The Southwestern Colorado Research Center has received a $249,269 grant to study how using cover crops can improve soil health for dryland farmers.
Five farmers in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah will administer test plots totalling 520 acres over a three-year period.
Varieties being considered are yellow clover, Austrian winter peas, sorghum, cereal grains, rye and others.
“Farmers in this area are saying their soils are very depleted from overuse,” said researcher Abdel Berrada. “Studies elsewhere show cover crops rejuvenate the soil and increase yields when cash crops are planted afterward.”
Cover crops on dryland farms are not widely used locally, but the three-year feasibility study hopes to change that by determining which variety is ideal for this climate and most affordable.
“This type of scientific trial has not been done here, so we want to find out what works and what doesn’t,” Berrada said. “It needs to be affordable and show results, or the farmer won’t use it.”
Using cover crops on fallow fields helps the soil retain moisture, prevents erosion, out -ompetes weeds, and adds nitrogen, and organic matter.
“Our soils here don’t have a lot of biomass to begin with,” said research associate Cam Waschke. “And holding in soil moisture is a big issue for dryland farming.”
Cover crops are also ideal for organic farm operations because they control weeds without herbicides, and add organic matter and nitrogen without fertilizers.
The grant funding pays farmers to participate and helps to purchase the cover-crop seeds. It also pays for expensive lab testing on soils and supplements salaries for research staff.
Berrada said that traditionally, many dryland farms are tilled over after the bean, wheat, or sunflower crop is harvested.
But the practice can deplete organic matter, and the soils are prone to drying and blowing away during high winds.
The experiments will evaluating impacts to soil health when cover crops are disked in, mulched in, or just left in the field.
“With the dead plant material left in the field, there is less evaporation and the roots help with filtration when it rains,” Berrada said.
Depending on the results, cover cropping could change the way people farm, and is seen as way to conserve water an era of sustained drought.
“There is a growing awareness that our traditional growing practices need to change for us to survive,” Waschke said. “Cover cropping has shown to save water and increase crop yields and we hope that happens here.”
Beginning next year, results will begin to materialize and tours, speakers, and workshops will be available to the public. Also a local dryland cover crop website with information and videos will launch in July.
The federal grant was issued from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.