Examining Cover Crops for Soil Health Restoration in Dryland Cropping Systems in SW Colorado and SE Utah

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2018: $249,974.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Colorado State University
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Steven Fonte
Colorado State University

Information Products


  • Agronomic: wheat


  • Crop Production: cover crops, cropping systems
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Cover crops have gained considerable attention in recent years as an important option for
    improving soil health and productivity on farms around the US. However, dryland
    agricultural systems in the western part of the country present a unique set of
    opportunities and challenges for cover crops. The Colorado Plateau, in particular, has a
    relatively short growing season along with low and erratic precipitation. Wheat-based
    cropping systems in the region rely on tillage and herbicide applications to keep soils
    bare for much of the year, and this has resulted in widespread soil degradation due to low
    organic matter inputs and erosion. Cover crops can help to counteract such losses in soil
    fertility and long-term productivity, but may also compete for water with cash crops and
    their net benefit remains largely unstudied in the Colorado Plateau.
    Given the lack of research on cover crops in the high desert region, this project seeks to
    fill a critical information gap for local dryland producers. The proposed work will build
    on research conducted in the first phase of this project and assess the on-farm
    performance of different cover crop mixtures as well as the medium-term impact of cover
    crops on crop yields, overall farm profits, soil health, and a range of ecosystem services
    (e.g. soil water capture, erosion control, carbon sequestration, forage provision, weed
    control). Additionally, we will incorporate new research elements that emerged from
    Phase I, including the testing of soil inoculants and alternative termination strategies of
    cover crops to minimize tillage. This project and the evolving directions of this research
    have grown directly out of local producer and stakeholder discussions, and represent a
    truly collaborative effort to understand the potential of cover crops to enhance long-term
    profitability and environmental quality of the region.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Evaluate the growth and performance of different cover crop mixtures within different
    environmental and rotational contexts in multiple producers’ fields and at the Southwest
    Colorado Research Center (SWCRC) (Fonte, Russell, Lestina, Schipanski, Roseberry,
    Berrada, participating farmers). Mixtures will be comprised of functionally similar species
    combinations (considering legumes vs. grasses, fibrous vs. tap roots, warm vs. cool season,
    etc.) across fields/farms and rely largely on locally available seed.
    2. Assess medium-term (4-6 yr) impacts of cover crops on soil health and soil-based ecosystem
    services. Ecosystem services of interest include water capture and storage, crop production,
    erosion control, potential forage provision, and weed control. Additional soil health
    parameters include the maintenance of soil structure, soil C dynamics, and soil microbial
    diversity and activity (Fonte, Trivedi, Schipanski, Parslow, Roseberry).
    3. Conduct economic analysis of cover crops to understand the net balance of establishment
    costs, differences in weed management and labor expenditures, and subsequent impacts on
    crop yields (Beiermann, Roseberry, participating farmers).
    4. Understand the potential of perennial species mixtures to contribute towards longer-term soil
    restoration on low productivity and/or degraded soils. This objective also seeks to establish a
    reference against which annual cover crop mixtures can be compared in terms of their
    potential to support soil health and ecosystem services (Fonte, Russell, Roseberry, McCart).
    5. Examine alternative management techniques to address emerging grower concerns (Russell,
    Roseberry, Lestina, Trivedi, Fonte). Specifically, these will include testing effectiveness of
    different legume inoculation techniques within cover crop mixtures as well as alternative
    termination methods (e.g. crimping - for application in organic systems) to foster the
    development of reduced tillage practices.
    6. Engagement with producers, community members, and other stakeholders to share project
    results and discuss the benefits and challenges associated with cover crops (Russell, Fonte,
    and all participants). This will be achieved via:
    • Annual workshops and field days with local stakeholders in Montezuma and Dolores
    Counties, CO, and San Juan County, UT.
    • CSU/AES technical bulletins, factsheets, and peer-reviewed journal articles.
    • Presentations of project results at regional conferences, workshops, and extension events
    in other parts of Colorado, Utah and the broader Western SARE region.
    • Project videos (interviews, presentations, etc.).
    • Regular updates and posting of materials (e.g. videos, presentations, technical bulletins)
    on project website (http://drylandcovercrops.agsci.colostate.edu/).
    • Outreach to local schools to engage next generation farmers and agricultural researchers.
    7. Evaluate the project’s impact and reach (Westerman, Lestina, Roseberry, Boswell, Nay). This
    will be achieved by documenting how well the outreach events are attended and obtaining
    feedback from each event. Additionally, we will track the number of acres planted to cover
    crops in the region since the start of the project. NRCS will continue to provide information
    on the number of additional applications for cover crop grant assistance, and will assist with
    long term monitoring of cover crop practice adoption.

    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.