Final report for FW20-371
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.
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.
- - Producer
- - Technical Advisor - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
Major results include the following:
- No significant results were observed or recorded between the treatments within the smooth brome (pond/house) or wet meadow (Kaess) pastures.
- There were significant increases in both production and percent cover of the cover crop in the Cheatgrass pasture in 2021 in the plots sprayed with extract.
- There were no significant vegetation differences in the Cheatgrass pasture in 2022 in any of the treatment plots.
- There was a significant decrease in water infiltration in plots treated with Extract in both 2020 and 2022.
- There was a significant increase in active fungi and bacteria in the cheatgrass plots treated with Extract.
See link above for full results (including infiltration and vegetation results)
This project was very effective as a conduit and education tool for hands-on learning and educating producers on soil health and a path forward for managing for drought and the water cycle. This project spurred on field research and discussion groups among 8 ranchers in the San Luis Valley and 9 ranchers in South East Colorado. From this effort, CSU soil scientists and our Agricultural Research Station with the added support of Colorado Department of Agriculture, our chancellor and director of Extension have collectively supported a larger grant to study degraded lands through the lens of soil health (with our producers in the video from SE Colorado). We are most excited about the involvement with our soil scientists on campus and their interest to work with Extension and rural farmers and ranchers.
This research will incorporate high- fungal compost and other amendments (humic acid, trace minerals, biosolids) on go-back lands (previously cultivated and or/dewatered lands) with the help of 4 of CSU's soil researchers.
With this work we will add Forage quality, soil moisture probes, and further testing on N and C pools through our CSU soils lab.
See Drought Resiliency powerpoint above to view how we incorporated this study into our Drought workshops.
Education and Outreach
We hosted a 2 day workshop with renown Agroecologist, Nicole Masters, Author of For the Love of Soil. We had 80 ranchers at the workshop and from that we have created two round-table groups who are meeting monthly and doing on-ranch trials all using high fungal compost extract. We generated 16 hours of video that is being edited and made into a short film by the CSU Creative Arts Extention specialists. 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.
This year we presented on this effort 11 times including the Greeley, Montrose, and Sterling farm shows, San Luis Valley, Pueblo and Greeley Ag Conventions, 3 soil conservation District Annual Meetings, Fremont County Drought Resilience Workshop, CSU Range School
Static Pile High Fungal Compost Demonstration Link:
Education and Outreach Outcomes
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.
Our workshop video