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Soil conference showcases local efforts

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Photo by Hank Lohmeyer The Soil Health Conference was built around small group discussions on specific topics that went right to the issues local producers are dealing with.

The 2017 Soil Health Conference featured a locally focused program of small breakout groups where farmers got right to the real issues of soil health practices in the local area. The conference provided a wealth of useful information that was geared to the issues faced by local ag producers, and discussion panels included local participants.

In one of the small group discussion sessions, Jerry Allen of the Shavano Conservation District reported on the results of specific soil health methods being used on Uncompahgre Valley fields. He presented four examples where local use of cover crops produced positive financial returns, and he projected the account tallies onto a large screen to prove it. The four operations also yielded better forage production and quality, and improved soil conditions.

Another of the well-attended small group sessions became an open forum on the topic of orchard management. Subjects and information exchanged by the participants included ground cover for use in orchards, the best nurseries to use for obtaining quality root stock, the best ways to prune and trim in specific circumstances, different types of pest control, and possible solutions to the problem of the earwig insect pest in orchards on Rogers Mesa.

One popular breakout session brought together four local soil health practitioners who shared their knowledge and answered questions about holistic soil management practices being used in backyard gardens.

Other small group seminars held throughout the two-day-long Soil Health Conference dealt with topics including soil health basics, low/no-till farming methods, soil testing information, results of trials on different types of cover crops, the carbon cycle and biodiversity.

Also discussed was the practice of integrating livestock grazing into a soil health improvement regimen -- a technique that one keynote speaker at the conference called "the quickest way to improve your soils."

Organizers of the annual Soil Health Conference said that 150 people signed up in advance for this year's event and another 20 walk-ins attended.

The conference held at the Delta Center brought national experts in the field of soil health together with the local producers and practitioners who are putting the principles of soil improvement management to work in their own operations.

Keynote speaker Keith Berns of Nebraska told attendees that the task of rebuilding the nation's much-eroded topsoils will be a "monumental task."

He explained that ag operators need to move beyond the last 80 years of soil management regimens which have focused mainly on containing erosion and conserving the topsoil that remains.

"More needs to be done," Berns said. Soil health practices need to be employed to begin rebuilding top soils that have been eroded by two-thirds and more in many areas.

Berns shared keynote honors with Jon Lundgren, an entomologist from South Dakota. He showed conference attendees results of his research findings on the unseen universe of insects. As producers turn away from practices utilizing carbon- and chemical-intensive inputs and begin adopting holistic ways of working with nature to manage soils and increase yields, insects can play their natural role of crop pest predators. They should be cultivated, not sprayed, Lundgren explained.

Soils health farming practices aim to improve the organic content of fields thus lessening inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel-burning tractor trips through fields. Another beneficial result being sought is use of less irrigation water and higher quality water runoff from irrigated fields.

The interest in soils health locally began a decade ago partly in response to worries that local water supplies might be curtailed. It was feared at that time that federal regulations could result due to chemical loading carried by irrigation runoff. Selenium especially was said to be causing damage to downstream environments and water users' infrastructure.

Irrigation percolates through the soils to a layer of shale where it picks up chemical loading. Improved soils require less water and provide for improved irrigation techniques like spraying and drip systems thus lessening deep percolation runoff.

But producers need to see operational benefits and bottom line results before being convinced to adopt and invest in soils health practices on their farms.

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