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Burns are Conservationists of the Year

Posted: Friday, Nov 30th, 2012

The Burns Family, from left, Sadie, Billy, Kendra, Cody and Kim, are the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts 2012 Conservationist of the Year, Farming Division, for Hipshot Farms’ mixed conservation-based farming operation. This is the seventh state conservationist award the Valley has seen in recent years Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

HOOPER — Hipshot Farms is all mixed up, and that’s the way they like it.

“They” are more than the Burns Family, owners of the 480-acres alfalfa/cattle operation in Hooper. Earlier this month, the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts named Hipshot Farms the 2012 Conservationist of the Year in the farming division for its mixed conservation-based farming operation after receiving honors on local and regional levels.

This year, the farm was featured in a local soil health tour and, in the past, spotlighted in The High Plains Journal and The Farmer’s Stockman for its cover crop implementation.

The Burns, Billy and Sadie, their children Kendra, Cody and his wife, Kim, brought their Oklahoma roots to the southwest nearly two decades ago and set them down deep in the soil knowing the effects of long term cultivation and grazing on sandy fields.

After a devastating herbicide accident in 2010, the farm began heavily incorporating cover crops into its alfalfa rotations and introducing grass mixes into some stands.

Two growing seasons later and five years into the operation, the infected fields are producing and, as a side effect, Hipshot Farms is seeing a decrease in pumped water use, an increase in beneficial insects and a pattern that gives their livestock something to eat in exchange for their natural fertilizer.

“We had three growing crops this past year on the field that was damaged and through the cover crops and the mixed species, we were able to graze cattle on it last summer and winter,” said Cody on Thursday during an interview on the farm. “Through the cattle and the mixed species, we have seen significant improvements.”

Under guidance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the San Luis Valley Soil Health Group, and drawing on Billy’s lifetime of experience working on Oklahoma ranches practicing dry land, erosion control and no-till techniques, the Burns have introduced a conservation model in the heart of Colorado potato country. The cover crop, conservation crop and no-till planting using multi-species crops like alfalfa, buckwheat, oats, brassicas, peas, clovers and grasses is not only promoting soil health and expanding the land’s water carrying capacity while breaking down lingering chemicals in the ground, but also reducing the amount of the hay crop’s economic inputs. A quality cutting on Hipshot Farms no longer demands costly herbicides, but an occasional dose of all-natural compost tea to feed the many species creating an environment on the verge of agroecological stabilization.

“A lot of it is trial and error, but there are a lot of people that will cut your errors short,” Billy said about his ongoing conservation education that utilizes resources inside and outside of the Valley. “I’ve learned that I want to go completely no-till here, but I don’t know if I can on account of the gophers.”

On their fields split into halves, one side an annual multi species crop and the other a perennial alfalfa, the Burns plant rye and vetch in the fall, which they can use for grazing in the winter depending on when it’s sown and its access to late autumn rains. In early summer, once the hay is removed, there is another multi species planting to provide future forage and keep a soil health boosting root crop in the ground continuously.

“I think we are going to rename them from cover crops to soil health primers because it is just not a cover crop, it is a cash crop,” Cody said. “It will give us benefits in the future. I think there are three key principals to it: you need to minimize the disturbance of the soil, add all of the diversity in your crops that you can and maintain cover year round.”

In addition to the crop rotation, the Burns are practicing a diverse set of irrigation water management approaches including sprinkler re-nozzling, well replacement and improvement, reservoir and recharge pit improvement and water application based on monitoring soil moisture conditions and web based evaporative transpiration scheduler, while maintaining water quality without deep percolation.

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