are our experts, because they are. This is their job and their livelihood, they may not know everything soil health but they have inklings,” she said.
The goal was to show farmers the data and tell them what they know to see if they try it and what results they get. It’s important for them to be producer centered , staying close with their farmers and building trust with them.
“Some people say why don’t you partner with CSU or some other research based facility?’ Because we’re a different kind of research facility,” she said.
They do research, but they let the farmers make the decisions, just as they would if the farmers were actually doing the different techniques themselves. She said that they want to let them know how it could affect their bottom line as well, assisting them so they don’t fail in the first year.
“Farmers try it once or twice and say ‘you know what I can’t do it, I’m not making enough money,” she said.
Assisting them while making sure to keep an eye on their bottom line at the end of the day, is a big goal of hers. To do this she said that they focus on economic analysis, so they can go back in 10 years and look at how their bottom line was affected.
“We’re not just talking yields, we’re talking inputs, fuel, work hours, whatever the case may be,” she said.
After looking at all of those aspects she said she wants to show them how all of the different techniques they used affects them economically so they can make better decisions.
Another big goal she spoke about was having many different demo plots with different variables to test what techniques work the best.
By December she said she will have applied for a few more grants that will help with soil health. She also hopes that by December 2020 most of the demo plots will be in place and they can begin their economic analysis.
On Nov. 7 and 8 she indicated that there will be a mini conference in Lamar about soil health. To learn more about soil health you can visit ColoradoSoilhealth.org.