Implementation of Big Sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii, Grass Wind Strips on Arid Range-and Farmland for Soil, Water and Biodiversity Enhancement

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2024: $24,967.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2026
Grant Recipient: Institute of Ecotechnics dba Synergia Ranch Organic
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Starrlight Augustine
Institute of Ecotechnics dba Synergia Ranch Organic


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial)


  • Crop Production: biological inoculants
  • Education and Training: workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: hedges - grass

    Proposal summary:

    The project addresses a critical need for implementing more
    windbreak solutions in arid southwest operations. Big sacaton is
    the ideal for this: it is native, xeric, deep-rooting, tall and
    productive. The project aims to provide quantitative data
    necessary for agricultural stakeholders to practically implement
    big sacaton windbreak solutions given their respective contexts
    thereby advancing sustainable agriculture.

    To this end, the project propagates 2500 big sacaton starts.
    These are planted in five  distinct types of hedges on two
    separate farms. Two hedge types are dryland (3324' and 2292'
    respectively). Three of them (1932', 1000', and 4000'
    respectively) are watered on a "need-to" basis.  Trade-offs
    between watering and not-watering new hedges in terms of
    survival, productivity, and soil biology over three years are
    quantified. Altogether, the data provides a framework (time,
    labor, costs) for planning and budgeting for establishing grass

    Moreover, ecological enhancements to soil, water and biodiversity
    provided by each hedge are compared between each other. Soil
    related enhancements are assessed via measurements of above and
    below ground biomass, and by comparing root and compaction layer
    depths. Enhancements to soil water holding capacity are assessed
    by two indirect indicators for soil structure: soil water
    infiltration rates,  fungi and bacteria biomasses.
    Biodiversity linked enhancements are evaluated by comparing the
    functional diversity of microorganisms making up the hedge's soil
    food web with that found before the hedge installation. 

    The project is a balance of research and education. The latter
    comprises yearly hands on workshops, peer-to-peer stakeholder
    learning meet-ups, journalistic blog posts and a video. The
    events are held each year around key phases of the process of
    establishing grass hedges. Events and Research findings are
    disseminated each year through targeted outreach (NM Healthy
    Soils 1800+ subscriber mailing list, social media) ensuring broad
    dissemination among agricultural stakeholders in the area.

    images of big sacaton at LLPMC

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Research Objectives:

    1. Determine a budget and planning framework for establishing
      wind erosion hedges in semi-arid, USDA hardiness zone 6A,
      variable rainfall (5-13"), degraded pinon-juniper grassland
      plains (6000–7000ft. elevation).
    2. Assess the trade-offs in survivorship, productivity and speed
      of hedge establishment between dryland and irrigated hedges.
    3. Enhance biomass and diversity of fungi and protozoa in the
      soil surrounding big sacaton roots through the application of
      biological inoculants in order to improve soil structure.

    Education Objectives:

    1. Facilitate networking opportunities on sustainable
      agriculture combined with hands-on learning among producers,
      agricultural professionals, and interested individuals by hosting
      yearly workshops.
    2. Encourage through NM Healthy Soil blog posts the
      establishment of wind erosion hedges on farms using easily
      cultivable native warm-season prairie grass, aiming to create
      ecological benefits. Disseminate data on ecological benefits of
      big sacaton at the two project sites.
    3. Facilitate collaboration and raise interest in integrating
      microscope assessments to support sustainable and regenerative
      agricultural practices. Provide training in microscopy for soil
      health applications through peer-to-peer learning involving
      concerned stakeholders.
    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.