Client Spotlight: Stirrup Cup Farm
December 2021 Newsletter
For this month’s newsletter, we are discussing “The Benefits of Soil Testing” and within that topic, we are spotlighting our clients Dusty Healey and Mary Duke, who own Stirrup Cup Farm in Delta, Colorado. After buying the originally 135-acre farm in 2004, they began their journey to repair the previous ranchers’ overgrazed winter pasture to be a hay field grown for the equine market.
We started working with Stirrup Cup Farm after Dusty visited an Earthfort soil steward workshop back in 2017, and began their journey to become a fully biological farm.
Their major successes are: they are fully biological, they have significantly increased their organic matter, and they’ve cut their annual costs down to $3k from $10-15k. In reducing their inputs, they’re able to spend less time working in the field… and more time riding their horses!
Read our interview below to learn more about their journey with the farm, its soils, and the impacts that soil testing have made on their farm:
When and how did you start the farm?
Stirrup Cup Farm: We bought this 135-acre farm in 2004, and recently purchased 20 more acres from just next door. Historically, it was conventionally farmed as a cattle rancher’s winter pasture. So, it needed lots of rest and repair. Our clay soils were incredibly over grazed at first, and we were told to apply urea, over water, and plow every 7 years… but we decided to do things differently. Then, we were just starting to learn about regenerative ag, so we still applied some urea, and we tried ammonium nitrate for a while… it just got too expensive and labor intensive.
Mary: A couple years into it, I said “Dusty, let’s try doing nothing.”
Dusty: “We weren’t seeing any benefit by spending that much money, so we figured, we can let the soil do the work for us, and then we don’t have to spend all that time and money trying to manage it ourselves.”
Which kinds of crops/livestock do you have?
Stirrup Cup Farm: We grow and bale hay for the equine market. When we moved here, it was a mixed alfalfa grass perennial crop. We’ve rehabilitated the soils by really focusing on the soil biological perspective.
We have international and national readers who grow many different things, and may not be familiar with your area. What is the soil like where you are? What thrives?
Stirrup Cup Farm: Adobe clay soils, not sandy or loamy at all. Grasses thrive here, high desert grasses. We only get 3-6” inches of rain a year, and wild 50 degree swings in the temperature. Even with all that said, if our soil is irrigated, it grows quite a few things very well.
How has soil testing aided you on your journey to soil and crop health?
Stirrup Cup Farm: What I like about testing is that every year I can compare my tests. We see how our fields are doing, and specifically what needs to be improved. Having a tangible answer is incredibly important in your tool belt, and makes soil maintenance much easier. Having a consultant that closely reviews our reports with us, who is willing to visit (and doesn’t make us feel dumb when we question and review the nitty-gritty) has been so helpful!
“I’ve found when people think about soil testing, 95% are thinking of chemistry – but we test the biology first, because the biology is what utilizes the chemistry. You really need both to make informed decisions. Of course, you can walk outside and see the field looks good, but, when you have test results, you have proof in your hand of where the soil is at, and where you still have to go. When you include those numbers in your project, it changes your relationship with your land.
Yes, I have my own farmers sense, but it adds a whole 6th sense to your toolbelt.”
What would you say is your biggest success on the farm? What are you most proud of?
Stirrup Cup Farm: Our fields are growing and happy, which keeps us and our clients happy! To break it down more specifically…
- Organic matter has changed immensely from when we started, which not only helps improve our hay quality, but strengthens the soil in its defenses to pests, disease, and drought… and here in Colorado, moisture retention is everything, because we get just 3-6” of rain a year.
- We could be classified as organic or weed-free hay if we’d like to, which is great! Our market doesn’t necessarily require it, so we haven’t had the need yet.
- It’s a really nice-looking field. Our grasses are healthy enough that they’re pushing to 95% of our fields, rather than thinning out or growing weeds around the outer edges.
- We grow really good food for the horses. Our client is the horse – we know horses, we know what they like to eat, and we’d rather be riding than spending time working the fields. So, it is great to have soils that take care of themselves.
- We don’t have a bunch of inputs – I’m really proud of this…. Grass should be easy!
What have been some of your challenges along the way?
Stirrup Cup Farm: Our biggest challenges are the heat, the climate, and an overall lack of water. People will typically overwater adobe soils – but luckily, this is something we can control. I can’t control the weather, but I can control the irrigation.
How has Earthfort helped your farm?
Stirrup Cup Farm: Both with soil testing and products – the product is just so easy to apply. We apply with a 1000 gallon water trailer for the majority of our fields, as I have a center pivot sprinkler, otherwise we could just put the product right into the irrigation system. The Earthfort products we use – ProVide and ReVive – are easy to use, and we’ve really seen improvements in both our soil and our hay quality.
Which practices have you changed (inspired by Earthfort or otherwise) in the last 10-15 years that made the largest impact on your success?
Stirrup Cup Farm: Earthfort gave us a new direction: Biology comes first!!! After 14 years of challenges, we switched over to regenerative ag. When we first started, we had some chemistry testing done, and in order to fulfill their recommendations, we would’ve had to sell the farm in order to buy the product.
Given your years of experience working towards a biological soil… Do you have any advice for someone beginning a transition from conventional ag to regenerative ag? Be patient.. In the first year, you won’t see a lot of benefit, but I can promise it will get better! Keep testing so you know if you’re going in the right direction. Do the math backwards – think of it this way, you just paid yourself 10k by not buying that expensive fertilizer product! We went from spending 10-15k to 3k… by doing less! Our recommendation? Hang in there.
What is on the horizon for the farm?
Stirrup Cup Farm: Keep at it ’til we’re 90! We love doing what we do, and we love growing and providing a good quality hay product for our clients. We see a case study on our horizon with the new 20 acres we’ve just acquired, and we’re looking forward to growing and navigating this changing landscape, while measuring and monitoring it. We have plenty to keep us busy around here, and we wouldn’t have it any other way!
Talk One On One with a Soil Expert
Spend time with Earthfort’s Director discussing your operation and its growth. Explore any site-specific or testing questions and discuss opportunities for development and improvement.
$200.00 hr billed in 15 minute time increments
Please call or send an email to schedule a phone consultation with our office.
Earthfort Speaks at Your Event
Good soil is the foundation on which your plants grow. This package allows you to hear directly from a soil expert! The Earthfort Director will give a lecture at your event discussing soil biology as it relates to agricultural, horticultural, landscaping and/or soil remediation topics.
Just some of the topics we can bring to you include:
- Introduction to Soil Basics
- Practical Soil Microbiology
- Ecological Succession
- Compost Production
- Compost Tea and Alternatives
- Biologically-Based Pest Management
- Understanding your Soil Biology Report
Previous lectures have spanned from practical soil biology and understanding biological testing services to integrating your current cultivation practices with biological practices.
Please call or send an email to schedule a speaking engagement with our office.
Bring In An Expert For An Expert Opinion
Soil biology challenges permeate every aspect of agriculture and horticulture. Bring an expert to your location so we can better understand your operation and goals as a business. Earthfort’s Director will answer any site-specific questions so your team can explore opportunities to benefit your company and your soil.
Earthfort offers our clients an onsite consultation to discuss a wide range of topics including: soil biology challenges across diverse fields and crops; identifying potential local composting components; trouble shooting compost tea equipment; improving timing of applications of compost, teas, and biological products; and so much more.
Please call or send an email to schedule this consultation visit with our office.
If You Can Measure It, You Can Manage It
This two day Biologically-Based Soil Management Workshop is a cost effective option designed for businesses, schools and other organizations who would like to train groups of 10 people or more. An Earthfort instructor will come to your location and provide an in-depth overview of soil biology, testing, and remediation. Your team will learn about the interrelationships between soil biology and soil nutrient chemistry, so you can better manage the soil system, improving your crops and soil remediation practices.
In this workshop, you will explore the physical, chemical, and biological processes of the soil. Your own soil’s history, chemistry and biological makeup has unique management implications. We’ll give you the tools that work with your system rather than against it, saving you time and money. You are encouraged to send in a soil sample to our laboratory to have the soil biology and chemistry tested prior to the workshop so we can take a more in-depth look at a soil biology report. This will help us customize the lecture to better reach your goals and needs. Click here for an example of topics we offer you!
(Click here for sampling instructions and testing forms.)
Please call or send an email to schedule this training visit with our office.