Researchers at the Southwestern Colorado Research Center in Yellow Jacket are analyzing baseline data after the first growing season of three-year study on cover crops.
The Yellow Jacket project’s lead researcher, Abdel Berrada, spoke Friday at the Four States Agricultural Expo at Montezuma County Fairgrounds.
The research center received a near-$250,000 grant to fund the study, which examines how cover crops can improve soil quality for dryland farmers.
Though Berrada said he and other researchers have a long way to go before they find out what works in the region, he told a crowd of about 25 people that cover crops can increase organic matter in the soil, suppress weeds and prevent erosion.
“Cover crops make sense,” Berrada said. “We’re looking at factors to see what works best for the area.”
As part of the study, five farmers in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah are administering test plots of cover crops such as yellow clover, winter peas and others.
After three years, researchers hope to quantify the effects of cover crops on ground moisture, soil health and weed control, Berrada said. Another goal of the project is to determine which cover crops are most profitable. Those goals will help determine if cover crops can enhance the sustainability of farming in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.
Colorado State University Dolores County Extension director Gus Westerman said researchers will collect a second round of data in the next year. They’ll use data collected at the end of the three years to compare the effects of cover crops in the region with results from other areas, he said.
As the region is in the middle of a long-term drought, Westerman said more people in the industry are becoming aware of these issues.
“Soil health is becoming a hot topic in the area,” Westerman said. “Moisture is becoming a big interest. Everyone is getting aware of that.”
But the study only runs for three years, and Westerman said that’s a short time in terms of soil science. He said the project hopes to extend the grant to get more time to study the issue.
CSU Extension West Region Specialist John Rizza said there hasn’t been much research on cover crops in the region to date. Few studies have been done to examine which cover crops are most successful for dryland farmers, he said.
“This is why we’re doing research — it’s high and dry here,” Rizza said. “Water-holding capacity is key and it increases when there is more organic matter.”
Both Rizza and Westerman said the level of interest in cover crops is increasing regionally. More farmers are participating and it’s now easier to show people how they work, Rizza said.
“We’re getting good momentum,” he said.
In addition to the CSU Extension, Rizza is involved with the National Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA that gives technical assistance to farmers. He said both groups are employing a regional approach to agriculture assistance.
“We’re interested in helping farmers all over the state,” Rizza said. “People down the road can help one another and get to a better place.”