The Application of using High-Fungal Compost to Renovate Mountain Meadow Pastures

Progress report for FW20-371

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $20,000.00
Projected End Date: 11/01/2022
Grant Recipient: Oswald Cattle Co
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Steve Oswald
Oswald Cattle Co
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Project Information

Abstract:

Historically, ranchers with cow/calf operations in Colorado have run their operations by calving and feeding hay through most of the winter and mechanically harvesting hay throughout the summer. Though science-based data has helped direct operations toward calving later to mimic nature and discourage cutting hay vs. grazing the meadows, years of continually removing grass vital to soil formation has depleted the organic layer responsible for regenerating healthy meadow systems. The science-based solutions have been to over-seed with native plants, fertilize, or rotate cows at a density high enough to “recondition” with cow manure and hoof action. After years of incorporating these methods, we would like to additionally experiment with an emerging science applying high fungal compost. This proposal builds on the research of Drs. Christine Jones, Elaine Ingham, and David Johnson and producers in the San Luis Valley who became interested enough to commission a commercial-scale compost for application to their lands to validate the approach. Guided by David Johnson and the Mosca-Hooper Conservation District, they pooled $75,000 to commission a commercial-scale compost now available for purchase.
We would like to use SARE funding to 1) directly support our application of the compost; 2) study the effects through soil and vegetation research 3) provide travel costs for partner CSU Extension and 4) host field days designed to link youth, producers, and conservation professionals. At a minimum, we will provide a location demonstrating experiments with high fungal compost and encourage conversation about the role of healthy soils in our agricultural systems.

Project Objectives:

Within the context of irrigated, and unirrigated pastures we will address the following questions:
1. Can the application of compost or compost extracts shift soil microbial communities and improve soil health metrics and productivity?
2. Does the integration of grazing influence the effects of compost or compost extracts on soil microbial communities and improve soil health metrics and system profitability?
3. How does high density grazing compare or add to application of compost extract?

Within the context of establishing an irrigated cover crop stand, we address the following:
1. Is treating seeds with compost extract before drilling or applying the compost extract to the soil surface more effective for improving soil health metrics and crop productivity?
2. How does high density grazing compare or add to application of compost extract?

To address these questions, we have created the following objectives that will be measured at both irrigated and non-irrigated sites:

Objective 1: Quantify short- and long-term effects of compost extract on soil health and plant productivity with and without grazing.

Objective 2: Estimate the financial feasibility and risk associated with the use of high fungal compost extract as a soil amendment to grazed, un-grazed, irrigated, and non-irrigated sites.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Steve Oswald - Producer
  • Annie Overlin - Technical Advisor - Producer (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Our experiment is based on Dr. David Johnson’s methods that were shared with the Mosca-Hooper Conservation District for development of high-fungal compost and extract to treat seed and apply to soil. The Mosca-Hooper extract includes sheep manure, barley straw, cattail hay, and woodchips. PVC tubes were used to aerate the pile and a commercial extractor was used to create the extract. 

Experimental Design

We established replicated plots on 2 irrigated pasture fields and 1 range pasture. The research design was a randomized, split plot design with 3 replicates per field/pasture. For all grazed sites, the extract was incorporated into the soil using the hoof action of cattle at a stocking density of 50,000 – 250,000 lbs live-weight/acre. The treatment was implemented when soil temperatures  reached at least 40 ℉ in the spring of 2020. The extract was applied to either the surface of the soil with a sprayer or applied to the seed prior to drilling. Grazed pastures are annually re-grazed based on recovery of dominant species.

Main plot treatments include:
1. Grazed annually, no extract
2. Grazed annually, extract applied once
3. Not grazed from June 2020-2022, extract applied once
4. Not grazed from June 2020-2022, no extract

Main plots are 25 m x 70 m.

For the cover crop seed mix site, a split plot was added within treatments 2 and 3 to compare two methods of compost extract application where extract was sprayed on the surface or applied to the seed prior to drilling.

Site Descriptions

Dryland sites include:
1. These sites are dominated by blue grama grass, western wheatgrass, needle and thread, poa and brome grass. The soils are a clay loam. The pasture is part of a 50+ paddock rotation and depending on the rotation, used for spring or late fall/ winter grazing.

Irrigated sites include:
1. Forage pasture – This predominantly mountain brome pasture is high density grazed from May 20 to Dec 31. The animals are stocked at a density of 50,000 – 1,000,000 lbs live weight per acre and moved 1 – 5 times per day. Sandy loams predominate these pastures. 60% of these pastures are sub irrigated. Irrigation, where used, is via gated pipe or flood with the irrigation season running from May 1 through late October.
2. Cover crop site – We used a cover crop seed mix of triticale, turnips, cow peas and rape seed. Cow-calf pairs and stockers were/are used to graze the cover crops at the appropriate time.

Soil data
Soil health metrics are measured annually (3 times total) including a baseline soil sampling prior to plot establishment. These metrics include pH, soil aggregation, labile carbon and nitrogen, soil microbial community, total soil C and N, soil texture, and bulk density. The microbial community of the compost material and the extract are also tested.

We recorded/record quarterly observations indicative of soil function including: water infiltration rate (using pvc pipe); presence or absence of living root; percent living and dead cover over soil surface; depth of aggregate formation within soil profile; time since last significant soil disturbance event; time since last grazing event occurred. In addition, we collected/collect three 2 in x 2 in x 2 soil peds each quarter. Peds are air dried and will be used in the demonstrations workshop. Information regarding infiltration rate and the visual impact of a slake test taken from the same site over a one-year period can have a powerful impact on the understanding of participants, and on neighboring producers present at soil health gathering.

Pasture and forage data
Biomass and species composition for the irrigated pasture, and rangeland site were measured prior to treatment, at physiological maturity, prior to being re-grazed, and at peak annual biomass production, respectively.

*The following two sections on our analysis methods will be finalized upon completion of the trials.

Economic data
A financial analysis to determine the return on investment for each effective treatment will be completed using project costs and revenue forecasts. Data collection for this analysis will include the cost of seed, fencing, compost material, and other cropping system inputs (e.g. fuel, machinery, and fertilizer) for each treatment. Five-year averages for local input costs and crop prices will be used for the analysis. Financial metrics utilized in this analysis may include but are not limited to change in forage production, animal unit months associated with the potential change in forage production, and forage quality (accounting for changes in feed costs associated with changes in supplementation that result from changes in forage quality).

Data analysis
We will utilize multivariate approaches such as analysis of covariance and principle components analysis to aggregate soil health variables into single predictors to explain variance in treatments. Nonmetric multidimensional scaling approaches will be used to evaluate soil microbial community and vegetation data differences by treatment. Analyses will be conducted using PC ord and Excel.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

While some of our proposed in-person education activities were postponed due to COVID19, we utilized a wide array of virtual tools to reach Colorado ranchers. We created an educational video introducing high fungal compost and current implementation projects in Colorado such as the Mosca-Hooper Soil Conservation District initiative and this project (see video below). In addition to this video highlighting current projects, we created another video centered on the work of Dr. David Johnson that details the potential impact of high fungal compost (see video below). Beyond our educational videos, we created two webinars focused on rangeland soil health with rangeland and soil experts and Colorado ranchers. All of these materials have been posted to the CSU Extension website and the CSU Range Facebook page and have received a great response. Our public outreach day has been moved to July 2021. This event will feature Nicole Masters, a ranchers round table and presentations on high fungal compost and how to interpret soil tests. In preparation for this event we have begun creating education materials, one of which is a brief guide on how to interpret a soil test and why it’s important. We are excited to continue our education efforts as we continue to learn about the impacts of high fungal compost.

Static Pile High Fungal Compost Demonstration Link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGxSDhnvUUc

Learning Outcomes

404 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
2 Grants received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

“One of the most profound benefits to sustainable agriculture as a result of discovering a potential new compost market and application is the inspiration to the ranching community to experiment with their own waste material and encourage ingenuity. This innovation is low-cost to produce and can be applied with existing equipment.  In our experience, ranchers are always experimenting and innovating with the resources at hand, on the ranch.  This technology will allow them a new direction to invent and learn.

Additionally, with the increased awareness of the relationship between healthy soils, healthy animals, and healthy people, this application could educate our consumers on beef options that do not rely on crops laden with synthetic inputs but those grown with a product recycled from the ranch.”

We wrote this for our proposal and we could not be more thrilled with the the involvement we have had within Colorado’s Health Soils Initiative as a result of our research.  Our Extension Agent for this project and I have been involved with producing 2 soil health webinars, a video, and the development of the STAR program (Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources) to ranchers.  This project has allowed us to think through how to help the state incentivize practices that encourage soil development.  The webinars and videos have been distributed on the CSU Range Website with over 60k viewers.  

We believe these efforts have armed producers to innovate beyond what we have done.  In addition, we scheduled a workshop with Nicole Masters for July 2021 and have received enthusiastic response to her being here and to share in our project. 

 

Here is the link to one of our high fungal compost video

Success stories:

Though we have not had the opportunity to do any live events due to COVID, we’ve had lots of opportunity to share our story and process online. More than anything we have brought attention and energy to the soil health movement in Colorado and look forward to sharing this summer. 

 

Recommendations:

This year we focused on collecting baseline data and production data after the growing season.  Applying the extract and coating seeds required quite a bit of innovation. Some of which we shared other farmers who were doing the same.  For example, we learned which sprayer tips work best, pounds of pressure necessary to apply, that the coated seeds needed to be dried before going through the drill. We also learned a key lesson and that was seeding did not work in April but July after afternoon thunderstorms. Probably our biggest failure was the deer ate most of our crop and that in order to supply our microbes with a living root we need to fence them out at least until we can get some establishment.   As a result of these failures we learned a great deal in the application and look forward to sharing with our fellow neighbors and community. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.