Building productivity and soil health with erosion control structures in arid rangelands: effects of organic amendments and seeding.

Progress report for OW21-362

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2021: $74,932.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2024
Host Institution Award ID: G322-21-W8614
Grant Recipient: Quivira Coalition
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Eva Stricker
Quivira Coalition
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Project Information


Erosion on rangelands threatens soil health and in turn the productivity of plants, livestock, and producers. Extreme rainfall and drought are exacerbating risks of sheet erosion, and thus we must find rapid, effective ways to reduce erosion. To increase plant establishment and productivity, interest is growing in using organic amendments and native seeding with erosion control structures. We want to ask 1) does adding organic matter and/or 2) does adding propagules improve vegetation development in an actively eroding area? We propose to build rock run-downs on 9-18 headcuts on each of five dryland ranches and compare compost, mulch, and no organic amendments, with and without dryland grass seed additions. We will measure vegetation composition and biomass, soil moisture, infiltration rate, aggregate stability and other physical and chemical properties, and erosion or accretion in headcut channels. Understanding which treatment combinations yield the most rapid benefits will allow ranchers to evaluate costs and outcomes for better decision making. We will hold workshops at each ranch, three to demonstrate how to build the structures and deploy the organic amendments, and two to demonstrate how to monitor for plant and soil health after one year. We will additionally write white papers of economic analyses and peer-reviewed publications of the ecological results and present at the REGENERATE conference and Down to Earth podcast to disseminate to both producers and technical service providers working in these highly erodible lands. We will build soil health through living roots and surface cover to restore degraded working drylands.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Ameliorate 9-18 active headcuts on each of five ranches using erosion control structures and determine the optimal combination of organic amendment and seeding to improve plant productivity, soil health, and reduce erosion

  • Submit peer-reviewed publication of results.

Objective 2: Determine the cost of each combination relative to the outcome

  • Write white paper of results

Objective 3: Empower local producers to make changes in their operations to reduce erosion and improve soil health 

  • Conduct 5 workshops, present at the REGENERATE conference and Down to Earth podcast for regional outreach.

gantt wsare

The timeline for the remainder of the grant (2023) is:


Spring/Summer - complete Hughes and Flowering Tree workshop

Summer - complete cost-benefit analysis (with intern)

Fall - complete pee-rreviewed publication and white paper of results

Winter - complete Down to Earth Podcast



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Lucas Chavez - Producer
  • Emily Cornell - Producer
  • Charles Hibner - Producer
  • Debbie Hughes - Producer
  • Dr. Creighton Robinson - Producer


Materials and methods:

Make all erosion control structures

The ranchers marked 18-30 sites that were actively eroding. They then collected rock material onsite, or, in one case, purchased stone from a local landscaping company. 

We held two workshops with expert guidance (Aaron Kaufman, Esquibel Ranch; Mori Hensley, Sol Ranch) leading groups of volunteers to learn how to build one rock dams to armor the site of active erosion to reduce further degradation (See Figure 1 in attached document from 2021). For sites without the expert guidance, we provided guidance and publications such as the erosion control field guide (


Baseline monitoring.

All baseline monitoring occurred in the area 4m x 4m upslope of the erosion control structure.


Infiltration Rate. Infiltration rate was collected from the center of each plot in an interspace area free of perennial vegetation. We used the single ring infiltrometer method (NRCS) and timed both the first and second inch (Figure 2 in attached document from 2021). 


Aggregate Stability. We assess surface aggregate stability using standard methods and the soil stability kit (Herrick et al. 2017) for 4-6 aggregates per plot (Figure 3 in attached document from 2021). Aggregates were collected haphazardly from interspace locations throughout the plot. 


Erosion/Accretion. If the channel below the erosion control structure was shallow (<50cm) and narrow (<1m) enough, we added wooden stakes to either side and used a level to ensure that they were completely level. We then used a contour measuring device (Kornecki et al. 2008) to record the cross cross sectional area of each channel with 19 points (Figure 4 in attached document from 2021).


Vegetation structure. Note- because we set up plots in December, all plants were senesced and we could not ascertain if plants were living and thus we did not take baseline point-intercept measurements. After 1y, we will collect point intercept data of ground surface cover, herbaceous layer, shrub layer, and canopy layer following standard protocols (Herrick et al. 2017).


Photos. We took photos looking upslope from the rock structure to the plot for each plot after completing treatments (See Figure 5 in attached document from 2021). 

Experimental set-up 

We blocked the structures by similar slope, aspect, and distance to one another within each ranch and randomly assigned treatment combinations within each block. For Sol Ranch, there was such high vegetative cover that they chose not to add additional seed; thus, they had only three replicates each of control, mulch, and compost. For all other ranches, there were three replicates each of control, mulch, and compost fully crossed with control and native seed.

Plots were measured to 4m x 4m above each erosion control structure and marked with flags and a metal tag. Plots were set up perpendicular to the slope, centered on the erosion control structure. Railroad pins were added .5m inside from the NW corner and SE corner for vegetation transect monitoring.


Compost addition: Compost for Sol, Hughes, and Tedford was purchased from Soilutions (Albuquerque, NM) and was composed of local manures, greenwaste and other select ingredients, composted for a minimum of 1 year and screened to 1/2 inch. Compost from Esquibel and Hibner was purchased from Polk’s Folly Farm, composed of pig waste, food waste, wood chips, composted for approximately 9m and unscreened. Compost was added to 0.25” thick with shovels, approximately 3 wheelbarrow fulls per plot.


Mulch addition: Mulch (“Native mulch”) for all ranches was purchased from Soilutions (Albuquerque, NM). Mulch was added to ~0.25” thick with shovels, approximately 4 wheelbarrow fulls per plot. 


Native seed addition. Locally-sourced native seed was purchased from Plants of the Southwest (Santa Fe, NM) based on the composition of each  site. 

For Hughes (zone 8) we used Bouteloua curtipendula and Eragrostis trichodes.

For Tedford (zone 6) we used the Dryland seed mix (Bouteloua gracilis, Bouteloua curtipendula, Achnatherum hymenoides, Elymus lanceolatus, Pleuraphis jamesii, Sporobolus airoides, Festuca ovina, and Schizachyrium scoparium)

For Hibner and Esquibel (zone 4), we used Sporobolus airoides and Elymus trachycaulus.

All seeds were thoroughly  mixed in a bucket and a 500mL was collected and sprinkled by hand  across the entire plot.

Sol Ranch had abundant biomass and diversity on site so we did not add additional seed.


  1. Year 1 monitoring

All monitoring occurred in the area 4m x 4m upslope of the erosion control structure.

Infiltration Rate, Aggregate Stability, Erosion/Accretion and Photos were all collected in the same way as during baseline monitoring. 

Vegetation structure. We collected point intercept data of ground surface cover, herbaceous layer, shrub layer, and canopy layer following standard protocols (Herrick et al. 2017). 

Aboveground biomass. We collected all aboveground vegetation biomass in 2090 cm2 by clipping biomass to ground level.

Soil carbon. We collected a core of 0-10 cm, 4 cm diameter soil core to send for soil C (total and organic C) to Ward Labs.


Herrick et al. 2017. Monitoring Manual for Grassland, Shrubland, and Savanna Ecosystems. USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range.

Kornecki et al. 2008. A portable device to measure soil erosion/deposition in quarter-drains. Soil use and management 24:401-408.

Research results and discussion:

We provided initial project results during the REGENERATE conference webinar week:

We provide the draft Ecosphere submission as an attachment. 2023 CRI ecosphere manuscript - Google Docs

Participation Summary
5 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

5 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

75 Farmers participated
50 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

2023. All five in-field outreach events have been completed. 

We completed the Indigenous-run Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute: Land Health and History Workshop; 25 participants. 

We also presented on the organic amendments and erosion control workshop at the Hibner Soil Health Field Day; ~50 participants. 

2022. We held one workshop in 2022 at Tedford Farm with 5 participants (out of 8 registrants) to  learn to build erosion control structures, view the trials after y1, and understand how in-field monitoring can be used by producers for projects like this. 

2021. Workshops were completed at Sol Ranch and Esquibel Ranch to build erosion control structures and discuss organic amendments. 

Education and outreach results:

We focused on in-field, participatory educational strategies for each workshop.


We employ a mixture of social media and traditional media outreach to attract a diverse audience to our events. We have a web page for the event that includes the description and the registration page. We also post on social media (facebook, instagram) and our monthly In the Field newsletter with advanced notice (2m-6w) and again closer to the event (1-2 weeks). We invest in purchasing ads on local radio and newspaper which we have found is an especially effective way of attracting people who have never heard of Quivira or attended one of our events before. For the two remaining workshops, we will experiment with advertising on our "Down to Earth" podcast which reaches listeners globally, to see if that affects the number and diversity of participants to local New Mexico workshops. Finally, we share events with close partners that have interests that overlap with our topics, such as the New Mexico Coalition to Enhance Working Lands, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local watershed groups such as Hermit's Peak Watershed Alliance and the Santa Fe Watershed Association.

For people who have registered, we send out an information packet at least 1 week in advance with a reminder email 1-2 days in advance. This email includes driving directions + map, contact information, regulations of the site host (eg. no dogs allowed, no smoking, etc.), the liability and photo waiver language that they will sign when then sign in, the agenda, and what materials they need to bring (eg. snacks, gloves, a portable chair, PPE).

During the event:
We provided each participant with a printed/laminated copy of the Erosion control Field Guide ( to take home.

We employed backward design
We first established what the desired learning outcomes by the end of the workshop for each participant were:
 1. Be able to build one type of erosion control structure
 2. Be able to describe how organic amendments and soil health relate to erosion
3. Be able to conduct one in-field assessment related to soil health
4. Be able to make one change on their own operation based on what they had learned

We then established how we would assess if they had reached the learning outcomes
1. We would provide materials for participants to build erosion structures at the host site and observe that they all were able to complete the project
2. We would ask them to provide answers in discussion and closing about how they would talk about these topics and if they planned to share what they learned with other people in their network.
3. Demonstrate and then have people try out tests such as aggregate stability, infiltration rate, clip plots, vegetation trasect or ocular estimate of bare ground, photo points, or soil sample collection.
4. As people what they will do as a result of this workshop and see whether they mention implementing changes on their own operation; could follow up with participants to ask what changes they made. 

We then designed the agenda to help us facilitate participants to meet the learning outcomes.
Our workshops roughly followed the agenda

1h: Welcome + logistics, land acknowledgement, introductions of each attendee.

1h: How does erosion control relate to soil health? We started with asking small groups to discuss each aspect of the conceptual figure that includes soil particles, organic material, soil microbes, and plants and how those aspects relate to the Healthy Soil Princples then shared back with the full group. This enabled shy/quiet people to contribute and build trust with some members of the group without having to immediately speak in front of the full group.  

30 m: How do organic amendment relate to soil health? We provided a short lecture on the differences between different organic amendments (mulch vs. compost) and then in a full-group discussion asked people to use what they had learned in the first discussion to say how mulch or compost additions might affect soil health.

30m: walk around the host site to show different erosion issues (headcuts, channels) or, if relevant, existing erosion control structures and talk about how different erosion control structures could be used. 
30m: pick one erosion issue and demonstrate how rock sructures are built.
1h: break into small groups to each build their own erosion structures; facilitator would supervise and provide guidance.

30m: walk around experimental sites; ask participants to make qualitative observations about difference they notice.
1h: demonstrate 1 or more qualitative field assessments then break into small groups to have participants practice collecting the data, then sharing back with a full group about their results and experience.

30m: close. Ask participants "what's next as a result of this workshop." We then provide evaluations, including the WSARE standardized form and an optional "knowledge inventory" for us to assess learning on the content topics of the workshop.

After the workshop
We email participants to ask if they would like to share their contact information with the full group to enhance networking and provide any follow-up resources that were requested during the workshop. 

20 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:


As mentioned previously, ranchers know that to build resilience, they need to be looking forward to when drought ends and severe weather occurs. For  this reason, all of them have been eager to proactively address sites of active erosion and were excited to see how additional amendments could help. We all talked about what could be used from on-site in the future so they wouldn’t have to purchase commercial mulch or compost. We talked about using juniper branches, some people have food waste compost, and others already are interested in collecting and storing native seeds, so all of those activities may fit together in the future.

We appreciate the flexibility of WSARE grant administrators when we asked if we could move one workshop from our experimental site to that of a Tribal partner who had expressed interest late last year. Supporting Tribal-led efforts and interests supports Quivira’s work of becoming an anti-racist organization and so we were glad that we were able to think through how our existing funding could be used to advance the goals of Tribal partners. 



Our intern faced a big challenge when we analyzed all the data and found that there were no statistically significant effects of organic amendments despite high costs. She learned to present complex information with many unknowns (were they not effective because of drought? Would we see effects if we went back after a longer time than one year?) in a way that is helpful for producers (specifically, the rock structures are so effective on their own that people probably don't need to invest additional money into biological interventions).

15 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Non-producer stakeholders reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
1 Students
Key changes:
  • Keeping water high on the landscape

  • How well organic material holds water

Information Products

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.