Friday, October 30, 2020

Let Nature Feed Animals!

Let Nature Feed Animals!
By Barbara Sanders, Routt County Master Gardener

How lovely to see these large elk in our yards! Is the deep snow preventing them from eating? What can we do to keep them alive? The supplemental feeding of deer, elk, and moose is a popular activity in many parts of our state. There are several reasons to resist the temptation.

First, under Colorado law, intentionally feeding big game animals is illegal. The prohibition applies to deer, elk, antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bears. Violators face a $50 fine.

Second, when the animals congregate for the easily available food, disease transmission through close contact and stress is increased. Perhaps foremost in our part of the state is chronic wasting disease in elk. Deer and elk can contact Enterotoxemia which results from the consumption of food that is too rich, such as corn, for the animals’ stomach, or rumen, creating bloating, diarrhea, and possibly death. They can spread diseases such as rabies, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and other tick-borne diseases as well as parasites from their intestines (worms). These all can be spread to humans and pets

Third, luring these animals into your yard tempts them stay there and not migrate to the areas where there is natural food. The yard feeding creates an easy food source therefore if stopped, the animals will starve. Animals naturally spread out when they browse, letting the forest regenerate.

An additional reason against feeding is that attracting predator animals (lions and bears) to our neighborhoods is dangerous for children and pets.

Moose in backyard

Big game animals depend entirely on native vegetation, such as grasses, forbs and shrubs. Those plants provide all the nutritional requirements the animals need to survive in Colorado, even through the winter. There are few plants that occur on their range that they will not eat in certain areas under certain conditions. In winter they eat grasses when they can obtain them. However, when the snow becomes deep, they readily eat twigs of woody species, even the conifers like Douglas fir. They also consume shrub and tree twigs and leaves. To attract deer, moose and elk, plant tree and shrub species which provide them with a winter source of food and cover.

Some suggestions are:
  • Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) - Very important to wildlife. Acorns are very (possibly most) important wildlife food, especially in winter. Almost 100 wildlife species use oak; quail, turkey, deer, bear, and squirrels are especially avid acorn eaters; several species of upland and songbirds utilize for food and cover. Excellent wildlife cover
  • Lodgepole (Pinus contorta) - Pines are nearly as important as oaks. All parts of tree are used and/or eaten. Pine seeds are especially important for food. 
  • Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Saskatoon Serviceberry  (Amelanchier alnifolia
  • Native Plum (Prunus Americana
  • Native Willow Mix (Salix spp.
  • Buck Bush (Ceanothus fendleri
  • Woods Rose (Rosa woodsii

The Colorado State Forest Service has a tree program for farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners of 2 or more acres for purchasing seedling trees. It can be reached at (970) 879-3225 or online at (and go to the “Nursery”).

Keep our animals and forests safe and healthy!

Barbara Sanders, Colorado Master Gardener since 1998.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Soil Health

Soil Health
By Jennifer Cook, Gilpin Extension Director and Agent

Soil health is defined by Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as the capacity of soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soils contain billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that help form an ecosystem, providing nutrients for plant growth, absorbing and holding water, and providing the foundation for agricultural activities.
Soil organisms living within a soil aggregate. Credit: S. Rose and E.T. Elliott, USDA-NRCS.

Whether you manage a large farm, a pasture, or a small raised bed, there are key soil health principles that will improve soil function. Soil health changes slowly over time, these soil health principles provide ideas for taking action now, so your soils can be more sustainable and resilient. 

Follow four basic soil health principles to improve your soil health and sustainability: 
  1. Keep the soil covered. Examples of cover are leaving plant residue behind after harvest, or mulching your garden.

    Erosion by wind and water happens when the soil is not adequately covered. Keeping your soil covered as much as possible protects your nutrient-rich top soil.

    In addition to soil erosion, cover can affect soil temperature and moisture. A soil covered with plant litter/mulch reflects radiation due to its “albedo.” This keeps soil temperatures lower than bare soils, which warm up more readily. Especially during the summer, the temperature difference between a covered and bare soil can be significant. Plants use soil moisture less efficiently at higher temperatures as more water is lost through evapotranspiration than utilized for plant growth.

  2.  Minimize soil disturbance. Examples of soil disturbance are tillage, overgrazing, and overapplication of chemicals and nutrients.

    Soil disturbance such as plowing and rototilling can impact soil by physically breaking up the soil structure and by stimulating microbial decomposition of organic matter. This includes the breakdown of biological glues, such as polysaccharides and glomalin, that are key in maintaining soil structure. Without these biological glues, when the soil gets wet, it collapses and loses large soil pore spaces resulting in a net reduction in infiltration, aeration, and soil microbial activity. Disturbed and compacted soils sometimes more closely resemble a brick than a healthy functioning soil!

  3. Use plant diversity. Examples of diversity are using crop rotations or planting a variety of species for pastures or cover.

    By increasing the diversity of plants above ground (at the same time or in a crop rotation), the diversity below ground can be enhanced. Diversity can build redundancies and synergies in the soil system which ultimately leads to increased resiliency (to drought for instance). Many would argue that this is the most important principle to improve soil health/function and increase long-term sustainability. For an added incentive, increasing crop diversity in agricultural systems has long been recognized as a tactic for increasing economic resiliency.

  4. Keep living plants throughout the year - most commonly achieved by using cover crops.

    Soils feed plants and plants feed soils. Through photosynthesis plants capture soil energy and convert it to organic compounds (from simple sugars to complex organic molecules like lignin). Plants use this captured solar energy for maintenance and growth. Most soil organisms need this external food source produced by plants.
    Many plants “leak” carbohydrates and other root exudates to stimulate soil microbial activity. Fueled by this symbiotic relationship, the area around the root (rhizosphere) is teaming with life in a healthy, functioning soil. This biological activity drives nutrient cycling in the rhizosphere. Many plants also form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi by providing carbon to the fungi in exchange for nutrients (especially phosphorous). In these instances, soil microbes are providing services to the plant (i.e. nutrient cycling) at the cost of organic compounds from the plant. 
For more information, visit NRCS’s soil health webpage -