New Mexico’s Healthy Soil Act is based on five soil health principles: keeping the soil covered; minimizing external inputs and minimizing soil disturbance on cropland; maximizing biodiversity; maintaining a living root; and integrating animals into land management.
Here are some examples of how to apply these soil health principles to improve soil health:
A rancher in Tierra Amarilla is looking to build mobile watering stations to move his herds of Red Devon cattle and Tibetan yaks more often. He currently rotates animals on 360 acres he owns and in addition leases anywhere from 120-1,500 acres depending on the availability of forage and water. He has building plans for watering stations that are shaded and can be hooked up to a tractor to be moved. This strategy would allow for highly flexible grazing management that is responsive to grazing pressure and localized drought conditions, and prioritizes soil health.
A ranch in Cabezon on the Rio Puerco is made up of a patchwork of BLM, State and private lands. Water and basic fences are in place, but parts of the infrastructure (water pipelines) need to be built up and some big pastures require division into smaller paddocks to avoid overgrazing. On federal land, regulation prohibits permanent fencing, but electric fence can be used to split pastures. Primarily though, the rancher plans to work with a certified consultant to develop a strategic grazing plan for increased soil fertility, forage production and resistance to drought.
A mixed vegetable farmer in Dixon would like to develop a long-term cover cropping scheme to be integrated in his rotation, so that he continuously has half of his 3 acre field in cover crops. Currently he’s lacking the correct irrigation infrastructure, such as bigger sprinklers to be able to water 30 foot sections. He is also interested in establishing permanent cover between rows by seeding strips with a mix of alfalfa, yarrow, red clover and rye. In addition, he would like to bring in manure or compost to jump-start soil health.
A farmer in Jemez Pueblo suggests that the tribe’s hundreds of acres in agricultural production would benefit from having access to locally made compost to increase soil fertility and water holding capacity. Currently, tribal members bring their trash to the transfer station, which is right next to Walatowa Timber Industries. The community is ready to separate out food waste, so that it could be mixed with yard clippings and saw dust from the lumber mill for composting. The Pueblo already has a backhoe to move materials into windrows, but needs infrastructure to aerate piles such as pipes and blowers. In addition, there is interest in expanding adoption of cover cropping.
A specialty crop farmer in Hillsborough is looking to get a field that has lain fallow for 30 years off to a good start. To keep soil covered (principle #2), maximize water retention and reduce evaporation, he wants to apply mulch between wide-spaced nightshades (eggplant, peppers and tomatoes). Ideally, he would cover the whole field in mulch and then plant either transplants or large seeded crops like squash. His preferred mulching material is compost or composted wood chips available at the local lumber mill that provide balanced nutrients while slowly breaking down.
A young farmer and NM Farmers’ Marketing Association 2019 LIFE Grant Awardee wants to improve soil health by regenerating currently infertile and nearly unworkable fields totaling about 2 acres. She needs to set up 1⁄8 acre – 1⁄4 acre paddocks with electric fence to facilitate strategic grazing of ruminants and chickens on multi-species cover crops (principle #5). She also plans to build 4 Johnson-Su bioreactors stocked with surplus manure from the animals, along with locally available wood chips. The resulting high quality, fungal-rich compost is used in vegetable growing fields as an amendment, decreasing reliance on externally sourced inputs (principle #2).
A new orchard is in the planning in Truchas. A stacking of functions and production is achieved by combining locally adapted tree saplings as well as both annuals and perennials, woody and herbaceous plants. Understory plantings of legumes boost beneficial soil bacteria and create a habitat for mycorrhizal fungi. Flowering plants such as Sainfoin can be grazed and support native or honey bee populations to assure pollination and provide additional income streams. This focus on perennial cover and soil health will enable the orchard to thrive on very little water and ensure resilience in the long term.
A pecan grower in Las Cruces would love to find a cover crop that could survive in the shade of currently flood irrigated orchards and also stand up to Southern NM heat. Right now she is just using whatever grows on the orchard floor as green mulch. She would like to experiment with different covers to find a long-term solution that doesn’t just add organic matter to the soil, but responds to nutrient needs of the trees and is focused on maximizing microbial life.
.A 100 year old farm along the Mora River is passing on from father to the son, who is looking to diversify 80 mostly irrigated acres kept in alfalfa. Having just earned his master’s degree in Resource Management, improving the compromised soil is his first priority. He has done research on keyline design, soil biology and the benefits of cover crop plants. The contour work will allow for better percolation and infiltration to the pasture. Next, a diverse multi-species cover crop mix will be seeded with the no-till drill, which will help with regeneration of the soil biology. These crops will protect the soil, reduce weed pressure, add organic matter and start to rebuild soil biology. Focusing on the landscape below ground and changing the behavior of water on the fields will support annual and perennial crops for the long term.
A rancher with a 1/4 million acres in the Rio Puerto Basin is switching to a modified grazing program which will enhance soil health, revive the native seed bank and has the potential to restore creeks that have turned alkaline back to sweet water. Being a sound business man, he is applying an innovative strategy to keep cost low, by using water and supplements to move his cattle instead of adding many miles of fencing.
A rancher in the Chama Valley has had great success using his cattle to clear sagebrush from pasture in order to bring back native grasses. In winter, when terpine levels in sagebrush are low, he limits feed for his cattle to encourage them to eat and, in the process, trample the shrubs. After an initial kill of about 90% and some re-sprouting due to a wet spring, about 60% of sagebrush remains crushed and dead, while at the same time the herd’s hoof action and manure has enriched the soil. The rancher would like to apply this strategy to an additional 640 acres of state land that he leases, but needs to invest in portable, electric fencing and posts, as well as watering stations.
A beginning farmer has several hoop houses on 3.5 cultivated acres with mostly mixed specialty greens. He is very interested in no-till or conservation tillage production, and would like to be able to rent a small power harrow, used for weed control and to prepare beds. This tool cultivates the soil very lightly and on a horizontal plane only (does not invert soil layers), which responds to the second soil health principle: minimizing soil disturbance. This young farmer would also like to introduce small livestock to diversify his operation, but is currently mainly in need of the right tools and amendments to prep beds to improve soil health on his farm.
A two acre, organically certified mixed vegetable farm in the Abiquiu area would like to transition to a no-till production system. They have looked into it before, but lack the know-how and equipment, for example a flail mower or a roller crimper. In particular, they’re questioning how a no-till system would work in their heavy clay soil and how to deal with weeds (bindweed is a problem). They would be interested in participating in an equipment co-op and remark that a financial incentive combined with technical assistance would enable them to follow through on these plans.
.A pastured poultry farmer in Tijeras explains that having chickens roam freely is good for soil health. Their manure provides nutrients for crops or pasture. Invigorated plants and their roots hold the soil in place, improve soil structure, enhance water infiltration and boost soil biology with increased root exudates feeding microbes. The birds also reduce weed pressure and control problematic insects. Using electric fencing and a mobile chicken tractor, flocks of laying hens and broilers can forage on native pasture, cover cropped fields or in orchards.