Mosca-Hooper Conservation District
As a trained soil scientist and agronomist, Patrick O’Neill advocates for soil health education and practice implementation as a consultant to farmers and ranchers and through volunteer efforts with the conservation districts in his watershed. Currently, O’Neill serves as a supervisor for the Mosca-Hooper Conservation District in Alamosa County, within the San Luis Valley of Colorado.
O’Neill produces specialty cover crops for seed, focusing on cultivars of crops adapted to the cropping and livestock systems in the high desert of South Central Colorado, especially yellow sweet clover seed production. As a biennial crop, it offers a longer-lived component for diverse mixes of annual crops to be planted in the establishment year. Cool season and warm season mixes of crops capable of flowering (e.g. buckwheat), developing deep tap roots (e.g. tillage radish), cool season grasses and warm season grasses all fit in the establishment year as companions to the sweet clover. The San Luis Valley of Colorado has very cold winters, which normally cause all spring-seeded annuals to winter-kill, allowing the sweet clover to develop in its second year with limited competition.
Beyond his seed production, O’Neill advises row crop farmers growing potatoes, cereals and forages, to help them accomplish their goals of improved soil health. This work involves assisting in cover crop selection, seed mix ratios, utilization timing, integration of livestock grazing and microbial inoculant selection and on-farm development. O’Neill also works to identify ways to add to the farm’s resilience, specifically to carefully manage production costs through soil health principle applications. This work to create healthier soils rose from an aversion to toxins in food production along with a dedication to developing healthier farming systems for the farmers and their customers.
Much of O’Neill’s time is spent working in farming systems that integrate livestock and cover crops in rotation with potato crops. These tilled systems with intense tillage events have the potential to be incredibly destructive to soil structure and microbial diversity.
One of the early lessons O’Neill learned from cover crop use in these systems was not only does diversity of crop species matter, but specifically what cultivar and which species you choose to blend together in a mix. When he started using incredibly diverse, grazable mixes designed with optimal soil health in mind, he knew he was on the right track. The assumption was that diversity would make things better – it sure made for great forage production– but in this case, a root knot nematode species (Meloidogyne Chitwoodi) came to massive numbers in response to the diverse nine-species seed mix of different cover crops. The field had to be taken out of rotation with the primary cash crop of potatoes for a full year in order to use green manure biofumigants to reduce these nematode numbers once again.
Over the last five years, O’Neill has spent much of his time studying and testing cultivars from different species of cover crop options to find those that disfavor root knot nematode feeding. He’s learned that a number of cultivars from different species could work well together in their systems, allowing diversity in cover crops while not proliferating that particular pest of concern. In the end, O’Neill learned diversity can be a powerful tool, and we need to use it with great care.
O’Neill says the greatest challenges for soil health principle adoption in his region are reliance on a primary cash crop that involves intense tillage events by nature as well as farming in a brittle (both arid and cold) environment. Investments to grow enough above-ground biomass to offer ample year-round cover are often viewed as low-priority expenditures, relative to many other costs associated with high-value irrigated cropland. These challenges are overcome through incremental improvements, and as more farmers in the region experiment over successive years.
Posted May 2018.