Can on-farm Windbreaks boost Soil Health and Biodiversity?

posted in: Compost, Regenerative Ag, Research, Water | 0

By Isabelle Jenniches, NM Healthy Soil Working Group

Big Sacaton windbreak at NMSU/NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center. Photo by Isabelle Jenniches CC BY 2.0

In the arid landscapes of New Mexico, wind-induced soil erosion poses a significant challenge to agricultural productivity and environmental health. Recognizing this issue, Synergia Ranch in partnership with Bright Way Agriculture and New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group has started a three-year project funded by Western SARE to investigate the impact of windbreak installations on farms and rangelands.

Inspired by the successful use of Vetiver grass to stem erosion, the project team under leadership of Dr. Starrlight Augustine is investigating the effectiveness of Big sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) in windbreaks. The impressive grass native to the arid Southwest can grow up to 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Deep-rooted and fast growing, Giant sacaton stands out for its resilience and minimal water requirements.

The project will be conducted over a three-year period on two operational farms and focuses on evaluating the efficacy and benefits of five different hedge installations. The study includes both dryland management and hedgerows receiving varying degrees of water supplementation, allowing for critical insights into the trade-offs between water usage and hedge survival, productivity, and impact on soil biology.

Seeding Big Sacaton at Synergia Ranch. Photo by Isabelle Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Project Goals and Methodology

The primary objectives of the project are to quantify the costs—measured in time, labor, and financial resources—and ecological benefits associated with each hedge type. These benefits are assessed through comprehensive metrics including above- and below-ground biomass measurements, root depth comparisons against soil compaction layers, and assessments of soil structure such as improved water holding capacity and infiltration rates.

Assessment of Soil Health and Biodiversity

Josh Weybright with Bright Way Agriculture will evaluate key indicators of soil health, such as biomass of fungi and bacteria, using Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web assessment. The project aims to enhance soil structure by promoting the growth of beneficial microorganisms that contribute to soil aggregation and water retention. Biodiversity enhancements are monitored by assessing the functional diversity of Soil Food Web organisms before and after hedge growth, aiming to establish a balanced ecosystem within the hedge root zones by the project’s conclusion.

Josh Weybright conduct an on-farm soil health assessment Photo by Isabelle Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Integration of Regenerative Practices

Central to the project’s methodology is the utilization of on-farm resources, including sacaton propagation from seed, compost and biochar production, and the integration of biological inoculations during both propagation and planting phases. This approach eliminates the need for chemical inputs, aligning with regenerative agriculture principles that prioritize environmental and human health.

Big Sacaton seedling at NMSU/NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center. Photo by Isabelle Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Community Engagement and Education

The project fosters community engagement through annual workshops, field days and peer-to-peer microscopy trainings. These events, held in a collaborative learning environment at Synergia Ranch, aim to educate and connect local farmers and ranchers. All workshops are open to the public free of charge and will be promoted through the NM Healthy Soil website and mailing list—sign up here!

As the project progresses, its findings will provide valuable insights into the economic, ecological, and social benefits of windbreak installations in New Mexico. By enhancing soil health and promoting biodiversity through regenerative practices, this initiative exemplifies a proactive approach to addressing environmental challenges while fostering resilient agricultural systems for the future.

Big Sacaton hedgerow at NMSU/NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center. Photo by Isabelle Jenniches CC BY 2.0

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